Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


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How can you distinguish between ‘two’, ‘to’, or ‘too’?

Apart from the context (which is the biggest clue), there is slight, but detectable difference in length:

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If you really want to understand the Old Testament, should you read it in ancient Hebrew?

You can get most of the gist of the Hebrew Bible without knowing biblical Hebrew, but you would lose out on many subtleties—such as:

  • The meaning of names
  • Hebrew cognates (related words)
  • The brevity of biblical Hebrew
  • Poetic structures

In detail:

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What is the real meaning of the Hebrew word ‘hesed’ in the Bible?

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An excellent question, because the agonizing and linguistic contortions surrounding this word among non-Hebrew speakers have always puzzled me.

The traditional translation—lovingkindness—is totally inapt on several grounds: it’s a made-up word, cloyingly sentimental, semantically wrong, and rhythmically horrible, wreaking havoc on the meter of any verse in which it is present.

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Are there homophones in Hebrew? If so, what are some examples?

Absolutely—especially if the standard modern Israeli pronunciation is involved, whereby many letters (such aleph and ayin; tet and tav; het and khaph; kaph and quph; shin and samekh) sound alike that in the traditional Sephardi or Yemenite pronunciation, do not.

To demonstrate this—and the utter failure of conventional, quasi-phonetic transliteration of Hebrew in Roman characters to maintain the distinctions in Square Hebrew script between such homophones—see my poem, Modern-day Ecclesiastes, which begins:

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Why was almost all the knowledge of Ancient Egypt lost until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone? Did the Romans or Greeks write nothing about it?

hieroglyphics

Ancient Egyptian paid the price of being over-exclusive. Since the skill of writing (and reading) hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic writing was jealously guarded by a small, exclusive caste of scribes, once the Alexandrian and Roman conquests undermined the old Pharaonic regime and made Greek the new language and culture of the elite, that skill became largely redundant, and died out with the scribes.

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