John and Hannibal, respective favorites

There on the left you see John. He baptized people.

And on the right you see Hannibal. He vanquished Romans.

John is not in my book, whereas Hannibal is its main character, but that’s neither here nor there.

I just figured out a rather exciting linguistic connection between their names. (“Exciting”, that is, if you’re a language geek.)


John comes, via Indo-European Greek and Latin, from either the (Semitic) Hebrew Yochanan or the (equally Semitic) Aramaic Youhanna. That origin is clearer in some other European languages, such as German Johann/Johannes.

And Hannibal is our transliteration of HNB’L, a Punic word. Punic was a Roman mispronunciation of Phoenician. It was the language of Carthage and of Phoenicia, and thus also Semitic.

I’ve already posted about the close family connections between Punic, Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic and other Semitic languages, by using Hannibal’s family name, Barca, as the example. The relationship is as close as that between, say, Dutch, German and Danish, or between Spanish, Italian and Rumanian.

Favor and the gods

Now to the meaning of the two names:

According to Luke 1, 13, the angel Gabriel visited Zechariah and told him that his old and infertile wife would bear him a son and that “you shall name him John” (ie, Youhanna).

The footnote in my bible says:

The name means “Yahweh has shown favor,” an indication of John’s role in salvation history.



YOU ≡ Yahweh


HANNA ≡ Favor

As in: Yahweh’s favor.

In Hannibal’s case,

HANN(I) ≡ Favor


BAL ≡ Baal

That’s Baal (or Ba’al) as in the god that Yahweh is so jealous of in the Old Testament, because he’s one of those Semitic deities so popular in Canaan, where both Phoenicians and Jews lived.

So John was favored by one, Hannibal by the other. Name is destiny. 😉

Hannibal’s Y chromosome

Click on this map and read about the latest in this fantastic research effort called the “genographic project“. The dots show the areas of the Mediterranean with the highest frequency of the Phoenician haplotype.

They swabbed the cheeks of men from Syria and Cyprus to Malta and Morocco to have a closer look at the Y chromosome of these guys. (The Y chromosome is passed from father to son, and so a good marker of paternal descent. Mitochondrial DNA, inherited only from the mother, does the same trick for maternal descent.)

The result, as the New York Times article puts it, is that

as many as 1 in 17 men living today on the coasts of North Africa and southern Europe may have a Phoenician direct male-line ancestor…

These men were found to retain identifiable genetic signatures from the nearly 1,000 years the Phoenicians were a dominant seafaring commercial power in the Mediterranean basin, until their conquest by Rome in the 2nd century B.C.

Now, why is this exciting for the Hannibal Blog? Because Hannibal was a Phoenician, as I explained here when arguing that Denzel Washington, as much as I love that man, would not be the most ethnically correct choice of actor for this “African hero”.

Carthage, to remind, began as a Phoenician colony. The Roman word for Phoenician was Punic, hence the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. In Punic itself, the name Phoenicia means “land of purple”, because they loved that color and exported its dye.

Carthage’s mercenaries came from the other peoples of northern Africa at that time, the Numidians and the Libyans. The Numidians, as I said here, were the ancestors of today’s Berbers, and you might as well picture them looking like Zidane. The Libyans, as I said here, were not today’s Libyans, but “white” Mediterraneans. The Arabs, of course, showed up fully 900 years after Hannibal.

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Semitic Hannibal

The previous post was about Hannibal’s ethnicity, this one is about his language.

For the record, I love language–whether that means being wantonly pedantic or tracing words to their etymological origins. Let me do the latter now, to show that Hannibal was a Semite. Just to be clear: The word semitic, properly used, has a linguistic, not an ethnic, context (just as, say, Germanic or Anglo-Saxon are terms about language, not ethnicity.)

Hannibal’s clan name was Barca. Barca means ‘lightning’ (quite fitting, don’t you think?). Barca also tells us about the Punic language.

For explanation, I asked Rutie Adler, a scholar and the coordinator of the Hebrew Language Program in the Department of Near Eastern Studies at UC Berkeley.

Punic (the Roman world for Phoenician), she said, is a Northwest-Semitic language, and thus closely related to Hebrew and somewhat more distantly related to Arabic. A good family tree is here.

Thus the Punic word for lightning, Barca, is essentially the Hebrew word Barak (as in Ehud Barak, former prime minister of Israel, but not as in Barack Obama).

It is also the Arab word Buraq, which happens to be the name of the winged horse that carried Muhammad from Mecca to Jerusalem and back during his night journey.

Cool, isn’t it?

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