Wednesday, August 29, 2007


In the past few months, I've become more aware of the distinction between the vowels shva na (voiced) and shva nach (unvoiced). (For a good introduction to the concept, read the beginning of this post and this Philologos article.) While there are some words where the proper pronunciation affects the meaning (for example, the word וְיִירְאוּ in Tehilim 67:8), I think in general it is a good idea to improve my reading, particularly in prayer. I have also recently become aware that there are disagreements among the scholars as to the whether a particular shva is na or nach - some of which come in rather important sections of prayer. For example, in the Kriyat Shma, Devarim 6:7, there are those who say that the first bet in וּבְשָׁכְבְּךָ has a shva na, others say a shva nach. How do we properly recite this word in the regular prayers? This is an issue I'm still researching; maybe I'll have a post about it in the future.

But while I've only recently become curious about the Hebrew shva, I've been aware of the English cousin "schwa" for many years, ever since I noticed the interesting rotated "e" back in elementary school:

However, until I started this blog, I had never thought about how strange it was that this English word would have been borrowed from Hebrew. How did this happen?

From the Oxford English Dictionary, we see that the word "schwa" entered English in 1895, borrowed from German. But English had other forms of the word for the Hebrew vowel, such as:

  • Like to a silent Hebrew Scheua (1589)
  • the Sheva of the Hebrews (1818)
  • When no vowel is expressed, then as in the Hebrew, a Sheva..will be implied and read accordingly (1837)
There are similar older quotes in French and German.

But the question remains - why would European linguists borrow a Hebrew word? The word shva only shows up in Medieval Hebrew, so it didn't have any of the Biblical sentiment that the Christian scholars might have attached to it. My guess? It was a matter of necessity. Until more recent linguistics, European languages could suffice with the Latin letters for all of their vowels. But when they "found" a vowel that couldn't be represented by any of the existing letters - it was convenient to use a foreign word. And here the Hebrew shva was a perfect fit. I'm still curious to see exactly what Hebrew texts were read by Christian scholars when they discovered the word, but that may be lost to history...

What about the etymology of the Hebrew word shva? The most well-known etymology (as suggested by the OED) is that it comes from the Hebrew שוא shav - "nothing, vanity" (also "lie, falsehood".) However, Klein provides a different source:

borrowed from Syr. שויא (= the seven points), lit.: ‘even’ or ‘equal’ (points) ... related to Hebrew שוה (was even, smooth, or like)
But Ben-Yehuda, while providing the same theory as Klein, does also mention the "nothingness" theory in the name of earlier Hebrew scholars. And I admit, it's what my first guess was...

(Thanks to my new friends at the Discussion Forums, for helping me find some of the sources.)

Saturday, August 25, 2007


Well, as you can see, my vacation - at least from blogging - took a little longer than I originally expected. But I did have a nice time, got to travel a bit, picked up some new books, and even made my computer a little easier to work with.

One new site that I have started to follow and highly recommend is Ethan Dor-Shav's The Hebrew-Wisdom Dictionary. Some deep thoughts and original insights - I hope to have some posts relating to his work in the future.

I did hope that my latest quiz would tide you over during my break. But I haven't even got one guess! So now that I'm back, you can give it a shot.

One book that I did finish reading during my vacation was the last installment of the Harry Potter series. Not much Hebrew in there, but we do find the killing spell "Avada Kedavra". J.K. Rowling herself believes that it comes from Aramaic:

Does anyone know where avada kedavra came from? It is an ancient spell in Aramaic, and it is the original of abracadabra, which means "let the thing be destroyed". Originally, it was used to cure illness and the "thing" was the illness, but I decided to make it the "thing" as in the person standing in front of me. I take a lot of liberties with things like that. I twist them round and make them mine.
While it is difficult to disagree with a talented and successful writer like Rowling, I don't quite buy it. First of all, she doesn't provide a source here. Secondly, it falls into a long list of theories that connect the word abracadabra with Hebrew or Aramaic:

  • אברא כדברא - avra k'davra - "I will create as I speak" (which is actually the opposite of Rowling's intent)
  • עברה כדברא - avra k'davra - "It will pass as I speak"
  • אברכה אדברה avarcha adabra - "I will bless, I will speak"
  • הברכה ודברה - habracha v'davra - "the blessing (perhaps a euphemism for a curse) and dever -disease"
  • אב, בן, רוח הקודש - av, ben, ruach hakodesh - "father, son, holy spirit"
Despite the temptation to connect the term to Hebrew or Aramaic, I'm inclined to follow Klein, who writes:

Late Latin, from Greek abracadabra, in which word the letter c (= s) was misread for k. It was originally written as a magical formula on abraxas stones, whence its name.
But don't give up Harry Potter fans! I've found two interesting coincidences to keep you going.

First of all, the Encyclopedia Judaica writes about "abracadabra" that:

It first appears in the writings of Severus Sammonicus, a gnostic physician of the 2nd century C.E.

(highlighting mine*)
And in Klein's Hebrew dictionary, the entry immediately before אברקדברא abracadabra is אברק avrek, which means nothing less than Sirius (the star)!

*Yes, I know that the name was probably Serenus, but we are dealing with fiction here, so I'm sticking with the more interesting option...