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September 2, 2011

Ancient Near Eastern Valentines
Posted by Teresa at 04:00 PM * 31 comments

I’ve found (via Dig Girl) another site that, like us, celebrates an annual orgy of holiday language-geekery. Eisenbrauns is an academic publisher that specializes in ancient Near East and Biblical studies. For four years now, they’ve celebrated Valentine’s Day with an Ancient Near Eastern Valentine contest, viz.:

2008: Luwian hieroglyphics, a Hurrian-Hittite dialogue, verses in Sumerian and Hebrew, “The Cyprosyrian Girl” (downloadable as an MP3), “The Medinet-Hubbu Cippus: Towards a preliminary description” (my favorite, a Ptolemaic trilingual inscription), and a love song rendered into very pretty Egyptian hieroglyphics.

2009: Two Hittite and one Egyptian valentines, one verse I’m guessing is in Hebrew (but only because it’s written right-to-left), and—the obvious winner—a Ugaritic tablet.

2010: A clay cuneiform heart, the Balcony Scene as performed in Hebrew and Canaanite by Helomatt and Gerlab, an “Ode for Francis” in a script I can’t identify, Max Rogland’s “Song of the Four Locusts” in Hebrew (my favorite that year), and an Old Babylonian love poem on a baked clay tablet.

The first verse and chorus from “The Song of the Four Locusts”:

Have you said in your heart:
“My companion is lost forever”?
Yesterday I saw her!
Her heart is still (directed) towards you.
And she commanded me to declare:
She loves you.
Is this not a good thing?
Surely, she loves you.
Therefore you should rejoice!
She loves you.
Let us sing it twice,
Even three times:
She loves you.
2011: Two valentines in unidentified languages, a love song in Mandaean (which won), and the undaunted Max Rogland’s Ishah Yafah (“Pretty Woman”), attributed to Roi Ben-Orbi, with a video of Prof. Rogland’s Hebrew class performing it.

It’s pretty darn wonderful. All it needs is a comment thread and some plums.

Comments on Ancient Near Eastern Valentines:
#1 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2011, 07:59 PM:

Do you think Lennon&McCartney were just translating that verse for "She Loves You"?

#2 ::: Xopher HalfTongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2011, 08:06 PM:

I passed this on to an online friend who's read all the books of the Bible in the original languages. I'm hoping he likes it as much as I do (or more, since I can't read any of those languages).

#3 ::: P J Evans ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2011, 09:10 PM:

The opening and closing lines of 'Ode for Francis' looked a lot like Hebrew to me, but it could have been Aramaic in between.

#4 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2011, 10:06 PM:

I started to get irritated at how many items they left unidentified, then remembered how often we do that at ML. Oops.

#5 ::: Heather Rose Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2011, 10:15 PM:

If I remember (a bit unlikely) when I get as far as unpacking the language reference books, I will make a stab at doing plums in Hittite. I did write a Hittite love poem while taking the class -- although I can no longer reconstruct exactly what meaning I was aiming for.

#6 ::: Tim May ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2011, 10:34 PM:

The script (of "Ode for Francis", between the Hebrew) is Syriac in the Estrangelo style, so, presumably Aramaic of one sort or another.

#7 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: September 02, 2011, 11:58 PM:

this is just to say
in a language not my own
sweet plums in Hittite

--Dave, ...what?

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 01:37 AM:

This is just to say
that I have eaten those
unfamiliar dried fruits
you had in your saddlebag.
Forgive me.
I know you were probably
saving them for something,
but your horde had already eaten
all the food in our village,
and my chances of survival
were lousy anyway.

#9 ::: Steve with a book ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 05:31 AM:

Anyone who feels like having a crack at Hittite right now can have a go at a romanized text here.

(This is part of the Early Indo-European Online collection at the University of Texas, which I keep meaning to have a proper look at when I have a few months and lots of good language-learning intentions to spare).

Wonder if any Hittite scholar has ever named his or her son Uriah? Strikes me as a name that could do with a comeback, Dickens be damned.

#10 ::: Neil in Chicago ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 02:13 PM:

"Four Locusts"? Are those the four species of locust which are kosher? Then I read it.
So the question is entirely reframed, but I still don't know.

#11 ::: Rob Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 02:25 PM:


Your verse demonstrates that all great poems should be ear'd as well as read.

#12 ::: Mark Mandel ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 07:57 PM:

My hat's off to you for your "spelling reference" list!

Dr. Whom: Consulting Linguist, Grammarian, Orthoëpist, and Philological Busybody

#13 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 08:18 PM:

This is just to say
I have eagerly translated
a poem about preserved fruit
in your storage device
which you were probably saving
for later consumption.

Forgive me,
it was out of copyright
and parodies are protected
by decree of court.

#14 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 08:19 PM:

TNH, that was beautiful.

#15 ::: Erik Nelson ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 10:49 PM:

It's truly a babelfish from Babel itself.

#16 ::: John D. Berry ::: (view all by) ::: September 03, 2011, 11:11 PM:

Maybe it's just the translation, but for 2009, "A Newly Discovered Hittite Love Letter", a.k.a., "You are my Sungoddess," could almost be sung to the tune of "You are my sunshine" -- though admittedly, "When the Stormgod is malevolent in the meadows" really stretches the meter. Still.

#17 ::: Meg Thornton ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2011, 09:11 AM:

I'm now strongly reminded of the Peter Sellers versions of "She Loves You" and "A Hard Day's Night" I've heard. Sellers had a lot of fun with "She Loves You", having phrased it as a dialogue between a couple of Irish lads down at the pub, a couple of Cockney lads (I think they were also at the pub - different pubs, obviously), and eventually (and triumphantly) as a dialogue between a minion I can only describe as possibly being an Igor, and Doctor Strangelove.

I now have to add the Four Locusts' version to this collection.

"A Hard Day's Night", by contrast, is performed as a Shakespearian recital (my brain keeps flinging up Richard II as the appropriate historical play to provide context) complete with vast emotional dynamics and shadings.

It certainly adds a new dimension to hearing the originals.

#18 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2011, 09:58 AM:

Meg @17,

Peter Sellers does "A Hard Days Night" in the manner of Richard III The badge on the had is rather a give-away as to which Richard.

Some of the long pauses are in precisely the right wrong place.

#19 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2011, 01:10 PM:

There exists (constantly chased by the Copyright Police on YouTube) a 2-3 minute clip of Peter Sellers on the set of Dr. Strangelove in his President Muffly makeup demonstrating various accents. It's astounding to watch.

#20 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: September 04, 2011, 06:40 PM:

For what it's worth, the first entry shown for the 2009 one is Hebrew written in the (modern, based on the shape of the letters, in particular the split form of aleph which is a recent innovation) Hebrew cursive script. I'm not so good with that script so am having difficulty recognizing many words, but the first words of most of the verses are recognizable at least (atah ha`aliyah — literally, "you help me to rise").

Arguably this is a couple of weeks late, since the traditional (Hebrew) equivalent of Valentine's Day (15 Av) was almost 3 weeks ago. :) I don't know how far back that tradition goes, though (at least 2000 years, though), or whether nearby civilizations also had such traditions.

#21 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2011, 01:43 AM:

Sellers' Cockney version of "She Loves You."

#23 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2011, 01:33 PM:

Geekosaur @20 - so that could end up as either "Love lift us up where we belong", "Your love is lifting me higher", or "You are the wind beneath my wings"?

--Dave, some patterns appear to be timeless

ps: now with free serial comma

#24 ::: geekosaur ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2011, 03:55 PM:

David DeLaney @23:
Indeed. There are two words commonly used for "rise"; shin-kaf-bet has a more physical meaning ("get up"), whereas ayin-lamed-he is more ethereal (rising like a flame, or flying). I'd go more with the latter two of your interpretations.

#25 ::: Lee ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2011, 05:35 PM:

geekosaur, #24: Given the nature of the holiday being celebrated, I would not be surprised to find that a somewhat earthier interpretation was being suggested, perhaps as a double entendre. :-)

#26 ::: joel hanes ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2011, 05:46 PM:

Yesterday I saw her!
Her heart is still (directed) towards you.
And she commanded me to declare:
She loves you.
She loves you.
Let us sing it twice,
Even three times:
She loves you.

With love like that
You know you should be glad

#27 ::: David DeLaney ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2011, 10:29 PM:

And, stewing in the back of my head since @23, apologies:

Elevated Plumb-Lines, Mash-ada, or
- one babblefruit, reduplicated

I have raided
your heart
for the love
you keep there

and which you were
probably saving
for later
extravagant lifting

Forgive me
as I forgive you;
I was led
into temptation -

dulce et frijorem est,
just sayin'.

(We all remember the old game where you put something back and forth through Babelfish and watch it get stranger each time, yes? If done right it acquires hooks and divergences and linguistic tentacles stretching off in all directions, much like Herewiss' sorcerous constructions...)

#28 ::: ajay ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2011, 09:14 AM:

I started to get irritated at how many items they left unidentified, then remembered how often we do that at ML.

I was assuming that some of those are original compositions? Or are they all translations of modern songs?

#29 ::: Paul A. ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2011, 12:15 PM:

David DeLaney @ #23:

It could end up as one of those, sure, but in this case I'm confident the English translation given on the competition page is correct, though strictly speaking the attribution is incorrect: Groban's version is widely attested but really only a gloss on work already done by Brendan Graham.

#30 ::: mythago ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2011, 05:28 PM:

Oh man. I wish my Akkadian were still good enough to get in on this.

BTW, the "Four Locusts" song is wonderful not only because of the ancient languages, but because the phrasing and cadence of the English translation is pitch-perfect. If I didn't know it was a joke and you had told me it was a JNES translation I wouldn't think twice.

#31 ::: Suzanne F. ::: (view all by) ::: September 09, 2011, 12:54 PM:

Neil in Chicago @10:

There are 4 different types of locusts in Joel 1:4.

The hoppping locust is clearly Ringo.

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