Sunday, December 10, 2006

Chanukah 1 - Oil and Eight

A few years back, someone posted a question on a mailing list that I subscribe to:

It appears that the Hebrew words for "oil" and for "eight", "shemen" and "shemoneh", share the common root Sh-M-N. Is this pure coincidence? Does it have anything to do with the miracle of the oil, and Chanukah being 8 days long?

I responded:

Edward Horowitz suggests in his /How the Hebrew Language Grew/ that certain letters in the Hebrew alphabet - ayin, chet, shin, zayin, and tzadi - each represent what used to be two or three distinct sounds in the Hebrew language. This idea explains how certain seemingly identical three-letter roots result in words with meanings that are unrelated.

The sounds contained in those first two letters, for each a "harsh" sound and a "mild" sound, have maintained their independent identities in the Arabic alphabet (My own Arabic comprehension is non-existent, so this is secondhand information).

The additional sounds that are contained in the latter three letters can be seen from the letter swaps that occur in Hebrew-Aramaic conversions. Tzadi represents a tet-like sound (natzar, watch, becomes natar), an ayin-like sound (eretz, land, becomes ar'a), and the traditional tzadi sound. Zayin sometimes represents a hard /th/ sound, which is most similar to a contemporary dalet (Zahav, gold, becomes dahava). Shin sometimes represents a soft /th/ sound, which is most similar to a contemporary tav. To use the example under consideration, Shemen simply becomes Shamna, while Sh'moneh becomes Tamnei.

Based on this, it would appear that the similar roots of the two words in written Hebrew is not based on any connection between the two words, as their first letters represent different sounds.

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