Unearthing the ancient roots of ‘el’ and ‘en’

Setswana, I have determined, drills down to the primordial roots of language. Many of its basic words cut across many languages, the definitive marker of a protolanguage.

Two such proto-terms are the noun-pointers ‘ele’ and ‘ena’ (‘that’ and ‘this’). Ele thus pointed to an outsider – anyone/anything removed from us, while ena pointed to that which we live with. In terms of Greek mythology it would equate to something like the difference between Titans (tii ta an: ‘giants/substantive ones from the sky’) and the Olympians. The Titans’ great height, I showed in other articles, resulted from prolonged periods in the weightlessness of space, while the Olympians were of somewhat normal height.

As time wore on, the term ele came not to mean ‘alien’ (note the phonetic similarity between the ele/alien which suggests that they emanate from the same proto-term). It meant a particular alien (as in the Ugaritic term El, who was the leader of the gods). Meanwhile, ena (as in the Sumerian term ‘En’, meaning ‘lord’) came to mean others: the other gods that lived with people and were served by them.

Indeed, by saying ena, one confirmed that one could point to the person, the god, within one’s vicinity. A slight semantic shift enabled ena to become ene (the person himself), i.e. a particular person. As such, from being terms applied principally to gods, they widened to include people generally (just as the word ntu – ‘gods’, even in Japanese, thus Shinto: ‘the way of the gods’ – was widened to include ordinary people, ba-ntu).


A further generalisation of ele/elale acquired the semantic shift of being a common noun-pointer for a specific object or person, which in English is ‘the’, e.g.  the dog. In Spanish (which acquired Moorish words after their conquest of the land) ‘the’ retains the old meaning, thus el (il in Italian, al in Arabic). Interestingly, although Setswana has ele, we do not use the term as a definite article; we do say ele tlapa (that rock) although it would have been perfectly logical. We compound the definite article with the noun according to nature and pronunciation of the noun. In the case of a ‘stone’ it is le-tlapa as one word. In this instance its use is exactly as in French: le pierre. Biblically and mythological, God (‘gods’ in collating legends), deliberately scrambled language following the Tower of Babel incident (Genesis 11) and el/le may be one instance of such deliberate scrambling through transposition. There are many I have detected in my upcoming Dictionary of Protolanguage Terms.

As for ene, we noted that it is also now generalised to refer to a specific person and has acquired the meaning ‘he/she himself’. Thus EN.L’ILLU (Enlil) was ‘Lord of the Illu’ but can now also be ene-le-illu: – the main one of the Illu, i.e. ‘the [main] Illu [himself]’. (Scholars interpret EN.LIL to mean ‘Lord of the Air/Wind’ but this was evidently a mistaken interpretation of Sumerian pictograph. Parallel wavy lines were misinterpreted as wind whereas the symbolise ‘radiating’ (light waves.) This brings us to the term ‘Illu’ itself. It means ‘radiant’ or ‘shining’ which is why the Illu (gods) were often called ‘Shining Ones’. It is highly probable that the connotation of ‘light emitting’ was semantically borrowed from the light complexion of the ‘Els’ and the ‘Ens’. In Setswana mo-illu (mollo) is ‘light emitting one’ and refers to ‘fire’ in Sotho-Tswana; i.e. ‘illuminator’. This morphed illumination as ‘mental enlightenment’, thus elelwa (‘come to realise’). Ela thus means ‘flow’, which closely relates to ‘radiate’. And in English ‘ela’ generated such words as ‘elegant, yellow, and electric’ which allude to ‘bright’ or ‘flowing’.

En also has its own interesting semantic derivations. Ene as meaning ‘the specific or main one himself’ – and initially meaning ‘lord’ – is captured in the Sumerian term me-ene (Lords). Me is a plural-prefix and in modern Setswana the term me-ene seems ungrammatical (as if saying ‘the them’). But in ancient times, it was understood to refer principally to gods. In the pre-Flood Sumerian Kings List, for example, several of the long-lived god-kings had the title EN.MEN (en me-ene: ‘Lord of Lords’) before their name, e.g. EN.MEN.LU.AN.NA, EN.MEN.ZIB.ZI.AN.NA, etc. In one of the Sumerian epics, the Sumerian king Culgi pleads thus with the gods: “Culgi, me-en, cag ta ur saj, me-en’ (Culgi, my lords, cannot be one who eats not, my lords). Every line in the nearly 100 lines of the text ends with the salutation me-en.

Thus, me-ene, me-ene, the kel’loa, u-Parsin! (the mene-mene tekel upharsin of Daniel 5:25-28) properly translates as “my lords, my lords, please beware! Persians!” Evidently a court attendant too diffident to disturb the feasting me-en (it could easily turn into a capital offence in those days) decided that he will not waste time but rather scribble the warning on the wall. In reality, ‘invisible hand’ was a colourful expression that meant not a ghost or spirit, but the fact that no-one noticed him as he wrote the message.

As such ‘amen’ (a-me-en) was not ‘may it be so’ but a prayer ending directed ‘to the gods’. It originated in Egypt and was adopted by the Israelites when they left Egypt. Even so, scholars still confuse ‘amen’ with ‘amun’ (unseen) which is ha-o-mmone in Setswana. The latter relates chiefly to the Egyptian god Ra (who was not seen in Egypt for a long time) thus they called him Amun-Ra (Unseen Ra) – wrongly rendered as ‘Amen-Ra’ at times as if ‘amen’ and ‘amun’ were interchangeable.

In Setswana me can be replaced by ba depending on the noun or mood. As such ba-en also meant ‘lords’ and I discern that it is the root of beng (lords). The Semitic term ben (now ‘son of’) was thus originally ‘whose lords are’. So, ‘Shimon ben Amon’ was ‘Simon, whose ancestor (lord) is Amon’, and the Hebrew term helyl ben-sa-char we saw last week is “helele! [he] whose father is dawn (dawn is sa or cha/chaba which we related to char last week).

Comments to [email protected]

Editor's Comment
Botswana needs proper rehabilitation centres

Our sister publication The Monitor earlier this week carried a story on serious human rights abuses being meted on people who have gone for rehabilitation at a boot camp in Kgatleng. Allegations cite verbal and physical abuses, children being stripped of their dignity and shaved in front of others. While the abuse came to light after a suicide incident of a 23-year-old, Botswana Institute for Reintegration and Rehabilitation of Offenders’...

Have a Story? Send Us a tip
arrow up