Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Gentilic jargon with probable transliteration inconsistency

Don't worry. The interesting part isn't as geeqy as it may look from here.


is the abbreviation for

בלשון עם זר

--pronounced bilshon am zar--which means "in the language of a foreign people." It's used by Hebrew writers on religious matters when they're forced to use a non-Hebrew word (written in Hebrew letters) to make themselves clear. Rashi, for example, would write בלע״ז when using a then-modern French word. I translate בלע״ז as "in Gentilic jargon."

This is all by way of introduction to something interesting (to me). In Sefer diqduq l'Ramhal (The grammar book of Rabbi Moshe Hayyim Luzzatto), edited and annotated by Eluzer Brieger of Brooklyn (Bnei Brak: Mishor, [1994]), page 25, note 2, we find this:

שפְּעוּלָה היא מה שאנו קורים בלע״ז אקטי״ב, והִפָּעֵל הוא מה שקורים פּעסי״ב

Or, in English, "...פְּעוּלָה is what we call aktiv in Gentilic jargon, while הִפָּעֵל is what we call pessiv."

So why not either both aktiv and passiv, or both ektiv and pessiv? We can sort of guess why each was chosen (and we shouldn't forget that these are guesses). Aktiv seems more scholarly and Continental, and is in fact consistent with the spelling in English; pessiv seems to reflect what I assume to be Reb Eluzer's pronunciation of English. Each makes sense on its own terms, but the combination is interesting. I'm not going to try to get any big meanings out of it.

For the record, although this shouldn't be necessary, I'm not making fun of anything--neither Reb Eluzer's presumed accent nor the apparent inconsistency.

The following was added the next morning.

I spent the night regretting that I didn't include this.

In the comments on pessiv there was an unstated but blatant circularity. Why did Reb Eluzer write pessiv? Because he speaks English with a Yiddish accent. And how do I know he has a Yiddish accent? Because he wrote pessiv. This is such a nice circle that you can use it for your geometry homework.

And how do I even know pessiv reflects a Yiddish accent? Well, I don't actually know that it does. Maybe it reflects a plain ordinary U.S.A. accent. Consider the words "active" and "passive." We don't pronounce the noun in the first syllable like an "ah." We pronounce it æ. It's the sound that we use in "æccent," "æt," and "ænd"; it's the sound BBC news readers use in "Nicarægua" and "Jæck Cheeræck." Yiddish doesn't have (or hæve) the æ sound. Pessiv is as reasonable an approximation of "pæssive" as passiv would be.

And it's still interesting that two different vowels were used in the Gentilic jargon for "active" and "passive."


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

בלע״ז doesn't *really* mean בלשון עם זר, or at least it didn't originally (to the extent that people do understand it as an acronym, that's how they do use it).

בלעז a fine Hebrew word, לעז means foreign as in Psalm 114 בְּצֵאת יִשְׂרָאֵל, מִמִּצְרָיִם; בֵּית יַעֲקֹב, מֵעַם לֹעֵז.

" are/ were properly used in Hebrew to indicate special characters.

Getting to the meat of the post, there is a small pamphlet by R. Eliyahu Henkin on the proper Hebrew spelling of English names for Gittin. Being written in the 1920s, besides for having some hilarious names, he also transliterates with a very heavy accent, probably as much that of most American Jews he dealt with as his own. One is hard pressed to find a single name in his list which should be spelled today as he spells it.

Michael Koplow said...

Fred, I'd noticed this in Hallel. I once asked a rabbi why Rashi pretended it was an abbreviation. He said Rashi didn't pretend that. Maybe I would have gotten a better answer if I hadn't distracted him by using "pretended."

The Henkin pamphlet sounds interesting. If you could send some bibliographic particulars, instead of making me try to find it myself, I'd appreciate it.

For gittin purposes. This may be the answer to something I asked back in Why does the title page of R' Abraham Price's edition of Sefer Hasidim give the place of publication as טאראנטא קנדה, with "Toronto" sp'd Yiddishly and "Canada" sp'd Hebrewly?

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

Mike, It's toward the end of the first volume of Kitvei Hagry"e Henkin. I'm afraid I lost your email address; I'll just send it to you, as I have a copy. Please email me or write your address so I can send it to you.

Here's a taste:

BRUNO ברונא
OSCAR אָסקר

Both of these, of course, presuppose a pronunciation which is not American in the slightest. On the other hand, he allows Franz to be spelled with either a tsade or a zayin!

As for Rashi, note that the lo'azim themselves all have the gershayim! It's just pre-modern Hebrew for italics. :-)

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>Why does the title page of R' Abraham Price's edition of Sefer Hasidim give the place of publication as טאראנטא קנדה, with "Toronto" sp'd Yiddishly and "Canada" sp'd Hebrewly?

If I had to hazard a guess, it's this: it is my continual observation that one thing people who think in the
Hebrew alphabet (or people who wish they did) do not do is give much thought or care to transliteration. Sometimes it's insufficient education, sometimes it's outright or unstated contempt, sometimes it's just a different set of priorities. It's why Artscroll can have their celebrated "system," "sephardic" vowels and Ashkenazic consonants, but even more so, constantly violate their own system at will. I've had conversations with people who simply could not see a need for some sort of consistent transliteration at all. If I pointed out that a good transliteration can tell the reader how the word is spelled in Hebrew, the rejoinder is "I know how it's spelled in Hebrew."