A Tedious Task

I’ve been busy trying to see if I can identify differences in the semantic ranges of the verbal use of the root ktb in various cognate Northwest Semitic languages. It’s a common enough root in Biblical Hebrew with a meaning centered around “write.” But its semantic range extends to “enroll,” and “decree.” It likely even extends to “dictate.” The sample size in Biblical Hebrew supplemented by Epigraphic Hebrew is large enough to make this task rather tedious but still instructive.
Unfortunately, possibly because the corpora themselves are small, the sample sizes in Phoenician or even early Aramaic are quite small. In Ugaritic, with perhaps a somewhat larger corpus than these two, the sample size consists of but two possible instances: 1) KTU 1:92:23, if ktb is really the correct reading, the tablet is still so badly broken at this point that its context is lost and 2) KTU 2.19:9. It is KTU 2:19:8-9, nqmd mlk ugrt ktb spr hnd, “Niqmandu, King of Ugarit ktbed this document,” that is the reason that I’ve set out on this adventure in the first place.
These kinds of studies seldom produce anything that standard lexicons have not thoroughly documented. And even if they do produce something, it is, these days, not much more than a footnote. In addition, such studies run a very high risk of leading to generalized conclusions based solely on narrow philological considerations rather than larger linguistic, social, and cultural considerations. If one finds something that seems new in such a study, it is likely wrong. This kind of work also runs the risk of exporting the semantic range of a root or even a lexeme from one language to another. Cognates need not necessarily have the same semantic range or even overlapping ranges as one moves between cognate languages. But the effort, as tedious and as dangerous as it sometimes is, is worth it. It forces one to look at the larger context of every occurrence and, in so doing, it places important constraints and opens important possibilities on how one can understand those larger linguistic, social, and cultural contexts out of which a text arose and in which people understood and valued it.
More on this next week.
PS: While cognates need not have the same semantic range or even overlapping semantic ranges as one moves between languages, using the more or less center of a cognates’ semantic range as the starting point for understanding a very low frequency lexeme in another language is perhaps the most conservative way to approach meaning. Of course, there are caveats. First, the context must always bear that meaning. This caution is often easier to express than to implement in languages where a given root is of very low frequency. Second, the very fact that a lexeme is of low frequency in one cognate language but not in another should raise a yellow flag if not a red one.

One thought on “A Tedious Task”

  1. Your thoughts on ktb remind me a bit of the usage of Etruscan ziχ which likewise means ‘to write’ but might also be interpreted to emphasize the recording of a ritual and thus, as you say, ‘to dictate’ or ‘to decree’ in some contexts. Semantics can be fuzzy which is why I think sticking to strict primary values unless secondary ones are absolutely necessary is the wisest translation strategy.
    For instance, in the Cippus Perusinus, we have the sentence Iχ ca ceχa ziχuχe which literally means “Thus this rite has been written” but it could also just as well be “has been recorded”, “has been dictated”, even “has been decreed”. Nonetheless, I stick to this verb’s attested central value which revolves around the act of writing (as happens to be the status quo anyway). Naturally in religious contexts, writing takes on an added dimension because the scribe is recording something holy, otherworldly, and terribly important (to the scribe at least). This is probably where “to decree” is a tempting, more emphatic value to use but, again, I’d personally prefer not to push it unless the English values really fail to convey the same as what seems to be intended in the ancient texts.
    I also wholeheartedly agree that the etymology of each word one is investigating really improves one’s understanding of the exact semantic range of that word. It’s better than being utterly ignorant and assuming semantic ranges that don’t make sense in the wider context of the (pre)history of that language. The broader one’s scope, the broader one’s understanding.

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