Talking Trees - cover

Talking Trees and Bushes – Discourse Representation in Hebrew Vegetation

In this post we are going to look into the two types of plants we tend to keep in the garden and help them grow – trees and bushes, and see it related to the concepts of snakes and weeds we examined in a previous post.

Bush in Hebrew

The Hebrew word for bush or shrub is שִׂיחַ (siyach). It is a masculine word based on the shoresh ש-י-ח (Shin-Yod-Chet) and its plural from is שִׂיחִים (sichim). In what can only be described as a remarkable coincidence, the shorsh ש-י-ח (Shin-Yod-Chet) is primarily associated not with shrubs and bushes, but with conversation and discourse. As a matter of fact, the word שִׂיחַ (Siyach) itself also means discourse, which to me is insane. Let’s take a closer look.

Bush closeup

There are three verbs in Hebrew which are based on the shoresh ש-י-ח (shin-yod-chet). The first one is שָׂח (sach) in Binyan Pa’al which is a fancy way of saying ‘to say’ in Hebrew. For example, a sarcastic “you don’t say!” in Hebrew is מָה אַתָּה שָׂח! (ma ata sach!). The second verb is שׂוֹחַח (sochach) in Binyan Pi’el – a commonly used verb in Modern Hebrew which means to converse or to have a talk. The third verb is הֵשִׂיחַ (hesi’ach) in Binyan Hif’il which is barely used now, except maybe in the common saying אֵין מְשִׂיחִין בִּשְׁעַת הַסְּעוּדָה (ein mesichin bishe’at hase’uda) – no talking during mealtime.

In the noun section, we have the word שִׂיחָה (sicha) which means conversation or a talk, and the aforementioned שִׂיחַ (siyach) which is a fancier way of saying conversation and most often translated as discourse. The word for dialog in Hebrew is דוּ-שִׂיחַ (du-siyach) and when there more than two people having a conversation or a discussion, we may call it רַב-שִׂיחַ (rav-siyach).

In the bible it is told that God spoke to Moses through a burning bush. That is a very strong symbolic link between bush and discourse, yet even after taking that into account I would have still thought that this was just a nice coincidence, and a funny anecdote at most. But then I noticed something about the word tree in Hebrew.

Tree in Hebrew

The Hebrew word for tree is עֵץ (ets). It is a very primal word and like שִׂיחַ (siyach – bush) it is also masculine, so its plural form is עֵצִים (etsim). But here is the cool thing – we just saw how the word שִׂיחַ (siyach – bush) becomes שִׂיחָה (sicha – conversation) when we feminize it by adding the letter Heh and the vowel A at the end. Well, when we put the word עֵץ (ets – tree) through the same process, we get the word עֵצָה (etsa) which means counsel or advice. Isn’t this crazy?

Now some might say: “Wait a minute Hebrew Monk, that is not the same at all! The words שִׂיחַ (siyach – bush) and שִׂיחָה (sicha – conversation) are based on the same root (ש-י-ח), while עֵץ (ets – tree) and עֵצָה (etsa – advice) are based on two different roots! The word עֵץ (tree) is based on the shoresh ע-צ-י/ה (Ayn-Tsadi-Yod or Heh), while the word עֵצָה (advice) stems from the shoresh י-ע-ץ (Yod-Ayn-Tsadi), from which we also get the verbs יָעַץ (ya’ats) and יִיעֵץ (yi’ets) which mean to advise or to give counsel, the noun מוֹעָצָה (mo’atsa) – council, and more words along that line.

tree hands illustration

They would be absolutely right. However, this does not mean that עֵץ (ets – tree) and עֵצָה (etsa – advice) are not related. There are more than a few instances of three-letter roots that begin with the letter Yod, which are semantically related to the primal two-letter root formed from the two letters that come after the Yod, and to other three-letter roots that may have derived from them.

One very good example is the shoresh י-ר-ד (Yod-Resh-Dalet) which means to come down or descend. It has most likely derived from the primal two-letter root ר-ד (Resh-Dalet) from which we also get the roots ר-ד-ד (Resh-Dalet-Dalet) meaning shallow, and the shoresh ר-ד-ה (Resh-Dalet-Heh) which means to tyrannize or to keep other people down.

Another fine example is the shoersh י-ש-ב (Yod-Shin-Bet) which means to sit, or to settle down and stop wandering. An argument can be made for its relation to the shoresh ש-ב-ה (Shin-Bet-Heh) which means to capture, hold someone prisoner, or in other words – make them stay in one place. There is also the shoresh י-ק-צ (Yod-Qof-Tsadi) which indicates someone’s sleep has come to an end, which is clearly related to the shoresh ק-צ-צ (Qof-Tsadi-Tsadi) which means to chop or cut at the end, and to the shoresh ק-צ-י/ה (Qof-Tsadi-Yod or Heh) which means end, tip or edge.

Other pair of words that demonstrate this kind of relations are יָחֵף (yachef) meaning barefoot and חַף (chaf) meaning clean or completely without something, the verb יָצַק (yatsaq) which means to cast into a mold and the word צוּק (tsuq) which means cliff, the verbs יָנַק (yanaq) and נִיקָה (niqa) which mean to suck and to clean respectively, the verb עָף (af) meaning to fly and the word יְעָף (ye’af) which describes a fast flight, and more.

Forest in Hebrew

There is one more pair of words in Hebrew to which we can apply this kind of logic, though at first glance there seems to be no semantic relation between them. I am referring to the word יַעַר (ya’ar) which means forest, and to the shoresh ע-ר (Ayn-Resh) which is associated with being awake, aware, and even vigilant. The semantic relation between these two elements is far weaker than all the pairs we mentioned above. However, it does provide a possible explanation to the origin of the word יַעַר (ya’ar – forest), which remains relatively obscure to this day.

Whether you take the scientific approach or the biblical approach, it’s very clear that trees played a very significant role in our past. Evolutionarily speaking, there is no denying that we are creatures of the forest. Everything about us, our diet, the shape of our skeleton, color vision, and even dreams suggest that we used to live on trees, but at one point in time decided to climb down from them and try our luck on the ground. In The Bible, it was also a tree and its fruit that brought forth our awakening and changed our fate as a species.

Forest above

However, the forest is not only where we woke up at some point, but it is also a place you constantly need to be vigil – both meanings which are expressed through the primal root ע-ר (Ayn-Resh). Alternatively, you can also take a broader approach and view the forest as a place which wide awake and bustling with life. If you go by that reasoning, it shares something with עִיר (ir) – the Hebrew word for city – a place which is also awake with movements and activities. Like the forest, it is also a place that keeps you vigilant and on your toes. The only difference is that the trees there are made of concrete.

On that note, it is also worth mentioning here that in Akkadian and Phoenician the word forest seems to have stemmed from a root that starts with the sound that corresponds to the letter Gimel (gūru and Jar) and not with the letter Ayn. In Hebrew if we take the shoresh י-ע-ר (Yod-Ayn-Resh) which stands for forest, and replace the Ayn with Gimel, we get the shoresh י-ג-ר (Yod-Gimel-Resh) which is associated with fear.

Cultivating Discourse

Regardless of whether it is a coincidence or not, I find the fact the word bush and the word discourse in Hebrew are essentially the same, and that the word for counsel or advice looks like the female form of the word tree (and possibly share a common origin with it) absolutely amazing. It carries a beautiful symbolism. A symbolism that fits so well with the snake, weed, and the need to tend to your garden we talk about a couple of posts back.

The garden is the arena where growth takes place. This growth is rooted in conversations, and it has layers. On the ground level we have the discourse where we cultivate and encourage the growth of bushes and shrubs. This is also where we need to remove wild weeds which harm other plants, harbor snakes, and generally oppose the very purpose of gardening.

New branch

If we do it well, and manage to maintain a healthy discourse long enough, the second layer of growth will emerge out of the bushes of discourse. That layer is trees. Trees that represent counsel and advice – fruitful and applicable form of discourse that has been tried and found true merely by the sheer amount of time it took them to grow and take form.

Think about it. Our main purpose in life is to grow. Sometimes we encounter problems that may hider our growth or even stop it completely. What do we normally do then? We look for someone to talk to. Preferably someone older, wiser, and more experienced. Then we engage in discourse with them in order to identify and define the problem. Or to put it more figuratively – we try to separate bush from weed, clear out the weed and find the snake if there is one. It might be a conversation few minutes long, or a series of sessions spanning over several months, but if we do it consistently well, a tree will grow in our garden – counsel is found.

Every tree is a Tree of Knowledge

Let’s talk about actual talking trees – the Ents from Lord of the Rings. There are two Hebrew editions of The Lord of the Rings. In the old edition (1979) they are simply called Ents but transliterated into Hebrew letters – אֶנְט (ent) for singular and אֶנְטִים (entim) for plural. In the new edition (1998) someone took more creative liberty and gave them a new name in Hebrew – עֵצָן (etsan) for a single Ent and עֵצָנִים (etsanim) for many. This name is essentially the word עֵץ (ets – tree) with the suffix אָן (an) which usually indicates quality or property.

Treebeard, the leader of the Ents, says a couple of things about their language that have always stayed with me. The first one was about his Entish name which is “growing all the time, and I’ve lived a very long, long time; so my name is like a story. Real names tell you the story of the things they belong to in my language, in the Old Entish as you might say”. The second thing was his description of Entish: “It is a lovely language, but it takes a very long time to say anything in it, because we do not say anything in it, unless it is worth taking a long time to say, and to listen to.”

The second point about the nature of the Entish language, and how basically every word you utter in it must have tried and found true or it wouldn’t exist in it, is something that doesn’t only tie very well to the core principle of every language in general, but also to the possible connection in Hebrew between trees and advice. Or to put in other word – every tree is a Tree of Knowledge.

Brain Tree - illustration

In the cinematic trilogy, though some changes were made to the plotline of the Ents, I really think they captured the spirit of a tree-like race of creatures in the way they would look and sound, their mannerism, pace, and everything else that comes with that. This is best demonstrated in The Two Towers movie during the Entmoot:

In Hebrew the Entmoot is called עֲצֶרֶת הָאֶנְטִים (atseret ha’entim) in the first edition and עֲצֶרֶת הָעֵצָנִים (atseret in the second edition. The word עֲצֶרֶת (asteret) means a large gathering, an assembly or a rally, and there are two very cool things about it.

First, it comes from the shoresh ע-צ-ר (Ayn-Tsadi-Resh) which means to stop (primarily refers to movements rather than actions) and in that sense it possibly reflects the ancient nomadic culture of the Hebrew people – to stop and gather everyone for and assembly.

Second, it has the word עֵץ (ets – tree) built right into it, and that makes it just like the Chinese character 休 (pinyin – xiū) which means to rest and consists of a person (亻) and a tree (木). Who knows? Maybe in this case Hebrew employed the same logic as Chinese, and the shoresh ע-צ-ר (Ayn-Tsadi-Resh) which means to stop, evolved from the word tree, because wherever there were trees, it was a good place to stop and have a rest. Maybe even gather everyone and do a head count. Head is the origin of the letter Resh by the way.

The Generous Nature of Trees

The Ents from the Lord of the Rings are not the only famous talking trees in literature. There is another tree, arguably even more famous than the Ents, and that is the tree from the classic children’s book The Giving Tree by Jewish author Shel Silverstein (1964).

The Giving Tree - Chinese
The Giving Tree – Chinese Edition

In Hebrew the book’s name is הָעֵץ הַנָדִיב (ha’ets ha’nadiv) which literally means the generous tree. I don’t think naming the book ‘The Generous Tree’ would have worked as well as The Giving Tree. However, I do think the word ‘generous’ is deeply embedded in the story in ways maybe even the author wasn’t even aware of.

The word ‘generous’ share its origin with the words ‘generate’ and ‘genesis’. This is probably due the fact that if you possess the ability to generate and create something, you can afford to be generous with it. Perhaps it also meant to tell us that generating and creating something is in itself an act of generosity, and maybe also that generosity itself has the power to create and to bring new thing into the life of the person doing the giving.

Furthermore, in the book every time the tree gives something to the boy, it is ends with the words “and the tree was happy”. This really reminds me of how when God created the world in the first chapter of Genesis it is written “and God saw that it was good”. If I had to guess, I would say that this was a conscious choice made by the author.

By the way, note that since ‘tree’ is a masculine word in Hebrew, the character of the tree in the Hebrew edition was changed from female to male. From my understanding, Shel Silverstein firmly opposed to this change, and agreed to it only after people had made him realize keeping it female would sound really weird and forced in Hebrew. At least in this case, Hebrew feminists have one less thing to be mad about – this book doesn’t perpetuate the whole female-gives-male-takes stereotype.

Gabbing and Gaining

The Hebrew phrase שִׂיג וָשִׂיחַ (sig va’siyach) describes interactions, dealings, or the exchanging of words (mostly) with another. The second word in it is שִׂיחַ (siyach) which we already talked about, and it is quite clear that here it means discourse. The first word שִׂיג is kind of a mystery and to this day no one knows for certain what it means.

It is a biblical word, yet it has only one instance, in which it appears along with the word שִׂיחַ (siyach). It occurs in The First Book of Kings 18:27 when Elijah mocks the false prophets because their god did not appear and failed to give any sign. In that context the word is understood as ‘matter’ or ‘a thing that occupies one’s mind’, making a person absent or withdrawn. It is most likely there for alliteration purposes as it sounds very similar to the word שִׂיחַ (siyach – discourse). In fact, the letters Chet and Gimel represent close sounds and can be viewed as phonetic relatives of sorts.

Some speculate the word שִׂיג (sig) has something to do with the shoresh נ-ש-ג (Nun-Shin-Gimel) which is associated with catching up, reaching, obtaining, achieving, acquiring, gaining, and getting. If this is indeed the case, then perhaps the entire expression שִׂיג וָשִׂיחַ (sig va’siyach) originally referred specifically to dealings that have proven to be useful, or to interactions out of which people expect to get something.

However, it is also possible that the word שִׂיג (sig) has something to do with the four-letter root ש-ג-ש-ג which means to thrive, prosper, or flourish. This would make the word שִׂיג (sig) connected to the word שִׂיחַ (siyach) not only on in the sense of discourse and verbal exchange, but also in the sense of bush. Maybe that is why they are so closely related phonetically.

Regardless of how שִׂיג וָשִׂיחַ (sig va’siyach) came to be, and whether or not their roots are related, the fact remains that when you say in Hebrew שִׂיחַ מְשַׂגְשֵׂג (siyach mesagseg) it can mean both a flourishing bush (don’t go there…) and a thriving discourse. So maybe, just maybe, the key to saving both our planet and our society lies in the same thing – a thriving and healthy discourse.

Someone you know might also like this

Someone you know might also like this

Stay in Touch!

Get the next post from Hebrew Monk directly to you inbox!

Don't like emails? Subscribe to Heberw Monk's Telegram Channel instead.

Leave a Comment

Scroll to Top