Volume 50 Number 41
                    Produced: Mon Dec  5  5:36:18 EST 2005

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Hebrew source of English words
         [Mike Gerver]


From: <MJGerver@...> (Mike Gerver)
Date: Fri, 2 Dec 2005 08:23:05 EST
Subject: Hebrew source of English words

In my posting in v50n27, I explained why it is easy to be misled into
thinking that English words come from Hebrew when they have similar
meanings and pronunciations, and I showed that you would expect many
such cases just by chance. In this posting, I will explain which English
words really do come from Hebrew words, or have a common origin with
Hebrew words.

In v50n30, Yehoshua Steinberg says that he does not dispute the fact
that many English words come from Anglo-Saxon, but wonders why, if
Norman French, Latin, and Greek are also considered as possible sources
for English words by professional linguists, Hebrew is not, except in a
few obvious cases, like "amen" and "behemoth." However, as I pointed out
in my posting in v50n27, modern English "eye" is exactly what you would
expect if Anglo-Saxon "eage" underwent the normal sound shifts that all
words went through in going from Anglo-Saxon to modern English. No one
would seriously consider Latin or Greek as sources for modern English
"eye," either. The conventional etymologies, in cases like this, are not
ignoring the possibility of Hebrew influence; there is simply no reason
to invoke it in this case, to explain the facts.

Even in cases where a modern English word cannot be explained as having
developed in a normal way from Anglo-Saxon, there has to be a reason to
suspect that it came from Hebrew. People do not invent new words for no
reason, if there already exists a word for that concept. There are
several reasons why people borrow words from other languages, and the
language they borrow the words from will depend on why they are
borrowing the word. There are, in fact, at least a few hundred words,
maybe even a thousand words in English that come from Hebrew, or come
from another Semitic language and have a common origin with Hebrew. But,
as with Latin, Greek, or French, Hebrew and other Semitic languages can
be considered as plausible sources for English words only when the
historical circumstances make that sensible.

New words often are introduced when new cultural ideas, new products, or
new species of animals or plants are introduced from another
country. The name for the new item often comes from the name used for
that item in the place it came from, or from the name of the place. Many
Arabic words were introduced into French, or other Western European
languages, in this way during the Crusades. Many words from Phoenician,
a language closely related to Hebrew, were introduced into Greek in this
way during the heyday of Phoenician trading in the Mediterranean. A few
other Phoenician words were introduced into Latin much later by the
Carthaginians, when they were fighting and conquered by the
Romans. Mishnaic Hebrew has many words, often cultural items or the
names of plants, which are borrowed from Greek or Persian, including
"afarsec" from Greek "persikon" which also gave us "peach," "hediot"
from the Greek word that gave us "idiot," "pardes" from a Persian word
that gave us "paradise," and "dat" (also found in Megillat Esther) from
a Persian word from the same Indo-European root as English "data."
("Esh-dat" in Dvarim is a different word.) In recent decades, a few
modern Israeli words, as well as Hebrew words associated with Jewish
religious concepts, have come into English in this way. So have some
Yiddish words, some of them originally from Hebrew, such as "tush" (from
"tachat") and "shmooze" (from "shma"). And going back several thousand
years, recent studies of Indo-European have found strong evidence of
borrowing of words from and to other languages spoken by neighbors of
the Indo-Europeans, including Semitic languages, often as a result of
new technology introduced to the Indo-Europeans by their more
technologically advanced Semitic neighbors. Some of these words have
descendents in both Hebrew and English.

Extensive borrowing of words may also occur when a country has been
conquered by people speaking another language, as happened to England
when it was conquered by the Danes, and later by the Norman French. The
ruling class in the conquered country may then speak a different
language than the lower classes. The lower classes may start using words
from the language of the ruling class, because they feel that using
those words gives them higher status. Spanish acquired a lot of words
from Arabic in this way, when Spain was under Arab rule, and some of
these words later came into English. These include "monkey," from Arabic
"maimun," literally meaning "fortunate one" (a euphemism, since apes
were considered evil), and related to Hebrew "yamin," meaning "right
hand," a meaning which produces words meaning good or fortunate in many
languages.  Other Arabic words came into English through French, since
the ruling classes in England continued to speak French, and to use new
words introduced into French, for a few hundred years after the Norman
conquest of England. Many, probably most, of these Arabic words have
Hebrew words that they are related to, since Hebrew and Arabic are both
Semitic languages.

A third reason for borrowing of words, which combines aspects of the
first two reasons, is the use of jargon by scholars, doctors, and other
specialists. The specialists may feel the need to use new words because
the existing words in the language are not precise enough in meaning,
and in addition, using the new words may give them higher status. In the
case of English, these specialized words usually came from Latin, which
was the universal language of scholars in Western Europe, and, starting
in the Renaissance, from classical Greek. But during the early days of
Christianity, technical terms associated with the new religion were
sometimes borrowed by Latin from Hebrew and Aramaic, and some of these
words later found their way from Latin into English as specialist terms,
e.g. "abbot" from "abba." Many star names come from Arabic (often with
Hebrew cognates, e.g. Rigel and "regel," Deneb and "zanav,"), since it
was the Arabs (including Arabic speaking Jews, I would imagine) who
preserved Greek astronomical knowledge during the Middle Ages. And, of
course, "Heblish" or "Yeshiva speak" terms, commonly found in
mail-jewish among other places, also fall into the category of
specialist jargon.

When a country adopts a new religion, as happened in England when
Christianity was introduced, people may start naming their children
after revered figures in the new religion. In the case of English, this
means names from the Tanach, generally from Hebrew, and from the New
Testament, which may have been from Hebrew, Aramaic, or Greek. As a
result, a large fraction, probably a majority, of the first names used
in English come from Hebrew or Aramaic. (The fact that dictionaries
recognize this fact is further evidence that there is no conspiracy to
deny Hebrew influence on English.) When new towns were established,
especially in America, they were often named after Biblical place names,
which came from Hebrew or Aramaic (e.g. Bethesda, mentioned in the New
Testament, from "beit chessed," or possibly "beit zayit"). The proper
nouns, both personal and place names, sometimes developed into common
nouns, e.g. "jockey," "nanny," and "bedlam," or even other parts of
speech, for example "zany," "maudlin," and "hijack." Those words are
related, respectively, to Yaakov, Chana, Beit Lechem, Yochanan, Migdal,
and Yaakov again.

I have collected a few hundred cases, of English words related to Hebrew
words, which fall into one of these categories, and I'm sure there are
plenty more that I haven't found yet. In addition, there are, as noted
by Nathan Lamm in v50n30, English words that might be related to Hebrew
words because of common origins in "Nostratic." The evidence for such
common origins is rather weak, but at least the idea is plausible,
unlike most (maybe 70%) of the etymologies proposed in Isaac Mozeson's
The Word, which are simply impossible, like "eye" coming from "ayin"
instead of from "eage." Some of the proposed cases of common Nostratic
origin have also been explained by some etymologists as early borrowings
between Indo-European and Semitic, for example "horn," (from
Indo-European "ker") and Hebrew "keren." Even if most of the supposed
Nostratic roots are just coincidences, the ones based on grammatical
elements, which tend to be more stable than vocabulary in any language
(see Russell Gray, "Pushing the Time Barrier in the Quest for Language
Roots," Science 309, 2007-8 (2005)), may still be real. An example is
the English second person pronouns "thou" and "thee," and Hebrew "atah"
and "at," as well as the associated verb endings. Uralic, Altaic,
Kartvelian, Japanese, Korean, Eskimo-Aleut, and several Siberian
language families all have second person pronouns with "t." I have
collected about a hundred cases of possible common Nostratic origin for
English and Hebrew words.

Some of the words I have collected are listed in The Word, where they
are identified as being accepted by professional etymologists, but most
are not. There appear to be several reasons why Mozeson misses so many
of these genuine cases of English words that come from, or are related
to, Hebrew words.

A major reason, apparently, is that Mozeson never systematically went
through etymological dictionaries looking for such words. One of the
best sources for such words is Ernest Klein's Comprehensive Etymological
Dictionary of the English Language (CEDEL), which Yehoshua Steinberg
mentions in his posting in v50n35. Mozeson knew about this dictionary
when he wrote The Word, since he quoted it at least once (to show that
Latin "mappa," which is the source of English "map" and Hebrew "mappah,"
is itself from a Carthaginian word which is related to Hebrew
"menaphah"). But he apparently never went through CEDEL from A to Z,
since he does not list most of the many Hebrew or Semitic etymologies
for English words that are found there. I suppose the reason for this is
that Mozeson thinks that one can find Hebrew etymologies for English
words by simply thinking of English and Hebrew words which have similar
sound and meaning. I showed in my posting in v50n27 that that procedure
will mostly give you pairs of words whose similarity in sound and
meaning is demonstrably due only to chance. But if you think that
procedure gives meaningful results, then I suppose it is easier than
going through a dictionary. I admit that it is very time consuming going
through a dictionary like CEDEL; I bought it over two years ago, and I
am only up to the G's so far. It is certainly not tedious, though, at
least not to someone like me. In fact, one reason it takes so long is
that it is easy to get distracted by all the interesting non-Semitic

By the way, Klein did not, as Yehoshua Steinberg suggests, "incorporate
Semitic sources that the establishment linguists had previously
ignored."  Klein kept up to date with the latest research by
"establishment linguists," and in fact one reason he wrote the
dictionary is that he felt that many dictionary editors, not being
primarily concerned with etymology, did not keep up with the latest
research in historical linguistics, but just repeated etymologies found
in older dictionaries, some of which were no longer generally
accepted. Many of the Semitic etymologies he offers are, in fact, found
in other dictionaries, particularly the Arabic etymologies, and more
recent Hebrew etymologies.  The Phoenician etymologies, through Greek
(for example "tuna" from "tannin," and "mallow," a plant that grows in
salt marshes, from "melach"), are often traced back only as far as Greek
in other dictionaries. (I don't think that is a case of prejudice on the
part of the dictionary editors, but may be due to their not keeping up
with the latest research by establishment linguists, who do accept the
Phoenician origin of these words.) Of course, as a knowledgable linguist
himself, Klein legitimately used his professional judgment in choosing
between different etymologies when there was controversy among
linguists. He rejects two of my favorite etymologies, "almanac" from an
Arabic word related to "manoach," and "tallit" from the Greek word that
is the source of "stole" (as in "mink stole"). He instead derives
"almanac" from Coptic, and "tallit" from Hebrew "tsel."

One thing CEDEL does offer, which other dictionaries usually do not, is
the Hebrew words related to the Arabic and Phoenician words that are the
source of various English words. In the few cases where he does not do
this, the Hebrew words can often be found, or inferred, from other
dictionaries, including Brown, Driver, and Briggs, Hebrew and English
Lexicon of the Old Testament. For example, CEDEL says that "safari"
comes from Arabic "safara," to go on a journey," but does not list a
related Hebrew word. Brown, Driver and Briggs suggest that "sefer"
originally meant a message or letter sent to a distant place, and may
have been borrowed from an Assyrian word related to Arabic "safara."
Klein's own Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, edited and
published after he died, is a very good source for finding other Hebrew
words that are related to a given Hebrew word, and also for finding out
whether different Hebrew words with the same spelling (such as
beit-resh-kaph) are likely to be the same root or not.

Consulting an Arabic dictionary (I use Maan Z. Madina's Arabic-English
Dictionary, because I have it at home, I don't know if it is the best
one) can also be useful, both for finding the range of meanings of an
Arabic word, and for finding the spelling of the word in Arabic. Knowing
the Arabic spelling is important, when looking for Hebrew cognates,
because there is nearly a one-to-one correspondence between related
Hebrew and Arabic words in their spelling, but this is not the case when
the Arabic word is transliterated into English, as is done by Klein, and
by most English dictionaries. Brown, Driver, and Briggs do list their
Arabic words in Arabic letters.

Another good source for finding connections between Hebrew and Arabic
words is C. Ehret, Reconstructing Proto-Afro-Asiatic. The Afro-Asiatic
language family includes a northern branch with Semitic, Egyptian, and
Berber, and three other branches of African languages, Cushitic, Chadic,
and Omotic. Ehret's dictionary lists only roots found in at least two of
these four branches, so does not include many Semitic roots that do not
meet that criterion, but the roots it does include can be useful. CEDEL
says that "Sudan" comes from Arabic "aswad," meaning "black," but does
not give a a related Hebrew word. Ehret, however, says that Arabic
"aswad" may come from an Afro-Asiatic root, spelled samekh-vav-dalet,
that meant "cover up," before it meant "black," so Hebrew "sod," seems
like a likely relative. Klein's Hebrew dictionary says that "sod" is
related to an Arabic verb "sawada," meaning "to speak in secret."

Another reason Mozeson often gets genuine Semitic etymologies wrong is
that he doesn't seem to pay attention to the spelling of Arabic words,
but looks for any Hebrew word that sounds vaguely like the Arabic word,
even if the spelling does not match. For example, he knows that
"algebra" comes from the Arabic "al-jabara," but thinks that Arabic
"jabara," meaning "join together," is related to the Hebrew root
chet-beit-resh. In fact, Arabic j corresponds to Hebrew gimmel, not to
chet. (The Arabic letter is called "jim," and pronounced as a hard g in
some dialects of Arabic, while Jews from Yemen pronounce gimmel like j,
I think only when it has a dagesh.) According to my Arabic dictionary,
jabara means not just "join together," but "force together," and is used
for setting broken bones. So Hebrew gimmel-beit-resh would seem to be a
much more likely relative. As another example, Mozeson correctly notes
that "average" comes from Arabic "awar," meaning "damaged goods," and
thinks that it is related to Hebrew ayin-beit-resh. Indeed "awar" does
begin with ayin, but Arabic w corresponds to Hebrew vav, not to beit,
and the Arabic dictionary reveals that "awar" also means "one-eyed." So
Hebrew "iver," meaning blind (ayin-vav-resh) is the obvious related
word. As a third example, he correctly lists "albacore" as coming from
Arabic "al-bakra," meaning "the young camel," but thinks that "bakra" is
related to Hebrew "baqar," meaning "cattle." But the Arabic word is
spelled with a kaph, not a qoph, and is instead related to the Hebrew
bakhor (from the root beit-kaph-resh), meaning "first born."

Another source of Mozeson's errors is his apparent belief that all
English words that have similar sounds and meanings must be related to
each other. (I guess this goes together with his belief that English and
Hebrew words with similar sounds and meanings must be related.) He
correctly notes that English "emerald" comes from Hebrew "bareket," (or
from a related word in another Semitic language), and he also correctly
notes that English "emery" comes from Hebrew "shamir." But because he
thinks, incorrectly, that "emerald" must be related to "emery," he lists
both "emerald" and "emery" as related to both "bareket" and "shamir,"
which makes no sense.

Simply looking for Hebrew and English words that sound similar will not
only net a lot of false positives, it will also fail to find related
words whose meanings have become very different over the years. Thus,
Mozeson notes that "jasper" comes from Hebrew "yashpeh," which has the
same meaning, but doesn't notice that "diaper" does also, even though it
has a very different meaning now. (According to CEDEL, "diapered"
originally meant "variegated.") He does include a lot of unrelated
English words as being related to "yashpeh," though, because of
superficial similarity in sound and meaning.  As another example, he
notes that "cypress" comes from Hebrew "gopher," a kind of tree, but
doesn't say that "Cyprus" comes from "cypress" because of the many
cypress trees growing on it, and that "copper" comes from "Cyprus"
because copper came from Cyprus.

There has been a lot of research done on early loan words between
Indo-European, Semitic, and other language families. This work is
described, for example, in T. Gamkrelidze et al, Indo-European and the
Indo-Europeans, as well as in an article by V. M. Illich-Svitych,
"Drevneishie Indoevropeisko-Semitskie Yazykovye Kontakty," in Problemy
indoevropeiskogo yazykoznaniya, Nauka, Moscow, 1963. The results of this
research is not included in CEDEL, which was published in 1966 and
compiled over several decades before that, and it is also not included
in The Word, perhaps because Mozeson considers the people doing the
research to be part of the prejudiced linguistics establishment. That is
a shame, because there are some fascinating etymologies to be found in
these sources, and Mozeson actually includes false Hebrew etymologies
for a lot of these English words, which really are related to other
Hebrew words.  The English word "red," which Mozeson thinks is related
to Hebrew "vered," actually comes, through Indo-European, from a
Sumerian word meaning "copper." The Euphrates River was apparently a
source of copper ore, and its name, "Phrat" in Hebrew (the source of
"Euphrates" in English, by way of Greek) comes from the same Sumerian
word. The English word "door" comes, via Indo-European, from the same
Sumerian word as Hebrew "tur," a row of stones (as in "Arba Turim"). The
word originally meant a field fenced in by stone walls, a meaning that
is better preserved in Russian "dvor" (meaning "yard") than in English
"door," which came to mean an opening in a wall. English "seven" comes,
via Indo-European "septm", from Semitic "sheva." The loan is thought to
go in that direction, because the "t" in "septm" can be understood as a
feminine ending of "sheva." (Mozeson tries to argue that "seven" comes
directly from Hebrew "sheva", instead of from Indo-European, but in
making that argument, he misses a strong argument that the word was
originally Semitic.) Apparently "seven" was a hi-tech concept in those
days, which the Indo-Europeans hadn't developed yet on their own.

Mike Gerver
Raanana, Israel


End of Volume 50 Issue 41