On Root / The Semantics of Global Sustainability and the Loch Ness Monster

In honor of the Rio+20 Earth Summit, we look at the way we talk about our world and what beasts lurking in lairs have to do with it all.

Usually this column sheds linguistic light on current events here in Israel. But a recent global event warrants shifting our focus overseas.

Between June 20 and 22, thousands of people from around the world gathered in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for the Rio+20 Earth Summit. Participants debated how best to address the looming climate crisis and other critical environmental challenges.

Environment in Hebrew is sviva סביבה, from the root s-b-bסבב  ("b" and "v" are versions of the same letter in Hebrew), which means "around" or "turn." The environment sovev סובב, "surrounds," us. A sevivon סביבון, better known in English as a "dreidel," is the spinning top used for Hanukkah games.

You might use one at a "party," mesibah מסיבה, where people are "gathered around" and reclining in "comfort," mesubim מסובים– as at a Passover seder. And while you don't need a sibah lemesibah סיבה למסיבה, a "reason to party," the two words are related. Think of a reason as a cause, or what makes something go around.

"Environmental quality" is eichut hasviva איכות הסביבה. The word eichut is part of a fascinating group of words that entered Hebrew through medieval translations of philosophical words. They refer to abstract concepts that were often lacking in classical Hebrew.

In creating these new abstract nouns, Hebrew translators took their cue from Greek and Latin words like qualitas and quantitas, "quality" and "quantity," that are adapted from questions words. So "quantity" is eichut, literally "how-ness" from eich איך, "how?" And quantity is camut כמות, "how-much-ness" from camaכמה , "how much?"

Also, the essence of a thing – its "what-ness" – is mahut מהות, from mah מה, "what?"

The "what-ness" of sviva is very different from that of another "green" word, tevaטבע, "nature" – as in the sandal brand and giant Israeli pharmaceutical company which seek an image of naturalness.

The word teva' comes from the root t-v-'ayin טבע, which means "form" or "imprint." This root also gives us matbea' מטבע, coin, and taba'at טבעת, "ring" (with "v" and "b" again alternating). Nature, while dynamic, is something formed or set, as in teva' haadam טבע האדם, "human nature." Tiv'i טבעי is "natural" and tiv'oni טבעוני is "vegan."

In order to keep nature natural in the face of human onslaught, we have created shmurot teva' שמורות טבע, "nature reserves." While the idea is modern, the Hebrew term goes back to Biblical Creation. The first humans were put in the Garden with a duty: le'ovdah uleshomra לעבדה ולשמרה(Gen. 2:15). Le’ovda, from 'avodah עבודה, is "work" or "labor" – including the agricultural kind. Leshomrah is "guarding" or "protecting." So Adam and Eve's responsibilities can be understood as “to work and to watch,” “to till and to tend” or “to serve and to preserve.”

Both the terms in this couplet also have deep cultic associations.

Leshomrah can alternatively be translated as "observe," as in commandments like shmirat Shabbat, "the observance of the Sabbath." And 'Avodah also means "worshipping" God or "service." Similarly, in English, “worship” comes from "work" and "cult" comes from "cultivate."

Shmurot, "reserves," are generally less about work and cultivation than about preservation. In English, untouched land is called "wilderness." While there is no ready Hebrew equivalent for this word, the mostly common translation takes us back to the Bible: eretz breishit ארץ בראשית, "land of Genesis" or “creation country.”

Wilderness may strike us as romantic, thrilling or sublime. But the word is actually based in fear and apprehension. Here, the suffix "-ness" is not the abstract nominal form, as in wildness, meaning the "quality or state of being wild." Rather, it means “lair,” as in Loch Ness, “the Lake of the Lair,” of the legendary sea-monster. Wilderness is literally the lair of the "wilder," or the "wild beasts." In pre-modern times, wilderness was more threatening than threatened.

Now the situation is reversed, necessitating events like the Rio+20 Earth Summit. The Hebrew term for a major focus of the summit, "climate crisis," mashber ha-aklim משבר אקלים is of mixed origin.

Aklim is from the same Greek root as the English "climate" and came into Hebrew via Arabic during the linguistically dynamic period of medieval philosophical writing.

Mashber משברis another Biblical word with a fascinating history. It originally meant the "moment of birth" or its place, the "birthing stool." From the root sh-b-r שבר, meaning breaking or cutting, this word – like the Chinese ideogram for "crisis" – combines threat and opportunity, life and death.

One of the life-and-death issues being negotiated at Rio+20 Earth Summit is pleitot פליטות, "emissions," or greenhouse gases. 

We met this root a few weeks ago in our discussion of plitim פליטים, "refugees." Indeed, one of the sources of the refugee problem is crop failure from climate change-induced draught in sub-Saharan Africa. So there is a direct "causal," sibati סיבתי, and "environmental," svivati סביבתי, connection between pleitot and plitim.

The solution exists – in English and recently, in Hebrew as well. We now speak of "sustainability," referring a way of living that sustains us over time without systematically degrading the ecosystems on which we, and all living things, depend.

But how do we say this in Hebrew? A few years ago the Academy of the Hebrew Language – ironically known in Hebrew by the decidedly non-Hebrew name, the Akademia – chose the word kayamut קיימות for "sustainability." This word is based on the rich root k-u-m קום, "stand," which has the intensive formskayam קיים, "exist," and kiyem קיים, "sustain."

Even a big word, like "existentialism" kiyumiyut קיומיות, is simply the abstract –ut form, based on the word kiyum קיום, "existence." We derive from this root everything from yekum יקום, "all of existence" or the "universe," to makom מקום, "place," which is also a name of God.

The global effort at shmirah, "preserving" or "guarding," our home, requires a great deal of'avodah, "work" or "service." But working to be mekayem מקיים, "sustainable" is kiyumi קיומי, "existentially," critical.

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