Etymology: YHVH = haShem (Dave)

Ian Hutchesson mc2499 at
Fri Aug 27 03:16:23 EDT 1999

>> If you've got a valid etymology, you can get
>> closer to understanding. Valid etymology will always provide information
>> regarding the significance of the language item. Maybe etymological
>> information of long before may be misleading, but the closer you get to the
>> time of the usage with your etymology then the more indication you have of
>> significance.
>True, but in the case of Hebrew we don't know how close we are to 
>the time of usage when we start digging into roots etc. so how 
>useful we determine it to be will necessarily be built on 
>assumption.  Ultimately, context must be the determiner of what a 
>word means.  
>> >How 
>> >they got where they are is sometimes an interesting study, but it 
>> >frequently tells us virtually nothing about what the word meant at 
>> >the time in question.
>> Got any examples?
>Sure.  "Bad."  In recent years it's undergone a complete reversal of 
>meaning, at least within several sub-cultures of America and other 
>English-speaking countries.  In those sub-cultures it means 

This is pretty much a technical foul (or fowl). We were dealing with a
particular ancient language. I think you need to draw an example from Hebrew.

(Nevertheless, you overlook that the significance in the example you give
is completely in the same semantic field as the traditional use of the word
-- it's merely flipped the binary opposition. "Cool" or "crazy" might have
been a better example in a modern context. But, in the context of an
ancient language, one should be mighty careful in making modern analogies:
it is exceptionally hard to show their validity.)

>Why?  Can etymology tell us?  Hardly.  The only reason is 
>because a certain segment of a culture chose to use it that way.

The literal idea of a speech community choosing the significance of its
vocabulary leaves me bemused. You want to make some generality regarding
language development based on modern linguistic samples. However, the
cultural situation of the modern examples are so far removed from any
situation like the ones you hope they apply to that they become
meaningless. Language is a system that interacts with speech communities.
The community doesn't normally "decide" anything; its various members have
simply been indoctrinated in the use of the language. The have very little
free will in the matter, having learnt most of the language before they
were old enough to express their will. (If children knew what sort of
mismanaged process they were undergoing, they'd probably sue for damages.)

Language change tends to happen through social environmental activity, eg
the conditions in which the society finds itself require a slightly
different meaning/usage/pronunciation.

"Choose" is not a suitable word, unless you think, that everyone has the
opportunity to develop expressions that will emerge from the individual's
tiny coterie. This happens today in incredibly minimal numbers, given the
means of mass communication for reaching a worldwide audience. You have
little hope of finding such changes in an ancient language that didn't have
the communicative resources, nor the society which was mobile enough to
absorb the sorts of linguistic changes you're proposing.

The biggest problem with regard to etymology in ancient Hebrew is that one
doesn't have much access to the resources of the other language members of
the Semitic family, and we must rely on what etymological information can
be gleaned from the same sources you're using for context. So etymology
isn't easy, I admit. But then your work with context could easily be an
unaware effort in diachronic linguistics. I think one should use whatever
resources one has.



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