Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Means the Same Word

A while ago, I was listening to ‘Thought for the Day’ with Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sachs. I can’t remember what he was actually talking about – clearly the thought really is only meant to last you twenty-four hours – but I do remember one thing he said. In Hebrew, the word for charity is the same as the word for justice. Those might not have been his exact words, but he was definitely quite clear about them being the same. Now I looked into this, and found that the Hebrew word for ‘justice’ is
צדק tzedek
and the word for ‘charity is
צדקה tzedakah
This reminded me of the claim that “Islam means peace” (though I’m not sure how many Muslims would actually use those words. Googling it just turns up some very scared, angry people stating otherwise). And as you may have learned in school, ‘peace’ in Arabic is
سلام salaam
and that the word
إسلام Islam
means something to do with ‘submission’.

Neither of these quite sat right with me. Charity/justice and peace/submission are derived from the same roots, and that’s obviously what Rabbi Sachs and however many Muslims are getting at. But in my post-Christian, Indo-European book, that’s not ‘means’ or ‘the same word’. Changing the ‘e’ to an ‘a’ and sticking an ‘ah’ on the end, as far as I’m concerned, makes it a different word. ‘Right’ [not left] and ‘right’ [not wrong] are the same word*, ‘submit’ means ‘give in’. But even though they share roots, I don’t imagine any English speaker would say ‘justice’ and ‘judiciary’ are the same word or claim that ‘pacification’ means ‘peace’.

Thing is, I’m not really comfortable claiming that the Muslim world doesn’t know jack about its own religion, or that Britain’s most prominent Jewish theologian should be brushing up his Hebrew. So I wonder, do speakers of Semitic languages draw a slightly bigger circle around a ‘word’? Is their definition of “the same word” different to ours? Arabic, Hebrew, Swedish and Norwegian all include ‘the’ within the words whereas we separate it off, and you should see the length of Hungarian and Navajo words. Do Hebrew and Arabic words for ‘word’ actually signify something subtly different to ours? Does their ‘mean’ have the same meaning as ours? Concepts often cross over differently in different languages. For example ‘böse’ in German can mean angry, naughty or evil, and ‘Ärger’ can mean anger, mild irritation or trouble. Is it similar with ‘word’ and ‘root’ in traditional Hebrew linguistics, ‘means’ and ‘related to’ in Arabic?

There are other examples of this, and the lines between sound, letter, word, phrase, clause and sentence are surprisingly fine. The German ‘Satz’ is applied to both sentence and clause, and in Japanese and Russian our two-letter ‘ya’ is written with one. In Chinese, there is no distinction between letter and word. Sort of, anyway. Don’t get me started on the letter ‘a’ in Hebrew and Arabic. But the best example of how flexible the concept of ‘word’ is, look at why “the Eskimo language” has so many words for ‘snow’. Incidentally, the English, with their fascinating superstitions and primitive railways, have something like eighty. Beat that you frosty toerags.

* I expect some will disagree with this, even bearing in mind the common etymology. So imagine explaining this to a Czech, who says “v pravo” for “on the right” and “máš pravdu” for “you’re right” (literally, “you have (the) truth”. Cute, innit?) You’d probably say something like “Interestingly enough, we use exactly the same word in English”. But the fact that there’s any controversy even in English shows just how flexible the idea of ‘means’ and ‘the same word’ is.

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