A Most Favored Dictionary, And How It Came Into My Life

Sometime last summer, probably while Israel was attacking Gaza, because I find those times to be the hardest to bear (there are much-beloved people on both sides of the divide, but Israel’s decision to shell a heavily populated enclosure is so far beyond my ability to condone as to make any discussion of it impossible. But I digress.)

In any event, it was June 2011, and I was looking for something to distract myself from a shattering heart.

Someone on Twitter put up a modest link to a press release about an Assyrian Dictionary, and I followed, and got here.

You know how you’ll always remember the moment you fell in love? It was like that, for me.

The Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago generously permits the downloading of its dictionaries, although buying them would set one back a few thousand dollars. I downloaded every one of them, and dove in.

Like the stories in Akkadian myth, splashing around in this dictionary was an exercise in revelation. Not of the mystical variety – etymological revelation. So many words that I’ve used regularly seem to have that Akkadian origin! So many verbs relate to the Akkadian!

I started using this dictionary to search for words that came up in my daily work (remember, I’m a Hebrew<>English translator.) Sometimes there are several translations that feel equivalent, and usually I give the one that feels best, using my native speaker’s sense of what works and what doesn’t. But now I started digging into etymology, and trying to use the words that not only fit well, but also had a longer history.

Not every phrase lends itself to this sort of research. Not every project allows me the luxury of research. I’ve resolved to start recording the insights that come to me when I do it.

My favorite O.T. translation – King James

When trying to portray the Old Testament in English, my go-to translation is always the King James Version.

Perhaps it is because it sounds so melodious: the words trip off the tongue like so many goats, cavorting down a mountainside. (Yes, that metaphor was intentional. Dear reader, do you not like goats dripping down the mountainside of your tongue?)

Perhaps because it is the point of departure for most English speakers, the one new translations need to break out of in order to come into the world.

Or perhaps because I like the process, which gave such honor and dignity to the act and practice of translation, while neither inflating nor deflating the individuals who worked on the project.

For whichever reason, I adore the King James translation, and find it almost as comforting to read as the original, whose words are engraved somewhere deep in my soul, not for any religious reason but because I was exposed to them young, and frequently.

Sleeping Demons Rising, Stretching

Back in 1926, when the Hebrew language was at the early stages of being renewed and adopted by the Zionist movement, Gershom Scholem, a renowned German research of Judaism mysticism, wrote a letter to his friend, Franz Rosenzweig. The letter, available online (in Hebrew) expresses a belief that languages have a life force, a personality of their own.

Scholem was concerned that by raising a generation of children as native speakers of an ancient language, now being revived, the life force of that language would revive, as well, bringing with it all the ancient demons. Writes Scholem:

A language is composed of nouns, the force of the language is enveloped in the noun, and its abyss is sealed therein. After we’ve conjured up the ancient nouns day after day, we can no longer push away their powers. We have awakened them, and they will appear, for we have conjured them up very forcefully. […]

Every word that was not just recreated but actually taken from the “good old” treasure-trove is chock full of explosives.

Hebrew source here, my translation.

The letter continues with the opinion that this is the road to an apocalypse.

In reading the Pentateuch, and again in reaching old myths like those of Gilgamesh and Atraharsis, I hear the rumbling of those ancient words. My interest is Sumerian, far more than Hebrew, and Akkadian and Aramaic. But these languages are powerfully laden with demons of their own.

Unlike Hebrew, they don’t seem to lead to an apocalypse, exactly. They lead, though, to an utter revolution in the way we live in the world. I hear the rumblings of Humbaba, unhappy in his grave for as many as six centuries, wanting to come out and walk the pathways of the world again. He was a reasonable forest guardian, willing to negotiate. I hear his footsteps coming closer, closer…

I have an overpowering sense of anticipation: the spirit of Sumer will rise again, in our time. What form will it take? I can’t wait to find out.

Toys and Tools

Within the realm of studying words about fiber, I end up spending a lot of time thinking about thread, and the making of thread.

In her wonderful history of thread making, Women’s Work, The First 20,000 Years, Elizabeth Wayland Barber quotes Judith Brown’s observation about the kind of activities women do. Brown (says Barber) notes that the work women do must be compatible “with the demands of child care.” Over to Barber:

From Empirical observation Brown gleans that “such activities have the following characteristics: they do not require rapt concentration and are relatively dull and repetitive; they are easily interruptible [I see a rueful smile on every care giver’s  face!] and easily resumed once interrupted; they do not place the child in potential danger; and they do not require the participant to range very far from home.”

Just such are the crafts of spinning, weaving, and sewing. […]

The bracketed note in the middle of the quote is Barber’s, not mine. She writes with the lightest of feathers and spins not just yarn but great yarns. However, that’s not why I’m quoting her here.

If childcare is done by the women who are also doing the spinning, weaving, and sewing, you have to assume that the kids get their hands on the supplies. “Here, play with this and let me finish this strip!” would be my candidate for one of the first sentences spoken by humans.

And what might “this” be? A spinning stick on a string, for example. That’s necessary for any cloth to get made.

Here’s a video of a random stranger on the Internet, doing exactly that.  Does it remind you of any toys you know?

If a prehistoric cat saw one of those being dragged around by a prehistoric toddler, wouldn’t they both learn the game of making a “staff” seem alive? I came across that in Exodus 4 – it’s a trick anyone regularly exposed to sticks on string would understand.

But pull- and push-toys are not the only playthings that work like this. Spinning tops? Just spindles with no string, or supported spindles. Toy vehicles, like chariots or carriages? A spindle with two whorls (the round thing around the shaft). Toy soldiers? Just the shafts, each given a name and personality. Pick up sticks? Shafts again. Board games like chess and checkers and go? Loom weights (broken old ones) and sand. Cat’s Cradle? Ok, that one’s obvious. Jump rope? Needs rope… Chinese jump rope? Same story.

Maybe not all, but the majority of toys I’ve seen kids play with seem to link back to fiber, or the tools women used for making fiber and keeping kids happy.

Learning lots of new words. Or second-hand ones, new to me

Despite my seeming eternity in content work, there are many, many words that I do not know. English seems to be full of the things! But this is not a problem, as I keep dictionaries around me at all times, and can look up words as they present themselves.

And, more to the point, I actually do this.

While reading the first 62 pages of Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs, here are the words I came across – and what they mean:

  • uraeus – a sacred asp on rulers’ headdress, symbols of sovereignty;
  • asp – cobra? a kind of snake, in any event, with a huge-big head. Naja haje in Egypt;
  • corselet – armor covering the trunk of the body;
  • sedge – a rushlike or grasslike plant that grows in wet places;
  • steatite – soapstone;
  • votive – item involved in making a vow;
  • epagomenal  days – the days tacked on to a year to make it match the calender year to the actual time it takes the earth go around the sun;
  • galena – bluish gray cubic mining material, a principal ore of lead. Pretty, with a blue/gray metallic luster.

Figuring these out was a great deal of fun.

A busy bibliography search

Yesterday was filled to the brim with work (of the professional variety), and all I managed to do was four episodes of German study. I’m now up to chapter 4, with all the audio material handled and all the written homework complete.

Today I dug through WorldCat and found the editions of each of the books I picked up at William James, and after a bit of pushing and pulling and some unprintable language at the tricky turns, came up with a dandy new bibliography for this semester.

Next step: read all the lovely books. Or enough of them to mesh with the fibrous goal of this semester’s studies.

You’ll find me in the comfy chair in the front room, working on it.