Friday, May 21, 2010


The word tichon תיכון is of biblical origin, but the precise biblical usage isn't found much today. It means "middle", from toch תוך (midst, interior), in the same way that chitzon חיצון - "external" derives from chutz חוץ (outside). In the Bible, it is mostly used in describing construction, as in Shemot 26:28  -  וְהַבְּרִיחַ הַתִּיכֹן בְּתוֹךְ הַקְּרָשִׁים  - "the middle bar in the midst of the boards".

However, today the word is found mostly in three Modern Hebrew phrases. Let's take a look at them:

a) Yam Ha-Tichon ים התיכון. This phrase refers to the Mediterranean Sea. It's a little frustrating that this is what the sea is called in Modern Hebrew, because Biblical Hebrew has no shortage of names for it: Yam HaGadol ים הגדול - "the great sea" (Bamidbar 34:6, etc.), Yam Pelishtim ים פלשתים - "sea of the Philistines" (Shemot 23:31), and Yam HaAcharon ים האחרון - "the Western sea (literally "rear" sea, as they oriented themselves to the east.)" (Devarim 11:24, etc.)

So where does Yam HaTichon - the "middle sea" come from? Not actually from "Mediterranean", which literally means "midland". Rather it is a translation of the German Mittelmeer, which means "middle sea".

b) Mizrach Ha-Tichon מזרח התיכון. This is a direct translation of the English "Middle East", which we all know refers to the countries of southwest Asia and northeast Africa. Except that it's not entirely true. As Joel Achenbach writes in his book Why Things Are:

Q: Why do we always hear about the Far East and the Middle East but never the Near East?

A: The Near East is the Middle East; there isn't a Near East anymore. We start in the Middle, then go to the Far.

For centuries the term Near East referred, sensibly enough, to everything from Morocco to the Persian Gulf. The Middle East extended from there to Southeast Asia. The Far East included the nations along the Pacific. When World War II broke out, Britain transferred its Middle East military command from India to Egypt, to be closer to the action. The new station kept the old name. Gradually almost everyone picked up the new British nomenclature.

This of course includes Hebrew, where mizrach hatichon is the name almost exclusively given to the region.

c) Beit Sefer Tichon בית ספר תיכון. This is the most confusing of the three - I'm still not sure I've tracked down the etymology fully. Today it certainly refers to "high school", but as you might have guessed, the literal translation means "middle school." At first glance, one might assume (and I've seen a number of websites who claim) that high school is placed in the middle of elementary school and university. However, the senior Hebrew linguist Yechezkel Kutscher wrote:

The German “Mittelschule” – “high school” was first translated literally bet sefer benayim and today bet sefer tikhon.

This translation is rather old - Ben Yehuda mentions it in his dictionary, and when searching historic Hebrew newspapers, I found mention of "beit sefer tichon" as far back as 1895, but no mention of Kutscher's earlier phrase - בית ספר ביניים beit sefer benayim.

What did mittelschule originally refer to?  Apparently, it was an "intermediate school" for the "middle ranks" or "middle class", as described here:

Parallel to the Volksschule was the Mittelschule, intended for the middle classes.

Or also here:

The tripartite secondary school system, with the Gymnasium or Oberschule for the children of the educated class, the Mittelschule for the middle ranks, and Hauptschule (main school) for the ordinary workers

I'm not familiar enough with either the German educational system or the early Zionist / Israeli educational system to fully described the influence of the former on the latter, but clearly it existed. For example, two of Israel's oldest high schools - the Herzliya Hebrew Gymnasium and the Hebrew Reali School, took their names from the German Gymnasium and Realschule respectively. In addition, as the Safa Ivrit website points out, the unusual nicknames for the high school classes: the 12th graders are called shministim שמיניסטים - "eighters", 11th graders are in shviit שביעית - "seventh", etc., is based on the German system, where secondary education would begin in fifth grade for eight years. This was the case in Israel as well until 1968, when the junior high schools - chativat beinayim חטיבת ביניים - were established, leaving high schools with only three or four years.

Monday, May 17, 2010

parashat hashavua categories

For anyone who is looking for a linguistic connection to Parashat Hashavua, I've indexed and labeled all the posts by parasha. Look for the parshiot in the sidebar!

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

tuval kayin and volcano

The volcano is in the news again, and its cloud may even be getting close to Israel. But are we close to an etymological connection between the word "volcano" and a Hebrew root?

Let's start by looking at the word "volcano". It gets its name from the Roman god Vulcan(us):

1610s, from It. vulcano "burning mountain," from L. Vulcanus "Vulcan," Roman god of fire, also "fire, flames, volcano" (see Vulcan). The name was first applied to Mt. Etna by the Romans, who believed it was the forge of Vulcan.
There is an interesting etymology that tries to connect "Vulcan" with the Biblical Tuval Kayin from Bereishit 4:22

וְצִלָּה גַם-הִוא יָלְדָה אֶת-תּוּבַל קַיִן לֹטֵשׁ כָּל-חֹרֵשׁ נְחֹשֶׁת וּבַרְזֶל וַאֲחוֹת תּוּבַל-קַיִן נַעֲמָה.

And Tzila, she bore Tuval-kayin, who forged all implements of copper and iron. And the sister of Tuval-Kayin was Na'ama.
Both based on the similarity of sound between (tu)val-kain and vulcan, and the fact that Tuval-Kayin was a smith (we've discussed the connection between Kayin and craftsmen and smiths here) there is an assumed connection between the two.

This is a very old theory, with perhaps Walter Raleigh being the first person to make the connection between the two figures. He wrote of Tuval Kayin:

whence came the name of Vulcan by aphaeresis of the two first letters

Many others promoted and developed this theory, and thousands of mentions can be found on the internet and in other sources. For example this 1825 book provides a number of "proofs":

M. De Lavaur, in his Conférence de la Fable avec l'Histoire Sainte, supposes that the Greeks and Romans, took their smith-god Vulcan, from Tubal-cain, the son of Lamech. The probability of this will appear —

1. From the name, which, by the omission of the Tu and turning the b into v, a change frequently made among the Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, makes Vulcain or Vulcan.

2. From his occupation, he was an artificer, a master smith in brass and iron.

3. He thinks this farther probable from the names and sounds in this verse. The melting metals in the fire, and hammering them, bears a near resemblance to the hissing sound of צלה tsillah, the mother of Tubal-cain; and צלל tsalal, signifies to tinkle or make a sound like a bell, 1 Sam. iii. II, 2 Kings xxi. 12.

4. Vulcan is said to have been lame: M. De Lavaur thinks that this notion was taken from the noun צלע tsela, which signifies a halting or lameness.

5. Vulcan had to wife Venus the goddess of beauty: Naamah, the sister of Tubal-cain, he thinks, may have given rise to this part of the fable, as her name, in Hebrew signifies beautiful or gracious.

6. Vulcan is reported to have been jealous of his wife, and to have forged nets in which he took Mars and her, and exposed them to the view of the whole celestial court; this idea he thinks was derived from the literal import of the name Tubal-cain; תבל tebel, signifies an incestuous mixture of relatives, Lev. xx. 12. and קנא kana, to burn with jealousy ; from these and concomitant circumstances, the case of the detected adultery of Mars and Venus might be easily deduced.

He is of opinion that a tradition of this kind might have readily found its way from the Egyptians to the Greeks, as the former had frequent intercourse with the Hebrews.
Even Shadal makes a connection, and I've heard (but not found) that Cassuto may have as well.

So with this long and impressive list - am I convinced? Not really.

Why not? First of all, Klein in his entry for  וולקני (the Modern Hebrew word for "volcanic" - even though the word for volcano, הר געש, har ga'ash, has an adjective, געשי, ga'ashi, for some reason the adjective vulkani is much more common) does not mention the theory, only saying that the name Vulcan probably has an Etruscan origin. And Avineri (Yad Halashon p. 343) also says he's very reluctant to accept the theory.

But mostly, although the theory seems attractive externally, it doesn't seem to make much sense historically. We've discussed many times how the Greeks borrowed words from their Semitic neighbors to to the East - including even one of their gods, Adonis. But the Romans had far fewer exchanges of this kind, and the names of their gods, who they adopted primarily from the Etruscans would be even more ancient. (There's much similarity between Greek and Roman mythology, but the Etruscan/Roman names predate the connection between the two.)

A discussion of more reasonable etymologies appear in this book:

Vulcan is the god of fire. The etymology of the name is difficult to determine. G. Dumezil (Fetes romaines d'ete et d'automme [Paris 1925], pp. 72-76) reviews all the principal attempts to elucidate it and shows how precarious they are. They include a comparison with the the Cretan welchanos; an explanation by way of the Ossetic noun (Kurd-alae)-waergon; and an Etruscan hypothesis based on the abbreviation Vel from the Piacenza liver, which is arbitrarily completed to yield Vel(chans), whereas the Etruscan homologue of Hephaestus is Sethlans. Dumezil prefers a derivation from the Vedic varcas ("brightness," or "flash," one of the properties of Agni, the god of fire), but as a good comparativist, he hastens to point out the difficulty: "no verbal or nominal derivative of this version of the root exists in Latin" (ibid, p. 74.).
While there may not be a Semitic origin to "volcano" or "Vulcan", the word does appear in Israel today - the Vulcan factory got its name from the Roman god of fire, and from the factory we get the nearby Tzomet Vulcan intersection. (The Volcani Institute of Agricultural Research is not related - it was named for its founder, Yitzhak Elazari Volcani, who Hebraized his name from Vilkanski.) Let's hope that this is the only volcanic impact in our area...