Mmegi Blogs :: Exploring the etymologies of numbers (Part 2)
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Exploring the etymologies of numbers (Part 2)

The etymology of numbers, we saw last week, is another reminder that we all once spoke the same language a mere 5000 years ago: not so far back in time when looking at the history of mankind as a whole. We also saw that the naming of numbers is typically based not on profound matters, but rather on mundane things that everyone can relate to.
By L M Leteane Fri 13 May 2016, 17:11 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Exploring the etymologies of numbers (Part 2)








An example of this was the English term ‘four’. It was evidently derived from how we typically bend or ‘hide’ the thumb when displaying the number with our hand. We thus related fidwor, the Gothic root of ‘four’, to fithoga (‘unhide’), and also feower – the Old English evolution of the term (as well as its Old High German equivalent, fior) – to fihoga (‘bring to light’). As for quattuor, the Latin term for ‘four’, we related it to gatoga (‘uncover [by removing a weight that was on top]’). Since, in all cases, the thumb was ‘hidden’ or ‘bent as if weight was put on it’, we might surmise that these were knowing injunctions to ‘stop hiding or bending that thumb’!

The ‘hand’ theme carries into the Setswana term tlhano (‘five’ – but literally meaning ‘reveal the inside or other side of’, as in tlhanoga). What is now ‘revealed’? The thumb. With thumb extended, the whole hand unfolds as if ready to give out something. This sense, it seems clear, is what the Latin quinque and the French cinq (both meaning ‘five’) sought to convey. Their originally pronunciation, it seems, was “ke-nke?” (literally: “can I [now] take?” in Setswana). The unfolded hand, of course, appears ready to ‘give’ or ‘take’. Ostensibly, the German term fünf originally pronounced ‘fana-fii’ (an expression loosely meaning ‘give out freely’) and indeed, the sense of ‘giving out’ is maintained in the Old English version fif, and the Dutch term vijf (also pronounced ‘fif’ as: they relate very well to fii-fa! – an alternative rendering of ‘give out [freely]’.

 ‘Six’ is pronounced a ‘sis’ in French, and we can plausibly relate it to siisa (‘make/help [something] run away’). In Sesotho, ‘six’ is tshelela (‘cross over’) and the overall sense is that the sixth digit broke free from one hand and escaped (‘crossed over’) to the other. In time, this was dramatized as se-ke-sia (“I am now escaping”); as if the thumb of the ‘new’ hand is taunting that of the ‘old’ hand, thus ‘six’ in the rather more compact and clipped Indo-European pronunciation. In Greek, the equivalent, hex, was plausibly ha-ke-a-sia (“now I’m running away!”). In Setswana, ‘six’ is simply rra-tharo (‘father of three’), meaning a ‘bigger’ form of three.

The Setswana word for ‘seven’ is supa (literally: ‘point to’) and this relates to the finger we typically use to point at things. In European languages however, ‘seven’ was treated as the gods’ own sacred number. In Sanskrit (a Proto-Indo-European language), ‘seven’ is sapta. Now, ‘Ptah’ was an authentic name of the ‘Creator-god’ (his name comprises the term ‘potter’ in English: ‘one who shapes from clay’), and we know from Setswana that the prefix sa means ‘belonging to’. Thus, sa-Ptah means ‘belonging to the Creator-god’. As for hepta (Greek for ‘seven’), in Sotho/Tswana grammar ha/ga still means ‘of, belonging to’, and thus ha-Ptah still means ‘belonging

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to Ptah’.

In similar fashion, sieben, the Germanic term for ‘seven’, is evidently sa-ba-Ene or sa-beng, which means ‘belonging to the gods’. (‘En’ means ‘Lord’ in Sumerian, as in En-Ki: ‘Lord of Earth’; ‘beng’ is an ancient abbreviation or corruption of ba-Ene.) In other articles in this column, I noted that Ene and One both referred to the gods, but now refer to God. Thus, sibun, the Gothic term for ‘seven’, is evidently sa-ba-One or sa-bone (‘that of the gods’). Likewise, the Old English (OE) term seofan can be traced as sa-o-o-fa-Anu, which later became ‘sa-o-fano’, and this implied that Anu, the fabled ‘Lord of the gods’, was eventually ‘made to come down from heaven to earth’, as it were, through the invocation of the new ‘monotheistic’ name ‘Ye-O-fa’ (‘He Who is [now] Here’) – a new ‘Power’ unveiled and adopted in the time of Moses. It is now clear that each meaning of ‘seven’ definitely referred to the ‘gods’, and biblically the number recurs from Genesis to Revelation; from the ‘number of days the universe was created’ right up to the number of ‘Churches’ and ‘plagues’ released by the angels.

To understand the true etymology of the number ‘eight’, we must look carefully at its modern spelling, which hides its true ancient pronunciation. ‘A-e-gata’, when using Setswana to unbundle its meaning, evidently referred to the two fingers that were ‘bent as if trodden over’ (‘gata’ means ‘tread on’). In Setswana, ‘eight’ is simple roba-bobedi (‘bend two [fingers]’) – an obvious continuation of the same theme. In Latin, ‘eight’ is octa, and in Setswana we can unravel this as ‘ho kota’ (‘to bend’ – as in kotama – or ‘to cut’). What is being ‘bent’ or ‘cut [in stature]’? The two fingers, of course!

If seven was a ‘sacred’ number of the gods, the number 9 was heaped with ‘unspeakable’ numerological significance by ancient mystics, which significance was not to be uttered, so potent it was construed to be. This would explain why the number was obliquely referred to as ‘the great four’ – nin-nne or nona-nne. (For the etymology of ‘four’ as nne, see last week’s article.) This implied that it was ‘just’ something greater than eight, which in turn was “the larger four’. Nona meant ‘fat’ or ‘round’, hence its association with zero.

As for ‘ten’, tena  relates to the Latin term tene (‘take hold of’) and so ‘tenetsa’ is akin to the English term ‘tuck’ (i.e. both mean ‘take hold of something and cover something else with it’). This in turn relates to the Latin term deca (‘ten) which we can relate to teka or taka: ‘cover with, spread over’ – as in mo-tako (a painting) – or taka: the concrete mixture for plastering. When one splays or spreads out all the fingers of both hands, this is a full ‘deck/tako’ of ten fingers!

Comments to leteanelm@gmail.com

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Digging Tswana Roots
Fri 13 May 2016, 17:11 pm
Fri 06 May 2016, 12:22 pm
Fri 29 Apr 2016, 14:43 pm
Fri 22 Apr 2016, 10:11 am
Fri 08 Apr 2016, 14:57 pm
Fri 01 Apr 2016, 15:39 pm
Thu 24 Mar 2016, 11:23 am
Fri 18 Mar 2016, 14:14 pm
Fri 11 Mar 2016, 13:39 pm
Fri 04 Mar 2016, 12:33 pm
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