In his דמות and צלם, Part 2

Start with Part 1 here.

How can we determine whether דמות is a rare word, an ‘Aramaism’, or an Aramaic loan? First, let me explain the slight difference I’m making between an Aramaic loanword and an ‘Aramaism’. A loanword is what it sounds like, an entire word borrowed from Aramaic. An ‘Aramaism’, on the other hand, is the influence of Aramaic phonology, morphology, syntax, etc on the Hebrew language.

There are two basic reasons why one language would borrow from another (actually languages don’t borrow, speakers borrow): need and prestige. If there is no existing word for something (whether a concrete object, a concept, or a slight nuance you wish to make) then it is common to borrow a word. Campbell gives the example that in most languages an automobile is called something like ‘automobile’ or ‘auto’ (Lyle Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction, 2nd Ed, MIT Press, 2006). Prestige is when a certain language is, frankly, “cool”. For instance, English has borrowed many ‘cuisine’ words from French, such as ‘beef’ and ‘pork’. It is in the post-exilic period that Aramaic enjoys high status as a prestige language, thus its influence can be seen on other languages during this period.

Usually you can spot a loanword by phonological or morphological clues. A word may break a phonological rule in the borrowing language or betray a sound change that had already occurred. Or a word may be considered as one morpheme in the borrowing language when it was really two in the source language. Campbell gives the example of ‘alligator’ in English from Spanish ‘el lagarto’. This is obviously difficult with Hebrew and Aramaic since the languages are so close. Further, borrowing usually happens in bilingual situations where the speakers are aware enough to accommodate the Aramaic phonological patterns to Hebrew. There is a third semantic clue that can also be used – if a word maintains the same basic semantic range in the borrowing language as it had in the source language, or a certain specialized meaning, etc.

I don’t have Wagner’s Die lexicalischen und grammatikalischen Aramaismen im alttestamentlichen Hebräisch here at home, but looking at HALOT (which seems to list all words Wagner marked as Aramaic loans), it doesn’t appear that Wagner suggested דמות as an Aramaic loan, though Wellhausen may have had a question about it. דמות is formed from the root דמה/י “to be like”, which seems to be a good Hebrew root occurring 44x in the Bible. Though, of course, it is hard to tell if it is an old Hebrew root or if it came into the language later. It is common in Mishnaic Hebrew, but I didn’t find the verb in any Hebrew inscriptions. In fact a quick CAL search suggests that the it doesn’t show up in Old or Imperial Aramaic either. But is this a good representation of the contemporary vocabulary, or merely a function of the haphazard collection of extant texts?

So is it an ‘Aramaism’? I think it is probably the ending ־וּת that suggests Aramaic influence. ־וּת is used to create ‘abstract’ nouns. This is also found in Akkadian (e.g. šību ‘a witness’, šībūtu ‘testimony’ attested in OA and OB) and perhaps Ugaritic (e.g. kst RS 1.119:I:36,47, presumably כְּסוּת ‘covering, clothing’ from כסה). So the morpheme has a wider distribution in Semitic beyond Aramaic and Hebrew. Of course, ־וּת seems to be much more common in later Aramaic, and GKC §86k suggests that ־וּת is a more common Hebrew morpheme in the later books (presumably due to the influence of Aramaic).

Another quick Accordance search shows that ־וּת words occur only 14X in Judges – Kings in marked contrast to the obviously post-exilic books (Esther, Daniel, Ezra-Nehemiah, Chronicles) where they occur 72X. Then again, 62 of those are one word, מלכות, ‘kingdom’. The great mass of ־וּת words are in Isaiah (23 representing 14 different words), Jeremiah (41 representing 13 different words), and Ezekiel (59 representing 9 different words). Now, what can we conclude? Well, certainly these books are later, but I have to wonder if the increase in ־וּת has as much to do with content as chronology. That is, these are all prophetic books, writing poetry, as opposed to the historiographical books.

Another interesting fact is that one of the ־וּת words shows up in the Song of Deborah:

Judg. 5:26 יָדָהּ֙ לַיָּתֵ֣ד תִּשְׁלַ֔חְנָה
וִֽימִינָ֖הּ לְהַלְמ֣וּת עֲמֵלִ֑ים
וְהָלְמָ֤ה סִֽיסְרָא֙ מָחֲקָ֣ה רֹאשׁ֔וֹ
וּמָחֲצָ֥ה וְחָלְפָ֖ה רַקָּתֽוֹ

She stretched out her hand for the peg,
and her right hand for the workman’s hammer.
And she hammered Sisera, she shattered his head,
she smashed and pierced his temple.

Here הַלְמ֣וּת is used right next to the verb from which it is derived, הלם. I found no Aramaic root הלם in the CAL, and this song is generally taken to be some of the oldest poetry in the Bible. Thus this should provide some evidence that ־וּת is productive in early Hebrew, even if its use does increase in later periods.

Now I know what you’re thinking. “Great, this is going nowhere. Maybe its a loanword, maybe it isn’t. Maybe it’s late, maybe its early.” Well, that is kind of the point. It is just difficult to tell since we have such little evidence. However, I promise that it will get a little more interesting in the next post (if not any more certain). Next we will look more closely at some of the extra-biblical textual evidence…

Explore posts in the same categories: Language Contact

2 Comments on “In his דמות and צלם, Part 2”

  1. James Pate Says:

    Hi Peter. You say, “It is in the post-exilic period that Aramaic enjoys high status as a prestige language, thus its influence can be seen on other languages during this period.”

    Are there any reasons that a pre-exilic author would use an Aramaic word? In the case of Genesis 1, I don’t think the “need” requirement would work, since (as you’ve noted) Hebrew already had a word for image: tselem.

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    James, thanks for the comment. I would note a couple things. First, need and prestige are two common reasons for borrowing, but they are not the only reasons. The actual relationship between languages-in-contact is much more complex, especially in the case of Hebrew and Aramaic where the two languages are already very close and share a common ancestor. As I mentioned in Part 1, it is quite common for the two languages to know a pair of synonyms, but differ on which one they use more commonly.

    Second, the post-exilic period is the most obvious (and geographically broadest) time when Aramaic was a prestige language due to its official status in the Persian empire, but it was not the only time in which it had prestige. It certainly could have held prestige in relation to Hebrew in earlier times depending on the specific communities of speakers in question. However, this is where it gets more difficult to reconstruct based on our limited text evidence.

    Third, it could be a ‘need’ based borrowing if the poet needs a synonym or wants to add some nuance that isn’t normally connoted by צלם alone. As I noted, these loans and ‘Aramaisms’ tend to pop up quite often in poetry.

    All of that said, I’m not certain that this is a loan, and I’m not arguing that it is early. I’m merely trying to point out that you can’t immediately assume that it is late because it is Aramaic-like, and its distribution seems to be skewed toward the later books.


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