Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Bilingual Tombstones

Tombstones or funerary monuments with inscriptions in more than one language have been around for thousands of years. After the Romans defeated Carthage in the Punic Wars, some of the inhabitants of North Africa put up funerary monuments with inscriptions in both Latin and Punic, a Semitic language closely related to Hebrew. In a few cases, Greek was added to the mix For example, one monument from what is now Libya reads:
Punic: brkt bt bʕlšlk 'm qʕ'ʕly hrb
Latin: Byrycth Balsilechis f(ilia) mater Clodi medici
Greek: Βυρυχθ Βαλσιαληχ Θυγατηρ μητηρ Κλωδιου ιατρου
"BRKT daughter of BʕLŠLK, mother of Qʕ'ʕLY the doctor"
-from Bilingualism and the Latin language by James Noel Adams, p. 216
Bilingual inscriptions are also found in many American cemeteries. It is a common practice in some Jewish communities where tombstones are inscribed in both Hebrew and English. If you come across a tombstone, or any document, in two or more languages, you should not assume that the two inscriptions say the same thing. Although they often contain similar information, they may be different in important ways.

Tombstone of Sarah Ethel Saul

Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta is the final resting place of author Margaret Mitchell and golfer Bobby Jones. It is also the home of two significant Jewish sections, including Atlanta's oldest Jewish burial ground. The two sections have many bilingual tombstones. The tombstone of Sarah Ethel Saul illustrates just how different inscriptions in two languages can be. The English inscription identifies her simply as a mother, gives her name and her birth and death years.

The Hebrew inscription on the other side provides much richer genealogical information.

At the top of the tombstone are the letters pe nun, which is an abbreviation for the Hebrew phrase meaning "Here lies". The letters with either one or two dots are used to indicate abbreviations. Roughly, the Hebrew translates is:

H(ere) l(ies)
the esteemed and modest woman
Mrs. Sarah Ethel, daughter of Mr. Hayyim
Mordecai, wife of Mr. Joseph Saul.
She died 5 Tevet (5)686.
She was 90
at her death

Note that the date is given using the Jewish Calendar. The thousands are often left out in the year. There are many calendar converters online, such as the one here.

The final letters (not translated) are a reference to 1 Sam 25:29, "May his soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life".


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