World O† Words

What It Means To ‘Pay At­ten­tion’

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - BY AVIYA KUSH­NER


the age of the smart­phone, it is get­ting harder and harder to get hu­man be­ings to give their all to one per­son, one sub­ject and one mo­ment. Maybe that’s why a tweet on how var­i­ous lan­guages ex­press the idea of “pay­ing at­ten­tion” went vi­ral re­cently, amass­ing Ž‘,’’’ likes and over “,’’’ retweets at last count — far more than the usual lan­guage-nerd fare ever at­tracts.

I kept see­ing this charm­ing four-line com­ment from Nyusha (@gole_yaas) in my feed, and the po­ets and lin­guists I fol­low could not re­sist retweet­ing it:

In English, at­ten­tion is some­thing we pay. In Span­ish, at­ten­tion is some­thing we lend. In French, at­ten­tion is some­thing we make. And in Farsi, at­ten­tion is some­thing we do.

For days, tweet­ers around the world added in­for­ma­tion on how at­ten­tion is framed in their cul­ture, quickly mak­ing this a global con­ver­sa­tion. “In Rus­sian, at­ten­tion is some­thing you turn,” one wrote. In Viet­namese, “at­ten­tion is some­thing you look.” Then this, from Fin­land: “In Fin­nish, at­ten­tion is some­thing we at­tach. Ki­in­nitä huomiota — At­tach at­ten­tion.”

I could eas­ily have spent weeks read­ing these mis­sives, but as all these con­cepts of “at­ten­tion” flooded my mind, I thought about He­brew — and how dif­fer­ent it is from all the lan­guages tweet­ers ref­er­enced.

In He­brew, “to pay at­ten­tion” is gen­er­ally lasim lev, or “to set your heart to it.” Lit­er­ally, lasim is “to place,” “to put,” “to set,” and lev is “heart.” What fas­ci­nated me, the more I thought about it, is how at­ten­tion in He­brew is a mat­ter of the body — but most specif­i­cally a mat­ter of the heart. But where does this un­usual phrase — sim lev — “pay at­ten­tion,” and lit­er­ally, “place your heart,” come from?

I did some sleuthing and learned that sim lev comes from the Book of Job, fit­tingly enough a book about the in­ner­most parts of the heart, the deep­est dev­as­ta­tion a hu­man be­ing can ex­pe­ri­ence. And in­ter­est­ingly enough, Job in­cludes two in­stances of this con-

struc­tion, each with a di er­ent prepo­si­tion. The first men­tion is in the very first chap­ter, in verse : hasamta libcha al avdi Iyov. Or in The Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion So­ci­ety’s trans­la­tion, which reads:

“The Lord said to the Ad­ver­sary, “Have you no­ticed My ser­vant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blame­less and up­right man who gears God and shuns evil?”

This ex­act same phrase, with a dif­fer­ent prepo­si­tion, ap­pears in the sec­ond chap­ter of Job, verse ‡. Here, in He­brew, it is el avdi Iyov as op­posed to al avdi Iyov. The Jew­ish Pub­li­ca­tion So­ci­ety trans­la­tion is the same for both phrases, whether the prepo­si­tion means “to” or “on.” In both cases, it is, “Have you no­ticed My ser­vant Job?”

The com­po­nents of sim lev are in­ter­est­ing: verb and noun, place and heart. Sure, sim is a He­brew word, but it’s pretty close to what the neigh­bors were us­ing. There is the Akka­dian samu, mean­ing “to set”; the Ara­maic sim, and the Ara­bic shama.

And what about lev, or “heart”? That, too, is a word the neigh­bors were fond of. It’s the Akka­dian word libbu, the Ugaritic lev, the Ara­maic liba and the Ara­bic loob.

I found my­self wish­ing that Akka­dian, Ugaritic and Ara­maic had made it to the age of elec­tronic likes. Surely libbu, lev and liba would be more sat­is­fy­ing than a sim­ple heart on Twit­ter.

But that’s not re­ally fair, be­cause what mat­ters most with any lan­guage is whether it is dead or alive.

Liv­ing, breath­ing and thriv­ing lan­guages are al­ways bor­row­ing from the neigh­bors, and He­brew is no ex­cep­tion. An­cient He­brew speak­ers must have liked bor­row­ing, judg­ing from the He­brew Bi­ble, which has Akka­dian names, like Rachel, the word for lamb. The To­rah also in­cludes bits from Phoeni­cian and Hit­tite, which is per­haps a good thing, since it is the only ad­dress where these now-dead lan­guages live.

Con­tem­po­rary spo­ken He­brew, es­pe­cially slang, con­tin­ues that tra­di­tion of pick­ing up good lin­guis­tic ideas from the neigh­bors. To­day’s He­brew in­cludes many bor­rowed words, phrases and ex­pres­sions from Ara­bic. So in ad­di­tion to the one-of-a-kind sim lev, which gets such prom­i­nent place­ment in Job, He­brew speak­ers can also turn to Ara­bic and use dir balak, the Ara­bic way of say­ing “Pay at­ten­tion!”

The Balashon, or He­brew Lan­guage De­tec­tive, also known as David Cur­win, dis­cusses dir balak on his blog. He notes that it “is of­ten used in He­brew in the sense of “Watch your back! Pay at­ten­tion (that this doesn’t hap­pen)!”

Dir is a form of the Ara­bic verb dar, or “to turn around.” He­brew has a sim­i­lar op­tion, the daled-vav-reish root, which means “to go in cir­cles”; con­sider the word davar, mail­man — who goes from house to house, mak­ing the rounds of the neigh­bor­hood.

Balak is a form of the Ara­bic word

bal, which means “sense, mind, at­ten­tion.” Here I found my­self en­joy­ing Cur­win’s ex­cur­sion into other Ara­bic phrases be­sides dir balak that use bal: aja a-balo — He thought of it.

tawal balo — Be pa­tient.

rach min balo — He for­got.

Then Cur­win’s post gets more de­li­cious, as he tries to con­nect the Ara­bic

bal to Ara­maic, which also uses bal: “After do­ing a lit­tle dig­ging, I was able to find an Ara­maic cog­nate to the Ara­bic word, and with luck, it ap­pears in the book of Daniel. In verse ˜:™š, we find the fol­low­ing”— in­clud­ing the pas­sage v’aal Daniel sam bal l’shaysvuta.

I was thrilled with this dis­cus­sion, but even more in­trigued when I read the trans­la­tion:

“Upon hear­ing that, the king was very dis­turbed, and he set his heart upon sav­ing Daniel, and un­til the sun set made ev­ery e ort to res­cue him,” ac­cord­ing to the JPS trans­la­tion.

So bal in Ara­maic is trans­lated as “heart” by JPS. And yes, “set his heart upon” is in the same lin­guis­tic neigh­bor­hood as sim lev, or the He­brew way to say “to pay at­ten­tion.”

But can we be sure that the Ara­maic word bal means “heart”?

To the com­men­ta­tors, bal in the Book of Daniel is a bit mys­te­ri­ous. Rashi says he doesn’t know what it means. (I have al­ways found this will­ing­ness to ad­mit to not know­ing to be one of Rashi’s great charms.) But Radak thinks that the let­ters may have switched — so bl and lb, or lv, hence lev.

I’m will­ing to ac­cept the idea that maybe a scribe moved two let­ters around, maybe be­cause he wasn’t pay­ing at­ten­tion. And I’m also happy to con­sider the idea that He­brew, Ara­maic and Ara­bic have sim­i­lar ideas of how to pay at­ten­tion, how to fo­cus on our shared world, an­cient and con­tem­po­rary, home to the liv­ing and the dead. Fol­low­ing a trail from the Book of Job to the Book of Daniel to con­tem­po­rary Ara­bic to He­brew-bor­row­ing-from-Ara­bic, we can hear a beau­ti­ful, mul­ti­lin­gual, cen­turies-old in­sis­tence that at­ten­tion is, be­neath it all, a mat­ter of the heart.

Aviya Kush­ner is the For­ward’s lan­guage colum­nist and the author of “The Gram­mar of God” (Spiegel & Grau, 2015). Fol­low her on Twit­ter, @AviyaKush­ner

He­brew, Ara­maic, and Ara­bic have sim­i­lar ideas of how to pay at­ten­tion, how to fo­cus on our shared world, an­cient and con­tem­po­rary.

In He­brew, to pay at­ten­tion is gen­er­ally lasim lev, or to set your heart to it.


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