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Apolotsky, Hans Jacob

APOLOTSKY, HANS JACOB

APOLOTSKY, HANS JACOB (1905–1991), Orientalist and linguist. Born in Zurich to Russian parents, Polotsky attended the universities of Berlin and Goettingen, studying Egyptology and Semitics. While at Goettingen he was employed at the "Septuaginta Unternehmen," in connection with Greek, Coptic, Syriac, and Arabic material. In Berlin he edited Manichaean texts in Coptic. These texts brought him into contact with Turkish (and Iranian) dialects. His interest in Ethiopic languages (Ge'ez, Amharic, Gouragé, Tigrina, etc.) widened when he began teaching at the Hebrew University in 1934, as professor from 1948. He received the Israel Prize in humanities (1965). In Jerusalem he discovered native speakers of Eastern Neo-Aramaic (modern Syriac) dialects, and thus became acquainted with this long-neglected subject. Being familiar with Russian besides many other European languages, he was able to use important Russian contributions in this field. The discovery of Greek Papyri in Israel (Naḥal Ḥever) provided him with the opportunity to return to Hellenistic Greek. Polotsky is the rare, if not the last, of a type of linguist whose achievements are outstanding in several language families. This enabled him to obtain remarkable results in such studies as his Etudes de syntaxe Copte where he solved problems that had been vexing generations of Coptologists, such as the use of the so-called "second tenses," which he approached through the comparison of Coptic texts with their Greek "Vorlage" and by adducing Arabic on French and English constructions of the type "it is who…" (cleft sentence). This type of work, using parallels from different language families, relied less upon dictionaries and grammars of the languages concerned than upon his own material which he collected himself. As an Egyptologist he made his mark with several important studies, e.g., Egyptian Tenses (the Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, Proceedings no. 5; 1965). Polotsky proceeds along the lines of synchronic description, following the Saussure school. Only after achieving his aim does he take recourse to comparative material, sometimes nailing down his results by employing diachrocical proofs. Since he never published an article on general linguistics, his approach to languages can be pieced together only by studying carefully all his articles, dealing with different languages. In his Études de grammaire Gouragé, he reconstructed a form that (he thought) had disappeared from Ethiopian dialects and had the satisfaction to learn that the "reconstructed" form does indeed exist in one of them. In his studies in modern Syriac he showed his firsthand knowledge of the different Neo-Aramaic dialects spoken near the sea of Urmia (in Iran and Iraq), and proved that synchronic problems of certain dialects can be solved by comparative dialectology plus the diachronic approach. In his article Syntaxe Amharique et syntaxe Turque (1960), a study of two languages which belong to two entirely different language families (Semitic and Uralo-Altaic), he showed how close they are in the field of syntax, without having had any contact with each other. While conversant with recent linguistic trends, including that of N. Chomsky, Polotsky tended toward the school of de Saussure. His Collected Papers were published by the Magnes Press of the Hebrew University (1971).

A bibliography of his writings appeared in H.B. Rosén (ed.), Studies in Egyptology and Linguistics in Honour of H.J. Polotsky (1964), ix–xi. Quite a few languages never dealt with by Polotsky in his articles are even more familiar to him than those mentioned, e.g., Latin (Classical and Middle) and, of course, Hebrew, biblical, mishnaic, that of the prayer book and of Israeli Hebrew. Polotsky is the linguists' linguist.

[Eduard Yecheskel Kutscher]

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