Tuesday, June 05, 2007


Last month, Treppenwitz, one of my daily reads and a fellow resident of Efrat, wrote a very funny post about how his wife Zahava thought that the word akbar in the Arabic phrase "Allahu Akbar" ("God is Great") meant "mouse" (like the Hebrew achbar עכבר). The Arab worker in the supermarket corrected her and said:

"No... 'Achbar' [with the 'ch sound scraped deep in the back of his throat] meant mouse. Akbar [with the 'k' sound coming percussively from the roof of his mouth] , was... something completely different."
I had enjoyed the story, but hadn't given much thought to the linguistic side of it, until last Friday. In our local library, I found a very important entry in the Encyclopedia Mikrait (Biblical Encyclopedia) called Milim Zarot (Foreign Words in the Bible) by the important Israeli linguist Chaim Rabin. The article mentions dozens of words that may have entered the Bible from neighboring languages, and as you can expect, it has provided me with many ideas for future posts.

While I was familiar with words of Akkadian, Egyptian and even Greek origins, I didn't realize that there were Biblical words that derived from Arabic (actually proto-Arabic or Ancient North Arabian). One of the Hebrew words that Rabin suggests comes from Arabic is none other than עכבר achbar, mouse! He writes that it probably meant "great / big one", in a euphemistic way. It would then very much be related to the Arabic akbar, which is אכבר in Hebrew, from the root כבר - "great". He writes that in certain Arabic dialects in the region it was common to switch between alef and ayin.

From the root כבר we get a number of other words, including the adjective kabir כביר - "great" and perhaps the Greek gods - the Cabeiri.

Two other homonyms to כבר may be related as well. The verb כבר means "to sift", and a kvara כברה is a sieve. Klein suggests a connection:

According to some scholars כבר ( "to be great") is identical with כבר ( "to sift"), the sense development of this base having been "to interturn, twist, make strong". They compare the bases גדל ( "to be great") and גדל ( "to twist, to plait") which seem to have undergone a similar sense development.

Another word with the same letters is kvar כבר - "already". In the Bible it appears only in Kohelet, and in the Gordis book on Kohelet, he writes the following:

It is frequent in Mishnaic Hebrew, but rare in Targumic Aramaic. It occurs also in Syriac, where it usually means "perhaps", though it occurs as "already" in Mat. 11:21; Heb 10:2 and in Mandaic כבאר. Its root is common in all Semitic languages in the meaning "be great", hence כבר = lit. "length of time:, while כברה is "length of land" (Genesis 35:16, 48:7, II Ki. 5:19)
In regards to kivra כברה, Ben-Yehuda does mention the approach that it is related to kabir, but primarily goes along with most other scholars that I read who claim that the kaf in kivra is not radical, and the root of the word should be seen as ברה or ברת.

No comments: