Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Counting Crows

This kind of conversation takes place a lot in my house:

WIFE: Are you OK?
SELF: Why do you ask?
WIFE: You seem preoccupied.
SELF: Well, I have had something on my mind a lot today.
WIFE (concerned): Oh, tell me what's troubling you.
SELF: It's the etymology of "crows."

We men are not as deep as women think we are.

But I have been wondering, and it goes back to yesterday's post. First of all, the Hebrew word for "raven," as I noted, is עורב, pronounced back then something like [ghoreb]. And this particular word has a cognate in all the other Semitic languages. It may go back to a proto-form *ghaarib (as Akkadian aribu would suggest) or possibly (as I noted yesterday) *ghuraib.

That's not so important. What bothers me is a certain double-mindedness in the research tools. The article in IDB and the entry in HALOT both state that the word for "raven" is onomatopoeic; that is, that the form ghoreb (or *ghaarib or *ghuraib) is meant as an imitation of the sound the raven makes. Now, I don't know what sounds ravens make in the Middle East, and maybe it does sound something like "ghoreb." Plus, lots of birds are named after their sounds — the whippoorwill, for instance, or the bobwhite — and this is probably true cross-linguistically.

But then, the same tools tell us that there is a verb in Arabic, ghariba, that means "to be black." So it seems just as natural to take Heb. ghoreb, Arab. ghuraab,etc. as meaning "black bird," especially when HALOT tells us that the word in question stands for "all types of crow." Do all types of crow make the same sound? I really don't know. But if the etymology is sufficiently explained by the root, then why did they also tell us it was onomatopoeic? Or is it known, somewhere, that the root in Arabic is actually secondary to the noun, and that it originally meant, say, "to be raven-colored" (which would make it one of our famous denominal verbs)?

Apparently, the Indo-European words for "raven, crow" all come from a putative root *grag-, which is also thought to be onomatopoeic in origin (cf. English crow, Latin corvus, Greek korax). Grag! Now that sounds like a crow!

Incidentally, "grackle" comes ultimately from the same Indo-European root, via Latin graculus, which means "jackdaw." However, if I properly understand the taxonomy, a grackle is not one of the raven/crow family (the Corvidae) but belongs to another group (the Isteridae). But don't quote me on that. Any birders out there who can comment?

One final kvetch. If you look in the Anchor Bible Dictionary, you won't find an article on "raven." You have to look in "Zoology" and then you'll find a very few words on the raven (they disagree with the onomatopoeic idea). The ABD is a great tool, but it most definitely has not made the IDB superfluous for Bible study.

ABBREVIATIONS: IDB: Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible; HALOT: Hebrew-Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament.

2 comments:

Dr. Joseph Ray Cathey said...

Ed,

Regarding your typical conversation:

WIFE: Are you OK?
SELF: Why do you ask?
WIFE: You seem preoccupied.
SELF: Well, I have had something on my mind a lot today.
WIFE (concerned): Oh, tell me what's troubling you.
SELF: It's the etymology of "crows."

I laughed so hard that I almost had an accident! I am so glad to see that our house isn't out of the mainstream. Bless you for giving me such a laugh today!

Cheers
Joe

Beth Surdut said...

Lost and found in the desert, I came to New Mexico at the call of ravens http://surdut.blogspot.com/2008/08/drawing-raven.html
Searching the web for comments on the Hebrew word for ravens as I prepareto paint a tallit, I landed on your blog. Now I'm laughing in wry recogniiton at the conversation in your household.