Friday, July 08, 2005

Torah slang

In the very interesting introduction to Genesis: Translation and Commentary by Robert Alter there is a bit about the nature of the Hebrew of the Torah. He posits that the Torah is written in an elevated, literary Hebrew, rather than in vernacular Hebrew.His chief evidence is the emergence of a rabbinic Hebrew that is authentically Hebrew yet not quite descended from biblical Hebrew, even allowing for Aramaic and Greek influence. In other words, in biblical times the biblical people didn't speak like the biblical books.

There is evidence... that people in everyday life may have had different words for many of the basic concept and entities that are mentioned in the Bible. This argument was persuasively made by the Israeli linguist Abba Ben-David in The Language of the Bible and the Language of the Sages. Ben-David offers a fascinating explanation for one of the great mysteries of the Hebrew language--the emergence toward the end of the pre-Christian era, of a new kind of Hebrew, which became the language of the early rabbis.

Now, it is widely recognized that this new Hebrew reflected the influence of the Aramaic vernacular in morphology, in grammar, and in some of its vocabulary, and that, understandably, it also incorporated a vast number of Greek and Latin loanwords. But what is puzzling is that rabbinic Hebrew also uses a good many indigenous Hebrew terms that are absent from the biblical corpus, or reflected only in rare and marginal biblical cognates. The standard terms in rabbinical Hebrew for sun and moon, and some of its frequently used verb like to look, to take, to enter, to clean, are entirely different from their biblical counterparts, without visible influence from any of the languages impinging on Hebrew.

Where did these words come from? Ben-David... makes the bold and, to my mind, convincing proposal that rabbinic Hebrew was built upon an ancient vernacular that for the most part had been excluded from the literary language used for the canonical texts. This makes particular sense if one keeps in mind that the early rabbis were anxious to draw a line between their own "Oral Torah" and the written Torah they were expounding. For the purposes of legal and homiletical exegesis, they naturally would have used a vernacular Hebrew rather than the literary language, and when their discourse was first given written formulation in the Mishnah in the early third century c.e., that text would have recorded this vernacular, which probably had a long prehistory in the biblical period. It is distinctly possible that when a ninth-century B.C.E. Israelite farmer mopped his brow under the blazing sun, he did not point to it and say shemesh, as it is invariably called in biblical prose texts, but rather chamah, as it is regularly designated in the Mishnah.

Alter then gives a cool example of the difference between biblical and rabbinic (vernacular) Hebrew with a striking exception in the Torah--Torah slang!.

It is well known that in biblical dialogue all the characters speak proper literary Hebrew, with no intimations of slang, dialect or idiolect. The single striking exception is impatient Esau's first speech to Jacob in Genesis 25: "Let me gulp down some of this red red stuff." Inarticulate with hunger, he cannot come up with the ordinary Hebrew term for "stew," and so he makes do with "ha'adom ha'adom hazeh"--literally "this red red." But what is more interesting for our purpose is the verb Esau uses for "feeding," hal'iteini. This is the sole occurrence of this verb in the biblical corpus, but in the Talmud it is a commonly used term with the specific meaning of stuffing food into the mouth of an animal. One cannot be certain this was its precise meaning in the biblical period because words do, after all, undergo semantic shifts in a period of considerably more than a thousand years. But it seems safe to assume, minimally, that even a millennium before the rabbis hal'it would have been a cruder term for feeding that the standard biblical ha'akhil. What I think happened at this point in Genesis is that the author, in the writerly zest with which he sought to characterize Esau's crudeness, allowing himself, quite exceptionally, to introduce a vernacular term for coarse eating or animal feeding into the dialogue that would jibe nicely with his phrase, "this red red stuff." After the close of the biblical era, this otherwise excluded term would surface in the legal pronouncements of the rabbis on animal husbandry, together with a host of vernacular words used in the ancient period but never permitted to enter the canonical texts.

Lashon ha-qodesh vs Ivrit?

Just kidding. ;)

Really, my only quibble is with the certainty of: "It is well known that in biblical dialogue all the characters speak proper literary Hebrew, with no intimations of slang, dialect or idiolect."

It may be a great hypothesis and he may have a great example, but I'm not convinced that "it's well known" makes something a fact. Still...

On the Main Line, now with tags:

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