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Where Linguists Dare To Fly

Michael Cerasik writes from Philadelphia: "Not long ago my wife and I were at the Gamla Nature Reserve on the Golan Heights, where vultures nest. The park attendant was a woman from the Israel Nature Reserves Authority, who insisted that in modern Hebrew the word for 'vulture' is nesher and the word for 'eagle,' ayit. A number of bilingual Israelis standing by, some of them native English-speakers, claimed it was exactly the opposite, citing the biblical description of God's bringing the children of Israel to the Promised Land al kanfei nesharim, 'on the wings of eagles.'" He concludes, "Can you clear up the confusion?"

The confusion is in fact a triple one: 1) What were the original, biblical meanings of the Hebrew words nesher and ayit? 2) What have these words commonly been understood to mean in both modern Hebrew and previously? 3) To what extent should fidelity to ancient meanings determine or dictate contemporary usage?

Let us begin with Question 2. There is no doubt that ordinary Israelis — by which I mean speakers who are not ornithologists, nature buffs or linguistic pedants — use the word nesher to mean "eagle" and ayit to mean "vulture." When it comes to nesher, indeed, this is how the word was understood as far back as the matter can be traced: The earliest Bible translation, the fourth-century BCE Greek Septuagint, renders "on the wings of eagles" as pterygon aeton, aestos meaning "eagle" in ancient Greek, and the fourth-century C.E. Latin Vulgate agrees by giving us alas aquilarum.

On the other hand, the exact species of bird denoted by ayit seems to have been unclear to the ancients. Wherever the word appears in the Bible, as in the account of Abraham's covenantal sacrifice in Genesis 15:11 in which we read, "And the ayit descended on the carcasses, and Abraham drove them away," the Septuagint translates it as ornea, the Vulgate as volucres. and the first-century Aramaic Targum as ofa, all meaning simply "birds."

The rabbis, too, were not certain what ayit meant. Although it appears clear from Genesis that it was some kind of scavenger, a description that fits the vulture but not the eagle, they left the matter open; some, like the medieval commentator David Kimhi, took ayit as a collective noun for scavenging birds of all kinds. Even in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda's monumental early 20th-century Hebrew dictionary, ayit is not defined as a specific species and its meaning of "vulture" in modern Hebrew is a recent one.

About nesher, however, there can be little doubt: Already in ancient times we find the rabbis calling it "the king of the birds," a title that was granted the eagle all over Europe and the Middle East and that would hardly have been accorded the carrion-eating vulture. Moreover, the biblical association of the nesher with great speed — "they were swifter than nesharim, they were braver than lions," David says in his elegy for Saul and Jonathan — is well-suited to the eagle, some varieties of which can swoop down on their prey at close to 200 miles per hour, but hardly fits the vulture, which flaps down slowly on the dead bodies it devours. The common Israeli usage of nesher for "eagle" thus has a time-honored history, while that of ayit for "vulture" certainly seems logical.

And yet our Gamla Nature Reserve attendant was not mistaken: In the official Hebrew of contemporary dictionaries, textbooks and bird guides, a nesher is the vulture, gyps fulvus, and an ayit is the eagle, aquila. Why? It all started with the 19th-century British explorer and naturalist Henry Baker Tristram, who also knew his Bible. Pointing to the verse in Micah that states, "Make thee baldÖas the eagle," Tristram observed that whereas vultures are well-known for their featherless heads and necks, the only such eagle, the bald eagle, is a strictly New World bird with which Micah could not have been familiar. Not only that, argued Tristram, but nesher comes from the Hebrew nashar, which can mean to molt or lose feathers, whereas ayit comes from the verb ut, "to swoop down on." Obviously, then, the biblical nesher must be a vulture and the biblical ayit must be an eagle.

Tristram's argument was eventually accepted by the linguistic and scientific authorities, and the popular meanings of the words were ordered reversed in official Hebrew. And yet quite apart from the fact that there are (as I have said) other passages in the Bible that support popular usage on this point, and that the truth probably was that both nesher and ayit may have occasionally been used in biblical times for any large, meat-eating bird (just as nesher's Arabic cognate of nisr still is today), why should popular usage be overruled just because it contradicts what a word may have meant 3,000 years ago? If this were to be our criterion, we should have to stop speaking every language in the world!

No, Mr. Cerasik, let the nature-reserve attendants say what they want: I'll take my stand with the ordinary Israeli in calling an eagle a nesher and a vulture an ayit and let the feathers fall where they may.


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