Against any misfortune—may it not come

I was recently asked: What is something about your language that you’ve never noticed until a foreign learner pointed it out?

I recalled that only the night before, my good friend Bob Macdonald, who has undertaken a mammoth task of making a musically-oriented English translation of the Hebrew Bible, asked me why in the Hebrew, Zephaniah (2:2) says:

 בטרם לדת חוק, כמוץ עבר יום; בטרם לא-יבוא עליכם, חרון אף-יהוה

(Beterem ledet ḥoq, kamotz avar yom; beterem lo-yavo aleikhem ḥaron af-Adonai)

which literally reads, ‘before God’s wrath doesn’t come down on you

when he clearly meant ‘before God’s wrath comes down on you

The reason, I explained to him, is that Jewish fear of the ‘evil eye’ is so deeply rooted in the culture, that to keep it at bay, one never speaks about a future adversity as coming, but only as ‘not-coming’. Thus the common Hebrew expression:

על כל צרה שלא תבוא

(al kol tzarah shelo tavo)

which means ‘as a safety precaution’, or ‘just in case—you never know’, literally says: ‘against any misfortune—may it not come’…

This is so ingrained, that native Hebrew and Yiddish speakers use this negative form of speech without noticing it. So next time you hear Murphy’s Law

If anything can go wrong—it will.

remember Goldberg’s Corollary:

If anything can go wrong—God forbid—it won’t.

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Silly questions on Quora

I joined Quora—a questions-and-answers forum—in August 2013, and after an initial period of resistance, was quickly assimilated. Since then, I’ve answered 1622 questions (and counting), posted 30 of my own, and have accumulated a few views and followers.

It’s an addictive site, and I’ve learned much from many in-depth or insightful answers to interesting questions. But there’s also a lot of dross—a huge number of questions that have been asked and answered before, many banal ones, and quite a number of downright silly ones, which I decided in August 2016 to start collecting.

I’ve been wanting to share this list for some time, but since Quora itself discourages questions about its own content, and prompted by today’s doozy (‘Why do Brits speak English, an American language, rather than speaking some European languages?’) I’m listing them here, because they’re too good not to share. If you want to find them and their answers, just copy-paste them into the Search field at quora.com:

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Q: Is there a rule for determining the vowels in Hebrew conjugation (present, past, future and passive)?

Yes, there is: it’s determined by the binyan (construction) of the verb.
There are seven binyanim, each with its characteristic pattern of vowels. Their names reflect the vowel pattern in the past tense (3rd person singular, masculine)—thus:

1181105_binyanim_table4

The appropriate binyan of a verb is determined by whether it is a simple verb, or one that refers to an action to or on something else; or a manipulation of an object or a person; or a continuous or repeating operation—or the passive corollary of any the above. (For more information on that, see my post on How do I know if a verb in hebrew is pa’al type, pi’el type, or other?)

Q: Which letters of the Phoenician or Proto-Canaanite alphabet were used with the lowest letter frequency?

[A2A] Fun exercise.

In biblical (Old Testament) times, the Canaanite alphabet was common to all Canaanite nations—from Moab and Edom in the southeast to Phoenicia in the northwest. The language was substantially the same, as well, throughout that period, with dialectal differences that widened over the centuries, so that by the time of the late First Temple period (750–580 BCE) mutual comprehension was only partial.

There are plenty of references to letter frequency in modern Hebrew (one good English-language one is Stefan Trost’s Character Frequency: Hebrew). However, although linguistically modern Hebrew is very similar to biblical Hebrew, it does contain many words of foreign origin, and tends to use ‘full spelling’ (i.e. use the letters vav and yod to indicate the vowels /o/u/ and /i/, respectively), which can skew the results somewhat.

So a better test would be a certified ancient text of sufficient length to be indicative.

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The Mesha Stele—a commemoration by King Mesha of Moab of the liberation of his people from the “yoke” of Israelite rule—is a good candidate in that regard, as it dates to around 840 BCE, and is written in the Moabite language, in the Canaanite script (see right).

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Q: Have you ever boycotted a business because the business violated your principles?

Yes. Call me pedantic, but…

  • With the possible exception of greengrocers (who can’t help it, poor lambs), I avoid businesses that use apostrophes in plural forms (e.g. leaflet’s), or it’s when they mean its; or discrete when they mean discreet; or loose when they mean lose—particularly if it’s in posh marketing materials, and/or they charge a great deal. If their English is faulty, they may also be careless in their area of expertise, where I can’t spot the mistakes.

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