Librarian's Lobby
by Daniel D. Stuhlman

May 2000


Using the Correct Reference Tool

A recent discussion on the mail list, AUTOCAT, for librarian-catalogers, talked about the word, <tell >. We are all familiar with this word meaning an artificial hill, or a mound, from a previous settlement. Since the word has passed into the English language, the first librarian looked up the word in an unabridged English dictionary. The English dictionary correctly defined the word and gave the etymology as if the word came from Arabic.

Using the correct tools let us examine this word's etymology. Arabic as a written language is much more recent than Hebrew. Old or Early Arabic has no surviving written records. The Talmud, which pre-dates written Arabic, has some statements containing names of objects in Arabic, making the Talmud one of the earliest sources of recorded Arabic.

Classical Arabic1 dates from about 632 C.E. with the creation of an Arab empire. Arabic contained many dialects because the speakers were tribal and isolated from each other. However, speakers from different dialects could understand each other. Because of this isolation, Arabic had fewer outside influences than Hebrew and tended to have short vowels. Because of the synthetic nature of how Arabic developed in the classical period, most of the verbal and noun forms are created from three letter roots.

Hebrew, too, has three-letter roots, but certain words have remnants or clues to earlier two-letter roots. For example some two-letter roots became words with a yod as the middle letter or via a doubling of one of the letters.

The word <TL> in Hebrew and its verbal form <TL> is a very old word that has a two letter root. The word appears in Devorim (13:17) and Yehoshua (13:17) as Tel Olam. If we just take the Biblical evidence, the word is more than 2000 years older than any Arabic source. The word is not of the Arabic origin.

One can not depend on an English dictionary2 for the etymology of a Semitic word. The appropriate dictionary to use is, A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, edited by Francis Brown with the co-operation of S. R. Driver and Charles A. Briggs, (Oxford University Press, 1966, known as BDB). This dictionary has the definition and etymology of every word in Tanach.

According to BDB, <TL> appears in many other Semitic languages including Arabic, Syriac, Old Aramaic, and Assyrian. BDB says the word is probably a loan word from the Assyrian tilu meaning mound or heap. <TL> is one word that appears in many languages with very little variation in meaning. It is my guess that the reason the word changed very little is because it is a pre-Biblical word that describes a very exact kind of place that has wide-spread usage over all the Middle East.

I can understand how the English dictionaries made the mistake in the etymology. In the Arabic speaking world the use of the word tell to name ancient cities is very prevalent. Ancient Jericho is called Tell es Sultan, Megiddo is called Tell Mutesellim, and the central mound of Ur is called Tell el Muqayyar. Kathleen Kenyon in Archaeology of the Holy Land (New York, 1970) explains how the growth of a tell is characteristic of the Middle East. The mud-brick building material of a destroyed building disintegrates into mud which can be the materials of a new building. When buildings were made of stone, the stones from a destroyed building could be used to build a new structure. The job of an archeologist is to excavate the tell and interpret the remains so that the history can be reconstructed. In books of archeology written before the rebirth of spoken Hebrew, the word tell is a part of a place name.3 Since Middle East archeology is very different from European archeology, it is natural to use the local word to name the place.

I reported the above information, in digest form, to AUTOCAT. One of the Jewish librarians, who is not a Jewish scholar, thanked me for explaining "scientifically" what he guessed was the right answer. Another librarian pointed out how I forgot to mention Greek reference books for the study of the Christian Bible. I didn't need to reply because someone answered my concern first. The person who replied asked, "How can Greek dictionaries help in the understanding of the Hebrew text?"

The Jewish librarian in a private message to me said that this kind of wrong information has implications beyond the correct cataloging of library materials. It means readers can not depend on some sources for the understanding of a term because bias can creep into the most respected reference sources.

1. Arabic belongs to the southwest Semitic branch, while Hebrew belongs to the northwest branch.

2. The Oxford English Dictionary oddly lists as a primary source of tell the book of Joshua, but still says the word comes from Arabic.

3. While English speaking archaeologists in later part of the 20th century used the word tell, writers in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century used "mound." See Explorations in Bible Lands during the 19th century,by H.V. Hilprecht (Edinburgh, 1903) page 28, "The most northern mound is Babil, called by the natives Mujeliba." On page 156 the author gives place names Tell Sifr and Tell Medina, but uses the word "mound" when describing the place.

Frederic Delitzsch in The Hebrew Language : viewed in the light of Assyrian research (London, 1883) discusses on pages 16-17 place names beginning with <TL> and their meaning.

Tel-Aviv has a Biblical source (Yehezkel 3:15) and the word <TL> and its verbal forms is in the Talmud.

Daniel D. Stuhlman is president of Stuhlman Management Consultants, Chicago, IL, a firm helping organizations turn data and information into knowledge. We are looking for new clients and opportunities. Visit the web site to learn more about knowledge management and what our firm can do for you. Previous issues of Librarian's Lobby can be found at: Reach him via e-mail at:

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