Thursday, June 01, 2006

Hanetz, not netz

Hey kids! Time for another exciting edition of Mr. Language!

Our word of the day (in honor of Shavuos, of course) is hanetz hachama the hebrew for "sunrise" and the time many Jews will pray tomorrow morning. Most Orthodox Jews think the word for "sunrise" is netz, and presume the letter hay at the begining of the word, is a hay ha-y'dia, meaning "the;" thus "the netz."

They are wrong.

The facts: The very best source for Mishnaic Hebrew is the Mishnah itself, particularly as it appears in the Kaufmann Codex, a manuscript considered by linguists to extremely reliable in its "reading traditions." (Proof: Kaufmann gets Greek and Latin loanwords right, though neither the scribe nor the vocalizer--not, by the way, the same person-- is believed to have known those languages.)

In the Kaufmann codex the word for "sunrise" is henetz hahamah.

Don't believe me? You can actually see the Kaufmann Codex with your own eyes by visiting the National Library of Jerusalem at (Choose "Mishnah", tractate Berakhot, Mishnah 1. If you look at the right column on the bottom you will see the words: >hanetz hachama.

Boo-ya. Gold for grammar nerds, am I right? (Note: if you are the sort who feels that special blend of wincing despair and sneering superiority when you see EXPRESS LANE — 10 ITEMS OR LESS, try not to embaress anyone who asks tonight, "What time is netz." Though, if you must, please feel free to use my name.)

Discussion: Now, the puzzling thing about all of this is that Orthodox Jews, tend to be strict prescriptivists, who carry a thinly masked rage at the way Judaism is frequently trashed by the more progressive denominations. Yet, when it comes to language, the very same people turn into descriptivists who agree that appealing to precedent or tradition won't always work. Thus, the emergance of "Yeshivish," a new dialect of English, and non-standard words like netz.

It's easy to show why the descriptivists' claim (Wide usage effectively determines correctness) will not stand up as a lexicographical principle. You can't observe every last bit of every last native speaker's "language behavior," and even if you could, the resultant dictionary would weigh 4 million pounds and have to be updated hourly. The fact is that any lexicographer is going to have to make choices about what gets in and what doesn't.

But the sad irony, is that the prescriptive's claim (there are normative rules which do not depend on usage) doesn't work any better. In 2006 claims to objectivity in any soft discipline, be it language or law, are the stuff of jokes and shudders: Meaning is inseparable from some act of interpretation and an act of interpretation is always somewhat biased, i.e., informed by the interpreter's particular ideology.

Decisions about what we call correct - whether we are talking about language or law - are always, to some extent, going to be based on ideology, and everybody has one. To presume that interpreting can somehow avoid or transcend ideology is simply naive.

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