Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Moderate secular knowledge, erudition and analytical skills; a late 19th century stereotype of a former Volozhiner.

This is a partial repost. Quite often I find that little details in part of a much larger issue are interesting and worth paying attention to. A few months ago I posted about the Tosaphist apparently named Peter (or not; see here) and I also included a discussion about a whimsical article written by Reform Rabbi Bernhard Felsenthal in 1889 contending that a Talmudic rabbi was named Patrick. In presenting his evidence, he invented three men, probably common Jewish types in Chicago in 1889, immigrants from Germany, Galicia and Lithuania. His Litvak, "Berish Warshawski" attended Volozhin in his younger days (along with his name, this is one of the stereotypical aspects of this designed character). Here is the full quote:
"I agree with you, Mr. Falkenstein [i.e., the German; that he's never heard of a rabbi named Patrick, and Felsenthal must be kidding]," says Mr. Berush Warshawski. "You know I am a Lithuak by birth, and in my younger days I attended the Yeshibhah in Wolosin, and there I read the entire Talmud over and over again. But that I ever found the name Rabbi Patrick in it, this is more than I can say. Or should m memory have ceased to serve me?"
After presenting some evidence, Warshawski the Litvak mounts a challenge:
Mr. Warshawski rises to remark, that the older form of the name was Patricius, not Patrick. How, then, he says, can the Hebrew letter Koph be justified in the transliteration?
Felsenthal then proceeds to deliver a lesson, explaining that the ancient c was always pronounced hard. (Kikero, Kaesar, not Cicero, Caesar as Sisero, Saesar.)

I find this interesting because evidently for Felsenthal part of the stereotype of the former Volozhiner student was that he'd recognize "the older form of the name was Patricius," a bit of erudition but not too much, since he needs to be told that ancient Latin consonants are not identical with their modern sound values. It's pointless to speculate that the real Warshawski the Wolosiner hardly needed to be reminded of ק'סר, and that if he know "Patricius" he also should have known ק'סר was Casesar. Truthfully, many people probably know ק'סר but never thought about the implications for how the Romans pronounced their consonant c (which was changed from the Greek gamma, derived from gimmel, because Latin received their alphabet via the Etruscans, who did not have that hard /g/ sound, and instead adopted the gamma as a hard c). And of course there were doubtlessly many former Volozhiners who could have out-aleph-protheticaed Felsenthal himself (do read the article for the complete context). But it's interesting to focus a lens onto a stereotype of a kind of Litvak one could meet in Chicago in 1889, a Volozhiner no less. When one reads the article and compares it with the other two types, it becomes even more clear how deliberate he was in constructing them.


  1. I'm a little confused: Did the ancient Romans have what we call the soft "c" in their days? If not, how did they pronounce the name "Cicero" - did they actually say "Kikero"? And did they pronounce the word "Ceasar" as we pronounce it, or "Kaiser"? Did the Jews write the word as "kaiser" because the Jews lacked a soft "c", or because that is the way the romans actually pronounced it?

    Sorry, I just couldnt figure this out from what you'd written.


  2. I didn't realize how unclear I was.

    Latin did have the soft c *sound*. It was represented by the letter S. The Latin letter C, however, sounded like our K. They also had a K, but it was used exclusively in writing Greek words. Thus, Cicero was indeed pronounced something like Kikero. For that matter, their J was pronounced like our Y, thus Julius Casesar was pronounced something like Yulius Kaesar (leaving the vowels aside).

    The Jews didn't lack a soft c either; they could have used a samekh or a sin. They used quf because that's what was equivalent to the C.

  3. This stuff highlights something I find very interesting, namely how inadequate the Latin alphabet is for English. There are so many doubles, we had to add letters (the Romans only had 23), and we have to double letters to produce crucial English sounds, like /sh/ and the two kinds of /th/. There are 40 + sounds in English, represented by 26 letters with numerous redundancies. In older English they supplemented the Latin alphabet with the earlier Runic one, which had distinct letters for the two kinds of /th/, for example.

    This could also get into questions about the Hebrew alphabet, which *also* contains redundancies, not to mention the letters which do double duty.

    What did you think of the Volozhiner stereotype? Interesting, isn't it?

  4. Slight correction to your post - I believe that Latin did have a hard G sound, which they represented with G (e.g. in Gaius Julius Caesar). Gamma switched to C in Etruscan, and the Romans borrowed their alphabet from Etruscan. When they did, they needed a G sound, so they switch zayin (or whatever the Etruscans called it) into G.

  5. You're right. Momentary brain lapse. My defense is that I picked this post out on a tiny netbook, with keys I can never get used to. Will correct. :)

  6. LOL

    Yes, it's all relative.



Related Posts with Thumbnails