Noam'n copies

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This is a guest post by Corey Miller.

Sometime in the course of my Zoom Russian class, I brought up Chomsky. I thought enough to say /xomski/, but the teacher surprised me when he said /naum/. I checked out his Russian Wikipedia entry and sure enough it says Ноам (Наум). I must say one of the advantages of Zoom language class is that you can Google (translate)—for the serious student I think it’s more enrichment than cheating.

I checked the Hebrew and Yiddish Wikipedia pages, and they both say נועם, which according to the Noam page is a Hebrew name meaning ‘pleasantness’. This is a different name from the prophet Nahum (Hebrew: נַחוּם ‘consolation’) which is Наум in Russian. So how did the two get conflated?

My polymathic (Semitic philologist, rabbi and psychologist) relation, Leslie Freedman, had the impression that while Noam is a common Hebrew/Israeli name today, it had most likely not been in use when the famous linguist was born. There is one citation of נֹ֙עַם֙ as a name in the Old Testament at Zechariah 11:7, but it’s given to a shepherd’s staff rather than a person.

Recalling that Hebrew’s kamatz vowel (pronounced /a/ in Modern Hebrew) could be /o/ in Ashkenazi and Yiddish, e.g. the final vowel in שַׁבָּת‎ 'Shabbat' Shabbos, I wondered whether in some variety of Ashkenazi Hebrew or Yiddish the patach vowel (pronounced just like kamatz in Modern Hebrew) in the first syllable of נַחוּם might similarly be /o/. Sure enough Harkavy (1898) mentions that in the “South-Russian” dialect of Yiddish shabes is shobes! I haven’t explored Chomsky’s genealogy, but I did note that Chomsk (Хомск) is in modern-day Belarus, so somewhat southern as far as Moscow and St. Petersburg are concerned.

Given all this, my theory is that Chomsky’s family named him Noam with נַחוּם in mind, which they may have pronounced something like /no.əm/. Over time, this name got reanalyzed (at least by some) as נועם as that name came into vogue. This of course assumes that the guttural sound of ח /x, χ/ could become conflated with that of ע /Ɂ, Ø/, which seems to have happened in Russian and has been attested cross-linguistically.

Above is a guest post by Corey Miller.



  1. G Ginat said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 7:26 am

    Your theory is absurdly mistaken and could have easily been avoided with a modicum of research. Noam’s father, William Chomsky, was a well-known Hebraist and Hebrew educator, who wrote a history of the Hebrew language. Like others of his ilk, he gave his son a modern Hebrew name.

    Also, there is no Yiddish dialect in which the het of Nahum could possibly be conflated with the ayin vav of Noam.

  2. G Ginat said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 8:05 am

    Correction, vav ayin.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 8:22 am

    I once asked one of my three teachers of Mandarin Chinese, An Nuoya, how he came by such an unusual (Chinese) given name. He told me that his parents were Christians and named him after Noah.

  4. shua said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 10:42 am

    Even in Yiddish, Noam and Nachum are different names.

    A better question would be, why did his name get changed on Russian Wikipedia or when he became known in Russian speaking circles. And I don't have any knowledge of Russian for that. But it's not unknown for names to get changed, but that doesn't speak to the original name's intention. It speaks to the new language.

  5. Leo said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 10:53 am

    Well I've learned something – that Russian spells Chomsky etymologically, as Хомский. I would have expected the pronunciation-based spelling Чомски.

  6. Coby Lubliner said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 11:38 am

    Both Yiddish and Hebrew have the etymological ח, since that is what his father used in his Hebrew writings. Most of the cyrillic-writing languages other than Russian use Ч; Belarusian is split between the two orthographies.

  7. Anschel Schaffer-Cohen said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 11:56 am

    Among other objections mentioned here, I think "south Russian", in Harkavy's time, would much more likely have referred to modern Ukraine than Belarus. Moscow and St Petersburg, outside the Pale of Settlement, did not to my knowledge have significant Jewish communities before WWI.

  8. martin schwartz said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 1:53 pm

    Hi, Corey. Long time since you were Editor for my essay in Trends in Iranianand Persian Linguistics! On the present matter, I'm solidly
    with G. Ginat and Shua. While it is irrelevant, I associate Yoddish pronunciations like shobes for shabes with "Mome-Tate Lushn",
    Mom&Dad talk/language,saying e.g mome for mame and tote for tate.
    I know it for Romanian-Moldavian Yiddish; my father, whose parents were from Bessarabia, woud say bolt 'soon' and voser 'water', where my mother's Belorussian-Polonoid Yiddish had bald and vaser.
    Chomsky Père's book on Hebrew was in the home of a friend when we were in our early teens; we pronounced the name "Khomski".
    Martin Schwartz

  9. martin schwartz said,

    May 23, 2020 @ 2:09 pm

    p.s.: (an d here I use x for YIVO's kh): Were there a Hebrew name
    Noam in Yiddish, it would have been pronounced *Nóyem,
    while Nahum (Naxúm in Israeli), is/was Yiddish Noxm/Nuxm. By the way, the latter name means 'consolation' in Hebrew.
    Martin Schwartz

  10. alan j bennett said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 9:47 am

    As one of Dr. William and Elsie Chomsky's student's many years ago in Philadelphia, I can testify to the family's pronunciation of its surname: Хомский and to the fact that as leading Hebrew educators of the day, they knew exactly what they were naming their oldest son. A separate question is when the linguist began pronouncing his surname
    as Чомски.

  11. David Marjanović said,

    May 24, 2020 @ 5:10 pm

    which seems to have happened in Russian

    What do you mean? Not only does Russian has a fully armed and operational /x/, it never inserts glottal stops into words and uses them very sparingly otherwise.

    Even when a stressed syllable follows, as in наука [naˈuka] ("science"), there is no glottal stop inside a word.

    and has been attested cross-linguistically.

    The link doesn't show that. All the cases it brings up seem to me like they could be much more easily explained as total loss of the various sounds in question, which left a vowel cluster behind that was (unlike in Russian) broken up by insertion of [Ɂ] – which is easier if [Ɂ] is already in use as a phoneme or allophone (of /t/ in English) in the language in question, as is the case in all examples.

  12. V said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 2:02 pm

    Наум was one of the students of Cyril and Methodius, designers of the Glagolithic alphabet and translators of Christian scripture into Old Bulgarian. He was not Bulgarian himself though, he was Moravian I think.

  13. A. Skrobov said,

    May 25, 2020 @ 6:27 pm

    > A better question would be, why did his name get changed on Russian Wikipedia or when he became known in Russian speaking circles.

    The name "Наум Хомский" appears in Soviet print as early as 1962:Новое_в_лингвистике/aAkbAAAAIAAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=наум%20хомский

    On the other hand, the first mention of "Ноам Хомский" is from 1970.

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