Friday, September 30, 2005

How to Update an Ancient Language

Flogging that parve hemi-semi-demi-notoriety (see previous post), I have yet to tell my aunt about it, though it was she who originally used the word in our interview. Given her unrelenting attention to Hebrew etymology, particularly in reference to those English-language words forever being sucked into this evolving new/old language's maw, I think she'll be tickled by her contribution to reversing the current. I say unrelenting, because having invested a few hours in my language education, she now happily interrupts conversations to point out examples of the two main rules she's taught me.

And they go like this. Modern words (i.e., those not found in the Bible or related works), are generally created or adapted for Hebrew use in one of two ways.

1. The word may be derived by stretching an existing word/word family; e.g., from lakhshov (to think) we get makhshev (computer). Note that the same root may have long ago been extended to a related meaning, such as khashoov (important, or worth thinking about).

2. The word may be adapted by recasting an English word; e.g., nah-vee-gaht-see-ya (navigation) or psee-kho-lo-gee-ya (psychology) or (and this one throws people) ee-air-ar-shee-ya (hierarchy). I heard a neck-snapper today: teh-rah-poi-tee-ka (note the German pronunciation of the "eu" in therapeutic).

In many cases, a word derived from a Hebrew root exists but people just ignore it and use the adaptation. One of my favorite indigenous words for a modern concept is mootag, which means brand, as in consumer brand. My aunt thinks it comes from meteg, the word for electric switch, but she's not sure. I guess I could look up that meelah in a meelon or dictionary, which is itself a fairly recent invention with an easily derived name.


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