Sunday, July 11, 2021


The last post was discussing the word dfus דפוס - "printing," and how it derives from the Greek typos, meaning "type." At the end, I noted that the verb hidpis הדפיס means (perhaps surprisingly) "to print", not "to type." So today let's look at the Hebrew word meaning "to type."

In Hebrew, hiklid הקליד means "he typed", haklada הקלדה is typing, and mikledet מקלדת means "keyboard." This root קלד, has a more interesting story than I expected.

To understand the background, we should focus on the last of the three words I mentioned above: mikledet. Even if you weren't familiar with the Hebrew word, did you ever wonder why a keyboard is called that? The buttons you press when you type aren't actually "keys"...

But if you think about a similar device upon which you press all your fingers, you might be able to understand the association better. That device is the piano, with its 88 keys. And in fact, long before a keyboard referred to a device for typing on a computer, it was used to describe the set of keys used to play pianos, organs and other similar musical instruments.

The word key originally meant "an instrument for opening locks," as it does today. So how did it come to be used for the levers of the piano?

There are a number of different theories. The Online Etymology Dictionary mentions has the following passage in their entry for key:

The musical sense originally was "tone, note" (mid-15c.). In music theory, the sense developed 17c. to "sum of the melodic and harmonic relationships in the tones of a scale," also "melodic and harmonic relationships centering on a given tone." Probably this is based on a translation of Latin clavis "key," used by Guido for "lowest tone of a scale," or French clef (see clef; also see keynote). Sense of "mechanism on a musical instrument operated by the player's fingers" is from c. 1500, probably also suggested by uses of clavis. OED says this use "appears to be confined to Eng[lish]." First of organs and pianos, by 1765 of wind instruments; transferred to telegraphy by 1837 and later to typewriters (1876).

We see from here that "key" developed into two different meanings. In addition to the mechanism in musical instruments, it also took another musical meaning: "a group of notes based on a particular note and comprising a scale."

What isn't clear from the Online Etymology Dictionary is if one meaning of key arose from the other. Some say that the earlier meaning, "tone, note" led to the sense of the mechanisms used to play those notes. They also point out that the tone was called a "key" because it opened the scale. The word "keynote" preserves this sense, as it is the first (lowest) note of the scale.

Others say that the two meanings arose independently, and that piano keys were so called because the way they were designed and assembled was similar to a lock and key. For example, this site shows how ancient organs were made by "adapting keys with levers."

Whatever the origin, the meaning stuck, and in English keys in that sense are used to refer the things pressed on both a piano and a typewriter (and keyboard).

As Yaakov Etsion points out in this article, Hebrew was also faced with the question of what to call the keys of a piano. That in itself isn't so remarkable - in Modern Hebrew there were multitudes of words that needed coining. What is uncommon here, is that Hebrew already had a word for keys of musical instruments. When David returned the Ark to Israel, the verse says:

וְדָוִד  וְכׇל־בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל מְשַׂחֲקִים לִפְנֵי יְהֹוָה בְּכֹל עֲצֵי בְרוֹשִׁים וּבְכִנֹּרוֹת וּבִנְבָלִים וּבְתֻפִּים וּבִמְנַעַנְעִים וּבְצֶלְצֱלִים׃ 

Meanwhile, David and all the House of Israel danced before the LORD to [the sound of] all kinds of cypress wood [instruments], with lyres, harps, timbrels, sistrums, and cymbals. (Shmuel II 6:5)

The word translated here as "sistrums" (other translations have "rattles" or "coronets") is מנענעים mina'anim. At some point (and without any direct evidence to the contrary), the mina'anea became associated with the keys of the piano and organ. But this was a difficult word to pronounce, and in 1955 the Academy of the Hebrew Language came up with an alternate word for keys of the piano: klidim קלידים.

Why this word? Because it was based an archaic word for "keys" - aklida אקלידא. It is found in Talmudic literature, for example in Sanhedrin 113a:

בעי רחמי והבו ליה אקלידא דמטרא

[Elijah] prayed for mercy and they gave him the key (aklida) to rainfall

Of course, Hebrew already had a very common word for key: mafteach מפתח. But by adopting an obscure word instead, there would be no chance that someone might mix up the words for piano keys and house keys.

Klein points out that aklida, an Aramaic word, derives from the Greek kleida, accusative of kleis (= key). Those Greek words have given us a number of words in English, including "clavicle" (literally a "small key", based on the shape of the bone) and perhaps Cleopatra, which may have meant "key to the fatherland." The Latin cognate, clavis (also meaning "key") gave us words like enclave (enclosed, "locked in"), as well as the musical terms clef (parallel to keynote, as we discussed above) and clavichord (a medieval musical instrument, played with a type of keys).

The Academy's recommendation to use klid קליד for "piano key" was widely accepted, although not without opposition. The linguist Yitzchak Avineri wrote in a 1958 column, that while he did not object to adopting foreign words when necessary, this was not the case here, since Hebrew already had a word for piano key, the "biblical" mina'anea (in quotes because I haven't seen any proof that it was anything like a piano.)  Not only did klid have Greek origins (as compared to Semitic ones), even the loan translation was from English, a foreign language that invented the idea that pianos had 88 "keys." He concluded the column by saying that "this is not the way to expand the language."

However, language doesn't always listen to the experts. Klidim became the accepted term for piano keys, and a keyboard - both musical and for typing - is a mikledet. However, this new root did not take over fully. The keys of a piano are klidim, but the keys on a computer keyboard (and typewriter) are makashim מקשים (makash in singular, from the root נקש, "to strike.") And while one is maklid on a keyboard, that verb is reserved for typing. On the piano, one is poret al haklidim פורט על הקלידים (from a Biblical root meaning "to play a musical instrument", as found in Amos 6:5). 

So perhaps Avineri would have some comfort in the fact that at least in some contexts those ancient Hebrew roots persevered.

Tuesday, July 06, 2021

dfus, tofes and tipus

As I've written before, I'm a major podcast listener, and am always looking for podcasts that discuss language, particularly the Hebrew language.

Recently, I came across a podcast devoted to the nuts and bolts of the Hebrew language, called Kululusha. It's in Hebrew, and the host, Yiram Netanyahu (no relation), interviews experts on Hebrew language and linguistics, including some people I've quoted here frequently. 

In the latest episode, he had a conversation with the linguist Dr. Gabriel Birnbaum, about the influence of foreign words on Hebrew. It was a very interesting discussion, and I recommend that any of you who can follow a talk like that in Hebrew to listen. 

A lot of the foreign words that Dr. Birnbaum mentioned will be familiar to readers of Balashon. But there was one that he mentioned briefly that I've been meaning to write about for a while - the Greek typos. As noted in the podcast, that one Greek word gave us three distinct words in Hebrew: dfus דפוס, tofes טופס and tifus טיפוס. Let's take a look.

The Greek word typos is the origin of the English word "type":

late 15c., "symbol, emblem," from Latin typus "figure, image, form, kind," from Greek typos "a blow, dent, impression, mark, effect of a blow; figure in relief, image, statue; anything wrought of metal or stone; general form, character; outline, sketch," from root of typtein "to strike, beat," from PIE *tup-, variant of root *(s)teu- (1) "to push, stick, knock, beat" (see steep (adj.)).

Extended 1713 to printing blocks of metal or wood with letters or characters carved on their faces, usually in relief, adapted for use in letterpress printing. The meaning "general form or character of some kind, class" is attested in English by 1843, though the corresponding words had that sense in Latin and Greek. 

As in English, the Greek typos had both the the sense of "to strike" and "a form, kind." (I would not have guessed, as I type on my keyboard, that the earlier meaning was to "to strike.") The Hebrew words reflect those different meanings as well.

Dfus is closest to the sense of a "dent, impression". It is found in early Rabbinic Hebrew, such as Mishna Menachot 11:1, where it refers to a baking mold that was used to prepare the offering of the shtei halechem (the two loaves of bread), brought on Shavuot. While many editions of the Talmud have the word written in the form familiar today - dfus דפוס, other manuscripts preserve what is likely the original spelling - tfus טפוס. The letters "t" and "d" both produce dental stop sounds, and just saying them out loud makes it understandable how tfus became dfus. After the Talmudic meanings of "form, model, mold", in modern Hebrew dfus took on the sense of "print, printing, press." The related verb, hidpis הדפיס means "to print" and a madpeset מדפסת is a "printer."

Tofes טפס, in Talmudic Hebrew, meant the standard, boilerplate lines in a document (in contrast with the toref תורף, which refers to the specific details of that document, like the dates, names, etc.) Today it means any kind of form to be filled out.

Tipus is the most abstract of the three, meaning "type, kind, class." In modern Hebrew, the adjective tipusi טיפוסי - "typical" (which also derives from typos) was added. In Hebrew slang, a tipus is an unusual character. 

Curious about the Hebrew word for the verb, "to type"? Then keep an eye out for the next post...