Swearing in Hebrew

29 09 2006

Inspired by another interesting post at Erratio, I thought that I may write a little about the origin of a particular Biblical Hebrew word: one which the 9th century Tiberian scholars known as the Masoretes saw fit to edit out of the Bible. To save you any unnecessary suspense, that word is of the root √שגל (šgl) and it appears some eight times altogether: four times as a noun and four times as a verb. The noun, which means “concubine”, was not deemed offensive enough to remove; the verb, however, which refers to violating another in a sexual manner, was systematically changed to the root √שכב (škb), which simply means “to lie [with]”. In three of the four instances that this word was used, that meaning is perfectly legitimate. In a practical, legalistic tone, the authors of these texts simply inform us of such things as the consequences when a man violates a married woman, or they inform us (with prophetic perspicacity) of the violation of women by conquering enemy forces. The word works better with its erstwhile stronger meaning, but functions satisfactorily with the new and gentler verb as well. In one of the four instances, however, this word does not work very well at all.

The prophet Jeremiah lambasts the citizens of Judah for the making of political alliances with enemy nations. Rather than relying on God, they have quite literally whored themselves out to paramours who will not be there for them when their hour of calamity arrives. This is a common prediction, and one that is utilised by more than Jeremiah alone. Nonetheless, the language appears strange, for the editors have seen fit to keep this word in the same verbal stem in which the edited-out word also appeared: a pual perfect (implying a passive fientive, for all you grammar geeks). This is the sole instance in which this verbal root (which occurs over 200 times throughout the Hebrew Bible) appears in this stem. What is more, descriptions of Judah ‘whoring’ after other nations or other gods, always receive stronger language than this. The original form belongs here.

So, why was it cut out? What is so offensive about a verbal root formed off the noun “concubine”? Is it really that dirty?
While I cannot answer those questions (I cannot even pinpoint exactly why certain offensive words of today are so offensive), I can describe this word’s curious etymology. And to do so, I would like to commence by saying a little about palaces.

Palaces are funny things. Despite the fact that, all over the world, they seem to share a common underlying purpose they nonetheless differ so much in terms of the subtleties of function that foreign words are often utilised to refer to the phenomenon in foreign countries. Prime examples today rest in the realm of goverment houses, where Bundestag, Kremlin and Knesset each refer to effectively the same entity. We find the same thing in the ancient world as well, testified to within the pages of the Bible itself.

• In Judah, the palace was referred to as the בית המלך – lit. “House of the King”. This was to differentiate it from the בית מקדש – “House of the Temple”, or “Temple” for short. Sometimes the Temple was simply referred as a בית, and we see this word used in a variety of cultic contexts, such as Jacob’s naming of an altar בית־אל, “The House of God”.
•In Israel, the kingdom in the north, palaces were referred to as היכלות, /hēkalot/. The singular, /hēkal/ (היכל), is actually an Aramaic loanword – היכל, היכלא. The word becomes rather popular in the time of the Talmud when it also begins to refer to individual chambers within a palace, and lends its name to the burgeoning school of mysticism (היכלות) that was later to become known as the Qabbalah.

This division of words is reflected in a curious Biblical phenomenon. בית המלך is used in texts composed in Judah; היכל is used in texts composed in Israel; and היכל is used in texts composed in Judah but which are about palaces in Israel. Over time, היכל simply became the standard Hebrew word everywhere – a phenomenon that some have also linked to the fact that Aramaic became an increasingly pervasive language.

Fortunately for us, the story doesn’t stop there, for the Aramaic itself has origins that go even further back into the linguistic mists of time… back to the Akkadian language of the Babylonian Empire. In Akkadian, the word for palace is /ēkallum/, where the -um suffix indicates that the word is in the nominative case, ie: functioning as the subject of the sentence. It is a curious phenomenon of languages in general that their more complex period is also their earliest. Semitic languages lost the case system in the same manner than Mediaeval Latin was also disregarding it; and in the way that cases dropped out of English and German in their development from an older Germanic language. Removing the case ending from the Akkadian, we find that the word that remains, /ēkal/, is virtually identical to the Aramaic /hēkal/. This shouldn’t be too great a surprise for, in the same manner that Aramaic was to become the lingua franca of the entire Near East, so too was once Akkadian graced with the same linguistic status.

What was the chief influence upon Akkadian? Why, Sumerian of course!
Predating the grand empire of the Babylonians, the Sumerians were possibly the first to have developed writing (depending on the relative dating of various Egyptian texts). Like Babylonian, Sumerian was also a cuneiform language, meaning that symbols were pressed into clay with the aid of styluses. Like Akkadian, symbols in Sumerian could either represent words (“logograms”), sounds (“phonograms”), indications as to the pronounciation (“phonetic complements”) or disambiguating indications as to the word’s meaning (“determinatives”). Unlike Akkadian, however, Sumerian is not a Semitic language. In fact, nobody knows just what type of language Sumerian was because it doesn’t seem to have any surviving descendants.

Nonetheless, Sumerian was a great influence upon Akkadian and many Sumerian logograms turn up in Akkadian as well. When this happens, they are referred to as Sumero-grams. So there you go: in case you thought that was somebody who turned up at your door and sang the Epic of Gilgamesh at you. It’s not. A Sumero-gram is simply a Sumerian logogram (ie: a symbol, or symbols, representing a word) and – lo and behold – we can trace the Akkadian word for palace, /ēkallum/, back to just that.

In Sumerian, this appears as two words (convention has them transliterated in capitals, separated by a period): É.GAL. The acute accent over the E simply indicates that the sign used for this word is the second most common sign with this particular sound. In any case, the word E means “house” and GAL means “large”. A large house = “a palace”. Taken together and turned into a single word, we can easily say how it was received by the Babylonians, the Arameans and, ultimately, the Hebrews themselves. Now, it does seem that this post has moved away from its stated purpose but I shall now bring it back by noting that kings in their palaces traditionally had a variety of women in their… employ.

These women would not be supposed to do anything save sit in a harem and await the king’s favours: a situation that is satirically mocked in the beginning of the Biblical book of Esther. Esther is set in the Persian Empire and, even though the Persians who conquered the Aramaic-speaking Babylonians came some time after the long-deceased Sumerians, the phenomenon was an elderly one indeed. In fact, the Sumerians even had a specific word for these women, which translates to “women of the palace”. Not very creative of course, but once you take IŠI.É.GAL through Akkadian and into Aramaic, you end up with the wonderful /šēgal/ with which we started. The noun appears twice in Aramaic sections of the Bible (both in Daniel) and twice in the Hebrew (Psalms and Nehemiah).

When one considers the fact that these women were simply chattel: slaves who sat around anointing themselves with oils and perfumes so that the king may simply violate them whenever he so desired, one can understand the force that a verb formed off the same noun may have. One can perhaps also understand how, with the passage of time, this particular verb became frowned upon and how, even in situations where it made more sense than any gentle alternative, the gentle alternative would be employed instead. Fortunately for us, however, the Bible had already attained the status of sanctity at the time of the Tiberian Masoretes so that when they changed the text they kept the original word there as well and simply altered the reading tradition. It is thanks to them that we are able to add one more link in the chain of this fascinating word’s most curious development.

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15 responses

29 09 2006
Jen

Interesting that whoever wrote the Bible had no such problems including the word. Would this indicate that it wasn’t considered such a strong word back then (perhaps because concubinism was considered more acceptable)? Or perhaps the author was the sort to call a spade a spade. Regardless, a fascinating look at the origins of the word; slang and vulgar words always seem to have more colourful histories than normal ones.
Now, if only the English equivalent had such a clear and interesting etymology…

29 09 2006
Daniel

Hehe, Sumero-gram.

29 09 2006
Conrad

Interesting, as always; your blog is a real vista onto territories wholly unknown to me. A note on Sumerian: it is not a cuneiform language, but a language written in a cuneiform script–a pedantic distinction but an important one. Script is often quite independent of language, as in Indonesia where Roman, Arabic and Sanskrit (Devanagari) scripts are all used. Allegedly modern scholarship has discovered links between Sumerian and some Dravidian languages, eg. Tamil, but I don’t know how kosher this stuff is.

Jen: ‘whore’, ‘prostitute’ and ‘concubine’ all have reasonably interesting histories, I think…

30 09 2006
Simon

Jen: My personal feeling would be that the word was not considered as offensive then although I’m at more of a loss to explain why it became so offensive later. The word “whore” frequently turns up as a verb in the Bible and was not edited out once.

Conrad: Thanks for that: that’s a distinction that I had not considered before, but which makes good sense to me. I wonder how that would work with purely literary languages? To run with an example of a constructed language, I suppose that Quenya (one of Tolkein’s Elvish languages) can be described as a Tengwar language, seeing as this is the invented script in which Tolkein committed it to writing. As the language only exists in this written form there cannot be any separation between language and script – as there is with, say, Sumerian. Are there any real languages like this, do you think?

1 10 2006
Conrad

No, I don’t think so–spoken (or signed) languages, to my knowledge, always precede the written form. The writing is ultimately a ‘code’ for reproducing the spoken form. Sometimes the invention of a written form is a big deal, eg. when George Guess invented a syllabary for Cherokee in the 19th century. The only thing comparable to Tolkien are the innumerable invented languages of history, eg. the universal languages of the 17th and 19th centuries, or things like mathematical logic.

6 10 2006
John Cowan

If it comes to that, the great bulk of Tolkien’s writing in Quenya is actually in the Latin script, not the Tengwar at all. And this is not true merely of his published work, but of his manuscripts also. The same is true of Klingon, where the Latin-script orthography is the only official one in the Primary World, whatever is the case in the Secondary.

There are scripts which have been used only to write a single language, like Cherokee, but in no case is this a necessary feature of the script, merely a historical contingency.

It’s also not really true, talking of necessity and contingency, that older always means more complex; in the Finno-Ugric languages, having lots of cases (15-25) is a fairly recent phenomenon. In the reconstructed versions, the case endings are separate postpositions, and only in the last millennium or so have they come to be irrevocably glued to the noun stems as a result of morphophonemic changes.

Maori verbs are another fascinating case. In Proto-Polynesian, the passive was formed by adding the invariable ending -ia to the final consonant of the active. However, this final consonant has now been lost in all active forms, leaving us (from a synchronic viewpoint) with a random and irregular lot of passive endings, -tia, -kia, -ria, and so on, each of which must be learned individually like so many Latin or Greek declensions. (The -tia ending is the “regular” one, in the sense that it is applied “by rule” to borrowed or otherwise novel verbs, and even to some verbs that once took other endings; therefore, it cannot be that the final consonant is still underlyingly present in the active, for there can hardly be an underlying /t/ in all foreign verbs!)

6 10 2006
Daniel

The application of affixes “by rule”, and generally the regularisation of assimilated foreign words, reminds me of the story (which may or may not be true) told by my linguistics lecturer that in Swahili, a language which contains a set of nouns which begin “ki-” and are pluralised “vi-“, the word for traffic circle “kiplefti” is pluralised “viplefti”.

I certainly find it funny that a speaker of Modern Hebrew, in which nouns are pluralised by adding the suffix “-im”, might go to a clothing store to look at “jinzim”, or to a cake shop and ask for just one “browniz”.

8 10 2006
Conrad

“the word for traffic circle “kiplefti” is pluralised “viplefti”’

The assimilation of word forms happens in English too; for instance ‘penthouse’, which is an anglicization of ‘appendix’, now pluralised ‘penthouses’, as if from ‘houses’. Pluralisations are often lost too, just as with Hebrew: cherry was originally “cherries” as a singular word (Fr. cerise), but taken as plural; same with pea from pease (Fr. pois).

8 10 2006
Simon

Not to mention the understanding of “hamburger” as “ham” + “burger”, rather than “something from Hamburg”, thus giving rise to “chicken burger” and “beef burger”.

Another Hebrew example: the Aramaic abstract noun for kingship is מלכו (malkhu) which takes the feminine definate article מלכותא (malkhuta). In Hebrew, this was (mis)understood to be a masculine definate article and the absolute form was thus taken to be מלכות (malkhut). All abstract Hebrew nouns (I think) end in ות- and are feminine; pluralising as ויות-.

8 10 2006
Conrad

Ah, really? That’s one of the few Hebrew words I know (for obvious reasons). And is the root for king (melk-) related to the root for angel (malakh-)? If not, at least by folk etymology?

8 10 2006
Simon

Samuel Tobias Lachs writes the wonderful A Rabbinic Commentary on the New Testament in which, at one point, he discusses the nature of the Lord’s Prayer. I mention this because I am assuming that the ‘Kingdom of Heaven’ is the reason that you are familiar with the Hebrew מלכות? In any case, there is an injunction in the Rabbinic literature that all benedictions must contain a reference to the Kingdom and the “thy Kingdom come” of the New Testament is understood by some in light of that. (Incidentally, prior to the relexification of the Aramaic word, the Hebrew abstract noun was either מלוכה or ממלכה.)

And, no, there is no connection between “king” and “angel”. The word for angel (properly, ‘messenger’) is etymologically related to הלך, meaning “go, to go”. The actual root is understood to be לאך, which turns up most prominently in Ethiopic where it refers to sending a messenger (in the active) or ministering to somebody (in the passive). The Hebrew retains the aleph, keeping the word as מלאך but with no connection to the kingly מלך.

Of course, I can’t speak for what you refer to as folk-etymology and, in that regard, I’ve heard all manner of preposterous connections raised between completely different and unrelated words.

8 10 2006
Conrad

I was aware of this (and had read something once about the Jewishness of the Lord’s Prayer)–but I meant that I knew Malkhut from its kabbalistic use as the last of the sefirot (or first, if you prefer).

8 10 2006
Conrad

BTW, I’d be very interested to read the Lachs; my libary has a copy, thanks for the tip.

14 04 2007
Rebecca

I am so surprised. That is quite amazing. Well, anyway the biblical words are like some of the words I know. I was actually aware about that because I remember it from the torah, you see I had to read like all of it. Well anyway thanks, now I know more about my religion.

14 04 2007
Rebecca

I’m quite surprised how the authors of the bible didn’t have so much problems including those kind of words such as……well I prefer not to type them down. I mean now it is considered a real bad word that most decent Jewish people wouldn’t like to say, you see I’m one of those.

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