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The Hebrew word דבר has a dual meaning because it can mean "word/speak" and also "thing." Contemporary Kabbalists use this dual meaning to argue for a metaphysical connection between concrete things and the Hebrew words which refer to those things. One Kabbalist even claimed that he spoke to various linguists and confirmed that in no other language is there a single word that means both "word/speak" and also "thing." Can this claim be verified?

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    This isn't the kind of claim that can be verified by speaking to a few linguists, unless between them they have a thorough knowledge of the 7000 or so languages of the world.
    – TKR
    Sep 9, 2021 at 22:08
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    "thing" itself originally referred to a court matter or trial before switching to the issue at hand by metonymy, then becoming a physical object. Not the same but similar... Sep 10, 2021 at 2:24
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    @TKR Well we can find a counter example, which a few of us did. Feb 27 at 21:10
  • Seems to be a common set of senses in the ancient languages of the Near East - Aramaic, Hebrew, Armenian… Feb 27 at 21:13

6 Answers 6

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The Proto-Slavic word *rěčь “speech” (Old Church Slavonic рѣчь) has its descendants in all the modern Slavic languages, mostly with the same meaning. But in Polish rzecz [ʐɛtʂ] and in Ukrainian річ (rič) [ritʂ] the main meaning of the word shifted to “thing” (cf. Polish rzeczpospolita “republic”¹, from rzecz (“thing”) +‎ pospolity (“common”), calque of Latin rēspūblica (“public affair”)), while at the same time retaining the old meaning “speech”, although in Polish this latter meaning is considered obsolete and in Ukrainian colloquial.


¹ In the 17th century and later the Kingdom of Poland and the Grand Duchy of Lithuania a.k.a. Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was also known as the 'Most Serene Commonwealth of Poland' (Polish: Najjaśniejsza Rzeczpospolita Polska, Latin: Serenissima Res Publica Poloniae)

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    Modern-day Polish has "rzecznik" for "spokesperson". Sep 10, 2021 at 17:00
  • @GrzegorzOledzki - Yes, but I guess rzecznik is not from the noun rzecz, but from the verb rzec /ʐɛt͡s/ (“to say”), — ‘the sayer/speaker’ rather than ‘speech man’. In any way, the original root is the same.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 10, 2021 at 17:17
  • @GrzegorzOledzki - By the way, where's the stress in rzeczpospolita? Some sources say it's on the penult: (rzeczpospolita), others say it's on the antepenultimate syllable, 3rd from the end: (rzeczpospolita)...
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 10, 2021 at 17:25
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    Sorry. I am not a professional. Indeed fil.ug.edu.pl/wydzial_filologiczny/instytuty/… claims it's 3rd from the end. But 2nd from end doesn't sound wrong to me either. Sep 10, 2021 at 17:34
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Japanese こと koto corresponds to both "(abstract) thing, matter" (written 事) and "word" (written 言), although the word for "word" in the modern language is 言葉 kotoba, a compound of 言 koto + 端 ha "extremity".

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Aramaic mellṯā has the same two meanings (not just in Jewish dialects, but also in Syriac etc.)

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Yes, ancient and modern Armenian and Aramaic, and probably not by coincidence - the link between these sense of word and thing seems to be common to the ancient literary languages of the Eastern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia and the Armenian Highlands.

բան (ban)

From Old Armenian բան (ban); see it for more. The main meaning of բան (ban) in Old Armenian was "word, speech, saying". The sense "thing", which is the only one surviving in modern Armenian, developed from the notion of speech → the subject of speech → the subject itself. Typologically compare Hebrew ⁧דבר⁩ (davar, “word, speech; thing”).

ܡܠܬܐ (melləṯā)

Learned borrowing from Classical Syriac, from Aramaic ⁧מֵלְּתָא⁩ (melləṯā); compare Hebrew מִלָּה (milá) with the sense of “logos” a semantic loan from Ancient Greek λόγος (lógos).

In modern Armenian, the sense of word is preserved and productive in ancient and modern Armenian occupation names ending in -բան (-ban), corresponding to English -logist and -logian, and concepts derived from them.

They are generally direct calques of ancient Greek occupation names ending in -λογος (-logos) or modern internationalisms, like աստվածաբան (astvacaban) for theologian or կենսաբան (kensaban) for biologist.

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In Russian, the word понятие can mean a thing, matter or a term for that thing.

In English similar role have words notion, conception.

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    But does it mean ‘word’? Notion and conception do not mean ‘word’. Sep 10, 2021 at 12:06
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    Nether do they mean ‘thing’. When someone dies of a brick that fell on their head, you cannot say “a heavy conception crushed their skull”.
    – Yellow Sky
    Sep 10, 2021 at 12:43
  • @JanusBahsJacquet the Russian понятие can aso mean "a term".
    – Anixx
    Sep 10, 2021 at 12:52
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The word "news" can be all three words you mention in Hebrew. Indicating something about intel/in tell. I find as I get older dictionaries can change and spellings can also. I grew up with a temple using Sholom in English and not Shalom but they can use both in some readings today and their awning reads Sholom. Sometimes I find the Hebrew letters change occasionally but it still works.

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    Are you suggesting that "intel" is shortened from "in tell"? If so, I'm sorry to disappoint, but it's short for "intelligence", apparently ultimately from Latin "inter + legere" - "to choose between". The rest of your answer doesn't seem to have much to do with the question.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 10, 2021 at 17:33

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