Thursday, November 08, 2018


In Bereshit 11, the Torah provides an etymology for the name of the city of בבל Bavel (Babylon in English, the capital of Babylonia). It is found at the conclusion of the famous "Tower of Babel" (Migdal Bavel) story. The people on earth all spoke the same language and began to build a city and a tower to prevent their being scattered. To prevent this scheme from succeeding, God causes them to speak different languages so they could not communicate with each other:

הָבָה נֵרְדָה וְנָבְלָה שָׁם שְׂפָתָם אֲשֶׁר לֹא יִשְׁמְעוּ אִישׁ שְׂפַת רֵעֵהוּ׃
"Let us, then, go down and confound their speech there, so that they shall not understand one another’s speech.”
וַיָּפֶץ ה' אֹתָם מִשָּׁם עַל־פְּנֵי כָל־הָאָרֶץ וַיַּחְדְּלוּ לִבְנֹת הָעִיר׃
Thus the LORD scattered them from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city.

עַל־כֵּן קָרָא שְׁמָהּ בָּבֶל כִּי־שָׁם בָּלַל ה' שְׂפַת כָּל־הָאָרֶץ וּמִשָּׁם הֱפִיצָם ה' עַל־פְּנֵי כָּל־הָאָרֶץ׃ 
That is why it was called Babel, because there the LORD confounded the speech of the whole earth; and from there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth.
(Bereshit 11:7-9, JPS translation)

It is generally accepted that this story, and particularly the etymology, is a polemic against Babylon. The Babylonians viewed their city, and their ziggurat temples (which the story of the Tower reflects) as the gateway to the gods, and that is reflected in their etymology for their city's name. As the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for Babel writes:

from Hebrew Babhel (Genesis xi), from Akkadian bab-ilu "Gate of God" (from bab "gate" + ilu "god"). The name is a translation of Sumerian Ka-dingir.

The Akkadian bab is cognate with the Aramaic bava בבא (which we discussed here) and the Arabic bab, both meaning gate or gateway.

However, despite the theory above that bab-ilu is a translation from the Sumerian, others believe that this is also a folk etymology. Sarna writes in Understanding Genesis (p. 69):

Babylon, Hebrew Babel, was pronounced Babilim by the Mesopotamians. The name is apparently non-Semitic in origin and may even be pre-Sumerian. But the Semitic inhabitants, by popular etymology, explained it as two separate Akkadian words, bab-ilim, meaning "the gate of the god." This interpretation refers to the role of the city as the great religious center. It also has mystical overtones connected with the concept of "the navel of the earth," the point at which heaven and earth meet. The Hebrew author, by his uncomplimentary word-play substituting balal for Babel has replaced the "gate of the god" by "a confusion of speech," and satirized thereby the pagan religious beliefs.

So we therefore have two folk-etymologies: one positive and one negative.

But there is one problem with the Biblical one. The root balal בלל, as we discussed here, means "to mix" - that is to mix different things together in one new mixture, as in the Biblical belil בליל or the Post-Biblical belila בלילה, meaning "mixture" or more specifically today, "batter." Yet, as Prof. Yonatan Grossman points out in his article, "The Double Etymology of Babel in Genesis 11" this is a difficult use of balal. After providing more examples of biblical words where balal means mixing distinct entities, he writes:

If this is the case, it is strange to find this verb used to characterize a city in the sense of »scatter«: rather than blended or mixed, the people of the city are geographically scattered in every direction, and culturally-linguistically separated by language. Here, the verb לבלול  [balal] seems to function in an antithetical sense to its usual meaning, a sense which is also antithetical to the objective of the story: at the beginning, its people were fully integrated together, but by its end, the uniform mixture has been scattered and separated.

He adds that this problem is

is evident in biblical dictionaries that use two separate entries for the definition of the verb בל"ל : one referring to the sense of mixture, which appears throughout the Bible, and the second, which refers only to the Tower of Babel narrative: »there is a divine call for the mixing (›confuse‹ and ›confused‹) of the languages.

So why then does the Torah provide an etymology that doesn't seem to fit the story?

According to Grossman, this requires additional knowledge of Babylonian history. He notes that "according to Enûma Eliš, Babylon was founded to serve as a gathering place for the gods" and that "Babylon and Esagila are presented as the place where all the gods assemble, reside, and receive offerings." And so the root balal serves as a second polemic:

While the Babylonians hold that their city and temple represent the place where the gods gather – where the 300 gods of the heavenly pantheon convene with the 600 gods of the underworld – the biblical narrator counters that Babylon was not a place of divine assembly but a place of human dispersion. The name is not based on a stirring motion that brings things together, but a frantic, chaotic stirring motion that drives them apart.

The essay goes into much more detail about these issues - I highly recommend reading the entire thing to fully understand the meaning behind this short but significant biblical story.

What was surprising to me was that until I read Grossman's theory, I had never heard anyone mention the problem with balal in this context before. I assume that is because the Hebrew root בלבל bilbel, which Klein says is related to balal, does mean to confuse. For example, in this Mishnaic passage:

וְכִי עַמּוֹנִים וּמוֹאָבִים בִּמְקוֹמָן הֵן. כְּבָר עָלָה סַנְחֵרִיב מֶלֶךְ אַשּׁוּר וּבִלְבֵּל אֶת כָּל הָאֻמּוֹת
"And are the Ammonites or Moavites still [dwelling] in their own place? Sancheriv, king of Assyria, already arose and confused [the lineage of] all the nations." (Yadayim 4:4)

This refers to the Assyrian king, Sancheriv, who after conquering a nation would resettle its inhabitants in other regions of his empire. And although Assyria was a Mesopotamian kingdom like Babylonia, his story is the opposite of the story of the Tower. In the Tower story, God took people speaking the same language and caused them to speak many different languages so they wouldn't be able to cooperate, Sancheriv took people of different linguistic backgrounds and mixed them together to assimilate under one unified identity.

Oh, and one last thing, since if I don't write about, I'm sure to be asked. Is there any connection between the English word "babble" and the Hebrew words that we've discussed so far?

The Online Etymology Dictionary says that babble does not have Semitic roots:

mid-13c., babeln "to prattle, utter words indistinctly, talk like a baby," akin to other Western European words for stammering and prattling (Swedish babbla, Old French babillier, etc.) attested from the same era (some of which probably were borrowed from others), all probably ultimately imitative of baby-talk (compare Latin babulus "babbler," Greek barbaros "non-Greek-speaking").

However, the same entry does go on to quote the OED as saying that "No direct connection with Babel can be traced; though association with that may have affected the senses." So origin, no - but influence, possibly.

Sunday, October 28, 2018

behemoth and behema

There is no question that the English word "behemoth", referring to a huge creature, comes from the Hebrew word behemot בהמות. But where does the word behemot come from?

It only appears once in the Bible, in Iyov 40:15

הִנֵּה־נָא בְהֵמוֹת אֲשֶׁר־עָשִׂיתִי עִמָּךְ חָצִיר כַּבָּקָר יֹאכֵל׃

Take now behemoth, whom I made as I did you; He eats grass, like the cattle.

This is the opening verse of a section describing this mighty beast (continuing until 40:24). At first glance, it might seem that behemot is the plural of behema בהמה - "animal, beast." And in fact, behemot as the plural of behema appears in 14 other biblical verses.

The problem is that in this case, in Iyov, the word refers to a single animal, very likely the hippopotamus, not a collective of animals. So what's happening here?

There are two theories.

One is that behemot does derive from behema, in what Klein calls "plural extensivus" . This is a phenomenon in many languages, including Hebrew, where to indicate an extension or increase in size or scope, a plural is used when referring to a singular object. We discussed a similar phenomenon here (referring to the names of God), and here explaining why Yom Kippurim is in the plural. According to Fox (here),  a good translation would be something like "super-beast."  This is also the position of Kaddari, who doubts that the behemot refers to a hippopotamus due to the mention of a large tail (like a cedar) in Iyov 40:17.

The other theory is that despite the obvious similarities between the words, behemot and behema are not cognate. This is mentioned in the Online Etymology Dictionary entry for behemoth:
late 14c., huge biblical beast (Job xl.15), from Latin behemoth, from Hebrew b'hemoth, usually taken as plural of intensity of b'hemah "beast." But the Hebrew word is perhaps a folk etymology of Egyptian pehemau, literally "water-ox," the name for the hippopotamus.

This is also the position of Steinberg in his "Milon HaTanach", BDB, and Tur-Sinai in Ben Yehuda's dictionary, who finds support in the commentaries of Ibn Ezra and Ralbag.

But Klein writes that "the assumed connection of Hebrew behemoth with Egyptian p-ehe-mau, 'ox of the water', was justly rejected by W. Max Muller."

And yet, Slifkin, in Sacred Monsters, writes that "it seems overwhelmingly likely that the account of the behemoth in the book of Job refers to the hippopotamus" (p. 185) and in response to those like Kaddari who have a problem with the mention of the tail, writes that "that it stiffens its tail, which is only likened to a cedar in terms of its stiffness, but not in its overall dimensions. The hippo's tail is less than a foot long, but it is broad and stiff" (p. 187).

So who's right? I know it's cliché, and I sound like the rabbi in that old joke, but I think they're likely both right on some level. Gesenius wrote that "it is probable that the form בְּהֵמוֹת [behemot] really conceals an Egyptian word, signifying the hippopotamus, but so inflected as to appear Phœnicio-Shemitic." In other words, when the speakers of Hebrew first encountered a huge animal called pehamau, and thought it sounded very similar to their existing word behema - they connected the two. This happens all the time when languages meet. (We saw a similar case in our discussion of hodu.) 

So while perhaps if we had a time machine we could find a more precise explanation of the development of the word, but until one is invented, I think both explanations are legitimate.

Sunday, October 21, 2018


A podcast I enjoy, The History of English Podcast, had an episode a while back called "The Lion Kings" where the host discussed the etymologies of animals that were exotic to medieval England. One of them was the elephant, which is discussed in minutes 31-36 of that episode.

The host presented a theory that I had always kind of assumed, but never saw written down anywhere. That theory says that the word ultimately derives from the Hebrew elef אלף - "ox" (which I discussed in my post on the letter alef) - or from some Semitic cognate. They are both big mammals, so I assumed that it would be easy for the word to transfer from one to another.

But again, I never saw it anywhere before listening to the podcast. The theories that I had always seen were closer to the one proposed by Klein, in both his Hebrew and English etymological dictionaries, which I'll share with you now.

First of all, it's generally agreed that the English word "elephant" derives from the Greek, as described here:

c. 1300, olyfaunt, from Old French olifant (12c., Modern French éléphant), from Latin elephantus, from Greek elephas (genitive elephantos) "elephant; ivory"

Klein breaks down elephas into two parts. Regarding the first part, "el" he writes that it:

appears also in Hamitic elu, 'elephant', whence probably Persian p-il, Arabic ph-il, Mishnaic Hebrew p-il of same meaning.

In his entry for the Hebrew pil פיל, he adds the Akkadian cognates piru and pilu, and says that elu became pilu due to the Egyptian article "p-" (which according to this article means "the".)

Klein writes that the second component, ephas, is an Egyptian loan word. He adds that it is related to the Middle Egyptian word yb, "elephant", from where the name Yebu (the original name of the Egyptian island Elephantine) derives. This name appears in the Hebrew word for ivory, shenhav שנהב, a Biblical word that appears only twice in the Bible (Melachim I 10:22 and Divrei Hayamim II 9:21), both times in the plural as shenhavim שנהבים. Shenhav, Klein writes, is:

compounded of shen שן (=tooth) and hav הב, also yev יב (=elephant)

He then adds that

From Egyptian ab, abu derives also Latin ebur (=ivory), probably through the medium of the Phoenicians. From Latin ebur, eboris comes the adjective eboreus (=of ivory) whence French ivurie, ivorie, whence English ivorie, ivory.

All this seems pretty convincing to me, but the part I don't get is that both components, the "el" and the "ephas", mean "elephant." Why would the word have two parts with the same meaning? I know there are no rules about how words must develop, and you can find that phenomenon in the English word "likely" (which literally means "like-like") and the Hebrew afilu אפילו -"even if" (which can actually be broken down to something like "if-if-if".) But still it feels strange to me.

Even stranger is a related etymology that Klein provides. He writes that the word "element" ultimately is cognate with "elephant". In his entry for "element" he writes:

Of the many etymologies suggested, the most probable is that which derives the word elementum from *elepantum, 'ivory letter', an ancient Latin loan word from Greek elephantos, elephas ('elephant;ivory'.) The change of *elepantum to elementum is probably due to Etruscan influence.

The "ivory letters" that Klein mentions, according to this book, refers to the letters of the alphabet inscribed in ivory. That's an etymological connection I didn't see coming!

Saturday, October 13, 2018

skeleton and sheled

I just read something interesting in Klein's entry for the Hebrew word sheled שלד:

PBH [Post-Biblical Hebrew] skeleton. 

Syriac שלדא (=skeleton), from Akkadian shalamtu (properly meaning 'the whole' corpse), from shalamu (=to be complete), which is related to Hebrew שלם (=was complete). Greek skeleton (=skeleton) is a Syriac loan word. The explanation of Greek skeleton as used elliptically for skeleton soma (=dried up body) as if skeleton were the neutral verbal adjective of skellein (=to dry up) is folk etymology.

In his CEDEL entry for "skeleton", Klein mentions another Akkadian cognate - shalamdu, and says his source is W. Muss-Arnolt in Transactions of the American Philological Association, Vol. XXIII, p. 148.

While the theory connecting skeleton to the Greek word meaning dried up is still popular, if Klein's theory is accurate, then it would be possible to connect "skeleton" with both sheled and the words deriving from the root שלם, like shalom שלום - "peace" and shalem שלם - "complete."

Horowitz (p. 261) explains how the transformation between those two Hebrew roots:
Strangely, this word [sheled] comes from the root שלם, whole, complete. The word in Assyrian is שלמתו [shalamtu], meaning "the whole body." In passing through Aramaic the מ [mem] dropped out and ת [tav] hardened to a ד [dalet].


As my previous post mentioned, I'm still occupied with the projects I've been working on, but I'm going to try to put up smaller posts like this one (which require less research). I hope you still find them interesting!

Sunday, June 03, 2018

Balashon is on hiatus

As you may have noticed, I haven't written any posts in Balashon in over a year. While I have not abandoned Balashon, I have put my activity on hold for now, as I am working on a different project.

I hope to finish the project in the next few months, and when it's completed I will let Balashon readers know about it, and hopefully start writing (and responding to Balashon emails) again.

Thanks for checking in!