Menachem's Writings

What Hath God Wrought
Language Detectives at Work

I am in the middle of reading a wonderful book called Words and Rules. It is written by a Harvard professor called Steven Pinker, who, so I have been told by one of my correspondants, is "something of an academic god" in the world of linguists.

I happened to come across a later volume of his, The Stuff of Thought, a year or so ago. I enjoyed it very much and searched for more of his work. I know many of you may find the subject matter a little boring, but I am fascinated by his work examining the correlation between human language and our process of thinking.

On page 65 of Words I came across something I found a little strange. Pinker is discussing what might be the present tense of the past form of the verb "wrought".





First the citation:

Here is a small mystery: What is the verb that goes with the past-tense form wrought, as in The Watergate scandal wrought great changes in American politics, and the participle form in Judges 23:23, What hath God wrought!, quoted by Samuel Morse in the first intercity telegram? According to the theory that irregulars are pairs of memorized words, an irregular past-tense form could, in principle, survive in memory without a corresponding stem. Wrought appears to be an example: Most people have no idea what the verb is. Many guess wreak (based on an analogy with seek-sought) or wring (based on analogy with bring-brought), but both guesses are wrong. The answer is work: Wrought iron is worked iron, and a person who is all wrought up is a person who is all worked up. (Old theater saying: "Plays are wrought, not written.") Wrought belongs to a family of verbs that replace their rhyming parts with ought or aught:

buy-bought; also beseech, bring, catch, fight, seek, teach, think

How do you get wrought from work or sought from seek? The connections is less mysterious when we realize that the now silent gh used to be pronounced, somewhat like the ch of Bach, loch, and Chanuka. Start with work (actually wyrcan, but I will use modern spellings to make the changes clearer). Add the suffix -t to get workt. Soften the k sound to gh, yielding worght -- an old phonological trick to avoid the strenuous -kt. A vowel and an adjacent r often switched places in the history of English, because r sounds a lot like a vowel, which makes its order with respect to a vowel hard to hear. Thus brid became bird, thrid became third, hross became horse, and worght became wroght. We no longer pronounce the gh, and recall that many English vowels were shuffled during the Great Vowel Shift (the vowel spelled ou was once pronounced o), and that vowels often get shortened when a suffix is added. The result is wrought and the mystery is solved.





Pinker's argument for the correlation of wrought to work and not wreak makes for an interesting detective story in the development of language. I am not arguing with his conclusion -- all the dictionaries I consulted indeed list wrought as a past form of work -- but on the way I believe Pinker makes some strange mistakes.

In his derivation, Pinker tells us that "the now silent gh [in wrought] used to be pronounced, somewhat like the ch of Bach, loch, and Chanuka . . .  [throughout his books, Pinker, often unexpectedly, throws in some examples from Hebrew. I guess he's a proud Jew, which is indeed very nice] . . . Soften the k sound to gh . . . "

Neither my German nor my Scottish is that great, so I'm not sure precisely where in the mouth the gh sound is produced by these peoples. But I do know a little Hebrew.

Amongst the 22 consonants in the Hebrew alphabet, there are two very different letter symbols: het () and kaf/khaf (). Het is a gutteral letter, coming straight out of the throat. Khaf is palatial, originating in the centre of the mouth, well away from the throat.

Pinsker's gh/k soft to hard interchange is well known in Hebrew, the distinction indicated by a dot in the centre of the letter. (See my article, On Speaking Hebrew: How to pronounce Hebrew words correctly and why this is important which touches on this.)

Unfortunately European Jews, including Americans, have lost the tradition to differentiate het and khaf. They aren't good at pronouncing either accurately, though they do get reasonably close to khaf. They pronounce het in exactly the same way as khaf. Pinker appears to be using English transliteration to read Hebrew, or he doesn't differentiate between the pronunciation of these two Hebrew letters. Ironically, in the word Chanukah, the spelling is: het, noon, kaf, hey. Yes, there is a hard kaf, but not where Pinker seems to expect it! The ch of Chanuka is a het, not a khaf.


Pinker brings a support for his argument [that wrought is the past of work] from the Bible, quoting Samuel Morse's use of the word wrought in the first ever telegraphic message. Pinker says this use of the participle form comes from "Judges 23:23, What has God wrought!" The Book of Judges, Jewish & Christian versions, ends with verse 21:25.

Morse's verse comes from Numbers 23:23, "Surely there is no enchantment against Jacob, neither is there any divination against Israel: according to this time it shall be said of Jacob and of Israel, What hath God wrought! [using the King James version]"

The accepted Jewish translation, the 1917 JTS, renders "Now it is said of Jacob and of Israel: What hath God wrought!" The Hebrew word is pa'al, which indeed can mean "worked", but I would translate this as "carried out". There is no implication here of God "working" anything, rather He is bringing it about.

"Wrought" occurs often in the Bible. (I have used www.bartleby.com for the authorised King James text. The King James translation of the Old Testament claims to have been made directly from the Hebrew Masoretic text and does not come to us via Latin or Greek. But, as we will see, this does not guarantee an "exact" translation.)

KJ in Exodus 36:1, "Then wrought Bez'aleel and Aho'li-ab . . . according to all that the LORD had commanded ". JTS: "And Bezalel and Ohliab shall work". The later JTS says, "And let . . . carry out". In the original Hebrew, w'asah -- "he will do/make", not work. W'asah here is in the future tense! Wrought is past! Asah is in fact in the past; however the prefixed "w" inverts the tense.

Kings II 3:2, "And he wrought evil in the sight of the LORD"
JTS: "And he did that which was evil"
Hebrew: asah

One more (I chose quite randomly, but Daniel is a little different from most of the Bible in that some sections are written in Hebrew and others in Aramaic.

Daniel 4:2* "I thought it good to show the signs and wonders that the high God hath wrought toward me".
JTS: ". . . God has wrought towards me".

The original in this chapter of Daniel is in Aramaic. The word used here is avad. Though in Hebrew avad means "worked", here avad is the exact Aramaic translation of the Hebrew asah. And remember, that because Aramaic and Hebrew come from the same language family, translation is usually straightforward, almost one to one. I would have thought that God has "performed" the signs and wonders.

The Bible does not seem an appropriate source to prove the work/wrought connection.



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* Strangely in the Hebrew Bible (the original and the JTS) this is actually 3:31 -- I say strangely because all the chapter divisions are of Christian original -- the Jews had a totally different chapter system. Often the Christian divisions are inappropriate contextually. Jews adopted the Christian numbering (around the thirteenth century I think) in order to be on an equal footing for quotations in debates and disputations.


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