Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

June 30, 2006


I have now started studying Classical Ethiopic (Ge'ez) and I thought that I might use this post as an opportunity to write down some basic information about the language.

There are several ways of distinguishing between languages, one of which is on the basis of script. Alphabets feature a set number of characters, each of which is useful as a building block in the construction of words. Cuneiform and hieroglyphic languages have a much larger variety of such blocks, where each one could either represent a word, a syllable or a determinative (ie: an indicator as to the type of word that either follows or precedes this particular symbol. For the purposes of clarification, some words in English could be thought of as determinatives. For example, "number" in "number one" or "year" in "the year 2000". In both instances, the second word - be it 'one' or '2000' - is what conveys the primary meaning, with the first serving the disambiguating role of clarifying just what that meaning is). A third type of language is the syllabary, within which symbols represent a particular syllable.

Ethiopic is a curious language, for it is effectively an alphabetic syllabary. There are only twenty-six primary letters, but each one possesses seven forms, yielding a total of 182 symbols altogether. These different forms exist for the purposes of vocalisation, to explain:

The basic consonant may be represented as C. The forms of this consonant are Ca (ie: with a short a-vowel; this is the standard means of representing a consonant by itself - say, in a dictionary entry), Ci, Ce, Co, Cu, Cā (ie: with a long a-vowel) and Cə (ie: with a shewa - the sound produced between the t and the l in the English "bottle"). The following will serve as an example of this phenomenon.

በ is the Ethiopic ba.
ቢ is bi
ቤ is be
ቦ is bo
ቡ is bu
ባ is and
ብ is

For this reason, Ethiopic words are also remarkably terse (although no moreso, it must be admitted, that languages like Hebrew and Syriac, etc that don't indicate vowels within the body of the text). Some of these words are very similar to Hebrew. Compare, for example, ወረደ (warada) with Hebrew ירד (yarad), both meaning 'he descended'. With other words, however, Ethiopic is very different. Compare ኔጉሥ (neguš) with Hebrew מלך (melekh), both meaning 'king'. Languages should never be related to each other on the basis of lexicon and, with a great deal of syntactic overlap, it is easy to see why Ge'ez is classified as Semitic.

The chief difference that does lie, however, between Ge'ez and Hebrew is in the direction of the script: moving from left to right as English does, rather than the right-to-left movement so common amongst Semitic languages. Some of the letters appear to have more in common with Greek and Latin over Hebrew as well - መ is ma, ለ is la (Greek λ), for example. There only appears to be one letter in the alphabet that looks akin to the Hebreo-Aramaic alphabet, and that is ሠ (ša) for Hebrew ש (šin). A few of the letters have much in common with proto-Hebrew, however, and this probably comes down to the time at which the languages separated - Hebrew abandoning the Phoenician alphabet in favour of the Aramaic and Ethiopic adopting the Arabic monumental script.

A curious pehnomenon, and one which I am prepared to chalk up to being a bizarre coincidence, is in the similarity between a letter in Ge'ez and letter in Thai! Thai is a south-western Tai-Kadai language with no common ground with Semitic, so it does seem odd that ከ (ka) looks so similar to the Thai ก (kai)...


At 7:54 PM , Anonymous Joel Nothman said...

Wow I find your blog confusing. What with the bab-il and the bab-el.

Anyway, do you have any idea what fonts one needs to be able to read this post?

At 11:10 PM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

Ha, the bab-il blog is actually a mirror blog of this one :-)

I found that my posts were too long to put up in their entirety, but couldn't work out a way of abridging them yet providing a link to the entire post without making a second (identical) blog and linking to that one. If you know how I might do it properly, I'd like to know!

Your second point: you can't see the fonts? I can't remember from where I downloaded them... If you do a google search for Mellel, they have a link to font downloads and it was one of those. But surely you don't need to download them just to view them? Which browser do you use?

At 8:14 AM , Blogger Flyingcowman said...

Yeah, I've got the same issue with the fonts, and I've tried it in both Internet Explorer and Firefox on Windows. Try sticking to core web fonts, if you can.

At 10:40 AM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

Get a Mac, Sean! How many times do I have to tell you...


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