Wednesday, February 10, 2016

atar and asher

It's hard to believe, but today is ten years since my first post on Balashon. According to my official statistics (since May 2010, so I know there are many more since the start in 2006), I've had over 2.5 million visits, with the most popular post being "avuka and ptil" (no idea why). And while it's not so surprising that the top country of visitors to Balashon is the United States, I was not expecting to see China at number two, over Israel.  Some of my posts have been rather short, and others have been quite long and detailed. There have been periods when I've written very frequently, and some long breaks without posting.

Even when I'm not writing as much as I'd like, I still love having Balashon to come back to. From your emails, and my research, I have a very long list of topics to write about, so I don't see any reason I can't continue this for years to come. I hope that you continue to enjoy visiting here as well.

Since it's ten years since I started this site, I thought a good word to write about would be atar אתר - "site". The word entered into post-biblical Hebrew from Aramaic, and meant "place" - a synonym with the biblical word makom מקום. But as we've seen many times before, instead of two words remaining synonyms, one ended up filling a linguistic vacuum. So instead of the more general "place", in Modern Hebrew atar was used for "site" - as in atar b'niya - אתר בנייה - "construction site", atar tayarut אתר תיירות - "tourist site" - or when it's used with no other word, today atar generally refers to a website. (Yaakov Etzion points out that this transition seems to have take place between 1948 and 1958, as the meaning "site" only appears in the latter year's Even-Shoshan dictionary.)

The root אתר is also used as a verb, and so the gerund itur איתור can either mean "localization", or more commonly, "locating". And if we go back to the Aramaic source, we find more Hebrew words that derive from atar. The phrase al atar על אתר - "on the spot" (literally "on the place") was eventually contracted (losing the guttural ayin as well) to "אלתר" as found in the form le'altar לאלתר - "at once". This was adopted into Modern Hebrew as "to improvise", and so iltur אילתור means "improvisation".

Another Aramaic contraction containing atar that is used today is the prefix batar בתר - "after, post", which originally was the term ba'atar באתר - literally "in the place of, that which came after something". We see it used in such phrases as batar-mikrai בתר-מקראי - "post-biblical".

If we go further back, we find that the Aramaic root אתר is cognate with the Hebrew אשר. That root is found in many words, and it's not entirely clear which are connected to atar. Let's take a look.

Klein provides three different, and perhaps distinct, entries for אשר.

The first has the meaning "to walk straight, to walk", and this is the one he connects with atar. He finds a number of additional Semitic cognates, including the Arabic 'ithr and Akkadian ashru, both meaning "place". In Biblical Hebrew we find the verb in forms meaning "he walked" or "he led" (e,g, Mishlei 9:6, Yeshaya 9:15), but they are rarely used in Hebrew today. Klein does, however, connect one extremely common word to this root: asher אשר - "which, that". He writes that "according to most scholars these words were originally nouns meaning 'trace, place'". He doesn't elaborate, but I assume this means that the word meant "of that place". From here we also get the word ka'asher כאשר - "when".

His second entry means "to be happy", and this is found in the words meushar מאושר - "happy" and osher אושר - "happiness". For the etymology he writes:

Perhaps related to Ugaritic ushr (= happiness), Arabic yasara (= was easy), yassara ( =made easy, prospered)

What's strange to me is that in his entry for yashar ישר - "straight", he says it is cognate with the Arabic yasara (= it was or became easy) as well. So if yasara is related to אשר meaning "happy" as well as yashar meaning "straight" - shouldn't the first meaning of אשר as "to walk straight" be connected with the second meaning "happy"? But perhaps that's just speculation on my part.

Klein's third entry doesn't seem to be connected at all to the first two. He defines it as "to strengthen, confirm" and writes that it is cognate with the root שרר, "was strong" which is the root of the word sherir שריר - "muscle".  This root gives us ishur אישור - "approval", ishrur אישרור - "ratification" and probably ashrai אשראי - "credit".

So to sum up - thank you for giving me your approval and credit all these years - I was very happy when working on the site (even if sometimes I had to improvise). I've benefited from your involvement, and I hope you've learned something as well. Ashreinu!

No comments: