Slime or Dust?

From Liam Shaw’s LRB review of Slime: A Natural History by Susanne Wedlich:

There does seem to be something universal about the feeling of disgust that slime provokes, even if its valences differ. That ‘slime’ is an easily translatable concept helps Wedlich’s case. She links it to the risk of contamination: our bodies use mucus as a barrier to soak up pathogens which are themselves slimy. Her translator, Ayça Türkoğlu, deploys an impressive and viscous vocabulary. Both German and English have slimy words for slimy things. The smack and suck of saliva make for squelching prose. Frogspawn looks like ‘slimy star snot’. Differences in translation do exist, however. German-speaking friends tell me that schleim is more neutral than in English; you can tuck into a warm bowl of Haferschleim, for example (‘oat slime’, or oatmeal). And even in English, slime has ebbed and flowed. Wycliffe’s 14th-century translation of the Bible has God creating Adam ‘of the sliym of erthe’. In most later versions, the first man emerges from ‘dust’. The imagery has stuck in modern Christianity. ‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust’ is an oddly desiccated summary of life’s viscous circle: a euphemism posing as a proverb.

It’s unclear why ‘sliym’ slipped out of the English Eden. Perhaps it made the account in Genesis too close to spontaneous generation.

From the next issue’s Letters column:

Slime v. Dust

‘It’s unclear why “sliym” slipped out of the English Eden,’ Liam Shaw writes, wondering why Wyclif’s word choice fell out of favour, while describing as a ‘euphemism’ the idea spread by later Bible translators that the first man emerged from ‘dust’ (LRB, 21 April). ‘Oddly desiccated’ it may sound, but these later translators were correct: the Hebrew word aphar, in Genesis 2:7 and elsewhere, is ‘dust’.

It’s clear how Wyclif’s slime slipped in: he was working from Jerome’s Latin Vulgate, where man is indeed formed ‘de limo terrae’. Sixteenth-century Catholic scholars faced their own conundrum. Required by the Council of Trent to prefer the Vulgate to all other translations, Benito Arias Montano, the chief editor of the Antwerp Polyglot Bible (1568-73), duly placed it in the column beside the Hebrew text. By turning to the next column, however, the reader could learn from a new Latin translation of the Greek text of the Septuagint that man was made from pulvis (‘dust’) – a fact made clear by Sante Pagnini’s Latin translation direct from Hebrew provided in the apparatus. Publishing their Pentateuch in 1609, however, the English Catholic translators of the Douay-Rheims Bible stuck with ‘slyme’.

  Oren Margolis
  University of East Anglia, Norwich

The OED doesn’t include the Wyclif quote, but these citations under slime 3.a. (“Applied disparagingly to the human body, to man in general, or to single persons”) seem to be allusions to it:

c1450 Mirk’s Festial 2 He ys not but a wryche and slyme of erth.
?1504 W. Atkinson tr. Thomas à Kempis Ful Treat. Imytacyon Cryste (Pynson) iii. xiv. 209 Lerne, thou erth & slyme, to humble the.

Incidentally, I enjoyed the following letter as well:

Oh for a Mint Cracknel

Andrew O’Hagan writes about his mother’s fear of pausing the TV while watching Coronation Street, in case she paused it for the whole nation (LRB, 21 April). In the early fifth century BC, when the new technology of writing was just taking off, the small Greek city of Teos set up on stone an inscribed oath of office, to be recited in public several times each year by the city’s magistrates. The stone listed various dreadful things that would happen to any official ‘who does not read out the things written on the stone to the best of his memory’. The elderly technophobe who drafted the text evidently wasn’t quite sure how this alarming modern invention was supposed to work.

  Peter Thonemann
  Wadham College, Oxford


  1. David Eddyshaw says

    Good for Oren Margolis.

  2. J.W. Brewer says
  3. David Marjanović says

    Haferschleim disappeared over half a century ago und ward nie mehr gesehen. I’m not sure what it is exactly, but I’m sure it’s not simply oatmeal or porridge. And now I’m going to look it up…

    Edit: yup, it’s quite literal slime. Haferschleim ist der nach dem Kochen von Haferflocken abgeseihte Schleim – the slime skimmed off the water after you’ve boiled oat flakes in it. I had read of it before as food for very sick people.

  4. Adam was made from gradoo

  5. The slime of the earth is very rarely red. (A creation myth in which man was made from Tubifera would be pretty cool though.)

    @David Marjanović: I suspect that Haferschleim was actually traditionally what you got by boiling oat flour. To make proper porridge, you have to use larger pieces of the oat kernels, either rolled or cut. Boiling ground oat flour instead produces a broth that turns slimy, then gelatinous.

  6. Seems that Latvian slienas and Croatian slina are also related to Germanic slime

  7. Slime makes just three appearances in the KJV Bible:


    11:1 And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech.
    11:2 And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.
    11:3 And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for morter.
    11:4 And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.

    14:10 And the vale of Siddim was full of slimepits; and the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fled, and fell there; and they that remained fled to the mountain.


    2:2 And the woman conceived, and bare a son: and when she saw him that he was a goodly child, she hid him three months.
    2:3 And when she could not longer hide him, she took for him an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river’s brink.

    RSV has only these:


    6:6 Can that which is tasteless be eaten without salt, or is there any taste in the slime of the purslane?
    [KJV: Can that which is unsavoury be eaten without salt? or is there any taste in the white of an egg?]


    58:8 Let them be like the snail which dissolves into slime, like the untimely birth that never sees the sun.
    [KJV: As a snail which melteth, let every one of them pass away: like the untimely birth of a woman, that they may not see the sun.]

  8. Kate Bunting says

    I’ve never had a ‘slush puppie’, but I’ve always thought that the name sounds decidedly unappealing.

  9. Of course, Serbian for phlegm is šlajm.

  10. John Cowan says

    The Tower of Babel passage is traditionally one of the texts that conlangers present as part of a chrestomathy.

  11. The Tower of Babel passage is traditionally one of the texts that conlangers present as part of a chrestomathy.

    Thanks, who knew? Even Esperanto, or just newer ones?

  12. Of the biblical appearances, the KJV for some reason translates חֵמָר ḥēmār as ‘slime’. It means ‘clay’. In the “snail” passage the RSV adds it as a garnish.
    The expression in Job, רִיר חַלָּמוּת rîr ḥallāmûṯ contains rîr ‘slime, mucus’. In present-day Ashkenazi/Israeli Hebrew pronunciation, both ʀiʀ ‘mucus’ and ʀiʀi ‘mucous’ nicely associate the meaning with the sound.

    The meaning of ḥallāmûṯ is naturally—Job—open to argument.

    rîr occurs elsewhere in the OT once, in 1Sam 21:14, וַיּוֹרֶד רִירוֹ אֶל זְקָנוֹ wayyôreḏ rîrô ’el zĕqānô, ‘…and drooled into his beard.’

    In the Mishna, rîr usually refers to bodily mucus, like thick saliva or the coating of a newborn, but occasionally also to vegetal slime.

  13. David Marjanović says

    Of course, Serbian for phlegm is šlajm.

    Ah yeah, that’s actually the most common meaning in German.

  14. Hebrew rîr doesn’t cover phlegm, even more strictly than English mucus. For that, there’s כִּיחַ kîaḥ.

    BTW, Slurm.

  15. John Cowan says

    Even Esperanto, or just newer ones?

    There are no Bible texts in Zamenhof’s Fundamenta Krestomatio (1907). On the other hand, Z completed a translation of the whole Tanach in 1915, though due to the war it did not reach the outside world until 1919, after Z’s death. Z’s text was then revised (by Christians; Jesaja 7:14 reads virgulino) and published in London in 1926 along with the 1912 New Testament. Here’s Genezo 11:1-9:

    1 Sur la tuta tero estis unu lingvo kaj unu parolmaniero. 2 Kaj kiam ili ekiris de la oriento, ili trovis valon en la lando Ŝinar kaj tie ekloĝis. 3 Kaj ili diris unu al alia: Venu, ni faru brikojn kaj ni brulpretigu ilin per fajro. Kaj la brikoj fariĝis por ili ŝtonoj, kaj la bitumo fariĝis por ili kalko. 4 Kaj ili diris: Venu, ni konstruu al ni urbon, kaj turon, kies supro atingos la ĉielon, kaj ni akiru al ni gloron, antaŭ ol ni disiĝos sur la supraĵo de la tuta tero. 5 Kaj la Eternulo malleviĝis, por vidi la urbon kaj la turon, kiujn konstruis la homidoj. 6 Kaj la Eternulo diris: Jen estas unu popolo, kaj unu lingvon ili ĉiuj havas; kaj jen, kion ili komencis fari, kaj ili ne estos malhelpataj en ĉio, kion ili decidis fari. 7 Ni malleviĝu do, kaj Ni konfuzu tie ilian lingvon, por ke unu ne komprenu la parolon de alia. 8 Kaj la Eternulo disigis ilin de tie sur la supraĵon de la tuta tero, kaj ili ĉesis konstrui la urbon. 9 Tial oni donis al ĝi la nomon Babel, ĉar tie la Eternulo konfuzis la lingvon de la tuta tero kaj de tie la Eternulo disigis ilin sur la supraĵon de la tuta tero.

    Note that la Eternulo represents the Tetragrammaton. Etymologically it is etern- ‘eternal’ + -ul- ‘deadjectival’ + -o ‘noun’, thus ‘one who is eternal’. Quoth Wikt: “Zamenhof based the name on the etymological theory that Hebrew יהוה‎ is an archaic irregular imperfect form of היה, translating roughly to ‘he who (always) is.'”

    The text isn’t hard to read IMO; the verb endings -as, -is, -os are past/present/future; -u is the imperative; -i is the infinitive. For nouns, -j is the plural and -n is the accusative.

  16. Just to clarify for LH readers the use of slime in the KJV versions of Gen 11:3 and 14:10 and Ex 2:3 (quoted above), חֵמָר ḥēmār is usually translated as ‘bitumen, asphalt’, and חֹמֶר ḥōmer as ‘clay’ or the like. In unpointed texts the two words appear identical: חמר .

    In Genesis 11:3 (translated above), the two words occur almost side by side:

    וַיֹּאמְרוּ אִישׁ אֶל־רֵעֵהוּ הָבָה נִלְבְּנָה לְבֵנִים וְנִשְׂרְפָה לִשְׂרֵפָה וַתְּהִי לָהֶם הַלְּבֵנָה לְאָבֶן וְהַחֵמָר הָיָה לָהֶם לַחֹֽמֶר

    wayyōʾmrû ʾîš ʾel-rēʿēhû hābāh nilbənāh ləḇēnîm wəniśrəp̄āh liśrēp̄āh wattəhî lāhem halləḇēnāh ləʾāḇen wəhaḥēmār hāyāh lāhem laḥōmer

    καὶ εἶπεν ἄνθρωπος τῷ πλησίον δεῦτε πλινθεύσωμεν πλίνθους καὶ ὀπτήσωμεν αὐτὰς πυρί καὶ ἐγένετο αὐτοῖς ἡ πλίνθος εἰς λίθον καὶ ἄσφαλτος ἦν αὐτοῖς ὁ πηλός

    And they said to one another, “Come, let us make bricks, and burn them thoroughly.” And they had brick for stone, and bitumen for mortar.

    (Also Targum Onkelos for Gen 11:3:

    וַהוָת לְהוֹן לְבֵנְתָא לְאַבנָא וְחֵימָרָא הֲוָה לְהוֹן לִשיָע

    with Aramaic חֵימָרָא ḥēmārā ‘bitumen’ for חֵמָר ḥēmār ‘bitumen’ and Aramaic שיָע šyāʿ ‘sealing clay’ for חֹמֶר ḥōmer.)

    Although I love the sound of slimepit, it appears that a horrifying death in a tar pit is referred to in Genesis 14:10:

    וְעֵמֶק הַשִׂדִּים בֶּֽאֱרֹת בֶּאֱרֹת חֵמָר וַיָּנֻסוּ מֶֽלֶךְ־סְדֹם וַעֲמֹרָה וַיִּפְּלוּ־שָׁמָּה וְהַנִּשְׁאָרִים הֶרָה נָּֽסוּ׃

    wəʿēmeq haśiddîm beʾĕrōṯ beʾĕrōṯ ḥēmār wayyānusû meleḵ-səḏōm waʿămōrāh wayyippəlû-šāmmāh wəhannišʾārîm herāh nāsû

    ἡ δὲ κοιλὰς ἡ ἁλυκὴ φρέατα φρέατα ἀσφάλτου ἔφυγεν δὲ βασιλεὺς Σοδομων καὶ βασιλεὺς Γομορρας καὶ ἐνέπεσαν ἐκεῖ οἱ δὲ καταλειφθέντες εἰς τὴν ὀρεινὴν ἔφυγον

    Now the Valley of Siddim was full of bitumen pits; and as the kings of Sodom and Gomor′rah fled, some fell into them, and the rest fled to the mountain.

    Also in Exodus 2:3:

    וְלֹא־יָכְלָה עוֹד הַצְּפִינוֹ וַתִּֽקַּֽח־לוֹ תֵּבַת גֹּמֶא וַתַּחְמְרָה בַחֵמָר וּבַזָּפֶת וַתָּשֶׂם בָּהּ אֶת־הַיֶּלֶד וַתָּשֶׂם בַּסּוּף עַל־שְׂפַת הַיְאֹֽר

    wəlōʾ-yāḵəlāh ʿôḏ haṣṣəp̄înô wattiqqaḥ-lô tēḇaṯ gōmeʾ wattaḥmərāh ḇaḥēmār ûḇazzāp̄eṯ wattāśem bāh ʾeṯ-hayyeleḏ wattāśem bassûp̄ ʿal-śəp̄aṯ hayyəʾōr

    ἐπεὶ δὲ οὐκ ἠδύναντο αὐτὸ ἔτι κρύπτειν ἔλαβεν αὐτῷ ἡ μήτηρ αὐτοῦ θῖβιν καὶ κατέχρισεν αὐτὴν ἀσφαλτοπίσσῃ καὶ ἐνέβαλεν τὸ παιδίον εἰς αὐτὴν καὶ ἔθηκεν αὐτὴν εἰς τὸ ἕλος παρὰ τὸν ποταμόν

    And when she could hide him no longer she took for him a basket made of bulrushes, and daubed it with bitumen and pitch; and she put the child in it and placed it among the reeds at the river’s brink.

    Poor Moses if Jochebed had payed the reed ark with clay!

  17. Right, as usual!

  18. David Marjanović says

    ὁ πηλός

    Said to mean “mud” and occurring in the taxonomic names of numerous ancient and modern swamp creatures.

  19. I am curious why the KJV persisted in using slime here, when even the later versions (revisions) of Wyclif’s Bible had apparently changed earlier glewysch cley to tar in Exodus 2:3: And whanne sche myyte not hele, thanne sche took a leep of segge, and bawmede it with tar and pitch.

    See the MED on gleuish and on clei ‘clay’, also ‘bitumen’.

    (Also cf. Gen 11:3 in Wyclif’s version: And oon seide to his neiybore, Come ye, and make we tiel stonys, and bake we tho with fier; and thei hadden tiel for stonus, and pitche for morter. Further Gen 14:10: Forsothe the valey of the wode hadde many pittis of pitche; and so the kyng of Sodom and the kyng of Gomorre turneden the backis, and felden doun there; and thei that leften fledden to the hil.)

    And Jerome’s Vulgate has Gen 11:3 Habueruntque lateres pro saxis, et bitumen pro caemento, Gen 14:10 vallis autem Silvestris habebat puteos multos bituminis, Ex 2:3 sumpsit fiscellam scirpeam, quam linivit bitumine ac pice; all with bitumen, not limus.

    I am away from my OED subscription now. Is there a meaning “bitumen, pitch” given for Early Modern English slime?

  20. The OED has “a. Soft glutinous mud; alluvial ooze; viscous matter deposited or collected on stones, etc.” from ca. 1000 AD on, and “b. Applied to bitumen” beginning with Tyndale’s 1530 translation of, and commentary on the Pentateuch: “That slyme was a fatnesse that issued out of the earth, like vnto tarre; and thou mayst call it cement, if thou wilte.”

  21. Job 6:6 is more punning than anything I’ve seen anywhere in the OT.

    The verse is הֲיֵאָכֵל תָּפֵל מִבְּלִי-מֶלַח | אִם-יֶשׁ-טַעַם בְּרִיר חַלָּמוּת hăyē’āḵēl tāp̄ēl mibǝlî melaḥ | ’im yeš ṭa‘am bǝrîr ḥallāmûṯ, literally, roughly ‘ unflavored.(stuff) for.lack.of salt? if flavor in.mucus.of ḥallāmûṯ?’ ḥallāmûṯ is obscure. Each exegete and scholar interpreted it according to his kidney, some relating it to חֶלְמוֹן ḥelmôn ‘egg yolk’, some to various plants, some to the root ḥlm ‘to dream’.
    The first pun was noted by Tur-Sinai, who was the most original commentator on Job, and who was often wrong, but probably less so than most others. He notes the Arabic root تفل tfl ‘to spit’ (Lane’s), though he takes it to mean that tāp̄ēl means ‘saliva’ and nothing more; however, Mishnaic Hebrew has several instances of tāp̄ēl unambiguously meaning ‘flavorless, unsalted’. Unless this is a coincidence, the writer of Job paralleled tāp̄ēl and rîr with a punning intention.
    The other pun, which I don’t know if anyone has noticed before, is that the root ḥlm in ḥallāmûṯ is the reverse of mlḥ ‘salt’ (omitting the vowels). Either ḥallāmûṯ is a rare word, meaning a plant or something else, picked by the author for its punning value; or he coined it there and then, to mean ‘saltlessness’. Are there any other examples of reversed roots in Job, or elsewhere in the OT?

  22. Owlmirror says

    Ziony Zevit, in What Really Happened in the Garden of Eden, rejects both slime and dust.

    The human was fashioned from ‘āpār, a clod of soil. God, like a brick maker, worked soil rendered malleable by the upsurge. Unfortunately, ‘āpār is often mistranslated as “dust.” Examination of how this word is used in biblical Hebrew indicates clearly that ‘āpār refers to compacted lumps or clumps of earth, or to coagulated and concentrated burnt animal remains or vegetable matter and the like (Lev 14:41–42, 45; 17:13; Num 5:17; 2 Sam 24:3; 1 Kings 18:31; 2 Kings 23:6, 13; Job 7:5). It refers to something people can handle, wrap their fingers around, squeeze, and shape, like a mud ball.

    [ . . . ]

    As with “mist,” the biblical author had words to choose among for a precise meaning. If he had wished to indicate that the human was made from dust, particles light enough to be carried by the wind, he could have used ’ābāq (see Isa 5:24; 29:5; Nah 1:3), but it does not occur here. A second word referring to fine, barely perceptible dust that appears permanently suspended in the air is šaḥaq (Deut 33:26; Isa 40:15; Job 37:18, 21).
    A third word that some consider homophonic with the word for “clod,” ‘āpār, spelled with an initial ‘ayyin, is Hebrew ’ēper, with an initial ’aleph. The ’aleph is a distinctively different letter that represents an unmistakably different sound as its first consonant. Even though the two words appear to be similar, distinguished by a single consonant and a different pattern of vowels, their meanings are distinct. The proper translation of ’ēper is “ash.” It is what remains after something is burned up completely (Num 19:5, 9–10).
    The first human was formed from a clod or clump of soil, not from dust and not from ash. Nor was he formed from clay, ḥōmer or ḥēmār, that bakes in the sun or in a kiln and assumes a permanent form as it dries (Gen 11:3; Exod 1:14; 2:3; Isa 45:9; Jer 18:4–6; Job 4:19; 10:9).

    Hm. Does anyone support Zevit’s translation, עפר=clod? A quick search suggests few do.

  23. Apparently, the geological and archeological organic chemist Arie Nissenbaum has disputed that there could have been actual tar pits in the Vale of Siddim:

    The Dead Sea area has been associated with bitumen (= asphalt) for thousands of years. For this reason, it has commonly been taken for granted that pits of bitumen existed in the Dead Sea area, and into which the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fell after losing a battle in the vale of Siddim in the Dead Sea region (Genesis, 14:10). However, physical evidence for the existence of such pits is practically non-existent. At times when the Dead Sea water level is low, as it is nowadays, large expanses of black mud covered with a carbonate crust are exposed along the coast of the lake. The black mud resembles asphalt in its shiny black color and sulfurous smell. It has been sometimes assumed that the mud contains asphalt, although this is not the case, and the color and smell are due to poorly crystallized iron surfides. The solid looking carbonate veneer is quite frail and it is easy to sink through it into the underlying black mud. Thus, the biblical description may be of the kings of Sodom and Gomorrah fleeing through the mud flats when the lake level was low, and sinking into the black sulfurous mud.

    There certainly could have been Levantine folk tales of tar pits large enough to swallow people up, but they may have originated as travelers tales’, rather than locally. However, since the slime pits that Nissenbaum describes may have been black and sulfurous, they could possibly have perhaps been mistaken by sight (and even more easily in retelling) for true tar pits.

    Nissenbaum seems to be an expert on near-Eastern asphalts, so I imagine he ought to have known what he was talking about—although he had also previously appeared in a borderline cranky Biblical archeology documentary shown by the BBC in 2001. You can seem him here, starting at 31:52, and he seems to stick to the science. However, even after reading the full article, it’s not clear to me where he stands on the veracity of the Genesis account, however translated.

    Slime pits do also have one other probable point in favor of them for a Biblical literalist viewpoint. A fall into a tar pit seems less likely to be survivable, but the king of Sodom is still alive seven verses later, after Abraham’s intervention in the battle.

  24. The elderly technophobe who drafted the text evidently wasn’t quite sure how this alarming modern invention was supposed to work.

    Not knowing the context (it might kill all fun!) I suggest the following explanation. Imagine that the only text of the Constitution was deposited in the National Archives, maybe inscribed on a stone. Than, obviously, various officials who must use it as a working document would be compelled to run to the Archives every time they needed the text. Or alternatively, they would be required to memorize it word for word. How then the public could check that the relevant authorities follow the true Constitution? One way is to make them take periodic exams when the officials recite the Constitution from memory standing near the exact text on display and the public checking that everything is remembered as written.

  25. To clarify myself: metathesis is a common device in Biblical Hebrew. I can’t think of any case, though, of an antonym constructed by reversing the order of the root letters.

    @Owlmirror: See discussion of ‘āp̄ār / ’ēp̄er in TDOT. It looks like ‘āp̄ār is more general than ‘clods’, and refers to loose dirt in its various forms. ’ēp̄er can refer to ashes but also to fine dust (arguably 2Sam 13:19). ‘āp̄ār can refer to ashes (Numbers 19:17). The two words may be doublets: ‘āp̄ār the direct descendant, ’ēp̄er a loan from Akkadian, which merged /ʕ/ with /ʔ/.

    @Brett: The root underlying ḥēmār may mean ‘to bubble up’, which could apply to sulfurous mud as well as bitumen.

  26. That’s all fascinating, Y.

    “Metathesis is a common device in Biblical Hebrew,” you say. Do you mean simply that the reversal of adjacent elements is common: like brid versus bird as we see in Chaucer, and French fromage versus Italian formaggio? Or can the elements ever have something in between, as in the uncertain case of your ḥlmmlḥ? I gather that metathesis is a feature of the grammar; is it also known to be used to achieve a literary or rhetorical effect, as you conjecture for this uncertain case?

  27. There are variants of the same word, like keḇeś~keśeḇ ‘sheep’, but as you say, they usually involve adjacent letters. That’s one reason why this example is so striking, if true.

    Also, words differing by consonant order may be used in the same phrase for stylistic flourish.

  28. Stu Clayton says

    Imagine that the only text of the Constitution was deposited in the National Archives, maybe inscribed on a stone.

    See the movie The Book of Eli,with Denzel Washington and Gary Oldman. There is only one Bible in Braille, and Eli’s memory.

  29. @Stu Clayton: I honestly don’t remember much about the movie, but the title itself is an allusion to the same idea. We know there was a Biblical “Book of Eli,” since it is referenced elsewhere in the Deuteronomistic history, but it has been completely lost.

  30. Stu Clayton says

    @Brett: thanks, I didn’t know that ! It fits perfectly with the plot.

    The “Book of Eli” has been lost, the protagonist Eli in the movie prevents the Bible from being lost. I won’t say how, because people might forget it.

    You must have missed the last 30 minutes or so of the movie.

  31. J.W. Brewer says

    Elsewhere in scripture you get imagery like “But now, O Lord, thou art our father; we are the clay, and thou our potter; and we all are the work of thy hand.” (Is. 64:8, KJV, see also e.g. Rom. 9:21) I’m a bit confused about how similar clods of earth or mudballs etc are to the sort of clay an ancient potter would have worked with, and maybe it depends on what vowels are assumed in an originally vowel-less written text? Making pottery out of clay seems a little more sophisticated than making bricks out of mud, but I don’t know to what extent in the relevant ancient culture these were thought of as two distinct crafts or professions or different facets of the same one.

  32. Owlmirror says

    The Tower of Babel passage is traditionally one of the texts that conlangers present as part of a chrestomathy.

    Thanks, who knew? Even Esperanto, or just newer ones?

    Coincidentally, I found a list of resources for conlangers which includes (pages 8-10) a list of Babel texts:

    Including Esperanto, by Zamenhof.

    (I suspect, as Cowan copy-pasted from the Esperanto Bible, so too did an editor of the Esperanto Babel WikiP)

  33. The next verse in Job, 6:7, is מֵאֲנָה לִנְגּוֹעַ נַפְשִׁי הֵמָּה כִּדְוֵי לַחְמִי mēănâ lingôa‘ nap̄šî hēmmâ kid[ǝ]wēy laḥmî ‘my soul refused to touch, they are [??] my bread’. The meaning is obscure, but the last word, from leḥem ‘bread, food’ shows yet another permutation of the root in the previous verse.

    There’s a recent book surveying this phenomenon, by Isaac Kalimi. I’ll take a look next time I’m at the library.

  34. See the movie The Book of Eli

    The Spirit of ’76 is also about finding the text of the US constitution. It takes time travel. It’s great fun, but you need to know the American ’70s (directly or indirectly) to fully get the ridiculousness.

  35. I always* took Mark Twain’s** description of The Mysterious Stranger making living things out of clay to be a direct allusion to the fashioning of Adam out of red clay.

    And he said true. There was never anything so wonderful and so interesting. Bread, cakes, sweets, nuts—whatever one wanted, it was there. He ate nothing himself, but sat and chatted, and did one curious thing after another to amuse us. He made a tiny toy squirrel out of clay, and it ran up a tree and sat on a limb overhead and barked down at us. Then he made a dog that was not much larger than a mouse, and it treed the squirrel and danced about the tree, excited and barking, and was as alive as any dog could be. It frightened the squirrel from tree to tree and followed it up until both were out of sight in the forest. He made birds out of clay and set them free, and they flew away, singing.

    At last I made bold to ask him to tell us who he was.

    “An angel,” he said, quite simply, and set another bird free and clapped his hands and made it fly away.

    A kind of awe fell upon us when we heard him say that, and we were afraid again; but he said we need not be troubled, there was no occasion for us to be afraid of an angel, and he liked us, anyway. He went on chatting as simply and unaffectedly as ever; and while he talked he made a crowd of little men and women the size of your finger, and they went diligently to work and cleared and leveled off a space a couple of yards square in the grass and began to build a cunning little castle in it, the women mixing the mortar and carrying it up the scaffoldings in pails on their heads, just as our work-women have always done, and the men laying the courses of masonry—five hundred of these toy people swarming briskly about and working diligently and wiping the sweat off their faces as natural as life. In the absorbing interest of watching those five hundred little people make the castle grow step by step and course by course, and take shape and symmetry, that feeling and awe soon passed away and we were quite comfortable and at home again. We asked if we might make some people, and he said yes, and told Seppi to make some cannon for the walls, and told Nikolaus to make some halberdiers, with breastplates and greaves and helmets, and I was to make some cavalry, with horses, and in allotting these tasks he called us by our names, but did not say how he knew them. Then Seppi asked him what his own name was, and he said, tranquilly, “Satan,” and held out a chip and caught a little woman on it who was falling from the scaffolding and put her back where she belonged, and said, “She is an idiot to step backward like that and not notice what she is about.”

    It caught us suddenly, that name did, and our work dropped out of our hands and broke to pieces—a cannon, a halberdier, and a horse. Satan laughed, and asked what was the matter. I said, “Nothing, only it seemed a strange name for an angel.” He asked why.

    “Because it’s—it’s—well, it’s his name, you know.”

    “Yes—he is my uncle.”

    For a particularly meta depiction of Satan’s work in clay, you can have a look at The Adventures of Mark Twain.***

    Later, the material of which mankind was made is discussed explicitly. (The “eleven girls and the old woman” are people who the narrator had seen burned at the stake for witchcraft.)

    I told Satan all about the eleven girls and the old woman, once, but it did not affect him. He only said it was the human race, and what the human race did was of no consequence. And he said he had seen it made; and it was not made of clay; it was made of mud—part of it was, anyway. I knew what he meant by that—the Moral Sense. He saw the thought in my head, and it tickled him and made him laugh. Then he called a bullock out of a pasture and petted it and talked with it, and said:

    “There—he wouldn’t drive children mad with hunger and fright and loneliness, and then burn them for confessing to things invented for them which had never happened. And neither would he break the hearts of innocent, poor old women and make them afraid to trust themselves among their own race; and he would not insult them in their death-agony. For he is not besmirched with the Moral Sense, but is as the angels are, and knows no wrong, and never does it.”

    Lovely as he was, Satan could be cruelly offensive when he chose; and he always chose when the human race was brought to his attention. He always turned up his nose at it, and never had a kind word for it.

    * When I say “always,” I thought that my memory went back to when I watched the 1982 television adaptation of The Mysterious Stranger on PBS. However, there are actually a bunch of different versions of Twain’s story—at least three of substantial length—since he was never sufficiently satisfied with it to publish it within his own lifetime.**** The 1982 television film was explicitly based on the Twain’s last version, which was the only one that was even plausibly complete; none of the earlier manuscripts had endings. In the final version, written between 1902 to 1908 (No. 44, the Mysterious Stranger: Being an Ancient Tale Found in a Jug and Freely Translated from the Jug, usually referred to as the “print shop version”), the title character is able (because of the book’s solipsistic viewpoint that the world is an illusion) to perform a number of miraculous acts, but the famous scene in which he makes people out of clay does not appear.

    ** i assume these passages were written by Twain, although the best known posthumously published version of The Mysterious Stranger is cobbled together from material, some of which was not actually authored by Twain. Twain’s literary executor, Albert Paine, started with the earliest substantial version of the story, The Chronicle of Young Satan, but extended it with the ending from print shop version, as well as connecting material that he seemingly wrote himself. The end product has therefore been called a literary fraud, although it does not seem clear to me whether Paine really intended people to believe that the entire thing was complete work from Twain’s hand.

    *** One of the producers of this and a number of Will Vinton’s other Claymation films and television specials was my namesake David Altschul. Like my father, he had grown up in Chicago and subsequently moved to Oregon. However, we were not related. Apparently, back in the 1960s, all the Altschul listings in the Chicago-area phonebook were our relatives, except one—and he came from that family.

    **** At the end of The Adventures of Mark Twain,*** as they are trying to lighten the load on Twain’s flying paddle-boat, so he can catch up with Halley’s Comet, Huck Finn, Tom Sawyer, and Becky Thatcher are tossing unneeded items overboard. However, as they dump the books out through the portholes, Twain stops them from jettisoning The Mysterious Stranger, since the manuscript still needs to be published.

  36. Disappointingly, the Teian inscription seems to have a more mundane meaning: ἐπὶ μνήμῃ is likely “as a reminder” rather than “to the best of his memory”, as argued here (see p. 731 for text and translation).

  37. @Y: “That is a worship word, Yang worship. You will not speak it!”

  38. More metathesis in Job 6. mēḥôl yammîmthan the sand of the seas’ (v. 3), yaḥmôl ‘will have pity’ (v. 10). Words (roots or clitic+root) with five of the possible six permutations of the three consonants are in the first 10 verses, none in the other 20.

  39. This paper discusses biblical literary metathesis, but doesn’t include examples found by Y. I don’t know why. There is a book-length treatment of the subject by the same author, but I don’t have access to it.

  40. i can say from writing a bit af yidish, which only has a scattering of triliteral-rooted-words, that metathesis and other kinds of root-echoing are almost irresistable as a piece of compositional play. i imagine in hebrew, ivrit, or arabic it would be even more so!

  41. From Kalimi’s article, it looks like he goes overboard a little in looking for examples of metatheses, and some reviewers of his book think so too. For example, אֶל ’el ‘to’ and לֹא lo’ ‘not’ are common and short, and finding them near each other could be unintentional coincidence. Other examples are more convincing. The article gives a small sample of the supposedly more complete survey in the book.

    My local university library doesn’t have it. I’ll have to get it from somewhere else.

  42. Thanks for that reference on the inscription from Teos, TR!

    It was worthwhile following up Herrmann’s original 1981 treatment. It seems that the interpretation of ἐπὶ µνήµῃ καὶ ἐπὶ δυνάμει as something like “damit es in Erinnerung und in Kraft bleibt” is due to Michael Wörrle (see note 29, p. 12, in P. Herrmann “Teos und Abdera im 5. Jahrhundert v. Chr. Ein neues Fragment der Teiorum Dirae”, Chiron 11, p. 1–30; doi: 10.34780/z7c9-r68l; in open access here).

  43. Thanks for following up in the OED for me, Y!

    I find it somehow disheartening that the KJV’s slime simply perpetuates Tyndale’s odd choice of word in translating חֵמָר “bitumen”, a choice that seems to have gone unquestioned and unexamined by his successors.

  44. I got my hands on Kalimi’s book. It lists Job 6:6, but takes ḥallāmûṯ to be ‘mallow’, following an old interpretation, and doesn’t refer to the rest of the chapter. While useful, the book only looks at metathetic sibling words within a verse, not among nearby verses.

  45. David Marjanović says

    poorly crystallized iron surfides

    Interesting error for sulfides. OCR? Or thinking of surface?

    The two words may be doublets: ‘āp̄ār the direct descendant, ’ēp̄er a loan from Akkadian, which merged /ʕ/ with /ʔ/.

    That would even explain the vowels: /ʕ/ turned a into e, and when it was lost, e became phonemic. /ʕ/ must have been [ʢ] like in western Arabic today.

    I wouldn’t describe this as a merger of /ʕ/ and /ʔ/, but as a loss of both. Evidence might come from Babel borrowed from *bab-ʔilu. Hebrew would probably insert /ʔ/ when faced with a vowel-initial word, or simply interpret any phonetic [ʔ] as phonemic.

    “Yes—he is my uncle.”

    So… angels reproduce by nepotism, like Disney figures. I should not be surprised.

    While useful, the book only looks at metathetic sibling words within a verse, not among nearby verses.

    Is Job poetic enough that verses can be defined without recourse to the much younger division of the Bible into verses?

  46. That would even explain the vowels: /ʕ/ turned a into e, and when it was lost, e became phonemic.

    That is so, and it’s a regular change in Akkadian, with the a either before or after the *ʕ. Two things I don’t understand are: why did the second vowel of *ʿapar change as well? There are other examples, e.g. *ʿaᵈzābum > ezēbum ‘to leave’, *ḥarāθum > erēšum ‘to plow’. Assimilation, I suppose? The second thing is, I’d think a pharyngeal would a-color a vowel, not raise it. For example, Hebrew inserts an excrescent a (“furtive pataḥ”) before a word-final ħ/ʕ/h.

    I’m sure a lot has been written about this.

    /ʕ/ must have been [ʢ] like in western Arabic today.

    Why so particular?

    Is Job poetic enough that verses can be defined without recourse to the much younger division of the Bible into verses?

    Yes indeed, both meter-wise and meaning-wise. The poetic core of Job is almost all written in distichs. A glance anywhere in any translation will make it clear.

  47. Reading a bit more, the second a changing to e by assimilation (Umlaut if you will) happened later, at different times in different dialects.

  48. David Marjanović says

    Why so particular?

    Precisely because pharyngeals (like uvulars) color towards [ɑ] while epiglottals color towards [æ]. Listen to this song in a language in a Sprachbund situation with western Arabic: /ʕbaʕmjər/ comes out as [æbææmjær] – actually [ʢæbæʢæmjær], but hearing the epiglottal approximants takes some practice. Then compare pharyngeals and epiglottals here.

    Assimilation, I suppose?

    Alternatively, vowel coloring is a very fuzzy process. As long as it’s not phonemic, it happens to varying degrees to vowels at different distances, not only to directly adjacent ones. Quechua is a good example: its vowel system is /æ ɪ ʊ/, colored by uvulars towards [ɑ e o], and pentavocalista spellings are a mess, even within the same dictionary. If the coloring becomes phonemic in such a situation, some vacillation is expected.

  49. [æbææmjær]

    How is /a/ normally realized there?


    The more distant vowel changed long after the *a>e change and the loss of the guttural, in some dialects but not others, but all of which had changed the proximal vowel.

  50. David Marjanović says

    How is /a/ normally realized there?

    …mostly as a front-to-central [a] in the first song, now that I listened again, and mostly as [æ] in the second (in the same video), with some exceptions in both… :-S

    But note how, in the first word, the /ə/ and the epenthetic vowel come out as [æ], too; it’s not just the /a/. The second song also contains examples of uvulars coloring in the general direction of [ɑ].

  51. John Cowan says

    The Romans more sensibly posted their Constitution, the XII tables, on bronze in the Forum, after the plebeians forced the patricians (who had kept the text oral) to write it down. Three secessions of the plebs were needed: one for the first ten tables, one for the last two, and one to get the tables posted. But by Cicero’s time, memorizing them was part of a Roman education.

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