A Bur in the Talmudist’s Side

By Philologos

Published December 05, 2007, issue of December 07, 2007.
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Forward reader Kenny Steinman writes:

“In a recent Talmud lesson, my friends and I came across the Hebrew term bur in the sense of an unlettered person or ignoramus. Might this be related to the biblical ba’ar, as in the verse in Psalms that begins, Ish ba’ar lo yeda, ‘The dull man does not know’? And what about the English ‘boor’? A quick trip to the dictionary indicates that this word derives from Dutch boer or peasant, as in the Boers of South Africa. Is there a connection? Can you help us ignoramuses?”

Although bur, ba’ar and “boor” all have agricultural etymologies, there is no apparent connection among them. Hebrew bur is closely related to bar, an unworked field or piece of land outside a town or village, which in turn derives from bar in the sense of “outside of”; in the same vein, a wild animal in Hebrew is h.ayat bar. (The originally Aramaic bar of bar mitzvah, whose basic meaning is “son,” is another word entirely.) The bur or ignoramus is thus the Jew who is uncultivated; the plow of learning has not passed over him.

The noun ba’ar, on the other hand, comes from be’ir, a domestic farm animal. Although bar and ba’ar look similar, this is only when transcribed into Latin characters, since the apostrophe in ba’ar represents an ayin, a pharyngeal consonant articulated by means of a contraction of the throat that does not exist in European languages and was lost in the Hebrew of European Jews. The two words, therefore, do not share a common root, and though the ba’ar has, as it were, the brains of an ox and is like the bur in “character” — the first word is biblical Hebrew for a know-nothing, the second is rabbinic Hebrew — he is the child of a different metaphor.

Although “boor” is etymologically close to Dutch boer — as it is to German Bauer, “farmer” — it is not necessarily its direct descendant. Old English has the word gebur (from bur, a small house or cottage), meaning home-dweller, farmer or resident of the countryside, and “boor” (which we also find also in the word “neighbor,” denoting the home-dweller who lives nigh or near to us) could have come from that without the help of the Dutch

A boor is an ignorant or uncouth fellow because this was how city dwellers viewed peasant farmers. Thus, although Hebrew bur and English boor are similar in meaning, they come at it from opposite ends. Bur reflects rural values: The ignorant mind is like unfarmed land. Boor is an urban term: There is no one as ignorant as a bumpkin of a farmer. There’s a world of difference in such similarity.

And still partly on the subject of the pharyngeal ayin, this e-mail comes from Martin Bodek:

“Listening to the weekly Torah reading in the Hasidic shtibl [little synagogue] that I attend, I was struck again by how most Hasidim insert a nun into the name Ya’akov [Jacob], pronouncing it ‘Yankev.’ How did it get there? And for that matter, how did the term yom tov, a ‘good day’ or Jewish holiday, come to be pronounced by Orthodox Jews as yuntif, with the nun replacing the mem of yom? Are the two nuns related?”

They are not. The nun of yuntif is a good example of what linguists call “assimilation” — that is, the changing of one sound to accommodate it to an adjacent sound. If you say both yom tov and yuntif to yourselves, you’ll see that whereas in yuntif your tongue is in the same position for both the nun and the taf that follows, in yom tov it isn’t and has to be moved. It’s a bit easier to say yon tov (which then turns into yuntif by a devoicing of the final vav), and since we often follow the path of least resistance when we speak, that’s what happened in Eastern Europe. It’s the same phenomenon that, reversed, turns the “n” of “in-“ into an “m” in a word like “impossible.”

As for Yankev, its nun is a vestigial remnant of the pharyngeal contraction of the ayin that disappeared in the Hebrew of Ashkenazic Europe. The same thing happened with the Hebrew word ma’aseh, a story or tall tale, which became mayseh in most of Eastern Europe but manseh in some areas. The reason for this is that in contracting the throat to produce the ayin, a degree of nasalization takes place, as well; when the contraction disappeared among European Jews, the nasalization was retained and even strengthened by some of them, producing an “n”-sound. This was especially true of Italian Jews, who regularly turned the ayin into a nun in many words. (For instance, the Hebrew word to’eva, abomination, which denotes a Christian church in Judeo-Italian, was pronounced toneva.) Although I can’t at the moment think of other Hebrew words that have nun in place of ayin in Eastern Europe, perhaps some of you can. Be sure to let me know if you do.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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