Wednesday, February 25, 2015


A reader asked about the origin of the word dagesh דגש - the grammatical term for the dot put in Hebrew consonants, either to "harden" some of them (the letters ב ג ד כ פ ת) or to denote the reduplication of the sound. He pointed out he could not find that root (nor the verb form) in either a biblical concordance or Jastrow's dictionary (which covers Talmudic and Midrashic Hebrew and Aramaic). So when did it enter Hebrew?

The word dagesh is first found in the medieval works of Hebrew grammarians (follwoing the Tiberian Masoretes). It was not borrowed from Aramaic (at least not the Aramaic of the Targumim, or Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds), but from the related Syriac language. In Syriac, the verb דגש means "to pierce", and has a cognate in the Akkadian dakasu (see the entry here in the Chicago Akkadian Dictionary, and the article included here - "Use of Akkadian DKS") of the same meaning.1

We do find a Babylonian Aramaic form of dagesh - דיגשא digsha, but this is later (from the Babylonian Masoretes, who placed the dot above the letter), and not found in Talmudic literature.

Why "pierce"? Apparently, this is due to the dot "piercing" the page, and we find a similar relationship between the English (and earlier Latin) words "punctuation" and "puncture".

Gesenius, in his Hebrew Grammar (page 55), suggests that since dagesh might have also meant "to sharpen", perhaps the word was chosen not because of the mark in the letter but due to the "sharpening" of the sound:

The root דגשׁ‎ in Syriac means to pierce through, to bore through (with sharp iron); hence the name Dageš is commonly explained, solely with reference to its form, by puncture, point. But the names of all similar signs are derived rather from their grammatical significance. Accordingly דגשׁ‎ may in the Masora have the sense: acuere (literam), i.e. to sharpen a letter, as well as to harden it, i.e. to pronounce it as hard and without aspiration. דָּגֵשׁ‎ acuens (literam) would then be a sign of sharpening and hardening (like Mappîq מַפִּיק‎ proferens, as signum prolationis), for which purposes a prick of the pen, or puncture, was selected.

It is unclear to me whether Latin grammar influenced this choice of a word, or whether they developed in parallel. I had the same question here about the relationship between the word geresh גרש and "apostrophe", and I still have not found an answer.

Today the verb דגש in the hifil form - הגדיש hidgish - means to emphasize or highlight anything, not just a consonant. But this usage is very new - it doesn't even appear in Ben Yehuda's dictionary.


1. I did find two sources that seem to preserve this earlier meaning.

a) Targum Yonatan on Mishlei 12:18 translates  יֵשׁ בּוֹטֶה כְּמַדְקְרוֹת חָרֶב "there is one who speaks like the piercing of a sword" as אית דאמריה ספסירא רגשא. But the Syriac translation (the Peshitta) translates it as אית אמרין ספסירא דגשא. My guess is that the Targum רגשא is a misreading of the more logical דגשא - "piercing".

b) The Torah Shleimah here quotes the medieval collection of midrashim Sechel Tov saying that God  "מכה ומדגיש כל גאה ורם" - "smites and madgish מדגיש the proud and haughty" - I assume that madgish here means to stab, or better, the Syriac meaning "to beat".)

Sunday, February 22, 2015

kimu v'kiblu

In the Book of Esther, it says that the Jews "established and accepted" (the laws of Purim) - קִיְּמוּ וְקִבְּלוּ kimu v'kiblu. Are those two words Biblical Hebrew?

On the most simple level, of course they are Biblical Hebrew, since the Book of Esther is a biblical book. But I don't think it is actually that simple. The two verbs - קים - "fulfill, ratify, preserve", and קבל - "accept, receive" - occur so frequently in post-biblical Hebrew, and so infrequently in biblical Hebrew that I think it makes sense to put them in the category of at least "late Biblical Hebrew" or perhaps to put them in a new category that would cover the transition period.

Let's take a brief look at the history of each of these words.

The verb קים is the piel form of the verb קום - "to stand, stand up, arise". That kal form appears hundreds of times in the Tanach, Besides meaning to stand on one's feet, it can also refer to permanence - "to remain, to be fixed, to be valid". It can also mean "to stand up to someone", "to oppose" or "to attack". From here, we get the noun komimiyut קוממיות - "independence" (which literally means "to stand up straight", but also has the connotation of "standing up for one's rights".)

The piel form, influenced by Aramaic, along with the related hitkayem התקיים - "took place", gives us the adjective kayam קיים - "existing, enduring", and in modern Hebrew the noun kayamut קיימות - "sustainability". In Aramaic, the verb קום is קאם, which was shortened to קאי, further shortened to ka קא, and that even becomes a prefix - ka ק. That prefix is used very frequently in the Talmud before verbs, and while is difficult to define, has a similar meaning to "did" in English.

The root קבל in earlier biblical texts did not mean "receive", but rather "to be opposite", or "before, in front of". From the sense of "opposite" comes the meaning of makbil מקביל - "parallel" or "corresponding", as found in the description of the loops of the tabernacle (Shemot 26:5). As with the previous verb, קבל was also influenced by Aramaic, and so in the later books of the Tanach, came to mean "receive", since a person receiving stands opposite the person giving. From the verb קבל, we get the noun kabala קבלה - meaning "receiving". Zuckermann describes the development of that word here:

Mishnaic Hebrew קבלה [qabbålå], lit. ‘that which is received, tradition’, refers to ‘the doctrines a disciple receives from his master’, ‘oral teachings not recorded in Scripture’. Later, the term becomes associated with a particular type of received tradition, the mystical doctrines known as the Kabbalah.
The ‘Kabbalah’ meaning is still current in Israeli, but the primary sense has been lifted from the religious arena of received doctrine to the commercial world: kabalá means both ‘receipt’ and ‘(hotel) reception’. Israeli שעת קבלה shat kabalá, lit. ‘hour-CONSTR receipt’, means ‘office hour’ and מבחן קבלה mivkhán kabalá, lit. ‘exam:CONSTR receipt’, is ‘entrance exam’.

Is it possible that there was no word for "receive" in earlier biblical books like the Torah? No - there was a word - lakach לקח. Lakach meant both "take" and "receive" and the similarity between those two meanings (with sometimes the only difference being in the thoughts of the person performing the action) makes it occasionally difficult to tell which one the verse meant. (For examples where lakach more likely meant "receive", see Bamidbar 3:50, 5:25; Devarim 26:4).

This multiple meaning of one word is what likely led to the change in a number of words in post-biblical Hebrew. As we saw in this post, lakach (under Akkadian influence) came to mean "to buy"), leaving natal נטל for "take" and kibel קיבל for "receive". The biblical word meaning "to buy" - kana קנה - took on, in post-biblical Hebrew, a more specific sense of "to acquire possession (by a symbolic act)". As this book points out, in Modern Hebrew, lakach and kana returned to their meanings in biblical Hebrew, kibel still has its post biblical sense, and natal is not used frequently any more.

Just as in the story of Esther - it was necessary for the Jews to accept the new laws for them to have full validity, so too with language - the "prescriptive" only becomes established when accepted by the speakers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

keter and koteret

In the discussion of the word kaftor כפתור, I presented a theory that it derives from the word keter כתר - "crown". Let's take a look at the word keter.

In Biblical Hebrew, the verb כתר precedes the noun, historically. It means "to surround, encircle". (In post-biblical Hebrew we find the verb also meaning "to crown" - i.e. to make someone king or queen). The noun keter as "crown" first (and only) appears in the book of Ester (and actually never for the king - only for his queens or his horse). Previously in the Tanach we find the words atara עטרה or nezer נזר for "crown".

However, we do find a related word to keter frequently in earlier books - koteret כותרת. A koteret is the capital of a pillar (Klein writes "literally that which surrounds or crowns the top"). And if you look at our earlier post, that was a meaning of kaftor as well. Since the koteret is at the top of the amud עמוד - and amud can mean both pillar and page (originally a "column" in a scroll) - in later Hebrew koteret was used for the top of the page, or what we call today, a headline. From koteret we get the word kotar כותר - the title of a book (particularly as used when looking up a book in a library catalog.)

The Arabic word for the head of a town - mukhtar - is spelled in Hebrew מוכתר, but isn't actually related to keter. It comes from a separate Arabic root meaning chosen or good (khayr), and so should be really spelled מוח'תאר.

The Greeks likely borrowed from the Semitic keter for their words kitaris or kidaris, meaning a crown or tiara (used by Persian kings), and from the Greek it entered Latin as cidaris. This Latin root was used to name a genus of sea urchins - and it does kind look like they are wearing crowns...

Sunday, February 15, 2015


In the description of the menorah in Shemot 25:31, we see mention of the word kaftor כפתור. The word is translated in various translations as knop (an ornamental knob), calyx, sphere, or bulb. In Amos 9:1 and Tzefania 2:14, it refers to the capital of a column. However, none of those fit the meaning in modern Hebrew - "button". Where did that sense originate?

Avineri, in Yad Halashon (page 341), says that while in biblical Hebrew kaftor meant a kind of ornament, the sense of button came from influence from German and French. In those languages, knopf and bouton (respectively) meant both "knob" and "button", and this usage in Hebrew began to feel so natural that it almost seems hard to believe that it was an innovation.

Where does the word originate? Klein and Cassuto both say it's an expansion of the word keter כתר - "crown". Cassuto says that keter "denotes in general anything round", and Klein, who gives the meaning "capital (of a pillar)" before "knob", seems to indicate that the keter was the crown of the column. Stahl quotes a different theory that kaftor is an expansion of the root כפת - "to bind, tie", and Gesenius says it appears to him to be a compound of the roots כפר - "to cover" and כתר - "to crown".

The reason so many theories are presented is the fact that kaftor has a four letter root, which is atypical to biblical Hebrew, certainly a word found all the way back in the Torah. Often times in these cases, we look for a word borrowed from a foreign source. In this case, Sarna in his commentary on Exodus has an curious suggestion:

Hebrew kaftor appears as an architectural term in Amos 9:1 and Zephaniah 2:14, where it designates the capital of a column. Since such were ornamented with a florid design, kaftor most likely refers to the calyx motif. Elsewhere in the Bible, Caphtor denotes the isle of Crete, where this type of ornamentation may have originated. Interestingly, Menahot 28b compares the shape of the kaftor to "Cretan apples."
In his commentary on Genesis (10:14), discussing the Capthorim, Sarna writes:

This corresponds to kaptaru in Akkadian texts, kptr in Ugaritic, and probably also to keftiu in Egyptian, all generally identified with the isle of Crete and its environs in the eastern Mediterranean.

So if this the word kaftor (knob) was borrowed from the place Kaftor - then it could easily have arrived from any of those ancient languages.

Kaddari also quotes the gemara in Menachot: כפתורים למה הם דומין? כמין תפוחי הכרתיים, and points to a 1928 article in Leshonenu by the botanist Ephraim Hareuveni (the father of Noga Hareuveni, the founder of Neot Kedumim) that identifies these "Cretan apples" with the gallnuts of a species of the genus Salvia (Hebrew marvah מרווה) native to Crete (likely Salvia fruticosa or Salvia pommifera - for the difference, see here). In fact, in the booklet put out by Neut Kedumim, (for the article in English, see here) on the cover we see a species of salvia which looks very much like the menorah:

Hareuveni concludes that "We frequently find among early civilizations that countries were named for one typical plant growing there ... and so it might have been with the island Kaftor." That's certainly one more possibility...

Friday, February 13, 2015

speel or shpeel?

In my post on the word spiel, I suggested that the while the word likely entered English originally through German, the current pronunciation "shpiel" indicates more recent Yiddish influence. I received a number of comments pointing out to me that the German pronunciation is also shpiel. So why did I associate it with Yiddish?

First of all, perhaps I'm wrong. That's the impression I get from Gold's book that I quoted. On page 568 he writes:

They etymological pronunciation of all the English words we have dealt with here is with /š/ (which is the only one I have ever heard in American English). The second edition of Oxford English Dictionary also shows a pronunciation with /s/, which results both from English spelling pronunciation and from the tendency of allolingual word-initial preconsonantal /š/ to become /s/ in English.
If I understand the end of what he wrote correctly, he's referring to the fact that it's rare for foreign words (allolingual) that entered English to maintain their "sh" sound before certain consonants (p, t, or k). So if what Gold says is true, then the word was always pronounced "shpiel" in English (going back to its German roots, which Gold argues for). But is that really the case?

Bryan Garner in his Dictionary of Legal Usage, writes on page 836:

spiel (= a set monologue or rehearsed oral presentation) is pronounced /speel/, not in the mock-Yiddish fashion that has become so common (/shpeel/).

In the 2003 edition, he writes that /shpeel/ is "jocular". Charles Harrington Elster, in his book The Big Book of Beastly Mispronunciations, expands on Garner and writes  (page 445):

Spiel, says Garner (2003), "is best pronounced /speel/, not in the mock-Yiddish fashion that has become so common (/shpeel/), which is jocular."
Both the verb to spiel ("to talk glibly, to patter or pitch") and the noun spiel ("a glib speech, harangue, or voluble sales pitch") entered English in the late 19th century, borrowed from the German spielen, to play, and Spiel, play, game. The German pronunciation, as Kenyon & Knott (1949) note, is SHPEE-ul, but from the outset dictionaries recorded only the anglicized pronunciation SPEEL. Whence, then, this "mock-Yiddish"SHPEEL? Is it jocular, or is it justified?
For an answer I turned to the distinguished lexicographer Sol Steinmetz, who has edited more than thirty dictionaries and many reference books and is coauthor of Meshuggenary: Celebrating the World of Yiddish (2002). "I remember doing an informal poll on that very question during my editorship of the Random House dictionaries," Steinmetz replied. The "rather surprising" result was that preferences were divided along ethnic lines. "My Jewish respondents invariably pronounced the word as SHPEEL" he told me, "whereas gentile subjects pronounced it SPEEL.
"Since both the German and the Yiddish etymons are pronounced SHPEEL," Steinmetz went on, "SPEEL is an Anglicization which Jewish speakers didn't seem to have picked up. I would favor the SPEEL pronunciation because the English meaning of the word ('extravagant talk to lure a customer, etc.; pitch') is itself an innovation, the German and Yiddish meanings being the literal senses of 'play, game, gamble.'"
So here's my take on it: If you're Jewish and you've always said SHPEEL,or if you're gentile and you've always said SHPEEL with a straight face, I'mnot going to tell you to change your tune. But for everyone else — indeed, the great majority of us — SHPEEL is in fact mock-Yiddish and jocular, and SPEEL is the better choice. Of the six major current American dictionaries, two give only SPEEL and the other four list it first, and Lass & Lass (1976), the NBC Handbook (1984), and The Barnhart Dictionary of Etymology (1988), for which Mr. Steinmetz was managing editor, all prefer SPEEL.

So we see from no less of an expert than Steinmetz that the pronunciation "shpeel" is from Yiddish - not German, and that the original (and "correct") pronunciation in non-Yiddish influenced English is "speel".

The question remains, though, why didn't the German "shpeel" remain in English? I think that part of the reason is due to the rarity (and perhaps difficulty) of pronouncing words beginning with the sound "shp". But I think another reason might be that since the spelling in English matched the German, and "s" is almost never pronounced "sh" - that people assumed this was the way to say the word.

I did a cursory search of words of German origin in the Online Etymology Dictionary, and I could not find a single word post 1700 from German that maintained an "s" spelling but a "sh" pronunciation. I did find a few words, however, that are pronounced "sh" in German, but "s" in English: spritz, strudel (unless the speaker is influenced by Yiddish), and streusel. Two other words - swindler and snorkel - also fit this category, although they were originally spelled with "sch" in German (schwindlerschnorkel).  So I think this is likely the case with spiel - it was pronounced shpeel in German, but spelled spiel, and so the initial English pronunciation was spiel - until the Yiddish influence began.

One more proof - two words related to spiel - bonspiel and glockenspiel - end with the pronunciation "speel" in English.

Okay - I'm done with my spiel. Do you buy it?

Thursday, February 12, 2015


I do a lot of walking, and over the past few years, I've really begun to enjoy listening to podcasts while I walk. There aren't any podcasts dealing with Hebrew linguistics as far as I know (although you download Avshalom Kor's radio bits here). I do listen to a few podcasts about language in English: Lexicon Valley, The Allusionist, The History of English, Grammar Girl, and The World in Words. But perhaps my favorite language podcast isn't officially about language at all.

I first heard about Mike Pesca's The Gist in August 2014 on an episode of  This American Life. The host Ira Glass introduced him as follows:

This new podcast isn't about sports. It's about everything. 20 minutes a day, often about the news, though just as often not. What makes it special is, I think, the sheer joy, the gleeful, articulate energy that Mike Pesca marshals in thinking about and dissecting the world around him.
The theme today on our radio show is magic words. And I thought of Pesca today, because when he is not explaining what poker can tell us about missile defense systems or filling us in the country in Africa that is doing really, really well, Mike Pesca is somebody who seems to take great pleasure in noticing words, how people use words, and especially the misuse of words.

That's really a great description. While Pesca doesn't usually deal with etymology or linguistics per se, the way he talks about words really makes the listener (at least me) appreciate the significance of language.

The Gist always ends with a segment called "The Spiel". So in appreciation of Pesca's love of words, I thought I'd look at the word "spiel". The most obvious question regards pronunciation. It's spelled "spiel", but Pesca pronounces it "shpiel". Why?

The answer goes back to the etymology. There are two proposed origins:

1. a usually high-flown talk or speech, especially for the purpose of luring people to a movie, a sale, etc.; pitch.
verb (used without object)
2. to speak extravagantly. 
1890-95; (noun) < German Spiel or Yiddish shpil play, game; (v.) < German spielen or Yiddish shpiln to play, gamble 

Both the German and Yiddish derive from an older German word spil.

Which is more likely the origin of our English word spiel? David L. Gold in his book Studies in Etymology and Etiology discusses the issue (pgs 563-570). On page 567 he points out that of the different meanings of the word spiel, they either date to pre-1859 American English, such as the sense "to gamble" (in which case a Yiddish influence is not possible since there were insignificant numbers of Yiddish speaking Jews in America at the time) or they are a usage of the word not found in Yiddish (such as the sense "to talk"). So Gold is convinced that the origin is German, not Yiddish.

So why does Pesca pronounce the word in the Yiddish form and not the German one? He does have Jewish background, so that could be an influence. But it's not just Pesca - the pronunciation shpiel appears much more prevalent in general.

I think what is happening here is a case of Yiddish (or Jewish) influence on American culture overall. In Yiddish, we find the word meaning "play, skit" and is perhaps most familiar in the Purim-shpiel that entertained Jews on the holiday. Jewish immigrants from Europe would have used that pronunciation, And since they had significant influence in the entertainment industry (Vaudeville, radio, etc), that is the way many people began to hear the word spoken (even if they continued to write it the traditional German way.)

A similar phenomenon can be found with the word "smear". Smear is a perfectly respectable and understandable English word, and when pronounced as such can either mean "to spread or rub something on something else" or "defame, slander". But the Yiddish "schmear" has a more specific meaning - to spread something on bread, or as a noun, something spread on food- like cream cheese on a bagel. As discussed in this Philologos column, this has become the more "authentic" way of pronouncing the word when talking about food, even if the spelling hasn't always been changed.

The Yiddish shpil also entered modern Hebrew slang as שפיל meaning "breathing space, latitude", Rosenthal writes that it can either refer to a more general sense of flexibility or freedom (as in a politician's wiggle room as to what choices he makes, or the forecast of a meteorologist), or it can be more physical and refer to loose parts of a car moving around undesirably. I suppose the connection here to shpil is a sense of "room to play". While I've found that usage by politicians such as Yair Lapid here, he felt the need to define the term after using it, and of Israelis I asked, the younger ones aren't familiar with the term at all. So it seems that shpil in Hebrew is on its way out.

That said, I would love for there to be an Israeli version of The Gist (HaIkar העיקר? BeEtzem בעצם?), and maybe that would return shpil to its rightful place in our language.

Due to comments from my readers about the fact that spiel is pronounced shpiel in German as well, I've written the following post.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

kahal and kehila

What is the difference between the similar words kahal קהל and kehila קהילה? Both can be defined as "assembly", "congregation" or "community" - but do they have different connotations?

Well, one difference is the frequency they are found in the Tanach. Kehila only appears twice (Devarim 33:4, Nechemia 5:7), whereas kahal appears 122 times. Both derive from the root קהל meaning "to assemble, gather", a verb that also appears frequently in biblical Hebrew. That root in turn derives from the word kol קול - "voice", and according to Klein originally meant "to call together" or "call to to an assembly". (The English word call does not appear to be related.) The two roots are occasionally interchangeable. In Yirmiyahu 51:55, we find the phrase kol gadol קול גדול meaning "large assembly", and there are those that explain the word kehila in Nechemiah as meaning "voice".

A similar case of a connection between "noise" and "group" is found in the word hamon המון. It originally meant "crowd" (and later took on the meaning "abundance"), and derives from the root המה, meaning "growl, roar".

One might think that the word makhela מקהלה  - "choir" is connected to kol, voice, but in its singular appearance in the Tanach (Tehilim 68:27) it also meant originally "assembly".

Let's go back to kahal and kehila. Rosenthal here (discussing the modern usage) says that kehila is a group of people with a common interest or goal ("community"), whereas kahal is only a group of people assembled together, and in modern Hebrew is usually limited to the sense of "audience", or the public in general, such as in the phrase daat hakahal דעת הקהל - "public opinion".

A much newer word is kehiliya קהיליה. Introduced by Ben Yehuda, who intended for it to be the Hebrew word for "republic", it has become a synonym for kehila. It is most commonly used when discussing a community of nations - so a good translation would be commonwealth or federation.