Considering the legendary status of war elephants in Carthaginian (world) history... Do we know what their term was for “war elephants”, or simply “elephants”? Can someone point me in the right direction to find the answer?

Thank you, Gary

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    @TomasBy - FWIW: The scholarly source I dug up had that word in it too, but said it was the Persian word. Arabic used an "f" rather than an "p", and supposedly both were borrowed from North African Berber "elu" (which looks super-different to my less-educated eyes. I mean there's an 'l' in them all, I guess, and supposedly Afro-Asiatic languages don't care so much about vowels)
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 14:17
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    There's a Linguistics.SE site that may be better for these kinds of questions.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 14:22
  • Gary: I did some reading on Hellenistic & Bactrian war elephants some time ago. Just have to check "old notes" (more like scribbles). Anyway, are you asking for Punic name for war elephant (linguistic) or are you interested if the Elephant Corp had a specific name / title (history)? No guarantee my notes will be useful but probably worth a try. Can I also ask, why are you asking this question (i.e. research, book, etc.)?
    – J Asia
    Commented May 29, 2019 at 6:37

1 Answer 1


We don't actually have a lot of Punic writing examples available to us, and most of what we do have is religious inscription, which are unlikely to mention elephants, which were (to them) mundane creatures.

In ancient times there were in fact elephants native to both North Africa, and the Near East where the Carthaginians emigrated from. So these would not have been the exotic creatures to them which they are to most modern English speakers. It seems possible the 3rd Century BC military fad for their use had something to do with their disappearance from both places.

So this leaves us two likely possibilities. They borrowed the name that was in use by their Berber neighbors when they immigrated to North Africa, or they kept the NW Semitic name their Phoenician ancestors used. Well, there's sort of a third possibility suggested by my reading: The Semitic languages took their word from the Berbers, with the Carthaginians the natural conduit. The Berber (North African) word appears to have been "Elu", and the Semitic "fīl"*. My sources indicate the Semitic is derived from the Berber word, but since Phonecian and Punic were originally the same language, that doesn't necessarily help us much. I'd lean toward "fīl"

* - I found this information in a footnote of a paper by Vaclav Blazek, which itself referred to "Lokotsch 1927". Its possible this may be a reference to the paper/book: "Lokotsch, K., (1927). Etymologisches Wörterbuch der europäischen (germanischen, romanischen und slavischen) Wörter orientalischen Ursprungs. Heidelberg" I found referenced in another work, but I'm afraid my lack of German means the trail goes cold there for me.

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    Lokotsch: "Ar. fll: 'Elefant' [aus pers. pil; wohl durch ägyptische Zwischenhändler aus einer hamitischen Sprache, vgl. in der Sprache der Tuareg, dem Temasirt, elu 'Elefant'" (fil from Persian pil, originally from a Hamitic language via Egyptian, cf. elu in Tuareg).
    – Tomas By
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 14:38
  • At least in Hebrew it's still פיל (pil). Commented May 28, 2019 at 14:51
  • Ancient depictions of elephants were usually too generic to tell if they were African or Asian. In 49 BC Julius Caesar issued vast numbers of his elephant denarius. Many different dies were cut to strike the countless examples of the elephant coin. In most coins the elephant is too generic to identify as African or Asian, but some coins clearly show Asian or African Elephants. North African elephants existed for centuries after the Punic Wars, while wild Syrian Elephants became extinct centuries before the Punic Wars.
    – MAGolding
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 15:27
  • @MAGolding - Hannibal's personal war elephant, larger than the rest, may have been named "the Syrian". Of course, even if that's true it doesn't mean it was actually a Syrian elephant. Its possible it just got called that because it was big.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 18:06
  • @TomasBy - Other stuff I read indicated the 'p' was some kind of Egyptian article added to the front of the word. If we put all this together, it looks like the order of borrowing he is proposing is Berber->Egyptian->Persian->NW Semitic
    – T.E.D.
    Commented May 28, 2019 at 18:13

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