Wednesday, February 04, 2015


In my previous post, I mentioned how the word for gate - בבא bava - derives from the root נבב meaning "hole" or "hollow". Another word from the same root is abuv אבוב. Ben Yehuda points out that this is the Ashkenazi pronunciation, the Sephardic version is avuv. He says that the manuscripts of the Mishna support "avuv", but the Aruch HaShalem says it should be abuv to make up for the dropped nun from the root. The word appears in the Mishna (Arachin 2:3) and meant a "flute, pipe, reed". The Arabic form is inbub (we can see the original root here), and the cognates in Aramaic and Akkadian are abuva אבובא and imbubu, respectively.

Abuva is how Onkelos translates the Biblical word for flute עוגב ugav (Bereshit 4:21), and Luncz writes here that with the growing influence of Aramaic in the Second Temple period, abuv came to replace ugav as the term used in Hebrew.

Luncz also points out that Bartenura in his commentary on that mishna translates the word chalil as "צלמילי'ש", which in Italian is cennamelle (Bartenura says that the chalil is the musical instrument, and the abuv is the thin reed at the head of the chalil). The singular form, cennamella, in English is known as "shawm", and was the older precursor to the oboe. Luncz goes on to argue, based on a number of sources, that the chalil of the mishna should be viewed as a type of oboe, not a type of flute (flutes do not have reeds, whereas oboes, and other similar woodwind instruments do).

In Modern Hebrew abuv has come to mean "oboe". It is not clear to me what influence Luncz had on that usage. In any case, it's likely that the similarity in sound between abuv and oboe also played a role. Ghil'ad Zuckermann, in this article, describes the phenomenon as "phono-semantic matching", which he defines as

multi-sourced neologism that preserves both the meaning and the approximate sound of the parallel expression in the source-language, using pre-existent target-language words or roots

In addition to abuv/oboe, he finds similar cases with the Hebrew words semel and yovel. Throughout the article, Zuckermann tries to show that many words whose meanings changed in Modern Hebrew were changed for ideological reasons - to secularize previously religious concepts. I'm not fully convinced - and I think we can see from this case that there often are reasons justified in the Jewish tradition for these newer usages. (I'll probably be discussing some of his examples in future posts). But what these examples do show is that we don't need to rush to judgement and assume that two similar sounding words have a common origin - it's just as likely that one influenced the other.

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