Tuesday, 11 September 2007

The Evolution of Hebrew Abreviations

Originally published 9/11/07, 11:42 AM, Eastern Daylight Time.
Reprinted with permission from the author, R. Seth Mandelsethm37@hotmail.com

Background Comments Primarily to the Group

It greatly pleaseth me that others of our esteemed chevra pick up on these items. I do not claim that I am always m'khawwen to the'emeth when I leave my trail, but I do have the general kawwoanoa (how doth that please the the chevra to represent a qoamatz?) to leave a trail. In addition to the issue of hakhoamenu (not -meinu) zikhroanoam livroakhoa, I left other crumbs. Since R DB, alas, who inhabiteth a divers time continuum, hath not yet i-picked up mine trail, I do wish to point out other crumbs:
  1. A spelling 'QWM is exceedingly strange for something spelled 'KWM, and, forsooth, is not comely.
  2. The word 'akum meaning crooked is only pronounced such in 'ABaZit. In classical Hebrew, the word is 'oaqom, with an implicit double m at the end, as is true of most adjectives of that mivneh. Although not attested in the T'NaKh, it is fairly common in the Hebrew of HaZaL.
Substantive Comments on Hebrew Evolution
Regarding R. Akiva's comment, "Does R' Seth really expect me to believe that the people who read this would have read it as "Harav Moshe Ben Maimon", and not as "Harambam"?":
I expect no one to believe anything. After seeing in my own lifetime how thousands of Jews have abandoned one of the tenets of our faith that was affirmed for two thousand years, I have despaired of expecting people to believe anything. All I expect to do is to bring supporting evidence for my position, and then people can believe as they wish. Unfortunately, I have no recordings of people reading Jewish texts and "talking in learning" two hundred years ago, much less 500 (I do think that we would have some difficulty understanding the MaHaRiL, who attests that in his time people were still distinguishing the h.eth from the kaf). I deliberately gave two examples, however, to make a point. The readings "akum" and "rambam" may be old, but the reading "shlita" is a new invention. My beard is grey, but not so long, and I remember a time when the reading "shlita" did not exist. 'Twas only written, and in speech a locution such as "zol zain gezunt un shtark" was employed.

I can still remember the first time I ever heard anyone say "shlita": it was on the radio, when Butman or another Lyubavitcher was saying over something that the late Lyubavitcher leader had said on a "farbrengen" carried on the radio. It sounded very strange to me (being a curmudgeonly nitpicker even when I was in kurtze hoyzen) then and still sounds strange. Once one has witnessed the change of a written abbreviation to a spoken pseudo-word before one's eyes, the idea that once upon a time, far far away, Jews did not pronounce abbreviations as words but pronounced the actual words represented by the abbreviation does not seem so strange. True, American government-speak excels in inventing new words from abbreviations, such as NASA (although the real name is still uttered) and Humvee (I have not heard the real name for a long time). But there are multiple shards of evidence that Jews did not pronounce most abbreviations as words. One is that most old manuscripts write out numerical abbreviations: "dalet ammoth" is written as "arba' ammoth." Another, even more telling, is that many old manuscripts vocalize the abbreviations to indicate how the real words are to be read: HaZaL is written HaZiLi.

Unlike changes like geshem to goashem, I am not claiming that the change to pronouncing abbreviations as words was due to a single person who thought he knew diqduq, nor that the change occurred for all words at the same time. I am sure it was a gradual process, with readings such as HaZal getting into vogue earlier, since it saveth many syllables. As the American government-speak shows, this is a tendency that has established itself in other languages. But the final incontrovertible proof lies in the realization that until the advent of printing, most Jews did not view Hebrew so much as a written language, but as a holy tongue. Jews shared manuscripts of mishnayoth, with many clustering around the one copy extant in the Beth Medrash, and some just listened. If one is not looking at the written text, but reciting half by heart, the impetus to "read" abbreviations as if they were real words is minimal. And unlike the situation since the 18th century, when abbreviations have been standardized, before printing and in the period after printing was first developed, an abbreviation such as 'KWM alternated with printings/writings such as "'ovde kokhoavim," whereas nowadays one will only find "hoaloav 'KWM" printed. And other abbreviations, not standard nowadays, were also employed. This indicates that abbreviations were still viewed as such, rather than actual words.

But I am sure that the reading of some abbreviations as words began in the 18th century, and gradually became more wide-spread, among more people and over more words, during the past 250 years.

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