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. 😉

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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