Sunday, August 26, 2007

Layers of Language

Here's a story from the Talmud study group I participate in most Saturday afternoons. It's page 83a in the tractate of Bava Batra, which deals with all sorts of aspects of property: ownership, transactions and so on. For instance, what if you wish to buy or sell a ship. Well, the Mishna starts by telling us that if one sells a ship, this includes also the mast, the oars, the sails - but not the slaves who do the rowing, nor the containers - barrels, I suppose - for the merchandise. This Mishna would have been articulated (not written) about 2,000 years ago (and see this earlier post for more background about how the Talmud works).

The word used for mast is toren.

The language of the Mishna was Hebrew. A few centuries later, let's say 250 years, the Gemara is discussing the Mishna, but the languages of its scholars is Aramaic, and they live not in Judea or the Galillee but in Babylon. And they' don't know what toren is, so the first thing they do is translate into Aramaic: iskaria.

The mediaeval interpreter in this tractate is Rashi's grandson the Rashbam. He lived in France in the mid- or late 12 century. His working assumption was that his readers wouldn't recognize either word, toren or iskaria, so he gave the French - but in Hebrew letters, of course. What he wrote, translated here into Latin characters, was m s t. Sound's like mast to me, and why not, given that 800 years after the Rashbam's day French (and German) had long since parented a younger language, English.

All of this was mostly an intellectual curiosity for us, studying in modern Hebrew which is extremely close to ancient Hebrew: While we don't recognize the word iskaria, and m s t we recognize through the daughter language of English, toren is a perfectly obvious word in Hebrew. It means mast.

The Rabbis in the Galilee couldn't have lived more than 50 miles or so from the Mediterranean Sea, but they had never seen a large river. Their Babylonian descendants, however, very likely never saw the sea - but they knew all about rivers. And so, about half a page into the discussion, they mentioned the small boats used in the marsh area to their south which they called the Miashen. 500 years later this area would be conquered by the invading Arabs from the desert, and its denizens would become the Marsh Arabs. Their desecndents lived there, using the same small boats the Gemara knew about, until late in the 20th century when Saddam Hussein would destroy their world for some reason that made sense only to him. A world that the Gemara recognized remained essentially unchanged all the way until yesterday, but now it's gone.

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