Words and their History
by E. Y. Kutscher – – Ariel vol. 25 (1969) pp. 64-74
Reprinted by David Steinberg with permission of copyright holders
Professor E. Y. Kutscher,
Professor of Hebrew Philology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a member
of the Hebrew Language Academy, has written on the linguistic background of the
Isaiah Scroll from Qumran and on “Words and Their History.” Recipient of the
The Vocabulary of a language is a faithful reflection of the people who speak it. Living conditions, past and present, geographical environment , employment and pursuits, relations with neighbors, culture and civilization, ideas and history are all mirrored in the words of a language.
Hebrew words have undergone three kinds of transformation:
· words which remained in Hebrew;
· words which passed from foreign languages into Hebrew; and,
· words which passed from Hebrew into foreign languages.
And there are at least two different forms of change in each of the last two categories:
· changes in the form of the word itself; and,
· changes in the meaning of the word, when the host language translated the Hebrew word by a word of its own, by adding to it the Hebrew meaning, a process known in English as “loan-translation” and in French as “calque.”
Let us begin with Hebrew words which have passed from Hebrew to other Languages. Already in biblical times certain Hebrew words (more precisely Canaanite) passed into Greek; two examples are kharutz (“gold”) khrusos in Greek, still used today in English in the name of the flower chrysanthemum, and eravon (“pledge”) which entered Greek as arrabon and thence the Latin arrabo.
Particularly interesting are certain loan-translations still in normal, current use to this day. In Akkadian the word qaqqadu – “head” also has the meaning “capital”; consequently the Hebrew rosh has the same connotation, and similarly its cognate in Aramaic and other languages. Through the Phoenician influence we find the word kephalaion with both meanings in Greek, from which in turn is derived by the same process the Latin caput. The chain continues into Old High German with Houbetgelt (“head-money”). The Latin word itself passed into other European languages and the term “capital” is a derivation. In its career this loan-translation entered Arabic, changing its form to ras-el-mal (“capital”) and thence back into medieval Hebrew as rosh-mamon (“capital”).
Another instructive example is the use made in
Christian times of words derived from the Hebrew אב (av
– “father”). In Mishanic Hebrew we find the
Aramaic אבא (abba), the earliest
written form of which appears in the New Testament in Mark 14:36. The word followed hard in the wake of the
spread of Christianity throughout
3.1 Foreign Words Borrowed in Antiquity – prior to 600 CE
There are also genuine Aramaic words which have passed into Hebrew, sometimes in several forms. The Hebrew makhatz (“crush”) is found in the Bible (Judges ), while its ancient Aramaic form is מחק (makhak). In a subsequent period, the same Aramaic root was taken over again into Hebrew in a later form מחא (macho – “to clap hands”), and finally re-entered Mishnaic Hebrew, changing both form and meaning as מחה (machot – “to protest,” actually by clapping the hand). Thus one finds in Israeli Hebrew a single Semitic root in four variations ….
A further interesting example of Aramaic influence on Hebrew, from another aspect, is the word לאתר (le’altar – “immediately”) fromעל אתר (`al ‘atar – “on the spot”). There are several Aramaic terms in which the consonantal `ayin has weakened into an aleph, and the aleph was likely to disappear altogether. Thus על אתר (`al ‘atar”) becomes אלתר (‘altar) and, with the addition of ל (le) the preposition (as in לבד levad – “alone” from the root בדד badad), becomes לאלתר (le‘altar), whence the Israeli Hebrew verb אלתר (‘alter – “to improvise”).
Aramaic was important in another respect: it served as a medium for the introduction into Hebrew of words from Akkadian, the language of the Babylonians and Assyrians, though it is true that many Akkadian terms found their way into Hebrew in a period preceding the influences of Aramaic. Akkadian bequeathed not only words of its own, such as מחיר (mekhir – “price) but also words of Sumerian origin (the Sumerians were a non-Semitic (speaking) people living in what is today southern Iraq, before the coming of the Akkadians). The most obvious of these is היכל (heikhal – “palace” or “temple”), which is e-gal (“a large house”) in Sumerian. From the same language comes מלח (malakh – “sailor”), though it may have entered Hebrew via Aramaic.
Mishnaic Hebrew, too we find words borrowed from the Akkadian. Khazan appears in the Tel-el-Amarna
letters written in the fourteenth century BCE by the kings of Syrian and
Persian rule in Eretz Israel (from the sixth to the fourth century BCE) led to the introduction of Iranian words into Biblical and Rabbinic Hebrew, and Persian rule in Babylonia (until it conquest by the Arabs in the seventh century CE) brought them into the Aramaic of the Babylonian Talmud, from which they entered Israeli Hebrew. Among the most striking are: ורד (vered – “rose,” actually the same word etymologically!) The name of the island, Rhodes, comes from the same root; the most ancient form is Vrodos, “island of roses”; פרדס (pardess) is also from Persia, and since this is the term, also taken over by the Greek, by which the Septuagint translates gan eden (“the Garden of Eden”), it has passed into various European languages as ”paradise” in English, “Paradies” in German and so on. The word kegon (“for example”) is based on the Persian gon (“color”).
Hellenistic culture which
The number of Latin words in Mishnaic Hebrew is comparatively small, in
spite of the Roman conquest of
Palestine (from the first
century BCE onwards). Examples are ligyon (“legion”) and לבלר (lavlar - “scribe”, “clerk”), though we do not revert
to a form closer to the Latin libellarius,
namely ליבלר (livlar),
found in manuscripts of the Mishna, preferring that which emerged in recent
3.2 Foreign Words Borrowed in the Jewish Middle Ages –Seventh to Eighteenth Centuries
Middle Ages the Jews played a major role in the syncretistic Arabic
3.3 Foreign Words Borrowed in the Modern period – Late Eighteenth, Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries
A characteristic attendant upon the revival of Hebrew at the end of the eighteenth century was an influx of European words which has continued up to the present day. Here the process has two aspects: the introduction of words of an international character, and the use of loan-translations. Already at the beginning of the period we find the word לבד (levad – “alone”) used with the meaning of “but”; comparison with contemporary German solves the problem: at that time “allein” meant both “but” and “alone.” The German “Mittelschule” – “high school” was first translated literally bet sefer benayim and today bet sefer tikhon. The German “Kindergarten” is in Modern Hebrew gan-yeladim (“children’s garden”). And what Hebrew speaker would conceive that aviron (“airplane”), formed from the word אויר (avir – “air”), itself a Greek borrowing found in the Mishna, is an attempt to imitate French avion?
Such coinages, i.e., the use of Hebrew words phonetically resembling the foreign words whose meanings they were to take over, were common in the nineteenth century when revivers of the language did not yet dare to create genuinely new terms. Instead of “telegraph” they said dilug-rav (“a large leap”); instead of “cannon” they said keneh-on (“power-barrel”), while “cholera” was rendered kholi-ra (“a bad sickness”). Of the neologisms of this character the only one which still maintains some kind of existence is pratei-kol – “protocol” which literally means “details of everything,” though generally the new term zikhron-devarim is used for “minutes” (of a meeting). This method is no longer used, though occasionally it reappears as in kef (“cape” e.g. Cape of Good hope); actually the Hebrew word means “rock”, whereas “cape” is related to the Latin “caput” meaning “head.”
these Arabic words – and there are scores of others in this category – took the
main road into Hebrew, through the agency of its revivers as a spoken
4.1 Vocabulary Illustrating what was Important
In the same was as these loan-translations but to a much greater extent, the native Hebrew vocabulary can throw light on the character, history and living conditions of the Jewish people. Even without the Biblical account of the wanderings of our forefathers in the wilderness we should be able to assess the importance of the desert in our past history from the number of words for it in Hebrew: midbar, eretz-tziya, kharerim and so on. The many words for “cloud” – ‘anan, ‘av, ‘arafel etc., bear eloquent witness to the anxiety with which our ancestors, tillers of the soil, watched the skies, waiting for the bountiful rain. And, of course, the ancient Judaean husbandman could specify the different kinds of rain – geshem, matar, zarzif, yoreh, malkosh. We no longer know how to distinguish between most of the Biblical words for “rain” and “cloud,” or, to quote another example, between the different terms for “spring,” ‘ayin, ma’ayan, מוצא (motza), מקור (makor) and the like.
important point must be made. What we
have here may not indicate different types of sources of water, but
corresponding terms in various Hebrew dialects (and obviously the same
possibility exists in regard to other examples cited). In the period of the
it is at least worth considering , for example, whether the word מוצא(motza),
in the sense of “spring,” might not have been restricted to the dialect of the
Or take the words har and giv’a. Ostensibly they mean “mountain” and “hill” respectively, and this is how they are translated in the Septuagint, and in the Aramaic and Syriac versions. Nevertheless, there is no certainty that these were their main meanings, and, in fact in the Bible we find the word giv’a in such expressions as high giv’a (I Kings ), lofty giv’a (Ezekiel ). The impression is that there might have been little difference between har and giv’a. They may have been synonyms, used in different dialects.
This assumption is corroborated when we examine the distribution of these
words in place names in
The areas covered in the discussion so far – words for clouds, rain, topographical features – reflect the fact that our forbearers were principally husbandmen. Further evidence is furnished by the comparatively large number of words for “ditch,” “cistern,” “well” and the like, where again we are at a loss to establish the exact meaning of each. How harsh existence was for the Judaean peasant is indicated by the multitude of words for thorns and thistles: kotz, dardar, kharulim, barkanim – thee are more than twenty in all! How native agriculture was, is proved by the complete absence of foreign loan words in this field.
In the vocabulary of commerce, by contrast, we find that in both Biblical and Mishanic Hebrew most of the words are of alien provenance. The mekhir (“price”) that you pay is Akkadian as is the shetar (“bill”) that you must sign. Pinkas (“ledger”) is Greek, khenvani (“shopkeeper”) is Aramaic and tagar (“merchant”) is Akkadian. It is no coincidence that in the Bible a merchant is called a “Canaanite” (Proverbs 31:24), but in German a “Jude.”
It may be dangerous to make deductions from silence. Anti-Semites once maintained that Jews were devoid of “conscience” because the modern Hebrew word used in this sense, namely the term matzpun means something else in the Bible. Matzpun meaning “conscience” only entered the language in the Middle Ages. To which the reply was made that Jews apparently were equally lacking in spleen because the Hebrew word tekhol does not appear in the Bible either!
In the same way as agricultural terms in Hebrew are thoroughly native in
origin, so are all those relating to ethics and institutionalized Judaism: tzedaka (“righteousness”), mishpat (“justice”), khesed (“charity”), rakhamim (“mercy”) and so on.
The people of
The word tekhol (just cited in another reference) provides convincing proof that not the entire Hebrew vocabulary of Bible times is contained in the Bible. This is corroborated by the fact that in the Siloam inscription we find the word (nikba – “tunnel”), unknown to us from any other source. Another word from ancient Hebrew documents, which, however, has not entered the modern vernacular is n-tz-p (perhaps pronounced netzef). This root does not occur in Hebrew (literature), but from comparison with Arabic it is clear that it signifies “half” or “half of a given weight.” The renowned student of Palestinian flora, Rabbi I. LÖw, found that there are about three hundred words pertaining to agriculture in Mishnaic Hebrew, many of which do not occur in the Bible, while some are unknown in any other Semitic Language. Seraf (“resin”) is but one example.
Our discussion, up to the present, has served to demonstrate the extent to which the Hebrew vocabulary reflects the conditions of life of the Jewish people down the ages. Let us now examine the composition of the vocabulary of the modern spoken language.
In the revival of Hebrew three main methods were adopted in broadening the vocabulary and making it a vehicle for modern intercourse, especially in the intellectual and technological spheres.
· First ancient “source-books” – the Bible, Mishna and Talmud, medieval poetry and other literature – were combed for terms which could be reused in a modern context. For flora, for example, the Mishna and Talmud are a rich source; they have furnished the words aspesset (“lucerne”), orez (“rice”), kalanit (“anemone”), selek (“beetroot”), sh’eu’it (“beans”) and a host of others. This is equally true of other areas. Most of these words were not in use two generations ago, and it was only the efforts of scholars and members of the Hebrew Language Committee, and its successor, the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which have rescued them from oblivion.
· Another method was to ascribe new meaning to old words. Mokesh can serve as an example. In the Bible it means “snare” or “trap”; today it is used in the sense of an (explosive) “mine.” Musaf, a term for one of the weekly prayers has today become a “supplement” (of a newspaper). This word typifies a trend in modern Hebrew – namely conversion of religious words to secular use. This method is not without its dangers. By retransference strange misconceptions may arise in the minds of Israeli children reading the Bible e.g., that the Canaanites were a “mine” for their ancestors, and indeed a young girl in this country explained to me that the Canaanites sowed mines! Consequently there is today a tendency to oppose innovations of this kind, at least as far as Biblical words are concerned.
· The third and commonest method is to create new words from existing roots. How much we stood in need of even the simplest everyday concepts is proved by the modern term for “kitchen.” In the past all sorts of compounds were used; khaddar-habishul (“cooking room”) – still used by the writer S. Y. Agnon, and beit-habishul (“cookhouse”) are but two examples. The innovators preferred simple, not compound, words, so taking the root טבח (t-b-kh) meaning “slaughter” and also “cook” they created מטבח (mitbakh). Apparantly the choice of this root and form was influenced by the fact that the cognate is in current use in Arabic. But there were no words for kitchen utensils and for different kinds of food. The word mis’adah (“restaurant”) also, is a neologism. The root occurs in the Bible and from it a new word was coined.
A similar situation existed in regard to household furniture. The Shunamite woman (II Kings ) furnished Elisha’s chamber with four items: a mita (“bed”); a shulkhan (“table”); a kisseh (“chair”); and a menorah (“lamp”). Kisseh, incidentally, is of Sumerian origin. In Mishnaic Hebrew it was replaced by the Greek kathedra, which appears in “cathedral” (and it is in a cathedral city that a bishop has his seat), and also in the English “chair,” through the French – though in the latter it subsequently became chaise. Today, because of foreign influences, kathedra is the dais on which the teacher sits.
Classical and post-Classical Hebrew literature was closely examined to fill the gaps. In the Bible meltakha (“wardrobe”), a word of obscure origin, was found, and in the Mishna miznon. On the assumption that the latter was a derivative of the root zon (“to feed”) it was given the meaning of “cupboard.” Only recently has it become clear that miznon is of Greek origin, signifying some sort of tray.
The problem in regard to parts
of the body was less difficult; indeed, here the modernists were frequently
confronted with an embarrass de richesse. “Nose,” for instance, is af in the Bible, but khotem
in the Mishna. One scholar, the late
Joseph Klausner, Professor of Hebrew Literature at the
There is no end to innovations in the domain of technology. Understandably, few were founding ancient sources and the majority have been borrowed from foreign tongues. The Greek mekhane has been given a Hebrew garb in mekhona for “machine.” Hence mekhonit for “motor-car,” and, by dropping the “kh” we have monit, a taxi, which looks as if it were related to the root מנה (mnh – “to count”) and is thus closer to the original meaning of “taxi” (which, of course, is short for “taximeter”).
In most cases, however, it proved necessary to create new words from Hebrew or Aramaic roots. The Biblical tzelem (“image,” “form”) was used to form tzilem (“to photograph”), and hence the words tatzlum (“a photograph”), matzelma (“camera”), and tzalmania (“photographic studio”)
No modern army can make do with the keshet (“bow”) and khetz (“arrow”) of the Bible. The words roveh and totakh, both Biblical in origin, were given the meanings of “rifle” and “cannon” respectively; but for “machine-gun” mikla was coined, from the word in the Bible meaning “to sling stones.”
New words formed from initial letters are not uncommon in modern Hebrew, e.g., duakh from din vekheshbon (“report”), which has produced a new verb ledave’akh (“to report”).
method of word formation is the fusion of two words in one. Tapuakh-zhav (lit. “golden
apple” - “orange”) has become tapuz. There is also tapuakh-adama (lit. “ground-apple” a loan-translation of the German
Erdapfel). These two have given rise to another compound
tapuakh-etz (lit. “tree-apple”) – a
tautologous form, as in the Bible tapuakh
plain and simple, means “apple.” But in
The tale of words and their metamorphoses is complex and interesting and requires far more than a brief essay for adequate presentation. However, the present account may serve to illustrate the appropriateness of Job’s ancient dictum “Doth not the ear try words?” (Job ).
 For more recent
publications and general bibliography see and E. Y. Kutscher, Words and Their History,
 The author obviously meant that, for our purposes, we can look at Hebrew words under three heads or the like. DS
 A calque is a compound, derivative, or phrase that is introduced into a language through translation of the constituents of a term in another language (as superman from German Übermensch see further http://www.erudit.org/revue/meta/2001/v46/n3/004120ar.pdf DS
 Rabbinic=Mishnaic DS
 The Old Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. The oldest existing translation and probably the first ever made DS
 Equivalent to yen i.e., the diphthong had contracted DS
 of the Hebrew Bible DS
 i.e., Biblical Israel DS
 see also Comparative
Philology and the Text of the Old Testament by James