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Lost in Language: Of Dead Dogs, Living Lions & Bifid Uvulae

The Backward is the Forward’s annual satirical Purim edition. Enjoy!

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In Kohelet it says, “For to him that is joined to all the living there is hope; for a living dog is better than a dead lion.” Now quite why the writer of Kohelet wants to be joined to a living dog is a question for animal lovers and biblical exegetes, but maybe the author’s motivation has to do with the prophesied outcome of being chained to a mutt.

Here’s the payoff: “Go thy way, eat thy bread with joy, and drink thy wine with a merry heart; for God hath already accepted thy works.” Wine and goodwill sounds almost worth being leashed to Fido for life. But to explain the intertwined linguistic histories of grapes and friendship I must take you back to last summer, when I was sitting with a pal in the Rhine-Palatinate (literally the “palatial Rhineland”) region of Germany.

We were sipping a glass of sprightly Riesling near the ancient Jewish town of Worms, within spitting distance of the Rhine — a handy location, if, like me, you enjoy spitting in the Rhine. I was mulling a reference to a “bifid uvula” in Austin Ratner’s new novel. It’s a congenital disorder that is not life threatening, but it’s still a condition that’s hard to swallow.

It happens when the palatinate uvula (literally meaning the little grape that hangs from the “palate”), grows divided. The uvula, that pink appendage that dangles at the back of the soft palate above the back of the tongue, is — like a bagel in China — little understood and only occasionally seen. Some languages, including Hebrew and Judaeo-Spanish, but not Yiddish, use it to make the rolling “r” sound at the back of the throat. But for English-speakers it serves little purpose except as aesthetic counterpoint to the central groove of the tongue.

In his pronunciation there is none, but in the right mouth, Ratner’s own name might even be the recipient of a uvular trill. To trill or not to trill? No need to decide in advance, you can just play it by ear, or “shpiln loytn tsung” (to play it according to the tongue), as a medieval Worms dialect of Yiddish might have it. How the idiom slipped up to the ear, on its way into English, remains a mystery unless rumors of the mythical Moorish ear harp are substantiated.

Worms, of course, was where the Jew’s harp — not the “Jaw’s harp” as it’s often called — was first invented, when a Chinese idiophone was adapted by local Jews so that they could conduct two conversations at once. The Oxford English Dictionary suggests that the alternative folk etymology “jeu-trompe” or “joy trumpet” is baseless, though more because it prefers its own theory that Jewish traders brought the instrument to England than because it thinks the Chosen burghers of Worms were particularly joyless.

After previous columns brought foreshadowings to the masses, I have been accused of putting the prole into prolepsis — but I must leave such gripes and return to grapes. The grape, anav (from the Latin una uva or “one grape”) of the Holy Land, is one of the few kosher products that keeps the name Palestine, as in Palwin No. 10, the Kiddush wine now exported only to the United Kingdom.

And, though my Palestinian pal and I were not sipping Palwin on the bank of the Rhine, we had ample scriptural precedent for our actions. This time to adopt a phrase from the Psalms: “Behold, how pleasant it is for brethren to sip wine together in unity!”

Addendum: For those who have enquired about my recent dearth of citations, I sold my 32-volume Alexander Harkavy Dictionary of Sumerian, Ugaritic, Finnish, Sanskrit and Perl to a rare books collector in order to buy a Kindle. Sadly, Amazon has been unforthcoming about when they will update their retrograde Ugaritic fonts.

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