Word of the Day / Yarok: Ancient Hebrew for Green, and Yellow and Everything in Between

How the ancients distinguished between the bright yellow of gold and deep green of frogs is a mystery.

Today’s word of the day is yarok. That is the modern Hebrew word for green, but as we will see – in years of yore it was also the word for yellow and every color in between.

As is the case in many other languages the Hebrew word for "green" is related to vegetation: yerek. From the same root, the Hebrew word for vegetables is yerakot.

A look at the Semitic language family shows the root y-r-k fanned out in a fascinating manner in the different languages. Akkadian had the word waraku, meaning "to turn green or yellow," as well as warqu, meaning vegetables. In Aramaic we find the same triple meaning of green, yellow and vegetables.

On the other hand in Arabic we find the verb waraqa - meaning to grow leaves or to sprout, as well as wariq, meaning leaves when a noun - but also green when a verb.

True, those specific words don't designate yellow. But a related word, wurqa, means ash-colored and awraqu is the color of a camel.

Ugaritic, which is very close to Hebrew, has a word yrk - but it means gold. This meaning appears in numerous African-Semitic languages: The Ethiopic waraq, Amharic warq, Tigri warqi and more.

What this variation seems to imply is that in Proto-Semitic the root y-r-k meant both vegetation and the color of vegetation, ranging from dark green to yellow to pale brown. As time progressed each language developed different distinctions, giving specific meanings to the root and to the words derived from it.

In the case of Biblical Hebrew, we can find the yarok only once: “The range of the mountains is his pasture, and he searcheth after every green thing.” (Job 39:8) and though the King James translator translated the word as “green thing” - it is generally believed that the word in this case was a noun meaning vegetable or vegetation.

Just a little bit now

But there is another related word, yerakrak in the Bible. This word in modern Hebrew means greenish, a light shade of green. Some believe that in the past it meant quite the opposite - “very green”.

And what does the Bible say is very green? Well, for one, there are a bunch of skin diseases said to be yerakrak, but we really don’t know what they are, and can only hope they weren't actually "very green." Maybe it meant "quite yellow."

On the other hand, in Psalm 68 we know what color yerakrak denotes. “Though ye have lien among the pots, yet shall ye be as the wings of a dove covered with silver, and her feathers with yellow gold.” Here we have to assume the King James translator got it right – that in this case yerakrak meant yellowish, as gold isn't commonly green.

In the post-exilic period the word yarok became constrained in meaning, and the word tzahov, which appears in the Bible only in the context of hair growing out of some blemish caused by a disease and may have meant “blond”, began to be used in rabbinic texts to mean “yellow”. And thus latter-day Israelis have words for each of the colors, and confuse them no more.

Haaretz
Reuters