From the mythical Mount Kunlun to Hercules to Avalokitasvara

Ok, I have no clue where to put this. It’s language related I guess.

I was reading up on the etymology of the word 崑崙 (Kunlun), which is a mountain in present day East Turkestan, and an important mountain in Chinese legends, basically it’s the Olympus of Chinese mythology. However, etymology of the name isn’t native to Chinese, but a loanword from Tocharian languages, which users would have lived in East Turkestan before Turkic speaking peoples eventually assimilated them after the 11th century.

The Tocharian word for Kunlun was klyom, which meant noble or famous. That word came from the Proto-Indo-European root *ḱlewmn- (fame), which itself came from the PIE root *ḱlew- (to hear).

The same root also derived the word *ḱléwos, which gave us the Greek word κλέος (famous, renown, honor), and then gave us names like Cleo, and Cleopatra. That same Greek word also gave us names like Heracles and Hercules (Hera +‎ kléos, Glory of Hera).

Over at the Germanic branch of the family, the /k/ from *ḱlew- weakened to an /h/, and we had /*hlusēną/ in Proto-Germanic. It then became hlysnan in Old English, and eventually just listen.

It also gave us names like Louis, Louisa, Luigi, Lewis, and Ludwig, which came from Proto-Germanic *hlūdaz (loud; famous) + *wīgą (battle). In English, the same root also gave us loud, leer, and client.

An early split of the Indo-european languages along the line of those who preserved the /k/ sound, and those replaced it with an /s/ sound, we get the the Centum and Satem languages. The Indo-Iranian languages went with the s sound. So the old *ḱlew- root changed to start with an s. This gave us the svara (to hear, to listen) part of the Bodhisattva Avalokitasvara, or 觀世音菩薩 Guanshiyin Pusa in Mandarin.

Oh, and since Slavic languages also seems to be in the Satem side of the family, the slava from Slava Ukraini also came from the same root.

Just interesting to think about how many times words of that same root reached China.


This kind of genealogical etymology is fascinating. Although I suppose there’s always the danger of mistaking coincidences for tantalising connections. I know nothing about the subject, but see that the Chinese and English wiki entries for 崑崙山 give a number of possible etymologies for 崑崙, e.g. relating it to the word 混沌or primordial chaos.


Also, without wanting to distract from the discussion of etymology, I’ll put this question out there… just because the question also relates to arcane Chinese history.

Does anyone know what’s up with the loose metal ball in the handle of this Shang dynasty dagger (on display in in the National Museum)? The lions in front of temples in Taiwan often have loose balls in their mouths, but other than that I haven’t encountered anything quite like it.

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It’s possible that it’s a knife for performing religious ceremonies, and as such the bell is added to make sounds as the religious leader performs a dance ritual.

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I find words like 崑崙 and 混沌 suspect because they just sound like phonetic translations.

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