On the Importance of a Comma

Posted August 12, 2013 by Peter Bekins
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You may be surprised to know that when I teach in undergraduate and adult ed situations, I actually deemphasize the importance of knowing Greek, Aramaic, and Hebrew for reading the Bible. I do this for two reasons: 

First, the people to whom I am speaking will likely never attain proficiency in any of these languages; therefore, I want to reassure them that they can have a meaningful experience reading the Bible in English. 

Second, in the circles within which I have travelled, I have found that appeals to “the original languages” are typically empty rhetorical devices designed to privilege one reading over another with the benefit that nobody listening can actually check you.* Indeed, nine times out of ten the statement “what the Hebrew/Greek actually means here…” will be followed by some world-class bullcrap. 

That said, I also give the caveats that you should always check a couple different translations as a control and you should always be suspect of innovative readings that play off of a single word or turn of phrase. One important issue to understand is that English may be ambiguous where the Hebrew/Aramaic/Greek is not and vice versa. 

I found an excellent example of this in my vacation reading. I checked out several books on teaching methodology including Teaching the Bible as Literature (Christopher-Gordon, 2002) by Roger Baker, which I hoped might have a couple activities worth borrowing. In the foreword, Baker illustrates his approach to the Bible with some tales of Elijah (1 Kgs 18-19) culminating with the wind, earthquake, and fire passing him on the mountaintop, followed by a “still small voice” (1 Kgs 19:12; KJV). Baker comments:

Notice how “still small voice” is punctuated. There is no comma between still and small. Instead of the voice being still and small, it is, after all, a small voice. It is “still” a small voice, in the English translation. 

English ‘still’ may indeed function as either an adverb or an adjective. Further, adverbs usually occur in the spot before the adjective. The lack of a comma, therefore, leaves the grammatical function of ‘still’ ambiguous, and if Strunk and White were responsible for translating the KJV then I would agree wholeheartedly that this was a significant omission.

Since the KJV is generally a word-for-word translation, however, it is highly unlikely that the translators intended to render the adjective דְּמָמָה from the phrase קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה as the adverb ‘still, yet’ (Heb עוֹד).** Indeed, if you check the NRSV translation you will find “a sound of sheer silence” with no adverb, which should give you pause about this theory (see also the LXX φωνὴ αὔρας λεπτῆς and the Vulgate sibilus aurae tenuis).*** 

That said, something about this did interest me, which led to a day-long rabbit trail reading about the history of English punctuation and the KJV. In short, the punctuation in the original 1611 KJV seems to be inconsistent at best, and an attempt was made at standardization for the 1769 text. Of course, English punctuation in general was still in a state of transition during this period. In the 16th century, its function was primarily rhetorical rather than grammatical — similar to the Masoretic system, punctuation was intended to guide the oral performance of the text. For instance, in the Matthew-Tyndale Bible (1537), 1 Kgs 19:13 reads (see here; you want pgs 22-23): 

“And after the fyre / came a small still voice.” 

There are only two punctuation marks used in this text. The period (.) marks the end of the sentence and the forward slash (/) indicates the major pause similarly to the athnach. The shift toward a more grammatically precise punctuation system can be attributed to those continental humanists who “demanded a more exact disambiguation of the constituent elements of a sentence” (Parkes, Pause and Effect:Punctuation in the West, Univ of California Press, 1993, 88). This approach was apparently introduced to English by Ben Jonson’s 1616 English Grammar (see here) which was published posthumously in 1640.

So what is going on with the KJV? First I checked to be sure that “still small voice” was original to the 1611 KJV here. Next I looked for precursors. Interestingly, the Geneva Bible (1599) reads “A still and soft voice,” one of the options Baker would have preferred for a double adjective. The other version that influenced the KJV translators was the Matthew-Tyndale I quoted above, which read “a small still voice.”

See the difference there? They put ‘still’ in the second slot so that it would be read unambiguously as an adjective. Why didn’t the KJV just copy this exactly? My best guess is it has to do with the word-for-word thing. The Hebrew is קוֹל דְּמָמָה דַקָּה with דְּמָמָה the word usually translated as ‘still’. Since the order of adjectives is ‘still’ then ‘small’ in the Hebrew source, the KJV translators opted for “still small” in the English despite the possible ambiguity. 


* Unless I am sitting there, of course. Note also the legitimating function of referring to them as “the original languages”. 

** Note that this Hebrew phrase is interesting in its own right, but that is a post for another day. 

** Baker cites this translation later, but doesn’t seem to take it into account. I am also confused as to why he added the caveat “in the English translation” above. Is he suggesting that the translation somehow has its own meaning independently of the source text? 

Rollston on Jerusalem Inscription

Posted July 11, 2013 by Peter Bekins
Categories: Uncategorized

Christopher Rollston has posted on the recent Jerusalem inscription including a nice line drawing to support his reading. He reads from left-to-right m q l ḥ n [r š] with the root qlḥ ‘pot’ the central word. From his line drawing, Rollston’s trained eye sees more of a circle on the top of the q then mine did. Typologically, he dates the script to the 11th century rather than the 10th. 

Step 4b – Analyzing Cognate Nominatives: Hifil Denominatives

Posted July 11, 2013 by Peter Bekins
Categories: Syntax

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In our search for cognate nominatives, there were five examples in which the verb was realized in the Hifil stem. We can search for these specifically with the following Hebrew construct:

 Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 9.35.11 AM

Here are the results:

 Screen shot 2013-07-11 at 9.35.42 AM

These all seem to be examples of denominal verbs—verbs that are derived from a noun. Remember that the Binyanim are primarily derivational rather than inflectional, meaning that their main function is to create new vocabulary. While Binyan generally interact with roots in predictable ways, it is not so simple as Hifil = causative. Both the Piel and Hifil stems are productive for forming denominatives.

For instance, פרס (Qal) is glossed “to divide s/t;” therefore, we may expect פרס (Hi) to be glossed “to cause s/o to divide s/t.”  In this case, however,  פרס (Hi) is a denominative of פרסה “(divided) hoof” and should be glossed as “to have (divided) hooves.”

In each of these cases, therefore, the cognate nominative is the base nominal from which the Hifil verb was derived. On closer inspection, however, I think that the examples from Lev 11:5 and 6 have been mis-tagged. Note that the verbs יַפְרִיס (Lev 11:5) and הִפְרִיסָה (Lev 11:6) agree with וְאֶת־הַשָּׁפָן “the rock badger (ms)” and וְאֶת־הָאַרְנֶבֶת “the hare (fs)” respectively rather than פַרְסָה “(divided) hoof (fs).” I suspect that these are actually cognate accusative constructions (cf. כֹּל מַפְרֶסֶת פַּרְסָה “all that have a divided hoof” in Lev 11:3). Likewise in Psa 80:10, ‏וַתַּשְׁרֵשׁ שָׁרָשֶׁיהָ , the fs verb agrees with the fs pronominal suffix whose antecedent is גֶּפֶן “vine” in verse 9 while שרש is mp in form. I think that this also is better analyzed as cognate accusative.

Mazar and Inscriptions

Posted July 10, 2013 by Peter Bekins
Categories: Uncategorized

In my previous post, I assumed that Shmuel Ahituv, a well respected epigrapher, had contributed to the reading of the latest inscription found in Jerusalem since he is quoted authoritatively in the press release. However, the letter read as is quite clearly r, an odd mistake. Then I remembered this:

“Archaeologist revises read of ancient seal impression”

Note that Mazar erred by reading the seal from right-to-left, but it was a reverse image (it was the seal itself, not the impression). As I think about it more, I think she has made the opposite mistake this time by reading from left-to-right as “Canaanite” in combination with the ridiculous Jebusite narrative. George Athas is correct that this seems to simply be Hebrew read right-to-left as one would expect. See my previous post for the problems with drawing conclusions about language or ethnicity from script typology.

New Inscription from Jerusalem

Posted July 10, 2013 by Peter Bekins
Categories: Uncategorized

I was just reminiscing about the summer of 2008. Remember the new inscriptions from Zincirli and Khirbet Qeiyafa? Well, it has been a while since anything interesting was pulled out of the ground with writing on it, but Jim Davila posted an IAA press release this morning for an inscription on a large pithos dated to 10th century Jerusalem.


The script is described as “Canaanite” and Ahituv (I assume) reads it from left-to-right as m q p ḥ  n [l]   n which means ???? (note the press release reads h but I assume a diacritic has dropped because it looks like to me). Well, beggers can’t be choosers, right? The shapes of the mem and nun are consistent with other 10th century writing (see Ahiram and Gezer Calendar). The qaf and pe are oriented toward the right rather than the left, which suggests the left-to-right order. The qaf looks more like a resh to me, though, so an alternative reading could be m r p ḥ n.

As always with these sort of things, the headline teases “Inscription from the Time of Kings David & Solomon” while the press release explains the fact that it does not seem to be Hebrew by attributing it to one of the “non-Israeli” [huh?] residents of Jerusalem like our good friends the Jebusites. You can’t seem to get rid of those guys.

Of course, this analysis wrongly conflates script with language while completely confusing things by invoking ethnicity. What is described as “Canaanite” script is better understood as simply the typologically older common script used across the region — it does not necessarily indicate that you are a Canaanite (a term that is problematic in itself). Distinctive national scripts begin to develop from the 10th into the 9th centuries, but as the Tel Fakheriya bi-lingual demonstrated, the typologically older script was still in use into the 9th century as well.

UPDATE: Just noticed that George Athas has also given some comments on the inscription. He also reads the qaf as a resh. I am not sure why Ahituv read it as a qaf which I would expect to look more like a line with a circle on top, but perhaps the reading is not Ahituv’s. George further notes problems with the pe, which he tentatively reads as tsade. I noticed that the pe seems too “closed”, but I don’t really see a tsade at all. It needs some “squiggle”. I would further note that having only seen a hi-res photo I am just having some summer armchair epigrapher fun with this, so take my opinions with a large grain of salt.

Step 4a – Analyzing Cognate Nominatives: Passive Clauses

Posted July 9, 2013 by Peter Bekins
Categories: Syntax

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A common behavior of the grammatical relation object is that an argument realized as an object in an active clause is promoted to subject in the comparable passive clause. My interest in the possibility of a cognate nominative was prompted by the question of whether cognate accusatives behaved as objects in this regard.

Our search for adjunct cognate accusatives returned a few hits in passive clauses. In these cases the cognate accusative is not promoted to subject, but remains a cognate accusative. Consider the following examples:

‏לֹא יִמָּכְרוּ מִמְכֶּרֶת עָבֶד

“They shall not be sold the sale of a slave” (Lev 25:42)

‏וְאִנָּקְמָה נְקַם־אַחַת מִשְּׁתֵי עֵינַי

“And I shall be avenged one vengeance for my two eyes” (Judg 16:28)

Our cognate nominative search also returned a few passive examples. We can search for these specifically by specifying the verbal stem in our Hebrew construct:

Screen shot 2013-07-09 at 10.47.35 AM

Here are a couple of the hits on this search:

‏וּפְקֻדַּת כָּל־הָאָדָם יִפָּקֵד עֲלֵיהֶם

“The fate of all humankind falls upon them” (Num 16:29)

‏ וּמִקְצָת יָמִים עֲשָׂרָה נִרְאָה מַרְאֵיהֶם טוֹב

“At the end of ten days their appearance appeared good…” (Dan 1:15)

In what way do these examples differ from the previous two cognate accusatives? The verb ראה selects a stimulus which is realized as object and promoted to subject under passivization. Compare this active clause:

‏וְאֶרְאֶה אֶת־הַמַּרְאֶה הַגָּדֹל הַזֶּה

“I saw this great vision” (Exod 3:3)

Therefore, Dan 1:15 seems to be following the typical behavior for objects under passivization with the cognate nominative מַרְאֵיהֶם filling the semantic role stimulus.

Num 16:29 is a little more complicated, but there are comparable examples of פקד governing an object accusative with a causative sense:

‏וּפָקַדְתִּי עֲלֵיהֶם חַטָּאתָם

“I will assign their sins onto them” ≅ “I will punish them for their sins” (Exod 32:34)

I think that Num 16:29 is analogous to this construction with פְקֻדַּת כָּל־הָאָדָם ‘the fate of all humankind’ filling the same semantic role as חַטָּאתָם ‘their sins’ (note also that it is the nature of חטא that produces the reading ‘punish’ for פקד, while Num 16:29 has a more neutral connotation). If this is the case, then this cognate nominative is also behaving like a typical object under passivization. In both of these cases the cognate nature of the argument seems incidental to the syntax.

Step 3 – Finding Cognate Nominatives

Posted July 5, 2013 by Peter Bekins
Categories: Syntax

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So, now that we have done a brief overview of the cognate accusative, is there a cognate nominative? On the most basic definition—a nominative that shares the same root with the verb—yes. [1] The [AGREE] command only works below the same level of hierarchy (phrase, clause, etc). Because the subject is at the clause level while the verb is nested within the predicate phrase we will not be able to take full advantage of the syntax DB beyond the fact that we have NPs tagged as subjects. This is the search I devised to find cognate nominatives:

Screen shot 2013-07-05 at 10.26.37 AM

This resulted in 103 hits, but some of these are garbage (a few involving Ketib-Qere; Robert it seems that the syntax tag of the previous element is bleeding over into the member of the Ketib-Qere pair that we left unmarked; is this the way it was expected to work?). There are also some puns on names that I am not interested in. Paring the set down, I come up with about 35 examples of cognate nominatives. Here is a screen shot of the first few results:

Screen shot 2013-07-05 at 10.45.40 AM

I can make a few brief observations on the results. About 20 are bare indefinites while 15 are qualified in some manner—a similar distribution to our cognate accusatives. Overwhelmingly the phenomenon was found in formally intransitive clauses which may or may not be significant. There are four cases involving Nifal stems and five involving Hifil stems that may merit further comment.

Note that this search did not produce hits for phrases such as ‏וּבְכָל־הָרֶמֶשׂ הָרֹמֵשׂ עַל־הָאָרֶץ “and over all the creepers that creep on the earth” (Gen 1:26). In this case, הָרֶמֶשׂ is not properly the subject of רֹמֵשׂ due to the relative clause structure, but I suspect the construction may be relevant or at least interesting in its own right.

So technically there are cognate nominatives. The omission of such a category from the grammars suggests that nobody has found anything particularly interesting about this construction that merits further discussion, but I’m sure we can find something to talk about.

[1] The label nominative is borrowed by the grammars from the classical Greek tradition for convenience, but Biblical Hebrew, of course, does not have an inflectional case system. Therefore, technically, we are searching for cognate subjects here since all the zero-coded non-subjects are usually grouped with ‘accusatives’.


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