Friday, May 22, 2020

The Etymology of Cthulhu

The name Cthulhu has an ancient Semitic origin. I know it's fictional, but hear me out. Most fictions play on realities. 

qul-hu : kill-him

In ancient Aramaic and Hebrew (Canaanite), qul-hu plainly means "kill him!" (imperative, addressing one male). The first two consonants represent phonetics that you can pursue here. 

Suffice it to say that the Roman alphabet has no exact equivalents, but the use of c for Semitic q and th for Semitic were not rare in the nineteenth century, especially before the development of standards in Semitic comparative philology.

Lovecraft said that "the first syllable [is] pronounced gutturally and very thickly." The rest of his remarks about the pronunciation make little sense. Lovecraft's nonspecialist description of the sounds in the name he chose for the Great Old One is typical of the ways in which Europeans and Americans try to convey their impression of the phonetics of Semitic languages. "Guttural" is the go-to adjective. Cthulhu is a evocative name used for a fictional monstrosity. "Guttural" worked adequately for Lovecraft.

Back to the word itself. In a slightly different form, (u)qtul-hu, it means the same thing in Arabic. In Classical Ethiopic, it's almost the same: qtəl-u, where the first vowel represents the merger of ancient *u and *i (here *u).

On this basis, particularly with the benefit of the Ethiopic, one can confidently reconstruct and actual word (with object suffix) *qtul-hu for the prehistoric ancestor of all the these related languages, which is called Proto-Semitic, or perhaps just the branch of Proto-Semitic after the split with East Semitic. The equivalent form does not occur in the East Semitic branch, Akkadian (ancient Babylonian and Assyrian), but Akkadian diverged at an early (also prehistoric) date and exhibits interference from other, very different, languages, so this is no surprise.

All this means that the name could be quite ancient, that is, within the fiction. If it was my fiction alone, though, I'd say it came to us from Aramaic.

How would Lovecraft or a source of his have encountered this word? The answer is easy. The word-root *qtl, from which the imperative form is built, is the paradigmatic one in most European treatments of Semitic languages. *Qtl is used to exemplify what word roots can do. For example, William Wright's Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages (1890) cites the verb qtul (which he presents in now-outmoded transcription as ’tul) form when he addresses the imperative. Or see the table of contents of this old standard work here, where many word patterns are exemplified with the same qtl root.

In other words, Cthulhu's name was likely snatched from an elementary treatment of the Semitic languages, or of one particular Semitic language such as Biblical Hebrew, by an author searching for exotic and evocative words to use as fictional, alien names. It must have jumped off the page for somebody seeking a name with resonances that educated readers, many of whom read Biblical Hebrew, might hear. "Kill him!" It did not really even matter what it meant. The sound of it was enough. Unless...

... for those who prefer to believe in Cthulhu...

There is another, far more sinister circumstantial explanation for the Great Old One's name. We should not, in our hubris, suppose that the dread lord's true name could actually be pronounced by mere mortal vocal apparatus, should we?

No. The name was, in effect, a human mistake. It derives from the scene of a regularly conducted ritual sacrifice of a male human to the Great Old One somewhere in the ancient Middle East. The cultists, who stood before a graven image of the cephalopod monster, shouted to the chief sacrificer words of encouragement and zeal: "Kill him! Kill him!" i.e. "Cthulhu! Cthulhu!"

Some horrified observers escaped and survived. Unfamiliar with Aramaic (or Canaanite or Arabic, as the case may be), or having no other name for the monster, they reported to others that the name of this unholy creature was the one word they heard shouted over and over before that ghastly stone image. The name spread through whispers and rumors full of terror.

I'd place the scene in the first millennium BCE or possibly the early Roman Empire. Why not the ruins of Nineveh or Hama or the hills near ancient Damascus?

As for the other words, reported by Lovecraft--"Ph'nglui mglw'nafh Cthulhu R'lyeh wgah'nagl fhtagn"--these are clearly attempts to render foreign words that sounded like gibberish to the hearer. Perhaps they are even alien sounds that humans attempted to put into voice. It may be that "Cthulhu," "kill him!" was an interjection amidst such words.

لم يمت
الذي يخلد الى أبد الدهر
وفي عوالم غريبة
قد يموت الموت

1 comment:

  1. Awesome!

    This reminds me of the time I tried to make some passable sense out of Nephren-Ka. nfr-n-kȝ sadly doesn't cut it.

    And thanks for the Brockelmann link; I may genuinely need that one day.