Friday, June 25, 2010


We've discussed boats and planes - now lets see where they dock. The Hebrew word for "port" or "harbor" is namel נמל. There's no connection to nemala נמלה - "ant", and we know this due to the etymology. While nemala is a Biblical, Semitic word with cognates in Akkadian, namel has a more complicated history.

Klein provides the following etymology:

Formed through metathesis from Greek limen  (=harbor, haven), which is related to limne (=marsh, pool, lake), leimon (=a moist, grassy meadow), and probably cognate with Latin limus (= slime, mud, mire). See 'slime' in my CEDEL.

In his CEDEL (Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language) he has the following entry for "slime":

slime, n. -- ME. slim, fr. OE. slim, which is rel to ON. slim, Dan. slim, Du. slijm, MHG. slim, G. Schlein, 'slime', OHG. slimen, 'to make smooth', fr. I.-E. base *(s)lei-, 'slime, slimy, sticky, dauby, slippery', whence also Russ. slimak, 'snail' (lit. 'the slimy animal'), OSlav. slina, 'spittle', OIr. sligim, 'I smear', MIr. slemum, W. llyfn, 'smooth', Gk. leimax, 'snail' (whence L. limax, of s.m.), limne, 'marsh, pool, lake', L. limus (for *slimus), 'slime, mud, mire', lima, 'file', limare, 'to file, polish', linere, 'to daub, besmear, rub out, erase',  Gk. alinein (Heschylus), 'to anoint, besmear'. See lime, 'birdlime', and cp. loam. Cp. also delete, illinition, leio-, levigate, lientery, Limicolae, limnetic, limno-, Limonium, liniment, litotes, loam, obliterate, Prayala. Cp. also sleek, slick, slide, slight, slip, slowworm.
However, Meir Lubetski, in this fascinating article, proposes that both the Greek and Hebrew terms derive from an earlier Egyptian word for port - mni. He writes:

The Hellenistic period saw the Greeks arriving at the ports of Palestine and Syria and utilizing the word limen for the various port cities. They were not, however, introducing a brand new expression, but were rather employing an old Egypto-Semitic term which had made its way to them in the pre-Amarna era.

Since Rabbinic literature, composed during the Hellenistic period, borrowed many Greek words, it was easily assumed that it had also appropriated limen from the Greeks, but even if this was so, it was only using an Egypto-Semitic word adopted long before by the Greeks. 
(I've noticed this Semitic-Greek-Semitic pattern before, for example with the word semida.)

Lubetski provides a number of linguistic proofs for his theory, but also shows that there are "figurative connotations" found in the Egyptian mni and the Semitic למין - but are absent in the Greek limen. For example, in both Egyptian tradition and Jewish midrashim we find the metaphor of a port as "death, the harbor of eternal life." Also, associations between port and "custom house" and "rule" are found in Egyptian and Hebrew sources, but not Greek.

As we mentioned earlier, the Greek limen was transformed by metathesis to namel. This process however, occurred in Babylon, whereas in Eretz Yisrael - in the Yerushalmi Talmud and Midrashim - we find the form למין, which is much closer to the Greek. (The form נמל is found in the Mishna Eruvin 4:2, but many manuscripts have the more likely למן.)

Until now, I've been been transliterating נמל as "namel". But how do I know that it isn't "namal" - a pronunciation found frequently in Israel today? First of all, in addition to נמל, we also find the form נמיל (which would be a fuller metathesis of לימן). Ben Yehuda quotes the 10th century poet Shlomo HaBavli who rhymes נמל with גומל - gomel as evidence of the correct pronunciation. Avshalom Kor writes in Yofi Shel Ivrit (pgs. 95-98) that נמל should be considered like זקן: namel / zaken. Only in the construct state (semichut) do we find nemal - as in Nemal Haifa - the Haifa port.

So why is it so common to hear nemal (without semichut) or namal today? Kor writes that this is due to the influence of the famous poem by Leah Goldberg about the Tel Aviv port, where she rhymes נמל with גל gal - "wave" and מעל me'al - "above". However, there apparently is still some discussion about the proper pronunciation as mentioned in the Wikimilon page and on Safa-Ivrit.

So we've seen how namel has been a powerful image in mythology and poetry for centuries. However, when it comes to air traffic instead of sea voyages - not so much. While in conversational Hebrew we usually refer to an airport as sde teufa שדה תעופה, that actually refers to (literally) an "airfield", which is smaller than an "airport" - נמל תעופה nemal teufa. And so Israel's main airport is officially Nemal Teufa Ben Gurion - the Ben Gurion Airport. But that's a mouthful, so when printed, it's abbreviated to נתב"ג. The problem starts when that abbreviation is pronounced, and even worse spelled NATBAG (in English!) on signs. Clearly, no tourist would be able to guess that this acronym means "airport". But of course if it wasn't for NATBAG, we couldn't have the NATBAG problem, and with it all of the crazy signs here (and with it my wife's blog...)

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

matos and aviron

Previously we discussed two words for ships - sefina and oniya. However, unlike that pair, where both words have biblical origin, and in modern Hebrew they define different size boats, the pair we'll look at now - matos מטוס and aviron אוירון - are both modern and refer to the same item: an airplane.

Why are there two different words? Pretty simple - they were coined by two different people. Aviron was coined by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (some say his son Itamar Ben-Avi) in 1909, on the basis of the Talmudic word avir אויר - "air" (borrowed from the Greek aer.) Rosenthal suggests that the French word for airplane - avion - might have also influenced aviron.

Ben Yehuda also suggested the participle me'ofef מעופף, from the root עוף, "to fly", would refer to both the passengers (and pilot) as well as the action of the plane.

The poet Chaim Nachman Bialik preferred for mechanized flight the root טוס, also meaning "to fly", and from here came up with matos, as well as tayas טייס - "pilot", and tisa טיסה - "flight."

Today matos is almost exclusively used by Hebrew speakers for airplane, with the exception of young children, and some who use a more archaic Hebrew (such as those who haven't lived in the country for many years.) Nissan Netzer in Hebrew in Jeans (pg. 52) writes that matos might have overcome aviron due to it being a shorter word, with stronger consonants (a phenomenon he notes happens frequently when a foreign slang word becomes more popular than a native Hebrew one, like shok שוק (shock) instead of helem הלם or speed ספיד instead of mehirut מהירות.)

Thursday, June 03, 2010

oniya, sefina and sira

Sailing vessels have been in the news quite a bit recently. There are at least three different words used in Hebrew for ships and boats - oniya אניה, sefina ספינה, and sira סירה (as well as the general term klei shayit כלי שיט, literally "sailing vessels".) What are the differences between the words?

Let's look at oniya first. It means "ship", and appears 31 times in the Bible. The related word oni אני, meaning a fleet of oniyot, appears seven times. Klein says that oniya dervies from oni, and both come from a root אנה, which in a number of Semitic languages means "vessel". He points out that in other languages as well, such as English, the word vessel means both "container" and "ship".

Sefina, however, appears only once in the Tanach - Yona 1:5. Despite the explanation by many that sefina and oniya are synonymous, the fact that both words appear in that verse seems to belie that argument:

וַיִּירְאוּ הַמַּלָּחִים וַיִּזְעֲקוּ אִישׁ אֶל-אֱלֹהָיו וַיָּטִלוּ אֶת-הַכֵּלִים אֲשֶׁר בָּאֳנִיָּה אֶל-הַיָּם לְהָקֵל מֵעֲלֵיהֶם וְיוֹנָה יָרַד אֶל-יַרְכְּתֵי הַסְּפִינָה וַיִּשְׁכַּב וַיֵּרָדַם.

In their fright, the sailors cried out, each to his own god; and they flung the cargo of the oniya overboard to make it lighter for them. Yona, meanwhile, had gone down into the hold of the sefina where he lay down and fell asleep.

This site explains the difference between the terms in the verse:

The noun סְפִינָה (sÿfinah) refers to a “ship” with a deck (HALOT 764 s.v. סְפִינָה). The term is a hapax legomenon in Hebrew and is probably an Aramaic loanword. The term is used frequently in the related Semitic languages to refer to ships with multiple decks. Here the term probably functions as a synecdoche of whole for the part, referring to the “lower deck” rather than to the ship as a whole (R. S. Hess, NIDOTTE  3:282). An outdated approach related the noun to the verb סָפַן (safan, “to cover”) and suggested that סְפִינָה  describes a ship covered with sheathing (BDB 706 s.v. סְפִינָה).

The "outdated" approach is the one suggested by Klein, who writes that it "probably derives from ספן (= to cover, panel) and literally mean "covered, overlaid, with deck".)

Sira also appears only once - in Amos 4:2. There are those that explain it to mean there as "small fishing boats", but most say this is a misreading of the verse (see Daat Mikra), and it should be instead understood as "hook" or "thorn". Ben Yehuda does not even include the meaning of boat in his dictionary, but proper understanding of the verse or not - this is the only meaning still used in Modern Hebrew.

In Mishnaic Hebrew, we find almost exclusive use of the word sefina for ship. Based on this, Joseph Klausner wrote that Modern Hebrew should adopt sfina instead of oniya, for it is the later (i.e. more recent) term. This was a constant battle for Klausner - which he generally lost, as Biblical Hebrew was usually preferred over Mishnaic. In this case, though, both words were used, with the distinction being that an oniya was larger than a sefina (similar to "ship" vs "boat"). Klausner seems particularly frustrated that oniya is used in Modern Hebrew, when sefina is a much "richer" word for creating related forms like סיפון sipun - "deck" (originally "ceiling" - see Melachim I 6:15), ספן sapan - "sailor", and מספנה mispana - "dock".

But as we pointed out earlier, oniya and sefina were clearly not synonymous (see also this article), so it makes sense that Modern Hebrew would distinguish their uses. And in fact, the meanings are even established by law:

oniya - a vessel, powered by a motor, whose maximal length is at least 24 meters

sefina - a vessel that is not an oniya, whose maximal length is between 7 and 24 meters

sira - a vessel that is not an oniya or sefina, with a length of up to 7 meters

So I don't know if this will make it easier to understand the events in the news, but at least we can all know the difference between the terms...