Friday, January 27, 2017

Fact-Checking the Torah -- SWLT 1 and history

The first rule of SWLT is that cultures use expressions for culture-specific ideas and also shape themselves around the expressions they use.
I’m going back to something I brought up the other week because it’s crucial to understanding how SWLT Rule 1 plays out in other features of language.
I said that Greek culture had two words for animal fat. One was stear, the fat of ruminants, and the other was pmelin, the fat of non-ruminants. But when it comes to sacrifices, the word is diptykha because the fat used in sacrifices had to be double-folded.
But diptykha means “two-folded” or something like that. It doesn’t have a component that means fat.
The understanding that it means “double-folded fat” comes from other knowledge about the culture.
This is one thing that makes languages hard to learn if a) you don’t grow up using them and b) you don’t have a native speaker to work with.
There always comes a point where, to really use the language right, you have to know the meaning of words or phrases which mean something not reflected in their components.
This is why people who read translations of Torah don’t understand the creation story properly. Every translation, as far as I can remember, turns melakhah into “work” which is not precise. As I discussed long ago (in two places), the term melakhah identifies things that are the subject of laws about Shabbat. This fits animals, which must not be slaughtered or worked on Shabbat, but must be fed, and they must be sacrificed on Shabbat if they are chosen for the avodah, which is required on Shabbat. It fits household and tabernacle utensils; household utensils can only be used in limited ways, while tabernacle utensils involved in avodah must be used for the Shabbat avodah.
The meaning of words requires an understanding of how the culture uses them, how they fit in with cultural habits and culture-specific activities. A knife can be used on Shabbat for food, and its Hebrew name is maakhelet, something that feeds you; you are required to eat on Shabbat because that’s part of its joy, and you have to use a maakhelet to cut meat, the premier food of Shabbat, something most people couldn’t afford to enjoy on other days. But you can’t use a sword, a cherev, because the only purpose of a cherev is killing and killing is prohibited on Shabbat except for self-defense.
The other component is how cultures shape themselves around the expressions they use. The best example is the fact that “he” and other masculine gender-specific pronouns used to be the default in referring to individual humans. They were also the default pronouns in legal documents. This came from a culture in which men had legal rights but women didn’t; they had to have a man to represent them in court and administrative processes and were dependent on the kind of support men would give them.
With advances in women’s rights, communications are more precise about using gender-related pronouns, but laws and regulations are being rewritten to eliminate pronouns. This is making things easier for transgenders or people who don’t like to identify themselves by gender – a niece of mine knows somebody like that. But that won’t work with languages that have two plural pronouns, one masculine and one feminine.

So I think that's done to death.  Onward.
 © Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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