Sunday, November 22, 2020

metal and metzolah

When I was a kid, I realized that while I clearly knew what "metal" was, it was difficult to define. 

Metal is hard? Well, so is wood. Shiny? So is glass. Hard and shiny? Well, diamonds aren't metal. Can be bent? Well, I can't bend a penny, but I can bend plastic. Metals can have different colors (gold, silver, etc.), so that can't be it. But if you put two forks in front of me, one metal and one from another material, I could easily tell them apart.

I later learned that there are scientific definitions that identify what a metal is. Certain physical characteristics weren't evident to me at that age - like how well they conduct electricity or the high melting point. And at the most basic level, metals are certain elements in the periodic table, specifically those that lose electrons easily and can therefore form metallic bonds. 

Even reading about the meaning of metal in chemistry and physics today, I'm not sure how much I really understand. But my early exploration into the meaning of the word then has taught me a lesson that I certainly do carry with me now - the significance of semantics. While sometimes semantics is used to indicate pettiness, it's actually rather important. It's the branch of linguistics concerned with "meaning." In some ways, it's as much associated with philosophy as the study of language. We tend to think that words equal their meaning. And this can actually lead to intense debates, when one person thinks a word means one thing, and someone else thinks it means another. (Consider the debate about whether a hot dog is a sandwich.)

But not only are words generally not that precise, in many cases, they can't be. This is demonstrated by the paradox of the heap, in which it's not possible to define how many grains of sand are in a heap (does one less make it no longer a heap?)

So while many people find themselves arguing over the meaning or usage of a word, I don't find myself pulled into those debates - even though, as an amateur linguist, I'm frequently asked to adjudicate them. I certainly fall into the "descriptivist" camp, as I'm sure many readers of this site can tell. Words constantly change meaning, and so I'd much rather view the way words interact like an observer of a National Geographic nature video than someone concerned about the way things are "supposed to be."

And maybe that understanding started back when I thought about "metal," and how our understanding of that material was based much more on our perceptions than any precise definition. 

Now while that might make a nice introduction into the psychology of my linguistic approach, it's not really a Balashon post. So I was rather surprised, when I took a more recent look into the meaning of "metal", that it may have a Hebrew origin!

The Online Etymology Dictionary provides the following entry:

an undecomposable elementary substance having certain recognizable qualities (opacity, conductivity, plasticity, high specific gravity, etc.), mid-13c., from Old French metal "metal; material, substance, stuff" (12c.), from Latin metallum "metal, mineral; mine, quarry," from Greek metallon "metal, ore" (senses found only in post-classical texts, via the notion of "what is got by mining"); originally "mine, quarry-pit," probably a back-formation from metalleuein "to mine, to quarry," a word of unknown origin. 

Klein (in his CEDEL) picks up the "unknown origin" and gives his explanation:

It [metallon (= mine, quarry)] is perhaps a loan word from Hebrew metzolah מצולה, "depth"... Hebrew metzolah is related to tzula צולה, "ocean deep," and to Hebrew tzalal צלל, "he sank." 


The root tzalal - "to sink, plunge; to settle" also took on the sense of "to clear, clarify." (I assume from the sediment sinking to the bottom of the liquid.) That gives us the word tzalul - "clear, lucid."

It's nice to think that I can associate the Hebrew word for clarity with the English word metal, considering its meaning was anything but clear to me when I was young...

Sunday, November 15, 2020

bareket and emerald

On the breastplate of the High Priest, were affixed twelve gemstones (Shemot 28:17-20). There is almost no mention of most of them anywhere else in the Bible, aside from the parallel passage in Shemot 39:10-13. (A portion are mentioned in Yechezkel 28:13).

Because of the infrequent occurrences in the Tanach, along with the gap between current scientific precision and biblical nomenclature, it is difficult to identify with certainty the gems that appear in these verses. That said, let's take a look at one of them, the third stone - the bareket ברקת (mentioned in Shemot 28:17).

I have found many different translations for this stone, including:

agate, beryl, carbuncle, citrine, emerald, hyacinth, malachite, peridot, pyrite, rock-crystal, smaragd, topaz

And then some take either the easy way out or the more precise method (depending on your point of view), and translate it as "bareketh."

The etymology of bareket isn't much help. It likely derives from the word barak ברק - "lightning", and so means "flashing" or "sparkling" stone.  Since gems are almost by definition shiny, all of the stones mentioned above could fit that description.

The attempts to identify the bareket with a gemstone that we know today is based on seeing its translation in ancient translations, as well as explanations offered by midrashim and later commentaries. I won't go into all of the analysis here (to see a good summary of traditional Jewish sources, see the Living Torah commentary on the verse here).

I'd like to take a look at how the word bareket ended up in European languages, and perhaps that will help us identify the stone. 

Now, this is different from some words that entered European languages because they were borrowed as part of the Bible itself entering Europe (as I recently wrote about the words myrrh, aloe and cassia on the 929 site.) Rather, the name of the stone itself migrated into other languages.

From Hebrew (or some other cognate Semitic language, like the Akkadian barraqtu), bareket entered into Greek as smaragdos, which Latin borrowed as smaragdus, eventually becoming esmaraldus in Medieval Latin, esmeraude in French, and then "emerald" in English.  

This might seem like a strange journey, particularly from bareket  to smaragdos. But as this Philologos column explains (along with many other interesting linguistic details about the words we've discussed here and more) it's reasonable when you look at how certain letters are exchanged in phonetic shifts.

Philologos actually promotes a different theory than what I've presented here. He says that the Hebrew baraket may have its origin in a Sanskrit word - marakata:

Bareket strikes one at first glance as being an original Hebrew word that derives, quite appropriately for a gemstone, from the verb barak, to shine or sparkle. In Akkadian, the Semitic language of ancient Babylonia, we have the cognate noun barraktu, also meaning an emerald, and a similar verb. Perhaps indeed it was the influence of this verb that helped change an initial “m” into a “b” (a common shift in language, “m” being in essence a nasalized “b”), because scholars have known for a long time that the Akkadian word was borrowed from the Sanskrit marakata, an “emerald” or gem of green corundum. To this day, the marakata is one of the seven sacred stones of Hinduism, associated with the planet Mercury and the day Tuesday, on which it is traditionally worn.

Marakata is not only the ultimate source of Hebrew bareket. It is also that of Greek smaragdos, with which, except for the Greek’s initial “s,” it shares the same root consonants. (“Like “m” and “b,” “k” and hard “g,” and “t” and “d,” are similar sounds that frequently replace each other in speech.) 

Most of the sources I looked at, including Klein and the Online Etymology Dictionary say the Sanskrit word was borrowed from a Semitic source. (For further discussion see this page). Whichever direction the word ultimately traveled (the Ben Yehuda dictionary mentions both theories, although sides with a Semitic origin), the b/m, k/g and t/d replacements still work here. As far as the prosthetic "s" at the beginning of smaragdos - I'm not sure. But since all explanations have Greek borrowing from a foreign language, for some reason the Greeks found a reason to add the "s".

So we do seem to have a linguistic connection drawn between bareket and "emerald." I don't think that's proof that the emerald as we define it today was on the High Priest's breastplate, but it's certainly possible that the ancient Greek smaragdos was similar to the stone mentioned in the Torah.

Monday, November 09, 2020

kabarnit and cyber

 A phrase often used in eulogies (too frequently heard these days) is taken from this passage Bava Batra 91a-b:


And Rav Ḥanan bar Rava says that Rav says: On that day when our forefather Abraham left the world, the leaders of the nations of the world stood in a line, in the manner of mourners, and said: "Woe to the world that has lost its leader, and woe to the ship that has lost its captain."

ואמר רב חנן בר רבא אמר רב אותו היום שנפטר אברהם אבינו מן העולם עמדו כל גדולי אומות העולם בשורה ואמרו אוי לו לעולם שאבד מנהיגו ואוי לה לספינה שאבד קברינטא


The word translated here as "captain" is קברניט kabarnit. It's a post-biblical word, parallel to the biblical rav chovel  רב חובל - "chief sailor" (as found in Yonah 1:6). Kabarnit is borrowed from the Greek kybernetes (steersman), which derives from the verb kybernan (to steer, guide, govern).

From Greek, this same root entered Latin, where it eventually gave us the word "govern":

late 13c., "to rule with authority," from Old French governer "steer, be at the helm of; govern, rule, command, direct" (11c., Modern French gouverner), from Latin gubernare "to direct, rule, guide, govern" (source also of Spanish gobernar, Italian governare), originally "to steer, to pilot," a nautical borrowing from Greek kybernan "to steer or pilot a ship, direct as a pilot," figuratively "to guide, govern"

A much more recent use of the Greek root was by the Jewish American mathematician, Norbert Wiener. He used it to coin the term "cybernetics":

"theory or study of communication and control," coined 1948 by U.S. mathematician Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), with -ics + Latinized form of Greek kybernetes "steersman" (metaphorically "guide, governor"), from kybernan "to steer or pilot a ship, direct as a pilot"

In the 1990s, when use of the internet began spreading rapidly, the first half of cybernetics was taken as a prefix: "cyber." At the time, it was used it was used to describe anything internet related, and the internet as a whole was known as "cyberspace." 

The broad use has declined since then, and today it is primarily used in the term "cybersecurity". In fact, in Israel, the use of just "cyber" סייבר alone refers to the field of internet and data security.