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!