Language – words and pronunciation

Thanks to the Western World’s long,  intimate relationship with the Tanach,  English (and no doubt other European  languages as well) is peppered with  Biblical words such as the Sabbath, the  Messiah, cherubs, the Satan, jubilee  (fiftieth anniversary), leviathan, and behemoth  (the latter representing gigantic  animals or fish). English has also adopted  complete phrases from the  Tanach   including the writing on the wall  (Doniel 5:25), the mark of Cain (Bereishis  4:15), grapes of wrath (Devorim  32:32), from the mouths of babes and  sucklings (Tehillim 8:3), the way of  all flesh (Bereishis 6:12), dust to dust  (ibid 3:19), feet of clay (Doniel 2:34)and man shall not live by bread alone  (Devorim 8:3). These words and phrases  are of fairly common usage among English  speakers. 

The Lingual Deathtrap 
A less known Biblical term adopted  by  the English language is the word  Shibboleth, (literally, an ear of corn, also  the name of a stream) which in English  means a linguistic password, a word  whose use or pronunciation sets off the  speaker as belonging or not belonging  to a particular race or nation, often with  dire and even fatal results. The first and  only time this word appears in Tanach  with this sinister connotation is in Sefer  Shoftim (chapter 12) soon after Yiftach’s  victorious battle against Amon, when  Yiftach returned home and was forced  to dedicate his daughter to Hashem after  she was the first living creature to come  out to meet him.

A less well known tragedy that developed  immediately after his victory  against Amon occurred when the people  of Ephraim entered into an argument  with him about the conduct of the war,  complaining that he had not invited  them to help in the battle, while Yiftach  complained that on the contrary, they  had deliberately held back from supporting  him during the struggle against  Amon. This argument developed into  a full scale battle in which the men of  Ephraim were decisively defeated. The  Tanach tells us that as Ephraim attempted  to escape from Menashe’s territory  and cross the Yarden River into Eretz  Yisroel proper, Yiftach’s men devised  a simple but effective strategy to detect  the fugitives and put them to the sword: 

The men of Gilead  took the crossings  of the Yarden [and guarded them]  against the people Ephraim; and when  any of the fugitives of Ephraim said: Let  me go over, the men of Gilead said to  him: Are you of the tribe of Ephraim? If  he said: No, they then said to him: Say  now Shibboles; and he said Sibboles;  for he could not frame to pronounce it  right. Then they laid hold of him, and  killed him at the crossings of the Yarden  and there fell at that time of Ephraim  forty-two thousand. 

Subsequently, this Shibboleth tactic  was utilized numerous times during history  to detect concealed foes. Examples  of its use include when the Sicilians revolted  against the French occupiers of  their country during the late 1200s and  identified those who tried to pass themselves  off as locals by their inability  to pronounce the Sicilian word Ciciri  (chickpeas). Also, during a revolt in  1302, Belgian peasants identified their  French foes by demanding they pronounce  the slogan Schild ende Vriend  (Shield and Friend); the French were  unable to pronounce the Sch sound. Ten  years later in Cracow, the Polish sniffed  out German and French citizens of the  city when they could not pronounce  the words soczewica, koło, miele, młyn  (lentil, wheel, grinds, mill) and subjected  them to death, exile, or confiscation  of their property.

We see it again during World War II,  when Dutch resistance fighters caught  Germans trying to infiltrate their ranks  by asking them to pronounce the name  of the port town Scheveningen, and similarly,  during the Battle of Normandy,  American forces challenged unidentified soldiers to say the word “welcome,”  which Germans pronounced as Velcome.  (At the time, a number of Jews in  the American forces were mistaken for  Germans due to their Yiddish pronunciation  of English). During Israel’s War  of Independence, many passwords deliberately  included p sounds, since Arabs  almost invariably pronounce P as B.

Another relatively recent incidence of  utilizing language to filter out unwanted  people took place near the beginning of  the last century when Australia was interested  in keeping out undesirable (read  non-white) elements from the country.  To achieve this result, they tested the  language skills of prospective yellow or  brown immigrants by challenging them  with sentences such as, “The tiger is  sleeker, and so lithe and graceful that he  does not show to the same appalling advantage  as his cousin, the lion, with the  roar that shakes the earth. Both are cats,  cousins of our amiable purring friend of  the hearthrug, but the tiger is king of the  family.” Prospective immigrants were  instructed to write paragraphs such as  these from dictation and to ensure that  no one succeeded, officials were sometimes  instructed that “the test when  applied to an immigrant is intended to  serve as an absolute bar to such a person’s entry into Australia, or as a means  of depriving him of the right to remain  in the Commonwealth if he has landed.  The test should therefore be applied in  a language with which the immigrant is  not sufficiently acquainted to be able to  write out at dictation.”

But one day the Australian Shibboleth  test met its match when the Communist  Jewish Czech journalist and anti-Fascist  Egon Kisch arrived there in 1934 to deliver  a series of public lectures against  Hitlerism. Because Kisch was known as  a public agitator, the Australians were  determined to keep him out and due to  his fluency in many languages it was  decided to take advantage of the rule  that any European language could be  utilized for the diction test and to test  him in Scottish Gaelic. Subsequent public  protest brought the matter to court  where it was ruled that utilizing an unknown  language like Scottish Gaelic  had been unfair. As a result, Kisch was  able to deliver a rousing speech on February  17, 1935/5695, warning a huge  crowd of 18,000 of the dangers of Hitler’s Nazi regime and how it could lead  to increasing imprisonment in concentration  camps and war. 

Rays or Horns 
The widespread use of Biblical words  and expressions in English also led to  mistranslations and miscomprehensions,  such as the widespread belief  that Moshe had horns. This is due to the  ambiguity of the word koran, which can  mean either to radiate or to have horns.  Rashi indeed finds a link between the  two meanings by pointing out that rays  of light are called karnayim because  light radiates and protrudes like a horn.

Ignoring Jewish sources, the Catholic  translation of the Bible known as the  Vulgate translated the verse, And the face of Moshe shone (Shemos 34:29) as  meaning that his face sprouted horns (cornutam)  and a number of artists and sculptures  subsequently depicted Moshe with  strange protuberances protruding from  his forehead. Was this depiction of Moshe  with horns the origin of the strange but  persistent belief of some non-Jews that  Jews have horns, or is the myth due to the  general demonization of Jews? The jury is  still out on that one.

Another famous mistranslation of the  Tanach is the persistency in calling Yam  Suf the Red Sea instead of the Reed Sea.  Surprisingly, this seeming mistranslation  was due not to the similarity between Red  and Reed, but rather because the Greek  Septuagint translates Yam Suf as Erythra  Thalassa, the Red Sea, unlike the earlier  verse where Moshe is placed in the reeds  of the Nile, which the Septuagint faithfully  translates as helos (reeds). Why the  Septuagint translates Suf as red is another  question that remains open to the jury.

While on the subject of the formulation  of English words from Jewish sources,  it is intriguing to note that a short lived  English word was once formulated from  a Jewish soldier’s name. This happened  around the time of the Civil War when, for  a short time, some good people of Texas  utilized a newly minted word, referring to  a courageous person as “a regular Fronthall.” The original Fronthall was Confederate  Private Louis Frauenthall (or,  Frankenthal, according to some) who was  admired by his comrades for never flinching  under fire. He was especially singled  out for praise in the July 15, 1893 edition  of the Galveston News, which depicted his  part in the forgotten Battle of Spotsylvania  Court House.

“Fronthall, a little Jew, although insignificant in appearance, had the heart of a  lion,” wrote newspaperman A.T. Watts.  “For several hours he stood at the immediate  point of contact, amid the most  terrific hail of lead, and coolly and deliberately  loaded and fired without cringing.  After observing his unflinching bravery  and constancy, the thought occurred to the  writer – I now understand how it was that  a handful of Jews could drive before them  the hundred kings; they were all Fronthalls!”

Frauenthall’s bravery briefly influenced  the English language but never reached  the permanent status of the Biblical terms  that have become such an irreplaceable  part of European language and culture. 

(Source: some Biblical words/terms  and Shibboles information from Wikipedia)

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