Friday, August 01, 2008

ach and achot

Continuing in this series, let's look at the Hebrew words for brother and sister - ach אח and achot אחות. (The generic word for "sibling" is achai אחאי). Ach is certainly related to the verb אחה - meaning "to join, to stitch". Despite the fact that the verb only appears in post-Biblical Hebrew, Klein writes that there is debate amongst scholars whether the verb derived from the noun, or the noun derived from the verb. Steinberg expands the root meaning "to join" to other words - ach אח - "fireplace", where people gather around, and achu אחו "reeds" (later "meadow"), which were used to make ropes for binding. However, modern scholarship has determined that both of these words were borrowed from Egyptian.

In addition to "brother", ach can also mean "kinsman" or "friend", and in Medieval Hebrew - "friar". In addition to "kinswoman", achot can also mean "sweetheart, companion, mate". Parallel to ach meaning friar - achot took on the meaning "nun" in the Middle Ages. In Modern Hebrew it also means "nurse". Ben-Yehuda doesn't mention that in his dictionary; but this 1956 article mentions that:

Under the influence of the German and British use of the word "sister" for "nurse," the Hebrew is now using the word achot (sister) also to mean "nurse."
(Interestingly, the Wikipedia entry for nurse writes that "the professional courtesy title 'sister' has fallen into disuse and disapproval, even though it was formerly used by both male and female registered general nurses.")

Achot is an unusual word. Despite it being a singular noun, it ends in -ot, which is usually the plural suffix of feminine nouns. We found a similar phenomenon in another kinship term: chamot חמות - "mother-in-law". How did this develop?

According to this book, the words ach and cham חם, as well as av אב, originally had three letters, not two. The last letter was a vav (in some forms changed to a yud), and can still be seen in the smichut (construct) form - avi- אבי, achi- אחי, chami- חמי (e.g. avicha אביך - "your father", and not אבך, achiv אחיו - "his brother", not אחו) as well as the familiar Abu prefix meaning father in Arabic. According to the author, the original form of ach was אחו (similar to the Akkadian ahu), which became achot אחות in the feminine. The last letter in the masculine form dropped off, but we still have the strange ending in the feminine.

Ben Yehuda explains it slightly differently - he says the original form of achot was achat אחאת, which is אחא with the tav added on as the feminine suffix (I assume he's connecting the word to the Aramaic אחא - acha "brother"). He writes that already in ancient times the patach ("a") changed to a cholam ("o").

Whether or not the original ach had three letters, there are a number of other words in Biblical Hebrew ending in -ot that are actually single, not plural. Here are some that I've found (some commentaries explain them otherwise):

  • מכות - Micha 1:9
  • חכמות - Mishlei 9:1
  • בהמות - Iyov 40:15
  • עדות - Tehilim 132:12
Each of these may have a different explanation, but it does show us that our initial assumption that -ot at the end of a word means plural is not always correct.

One common mistake by new Hebrew speakers (I remember making it myself) is to say achot when you mean "sisters". The correct term in Hebrew is achayot אחיות, but those who make the mistake are actually close to ancient Hebrew. David Talshir of Ben Gurion University wrote an article called "The Forms ‘ahot and ‘edot in Ancient Hebrew" where he discusses the plural of achot. The absolute form of the plural never appears in the Tanach. Achayot does appear in the Tanach, but only in the later books. In the earlier books (like Hoshea 2:3, and the ketiv of Yehoshua 2:13), the plural is אחות. He writes:

The two forms considered above, עֵדוֹת and אָחוֹת, are feminine nouns ending in –ot. This is also the common plural ending for feminine nouns. In Hebrew of the First Temple period, the form אֲחָוֹת / אַחֲוֹת was used as the plural of אָחוֹת.

This situation evolved further in the Second Temple period. Since consonantal waw tended to be elided between vowels, the plural form of אָחוֹת resembled the singular form (אֲחָוֹת/אַחֲוֹת > אֲחוֹת), and so dissimilation gave rise to an unambiguous alternative: *אֲחָווֹת > אֳחָיוֹת. The latter took the place of the ancient form in the later books of the Bible – the prose framework of Job and the book of Chronicles (besides an early precursor in Ezek 16:2), and then in RH.
He also explains how the vocalization of the word developed:

The plural of ‘ahot in Hebrew of the First Temple period was ‘ahawot. The written forms that the masoretes, following the pronunciation tradition of their time, vocalized, conceal forms that were sometimes pronounced differently at an earlier stage in the evolution of Hebrew. Thus, the ketiv אחותי in Josh 2:13, which stand for the plural ‘my sisters,’ should have been vocalized as אַחְוֹתַי; while ולאחותיכם in Hosh 2:3 should have been vocalized וּלְאַחְוֹתֵיכֶם.

So in ancient Hebrew, sister was achot, but sisters was achvot. To avoid the confusion, a newer pronunciation developed for sisters - achayot.

We see from this that linguistic confusion is nothing new. It is interesting though that there are those who fight strongly against changes to make language easier, when such changes were made even back in Biblical times...

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