Volume 50 Number 27
                    Produced: Tue Nov 29  4:47:06 EST 2005

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Hebrew source of English words?
         [Mike Gerver]


From: <MJGerver@...> (Mike Gerver)
Date: Mon, 28 Nov 2005 20:33:11 EST
Subject: Hebrew source of English words?

Yehoshua Steinberg (v50n20), Lisa Liel (v50n23), and others, have
recently expressed the opinion that many English words, which are listed
in dictionaries as coming from Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and other languages,
really come from Hebrew instead. As evidence for this, they point to
modern English words that are similar in sound and meaning to certain
Hebrew words, for example English "eye" and Hebrew "ayin." They suggest
that professional linguists have a bias against Hebrew, and in favor of
Anglo-Saxon, Latin, and Indo-European languages in general, as a possible
source for English words, because they do not list these etymologies from
Hebrew, which seem more plausible than the usual etymologies to the
people who have expressed these opinions. This point of view has been
forcefully expressed by Isaac Mozeson, in his book The Word, among other

In order to evaluate the validity of these contentions, it is not enough
merely to list English and Hebrew words with similar sound and meaning.
It is necessary to show 1) that the similarities are statistically
unlikely to be due to chance, and 2) that the evidence that has been
amassed in favor of the conventional etymologies can plausibly be due to
chance. This evidence includes extensive written records of word use,
going back more than 1000 years in the case of Anglo-Saxon origins, and
more than 2000 years in the case of French and Latin origins. The
evidence also includes, for thousands of different English words, the
existence of cognate words in dozens of Germanic, Romance, and other
Indo-European languages, which, with rare exceptions, follow regular
sound shifts in going from one language to another.

When all this evidence is considered, it is clear that professional
linguists are not biased against Hebrew origins and in favor of
Indo-European origins for these English words, but rather are basing
their etymologies on all the available evidence. The unconventional
Hebrew etymologies of English words, on the other hand, seem plausible
only if most of the evidence is ignored.

Attempting to find the origins of modern English words only by comparing
them to Hebrew words, without using the available historical information
and the information from other languages, not only leads people to posit
incorrect English etymologies from Hebrew. It also causes them not to
notice genuine etymologies of English words that have a common origin
with some Hebrew word. One of the things I find most frustrating about
Mozeson's The Word is that he misses so many of these real etymologies,
which I think are very cool. In addition to the many cases of English
words that are known to have a common origin with a Hebrew word, there
are many other cases where an English word plausibly might have a common
origin with a Hebrew word, although the evidence at present is not strong
enough to tell, one way or the other. (I would include most of the
claimed "Nostratic" roots in this category.) I think it is important to
be able to distinguish these cases from other cases where a proposed
Hebrew etymology for an English word is simply impossible, which
constitute the majority of etymologies listed in The Word.

In this posting, I will present a rough calculation showing that a
substantial fraction (maybe 10%) of short words (with two or three
consonants) in any two languages are likely to have similar sounds and
meanings, just from chance, even if none of the words have a common
origin. This result is true not only about Hebrew and English, but also
within English. Many pairs of words within English, that are similar in
sound and meaning, are in fact unrelated etymologically. I have been
collecting such word pairs in English for many years, and will list a few
of the more amazing ones here. People are naturally inclined to notice
patterns, and are reluctant to believe that the patterns they notice are
due to chance. I hope that seeing these pairs of similar but unrelated
English words will make it easier for people to accept the
counter-intuitive idea that words like English "eye" and Hebrew "ayin"
may be unrelated.

In the near future, I plan to post something here about genuine cases of
English and Hebrew words of common origin, giving some examples which
Mozeson missed in The Word, and explaining what kind of evidence he
should have looked at, to avoid missing them.

Most of the entries in The Word have two or three consonants, and two
words are generally considered as being similar in sound if they have the
same consonants. (I am considering an initial vowel in English, i.e. a
"null consonant," as a consonant here, equivalent to aleph in Hebrew.) In
fact, two words are considered as similar in sound even if they have
corresponding consonants in the same family. For example, p, b, f and v
(the labials) are considered to be one family, while velars like k, g,
and q, as well as laryngeals in Hebrew like chet, are lumped together,
and ayin is lumped together with aleph, or sometimes with the velars and
laryngeals. So there are roughly 10 different consonant families, and
roughly 100 different patterns for two-consonant words, and 1000
different patterns for three-consonant words. Any two words that have the
same pattern are considered by Mozeson as being similar in sound.

There are, in any language, only a few hundred different categories of
meaning, such that any two words in the same category will be considered
similar enough in meaning that they are suspected of being etymologically
related, if they also sound similar. If you don't believe that the number
is so small, try going through an abridged dictionary, or a basic
vocabulary list for school children or for people learning English, and
start sorting the words out by categories of meaning. By the time you
have listed a couple of hundred categories, most of the words you find
will be assigned to one of the existing categories, and it will be
increasingly rare to find a word that needs a new category. There is no
need to carry the exercise any further, to see that a few hundred is a
plausible number for the categories of meaning.

English and Hebrew each have at least a few thousand short (two or three
consonants) words, i.e. an average of at least ten different words in
each category of meaning. For a two-consonant word in English, there is
roughly a 10% chance that one of the ten Hebrew words in the same meaning
category will have the same sound pattern as the English word, since
there are 100 different sound patterns. (I am ignoring the fact that some
of the sound patterns may be more common than others.) In the case of
three-consonant words in English, there is roughly a 1% chance that one
of the ten Hebrew words in the same meaning category will have the same
sound pattern as the English word, since there are 1000 different sound
patterns. If about half of the short words have two consonants, and half
have three consonants, then overall a few percent of the English words
will have corresponding Hebrew words with similar meaning and sound.
Actually, Mozeson (and other people who notice such correspondences) also
accept two words as similar if they have the same two consonants in
reverse order, or if one of the consonants is missing in one word (for
example, the "n" in "ayin" is not found in "eye"). Taking this into
account, the number of such correspondences that are expected by chance
will be even higher, perhaps amounting to 10% of all the short words.

Although this calculation was very approximate, it does make it plausible
that a large fraction of the similarities in sound and meaning that one
notices between English and Hebrew words are just due to chance, and not
to a common origin. It is necessary to look at the written historical
record of the two words, at other related words in English and Hebrew,
and at corresponding words in many other languages, in order to tell
whether the two words have a common origin or not.

Consider English "eye" and Hebrew "ayin," for example. The convention
etymology of "eye" is that it comes from Anglo-Saxon "eage," and has a
common origin, in proto-Germanic, with German "auge." Although the "ye"
in "eye" may not sound similar to the "ge" in "auge," there are a large
number of German and English words which show this sound shift. For
example, German "gelb" and English "yellow," German "geld" and English
"yield," German "regen" and English "rain." And corresponding words, with
various sounds shifts that are regular between each pair of languages,
are found in the many other Germanic languages, such as Dutch, Swedish,
Danish, Flemish, Yiddish, Gothic, and Icelandic.

Similarly, Hebrew "ayin" corresponds, through regular sound shifts, with
words meaning "eye" in other Semitic languages.

In the history of languages throughout the world, it is very uncommon for
a word for a basic body part, such as the eye, to be replaced by another
word. It only happens, on the average, about once in 10,000 years, for a
given language, although most words tend to be replaced about every 2000
years. Even if a word meaning "eye" is replaced by another word, there is
only a small chance it will be replaced by a word from another language.
Borrowed words tend to have meanings associated with things that were not
previously known to the people who borrowed the word, for example new
technology, or species of animals or plants that the borrowers only
recently came into contact with. And borrowed words are almost always
borrowed from languages spoken by neighboring people, or by people who
conquered the people doing the borrowing. Very few people in England knew
Hebrew between the Anglo-Saxon and modern English periods, when
Anglo-Saxon "eage" would purportedly have been replaced by a word that
comes from Hebrew "ayin."

So, if you think that English "eye" comes from Hebrew "ayin," rather than
from Anglo-Saxon "eage," you will have to assume:

1) that the English word for "eye" was replaced between 1000 and 500
years ago, a very unlikely event;

2) that it was replaced by a word borrowed from a language that very few
people in England knew, also very unlikely; and

3) that the new word for "eye," by strange coincidence, just happened to
be pronounced the same as the word that would have evolved from the old
word for "eye," by the same sound shifts that affected so many other
words in going from Anglo-Saxon to modern English.

That these three things all occurred is so unlikely (surely less than one
in a million a priori chance) that it is simply absurd to think that
"eye" came from Hebrew, rather than from Anglo-Saxon. It is far more
likely (maybe a 10% a priori chance) that the similarity in the English
and Hebrew words is accidental. Using a Bayesian analysis, one could say
that there is less than a 0.001% chance that "eye" came from Hebrew
"ayin," rather than from Anglo-Saxon.

By the way, this conclusion does NOT mean that English "eye" and Hebrew
"ayin" do not have a common origin. It is quite possible that they do,
but the common origin would have to be much older than the transition
from Anglo-Saxon to modern English. The fact that both "eye" and "ayin"
have a "y" after the initial vowel is just a coincidence. But English
"eye" and Hebrew "ayin" also begin with similar sounds, especially for
Ashkenazim who pronounce "ayin" as if it were an aleph. Is that just a
coincidence? Maybe it is, but it might not be. Anglo-Saxon "eage"
corresponds to words for eye in many other Indo-European languages, with
the original Indo-European root usually given as "okw", which also begins
with a vowel. Hebrew "ayin" corresponds to similar words, also beginning
with the letter ayin, in other Semitic languages. Furthermore, all
Indo-European roots which begin with a vowel are believed (based on
Hittite) to have originally had a laryngeal (such as ayin) at the
beginning. And, as I noted before, words for basic body parts, like the
eye, are among the most stable words over time, in any language. If, as
the proponents of "Nostratic" believe, English and Hebrew can be traced
back to a common original language, then it is quite possible that "eye"
and "ayin" both evolved from the word for "eye" in that language, without
the need to suppose that either English or Hebrew ever borrowed their
word for eye.

If, as I have been arguing, it is likely that words like "eye" and "ayin"
are similar in sound and meaning just by chance, then one should find
similar pairs of unrelated words within English, and indeed one does.
Here are a few of the more surprising ones, out of about a hundred that I
have collected. In many of these cases, the meanings of the words may
have become closer together, with time, because people assumed they were
related, but in all of these pairs (or in some cases, sets of 3 or 4),
each word in the pair has a separate origin.

1. cook and cookie

2. excise (to cut) and excise (tax)

3. most and foremost

4. fear, fright, and afraid

5. flounder (noun) and flounder (verb)

6. flush out prey, flush with water, and royal flush

7. Levant and Lebanon

8. cut, cutlet, and cutlass (cutlery is related to cutlass)

9. barber pole and North Pole

10. pull and pulley

11. miniature and minimum

12. gelt and gold

13. isle and island (the "s" in "island" was added because people thought
the words were related)

14. gory, and to gore

15. base (low) and base (pedestal)

16. housing project, and gear housing

17. school, and school of fish

18. In the sentence "When the ball bounded(1) over the fence, the
referee, being bound(2) by the rules of the game, was bound(3) to declare
it out of bounds(4)," the four words "bound" are unrelated.

19. cube and cubicle

20. coward, to cow, and to cower

You can look up the origin of these words in any good dictionary, and see
where they come from. Like "eye" and "ayin," there is vanishing
likelihood that the conventional etymologies are wrong, and that any of
these pairs of words are, in fact, related.

Here are some other surprising unrelated word pairs involving Hebrew:

21. gelida ("ice cream" in modern Hebrew) and English gelid

22. English (and Hawaiian) kahuna (a priest in the native Hawaiian
religion), and Hebrew kahuna (meaning "priesthood")

23. Hebrew malach (sailor) and melach (salt), even though both are
spelled the same way, and even though "salt" is a slang word for sailor
in English.

In a future posting, iy"h, I will list some pairs of Hebrew and English
words that are related, some of them also very surprising.

Mike Gerver
Raanana, Israel


End of Volume 50 Issue 27