Sunday, June 03, 2007


Before we get started with today's post, I'm including a built in kri-and-ktiv game - the answer will come at the end. (But I'm still waiting for a solution to the last game - and remember, the winner gets his (or her) name and link on the Balashon sidebar!)

So here goes:

1) From Miriam's sister-in-law
2) A Piano

Now today's word - psanter פסנתר - follows the two previous posts - sudar and kalmar, for it too started as a Greek word that looked like a Hebrew plural and therefore eventually took on a "singular" form in Hebrew. Klein's entry:

New Hebrew: piano. Back formation from BAram פסנתרין or פסנטרין ( = a musical instrument), which was misconceived as a plural. BAram פסנטרין is borrowed from Greek psalterion ( = stringed instrument, harp) from psallein ( = to pluck, twitch the harp), which is cognate with Latin palpare ( = to touch softly, stroke), palpitare ( = to move quickly), palebra (= eyelid)
What's different about psanter(in) is that unlike the other two words, this one comes from a biblical source - the Book of Daniel. For example, in Daniel 3:5 we find:

בְּעִדָּנָא דִּי תִשְׁמְעוּן קָל קַרְנָא מַשְׁרוֹקִיתָא קַתְרוֹס [כתיב: קיתרוס] סַבְּכָא פְּסַנְתֵּרִין סוּמְפֹּנְיָה וְכֹל זְנֵי זְמָרָא

The JPS translates it as follows:

"When you hear the sound of the horn, pipe, zither, lyre, psaltery, bagpipe, and all other types of instruments..."

They translate psanterin as "psaltery" - and as we saw above, they have the same Greek root. So too does the word "psalm":

O.E. salm, from L. psalmus, from Gk. psalmos "song sung to a harp," originally "performance on stringed instrument," from psallein "play on a stringed instrument, pull, twitch." Used in Septuagint for Heb. mizmor "song," especially the sort sung by David to the harp.

While we've been identifying the psanterin with the harp, this site says it might be actually closer to our piano:

Though the Greek psalterion was a harplike instrument, Sendry [Alfred Sendry, Music in Ancient Israel, p. 297] suggests that Daniel's pesantern was more akin to a dulcimer. He further suggests that it had been one of a number of musical instruments originally imported from the east, improved by the Greeks, and re-exported to the east.
And what is a "dulcimer"? From

A narrow, often hourglass-shaped stringed instrument having three or four strings and a fretted fingerboard, typically held flat across the knees while sitting and played by plucking or strumming.

Stringed musical instrument in which the strings are beaten with small hammers rather than plucked.

stringed musical instrument. It is a wooden box with strings stretched over it that are struck with small mallets.
I don't know much about musical instruments, but that seems more "piano-like" than the traditional harp.

Some of the other words mentioned in that verse in Daniel are familiar to us as well. Katros (zither) derives from the Greek kithara, which also gave us the words "guitar" and "zither" (and if we go back earlier, the Greeks got it from the Persians, from where we get the instrument "sitar".) And sumponia (bagpipe) is clearly related to the English word "symphony" - a number of instruments played together (which some say is a better translation than "bagpipe".)

And now back to the quiz we started with. If you haven't figured it out yet, the word is מכושית. Makoshit was Ben-Yehuda's suggestion for a Hebrew word for "piano". A makosh מכוש is a hammer, and was meant to be the key of a piano as well. I suppose that this word was good for Ben Yehuda for two reasons - a) it was of Hebrew origin, not Greek, and b) it better captured the hammering motion of the piano than the plucking of a harp.

But sadly for him, it was not to be, and psanter superseded makoshit as the Hebrew word for piano (I haven't found any source that explains exactly when and how, and if psanter was in use during his life). Today, even the Hebrew Language Academy recognizes psanter for piano.

However, according to here, the word makoshit is still used to describe something musical:

The small metal rod that is used to strike a triangle to produce a musical note is called a BADIT (bet-dalet-yud-tav) MAKOSH (mem-kuf-vav-shin) , by the way, is the little hammer for striking the keys of a xylophone, MAKOSHIT in Hebrew, or MACHOSHIT.
And I can't mention "xylophone" without quoting one of my favorite comedians, the late Mitch Hedberg:

'Xylophone' is spelled with an X. It should be a Z. Xylophone, zzzz. I don't see it. Next time you spell 'xylophone', spell it with a Z. If someone tells you that's wrong, say 'No it ain't.' If you think that that's wrong, then you need to get your head Z-rayed. It's like X didn't have enough to do, so they had to promise it more. 'Okay, you won't start a lot of words, but you will have a co-starring role in Tic-Tac-Toe. And you will be equated with hugs and kisses. And you will mark the spot. And you will make writing "Christmas" easier. And you will incidentally start "xylophone." Are you happy now, you stupid X?'

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