Showing posts with label Hebrew. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Hebrew. Show all posts

Saturday, August 7, 2010


I really like the Egyptian royal name sḥtp-jb-rʿ (today often read as "Sehetepibre", although it was hardly pronounced that way in antiquity). The name belonged to the royal titulary of King Amenemhat I. The first word (sḥtp) is a causative formation rom the verbal root ḥtp(as in all those names ending in "hotep"), meaning "to be satisfied, be happy", which leads to the conclusion that that the causative sḥtp means "to make happy" or "the one who makes satisfied" . Ancient Egyptian shares the causative prefix s with a number of the Semitic languages (of which it is a distant relation), such as Ugaritic and Akkadian, which both have š-. This is an example of the common Afro-Asiatic background of Egyptian and the Semitic languages.

The word jb (which probably was pronounced jib) means "heart", and is thought to be related to Hebrew and Akkadian libbu /lev (which both mean "heart").

Finally, we have the word rʿw or rʿ, ie. "Sun" or "the sun god Re". In the older stages of Egyptian the words were probably pronounced riʿuw or similar, and later reʿa, reʿə or riʿə, and finally in Coptic as , the pronunciation of the word we often use colloquially today when speaking of the Egyptian god of the sun. A reconstruction of the proto-Egyptian pronunciation of the word was proposed by F. Kamerzell 1991: *Lidaw (l being an older pronunciation of the Egyptian r - and it is known today that the Egyptian ʿAyin-sound often has its eymological backgound in a *d). In an article from 1997, Thomas Schneider proposed that the word may etymologically be related to the Arabic verb ladhaʿa ("to burn").

Summed up, the name means "He who makes the heart of Re satisfied". Rather poetic, don't you think?

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

In press

For those interested in my earlier posts on the Hebrew consecutive forms, I would just like to mention that the coming issue of Vetus Testamentum will include an article by yours truly on these very forms, based on a typological comparison with the Indo-European augment. I am also currently finishing the editing of a short note accepted for publication in ZAW on Job 3:8 and those funny Leviathanic sorcerers. The road goes ever on ...

Friday, March 27, 2009

Kabbalistic dyslexia

Defining one's own distinctive character through spelling of names and suchlike is something that occurs quite often, but one especially interesting phenomenon occurs when this method is used to separate religious traditions from each other. This is well exemplified by the word which in English is usually spelled Kabbalah, i.e. Jewish mysticism. The word itself is derived from the Hebrew verb qibbel, "to recieve", and means "tradition". As I'm sure many of you know, Kabbalah today extends far beyond Judaism (Madonna is one of the more humorous examples of this), a process that began during the Renaissance, when thinkers such as Giovanni Pico della Mirandola and Johannes Reuchlin became interested in Kabbalah and created a Christian variant. In later Western esotericism (even non-Christian and non-Jewish) it has had quite a central position (in particular the symbolism surrounding the 'Etz Chayim, the tree of life).

The funny thing is that the various "transformations" of the concept have recived different spellings of the word itself in Western languages. The original, Jewish variant tends to be rendered "Kabbalah", while the more Christianized version is often given the name "Cabala". The occult version is often called "qabala" (a spelling which was popularized by The Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn around the end of 19th century and the early 1900s). These variant spellings have almost become ideological markers to some modern practicioners, and some people have gone so far as to encourage this confusion of spellings in order to make an ideological point. A bit funny, that.

It is especially interesting, and somewhat ironic, to note these variations in spelling, as Kabbalah traditionally puts extreme emphasis on the exact letters used to spell a word (in order to make the letter mysticism and numerology work) ...

The Golden Dawn use of (and often peculiar pronunciation of) the Hebrew language is a topic I am thinking of doing a future article on. It would be a nice thing to do if I can find the time. Modern Western Hebrew and quasi-Hebrew has its peculiar charm... though I really don't want to think about how Madonna pronounces it!

'Ayin, the sound of thunder

One of the most characteristic sounds of the Semitic languages (and probably the one most non-Semitic-speaking people find the hardest to pronounce) is 'ayin (or 'Ayn as it is called in Arabic). To some of those whose native language belongs to other linguistic families (like Indo-European, for example) it sounds almost like some kind of vomiting or nausea, but I happen to be one of those who really think it is beautiful and pleasant to listen to. Thus, I feel called upon to provide a small tutorial on how to pronounce this sound, which is phonetically classified as a voiced pharyngeal fricative (or sometimes a pharyngealized glottal stop)—as a simple service to non-semitist mankind:

1) constrict the muscles as far down in the throat as you can.
2) produce an ah-sound, as deep and gargly as you possibly can, almost like when the doctor examines your throat with one of those funny little tongue depressor-thingies.
3) Feel how your whole body vibrates when you make the extraordinary sound.

Hey presto! Now you can pronounce beautiful words such as mu'allim ( "teacher" in Arabic), and enunciate the name of the country Iraq as it was meant to: 'irâq, with an audible 'ayn at the beginning. And don't forget ra'am ( "thunder" in Hebrew, in the classical pronunciation). Particularly note how the 'ayn-sound makes the Hebrew word vibrate and almost sound like the sonic shockwave created by lightning: RA'AM!

Beauty in its most unadulterated form. Call me crazy, but that's what I think it is. I spent many years of my adolescence trying to learn to produce this sound correctly: I suppose a lot of people thought I was somewhat demented, but hey: it worked!

Friday, February 20, 2009

Hebrew Consecutives, part 2

In the previous post I described the weird phenomenon of the so called consecutive tenses of Classical Hebrew - the strange fact that the word for "and" seems to make the two Hebrew quasi-tenses switch meaning with each other. At the end of that post I promised a historical explanation for this somewhat outlandish state of affairs, and one does not like to disappoint, so here goes.

In the linguistic stages before Classical Hebrew, the verbal system was somewhat different. We know this from older North West Semitic languages, most notably Ugaritic, which was spoken and written in modern day Syria during the latter half of the second millennium BC.

At this earlier time, the verbal system in North West Semitic (of which Hebrew is a part) seems to have looked something like the following. There were two tenses which expressed true verbal actions, both of them created using prefixes (and some suffixes). If one uses the standard example verb q-t-l (meaning "to kill" - that's a weird piece of grammatical morbidity for you), we get the forms yaqtul and yaqtulu in the 3rd person singular masculine. These two forms differed somewhat in meaning: the longer form yaqtulu seems to have been used for actions of duration, for present and future actions. The shorter one, yaqtul, was used for narrative purposes, for the past, but also for exhortations and orders.

There was also a suffix form, qatala, which originally had stative meaning (it marked a state rather than an action). After a while it also started to be used for actions, often (but not always) in the past, actions which were known to be true with high cerntainty, background facts, etc.

Then came a great reorganization of the system. The final vowels of Hebrew were dropped, so that the two prefix forms fell together: yaqtul and yaqtulu both fell together as yiqtol, the form mostly called "imperfect" in Hebrew grammar. The difference between present-future and past form became obscured in most (but not all) verbs. And the qatala form was increasingly used for past time in the form qatal, often called "perfect". Later on this temporal separation became full fledged, which led to the fact that the imperfect and perfect forms are usually regarded as "future" and "past" in the grammar of Modern Hebrew.

But in the classical language, the old narrative yaqtul-form lingered on. It remained as an old and fossilized relic - but normally only in one single environment: when preceded by the word for "and" (we- or wa-). This gave rise to the wayyiqtol form, the most common form of classical Hebrew narrative. A form of the "impefect" (present/future) was suddenly used for past time. It must have seemed strange indeed to the mediaeval Jewish scholars for whom this form was nothing but an old weirdness.

The reason for the perfect getting a "switch" of its own from past to future was completely different. That came to pass because of the original use of the perfect form: talking about certainties, emphatic utterances and states. This usage meant that the perfect often occurred in the second half of "if-then" type clauses (oy! I'm sounding like a programmer here!). The certain result of a condition would stand in the perfect form, often preceded by we-. which provided sequence. This usage can be found in Ugaritic, as well as in the letters from Bronze Age El Amarna. But again, this surviving construction appeared to be completely "backwards" to traditional Hebrew grammar. Perfect for the future? Weird.

And so both "tenses" had seemingly been switched. But that was never what really happened; it only seemed that way to those for whom the system was no longer living.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Hebrew Consecutives, part 1

I love the Hebrew consecutive tenses. For those who have not studied Classical Hebrew, the subject might need something of an introduction (and nota bene, Classical Hebrew: the consecutive forms disappear in the Post-Biblical language).

The basic idea is the following. Hebrew has two main verbal forms, often known as "tenses" (although that designation is really a bit off, as the forms weren't originally purely temporal, but rather aspectual - sort of). These two creatures are often called "perfect" and "imperfect". The "perfect" often (but not always) signifies past time, and the imperfect often (but not always) signifies present or future. So far so good.

Now comes the fun part. When preceded by the little word we- (or wa-), meaning "and", the "tenses" seemingly switch meanings with each other. These are the "consecutive" tenses, and they seem downright bizarre to the beginner. Past becomes future and future becomes past just by putting "and" in front of the word.

An example: the imperfect yishmor means "he will guard", but wayyishmor means "and he guarded".
The perfect shamar means "he guarded", but weshamar means "and he will guard."

Weird, huh? The perfect seems to take on the meaning of the imperfect, and vice versa. How can this be? Were the ancient Israelites just crazy? No, of course not. There is a nice historical reason for all this, which will follow in the next blog post.

As an aside, good old Gershom Scholem (the Kabbalah scholar of great renown) once wrote that the consecutive perfect (the "past" form which is switched to future meaning) specifically refers to the Messianic age. Grammar has become theology - in a rather weird way. Stay tuned for part two.