Friday, June 21, 2013

That Wascally Wabr

The meaning of words changes over time and over place.

For example, growing up, I was always confused when Torah translations talked about there being corn in Egpyt. Wasn't corn a plant that was native to America? How then could Yaakov have heard that there was corn in Egypt? Either corn existed in Egypt, or this was a strange translation.

I didn't realize that the English translations originated in England, and that in England it means grain, usually wheat, while in modern America it means maize. Or that it locally is understood to denote the leading crop of a district. At the time, in my teens, I didn't think to look up such a common word in a dictionary, and there was no Google to use to find its etymology in three seconds.

Nowadays, I can search for etymology corn and find the etymology of corn:

corn (n.1) Look up corn at
"grain," Old English corn, from Proto-Germanic *kurnam "small seed" (cf. Old Frisian and Old Saxon korn "grain," Middle Dutch coren, German Korn, Old Norse korn, Gothic kaurn), from PIE root *gre-no- "grain" (cf. Old Church Slavonic zruno "grain," Latin granum "seed," Lithuanian žirnis "pea"). The sense of the Old English word was "grain with the seed still in" (e.g. barleycorn) rather than a particular plant.

Locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district. Restricted to corn on the cob in America (c.1600, originally Indian corn, but the adjective was dropped), usually wheat in England, oats in Scotland and Ireland, while Korn means "rye" in parts of Germany. Maize was introduced to China by 1550, it thrived where rice did not grow well and was a significant factor in the 18th century population boom there. Cornflakesfirst recorded 1907. Corned beef so called for the "corns" or grains of salt with which it is preserved; from verb corn "to salt" (1560s).
I did know that there were differences between American English and British English. For example, boot either means the trunk of an automobile or a shoe. But that is not nearly as confusing as when the word is a cognate, that is, almost the same meaning, with the same surface form, in the two languages.

Here is another example: Rabbit.

Did you know that in British English, and in scientific zoological usage, "rabbit" refers to one group of animals (I'll call them "true rabbits" to keep things clear), while in American English "rabbit" it refers to an entirely different group of animals ("hares")?

That is, from the perspective of scientific taxonomy, looking at the genera (genuses) that make up the family Leporidae,
Members of all genera except Lepus are usually referred to as rabbits, while members of Lepus (which accounts for almost half the species) are usually called hares.
And in British English, this is true. However, in American English, hares are called rabbits. That is because there are no native "true rabbits" in America, only hares. And so the term "rabbit" was applied to the closest species.

I found this out from an online etymological dictionary:

rabbit (n.) Look up rabbit at
Zoologically speaking, there are no native rabbits in the United States; they are all hares. But the early colonists, for some unknown reason, dropped the word hare out of their vocabulary, and it is rarely heard in American speech to this day. When it appears it is almost always applied to the so-called Belgian hare, which, curiously enough, is not a hare at all, but a true rabbit. [H.L. Mencken]
Note that Americans call rabbits hares and hares rabbits.

It is no wonder that, on occasion, American publications will confuse the terms and speak of rabbits instead of hares, where earlier and later works, employing the precise scientific taxonomic names, make it clear that hares were the subject matter. A certain fellow pointed to sources showing "rabbits" in Eretz Yisrael, based on American sources,
Rabbits were also found in excavations in the Negev [Theron Douglas Price, Anne Birgitte Gebauer. “Last hunters, first farmers: new perspectives on the prehistoric transition to agriculture”. School of American Research (Santa Fe, N.M.) School of American Research Press, 1995 - Technology & Engineering - 354 pages, page 61] and in Israel’s vicinity like Syria [Andrew M. T. Moore. “A Pre Neolithic Farmers' Village on the Euphrates”. Scientific American. 1979;241(8):62-70, page 66]
and refused to accept any correction in this matter, in part on ideological grounds.

This is an example of the meaning of a word changing based on locale. The word "rabbit" also changed across time. From the same etymological dictionary:

rabbit (n.) Look up rabbit at
late 14c., "young of the coney," from French dialect (cf. Walloon robète), diminutive of Flemish or Middle Dutch robbe "rabbit," of unknown origin. "A Germanic noun with a French suffix" [Liberman]. The adult was a coney (q.v.) until 18c.
Thus, initially it meant the young of a coney, whereas now it refers to both young and old of the species.

The gemara, as well, makes note of words changing their meaning, and that this can have practical ramifications. Shabbat 36a-b:
For R. Hisda said: The following three things reversed their designations after the destruction of the Temple: [i] trumpet [changed to] shofar, and shofar to trumpet. What is the practical bearing thereof? in respect of the shofar [blown] on New Year. [ii] 'Arabah [willow] [changed to] zafzafah and zafzafah to 'Arabah. What is the practical bearing thereof? — In respect of the lulab [iii] Pathora [changed to] pathorta and pathorta to Pathora. What is the practical bearing thereof? — In respect of buying and selling. Abaye observed: We too can state:Hoblila [changed to] be kasse and be kasse to hoblila. What is the practical bearing thereof? In respect of a needle which is found in the thickness of the beth hakosoth, which if [found] on one side, it [the animal] is fit [for food]; if through both sides, it [the animal] is terefah. R. Ashi said, We too will state: Babylon [changed to] Borsif and Borsif to Babylon.
Another famous example is the tzvi. As Dr. Yehuda Feliks wrote in Nature and Man in the Bible: Chapters in Biblical Ecology, the Biblical and Talmudic tzvi is the gazelle, but later European translators transferred the term to the Biblical ayal, a deer.

Next, we have the shafan. The Biblical term most likely refers to the hyrax, which the Israelites were familiar with. Pesukim in Mishlei and Tehillim describe behavior and habitat for the shafan that matches that of the hyrax. I am not going to rehash all of this here.

Saadia Gaon translates the shafan as wabr in his Tafsir. Thus, where the Torah has:

Rav Saadia Gaon writes:

He wrote the Tafsir between 922 and 928 CE.

Is this Rav Saadia Gaon's al-wabr? :-)
Great, but we don't know what a wabr is. Is the wabr a hyrax? An octopus? Maybe it means llama or pica! Saadia Gaon was writing for an audience, though, so we can try to determine what al wabr meant in his time and his place. There is good evidence that where Saadia Gaon was (Egypt, Eretz Yisrael, etc.), it meant hyrax, which is indigenous to the area and was indeed referred to as al-wabr.

However, the Arabic language spread throughout the world, since the Arabs were conquering and converting the entire world. And in other places, they did not have hyraxes, but they did have other animals, which required an Arabic name. And so, the name wabr could be reused to apply to the similar local species.

Indeed, I've seen wabr translated as 'weasel', 'guinea pig', 'coney', and 'hyrax'.

At some point, at least 85 years later (that it, some time after 1013 CE), and in Spain, a country that did not have hyraxes, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach wrote Sefer HaShorashim, in which he explains shafan as al wabr, and then proceeds to define the term in medieval Spanish.

Thus, he writes:

Zohar Amar has translated it as:

"הוא 'אלובר', בעל חיים כמידת חתול שהוא מצוי מעט במזרח, ואולם אצלנו הוא מרובה, ואולם המון העם אינו מכירו באותו השם, אלא בשם 'קנליה' (قنلية), והוא ניב ספרדי"
In English (some help from commenters on this post):

"This is the al-wabr, an animal the size of a cat which is found rarely in the East, yet by us it is plentiful. [Footnote 45: And it is well known in Morroco.] And the hamon am do not recognize it by this name [Josh: of wabr], but rather by the name conilio, which is a foreign [=Spanish] word."

We see here that Ibn Janach, who did not travel to the East, is identifying the Arabic al-wabr as conilio. Since in modern Spanish, conilio means rabbit, it is quite plausible that he meant it to be rabbit. The hyrax is not found in Spain; the rabbit was not found (or at least found plentifully) in the East, and was plentiful in Spain.

He is also saying that this is not what the people in his vicinity would call the creature. It is thus an identification he is making himself, or which some people use.

It thus seems quite likely to me that this is an instance of a word's meaning shifting over time and place. That is, Ibn Janach did not know of the hyrax, but he did know of the rabbit, and that some people called the rabbit by the term al-wabr, and so he assumed that this was the meaning of Saadia Gaon's term.

And so, Ibn Janach reports and passes on the masorah of shafan as al-wabr from the authority or authorities before him, but accidentally shifted the identification of al-wabr to the rabbit. This is similar to the way in which various Rishonim living in Europe identify Chazal's shafan as the rabbit. Indeed, perhaps Ibn Janach is the very vector of the shift.


SPACE said...

There's more. In Bible is often mentioned oak, linen robes. It's sacred Lithuanian pagan tree and clothes. There's no oaks and linen in middle east.

Chanokh said...

It is curious that you do not mention that the name of Spain itself, España or Hispania, likely comes from the Punic I-shafania, the island of the shafan, since the Phoenicians did not know of the rabbit and so, when they came to this "island" where it was plentiful, they mistook it for what they knew back in Canaan, i. e. the hyrax.

Yoel B said...

There's more. In Bible is often mentioned oak, linen robes. It's sacred Lithuanian pagan tree and clothes. There's no oaks and linen in middle east

What on earth does that mean? Since this is parshablog, I'll start with this: The "worm" of תולעת שני is the larva of an insect living on the Kermes oak which is only one of a number of Quercus species native to the Middle East.

ָSpeaking of dyed linen, are you saying that "linen" is a mistranslation for פישתימ? Even if you completely set aside our Mesorah, according to Wikipedia, "[Flax] is native to the region extending from the eastern Mediterranean to India and was probably first domesticated in the Fertile Crescent in the Middle East". Numerous examples of linen textiles survive from ancient Egypt where it was used for, among other things, high status clothing and mummy wrappings.

SPACE said...

Flax is the worse kind of linen, not suitable for priest wearing. Yes, arabs (sunni), egyptians wear white, but it is not linen.
In this fertile crescent, levant is different kind tree, not original oak.
And absolute absurdity is to have Lebanon in flag cedar, there's no cedars in Lebanon for 1000 years.
And I don't want to go to egyptian mummies, it will crash all talmudic-tanakh, also biblical seder olam official chronology.

Yoel B said...

I still don't understand what you're driving at. As I understand it, when flax plants are retted to yield fiber, if the fibers are used to make woven textiles, the resulting fabric is called "linen." Retting the flax by submerging it in water produces a higher grade fiber that can yield finer linen -- the kind that would be used by priests, for example than dry land retting.

While perhaps you're thinking of the past tendency (in English, anyway, which is all that is mentioned here: to refer to both hemp and flax fabrics as "linen" what does what Sunni Arabs wear have to do with the sheep's wool, flax or shatnez which Cohanim wore in the Beit Hamikdash?

SPACE said...

It's hard to make decisions, because whole this territory from Pakistan to Morocco is layered with sand. Some plants and animals accustomized, some disappeared, some migrated.

middlerax said...

This is precisely the question I've been asking Doctor Betech. Since he quotes Hulin 42a that God showed the Israelites all the animals, what they can and can not eat, it stands to reason that he showed them animals that were not native to the Middle East. Therefore, the shafan for all we know may be an animal from the new world, or beyond, and if that is the case, the fact that King David referred to the hyrax as the shafan has no bearing on what the actual shafan may be. So instead of Rabbi Slifkin trying to figure out how the hyrax chews the cud, and instead of Doctor Betech trying to figure out how the rabbit chews the cud, we could simply say like Rabbi Lubin that shafan might be the other members of the camel/llama family, or some other animal altogether.


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