Archive for September 2008

sa-a-a-na-ra Ha-am-mu-ra-bi

September 30, 2008

I finally finished translating Hammurabi’s laws today, all 282 of the bastards (sorry, I am a little sick of šumma awīlum….). Actually there are some broken parts in the middle, so I guess I didn’t actually translate 282 laws. Now on to the Sintflut (that’s the flood story from the Epic of Gilgamesh).


Scholarly bias and the nature of the Semitic verbal system

September 25, 2008

Thanks to the ubiquity of “postmodernism” (I read a quote somewhere, and I wish I could find the source so let me know if you recognize it, that said something to the effect of “the only real postmodernists are freshmen English classes and dead French guys”) we are all now acutely aware that we each have bias. I am not much of a philosopher, and I am not really interested in re-hashing any of this tired discussion of epistemology. In a certain sense we need bias. We don’t have time to weigh every single piece of evidence for every single argument, and so we tend to go with the views of our teachers or other people we trust. Most of the time it is hard to tell how consequential any of these predispositions are to someone’s overall argument, but sometimes they jump out and smack you in the face.

The nature of the Semitic verbal system, ie whether it is primarily an aspect or tense system, is quite a hotly contested topic, and I have weighed in elsewhere on my views (which coincidentally tend to follow my teacher’s quite closely). In my last post I summarized Daniel Sivan’s article on the QTL and YQTL forms in Ugaritic, where he follows his teacher, Anson Rainey, in calling these tense forms. In a comment, Carl wondered how yaqtulu for past continuous action could be a “tense”? I share the same question, and I also wondered how qatala for both past and present could be a “tense” when the tense interpretation clearly depends on the interaction of the verb morphology with the semantics of the verb (I think Sivan’s example of ntn as a transitive verb in the present tense may in fact be a performative).

At the end of the paper, Sivan takes a moment to honor his teacher with the following paragraph (here’s where it gets interesting):

All of Rainey’s language students will remember how he resented the typical European approach derived from Ewald’s explanation of the Semitic verbal system. He denied that Semitic peoples were inferior to others (such as the Greeks) in their grasp of “time”. As a student of H.J. Polotsky, Rainey always insisted that the Semitic and Egyptian languages reflected a true system of tenses (p 101).

Now, this makes a lot of sense, especially if you are aware of the beginnings of the Biblical Theology Movement and all the hubbub about the difference between Greek and Hebrew thought (See James Barr’s Biblical Words for Time). Thus, Rainey and his teachers saw the aspectual explanation of the Semitic verbal system as denigrating and presumably anti-Semitic. I wonder how many scholars still share this feeling? How many more are following their teachers to whom the nature of the Semtic verbal system was not merely a neutral, scholarly question?

Sivan, Daniel, “The use of QTL and YQTL forms in the Ugaritic Verbal System” Pages 89-103 in Past Links: Studies in the Languages and Cultures of the Ancient Near East, IOS 18. Edited by S. Izre’el, I. Singer and R. Zadok. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1998.

September 22, 2008

For this volume dedicated to Anson Rainey, Sivan applies Rainey’s approach to the Semitic verbal system to Ugaritic. In short, following Moran’s study of the Canaanite reflexes in the Amarna letters, Rainey describes the verbal system primarily as tense-based rather than aspect-based. Generally, the qtl (suffix conjugation) forms express the past while the yqtl (prefix conjugation) is used for present-future.

The qtl form normally expresses past tense in both poetry and prose. In addition, it can also be used for the present tense. This is usually with an intransitive verb, but also some times with transitive verbs. For instance:

rbt ˀilm l ḥkmt “You are great [rabbatā] El, indeed you are wise [ḥakamtā]” (KTU 1.4 V, 3)

ṯn dbḥm šnˀa bˁl ṯlṯ rkb ˁrpt “Two sacrifices Baal hates [šaniˀa], three the Rider of the Clouds” (KTU 1.4 III, 17-18)

The qtl is also sometimes used as an optative to express wishes and requests:

ˁm ˁlm ḥyt “May you live [ḥayêtā/ḥayîtā] forever!”

Also with precative lū/la:

l yrt b npš bn ˀilm mt “may you go down [lū/la yarattā] into the throat of the son of the gods, O Môt” (KTU 1.5 I, 6-7)

Lastly, in result clauses qtl forms preceded by waw expresses the future. For example:

w hm ẖt ˁl w lˀikt ˁmk “and if the Hittite attacks (lit goes up), then I will send [wa-laˀiktū] to you” (KTU 2.30, 17-18)

In respect to the prefixed yqtl forms, Rainey has argued that these forms express tense, rather than aspect, and that there are two modes – indicative and injunctive. In the indicative, the so-called “short” form yqtlØ (ie without suffixes) expressed past tense while the “long” yqtlu form (with final short vowels) expressed present-future as well as continuous action in the past. In the injunctive mood the yqtlØ form is a jussive while the yqtla is volitive. Both modes also have an energic form, yaqtulun(n)a for the indicative and yaqtulan(n)a for the injunctive.

Because the Ugaritic script does not generally express vowels, it is often difficult to distinguish the “long” and “short” forms (which only differ by the presence of a final vowel). The diagnostic forms are third waw/yod (eg 3ms long form yabniyu but short form yabnî), final aleph (there are three aleph signs which distinguish the vowels a, i, and u), and the long yqtlu forms with final nunation (3mp taqtulūna, 2fs taqtulīna) though the existence of energic forms complicates the problem.

An example of the short form as a past tense:

yˀip lḥm d ḫmš “he baked [yapˀî (third-yod form, note that the /ˀi/ is used when aleph closes a syllable)] bread for the fifth (month)” (KTU 1.14 IV,11)

An example of the long form as present-future:

ˁd tṯṯbn ksp ˀiwrkl w ṯb l ˀunṯhm “(they don’t have a feudal obligation) until they return [taṯaṯībūna/tuṯaṯībūna] Iwirkallu’s money, then they will return to their feudal obligation” (KTU 3.4,16-19).

However, there are some cases in which the short yqtlØ form seems to be used for present-future. These are final waw/yod verbs in which the final tripthong (iyu) has contracted.

tgl ḏd ˀl w tbˀu qrš mlk ˀb šnm “She turns [taglû] to the dwelling of El and she comes to the abode of the king, the Father of Years” (KTU 1.3 V, 7-8).

Finally, Sivan notes that the alternation of qtl and yqtl within a verse using the same verb is a feature of Ugaritic (as well as Hebrew) poetry.

knp nšrm bˁl yṯbr bˁl ṯbr dˀiy hmt “may Baal break [yaṯburu] the wings of the eagles, Baal broke [ṯabara] their pinions” (KTU 1.19 III, 8-9)

Polak, Frank, “Style is More than the Person: Sociolinguistics, Literary Culture and the Distinction between Written and Oral Narrative,” Pages 38-103 in Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology. Edited by Ian Young. London: T&T Clark, 2003.

September 16, 2008

In this paper, Polak applies studies on the differences between spoken and written language to compare the early narratives, such as the patriarchal narratives in Genesis and the Saul-David cycle, to the later narratives in Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther. In general, the latter narratives prefer “intricate sentence constructions, long noun groups, and subordinated clauses,” reflecting features of written language, while the former tend toward “short, simple clauses in parataxis,” reflecting spoken language. Polak terms the first style “complex-nominal” and the second “rhythmic-verbal”. 

For instance, the speech of the wise woman from Tekoa in 2 Sam 14:5b-7a is characterized by a sequence of short independent clauses. These clauses largely have only a single argument (defined as either an explicit subject, object, modifier, etc) and there are very few multi-word noun phrases. Since this women is characterized as wise and she is addressing a king, Polak suggests that her speech is representative of fine spoken language (ie, the short clauses are not the result of a lack of competency on her part. 

In contrast, Dt 9:8-11 gives an example of the “complex-nominal” style. Here only four clauses contain a single argument. There are many dependent and subordinate clauses, as well as lengthy multi-word noun groups including כָל־הַדְּבָרִ֡ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּר֩ יְהוָ֨ה עִמָּכֶ֥ם בָּהָ֛ר מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵ֖שׁ בְּי֥וֹם הַקָּהָֽל (v 10) where the noun phrase כָל־הַדְּבָרִ֡ים is expanded by a complex relative clause which itself includes three adverbial phrases.    

This contrast between spoken and written language follows the cross-linguistic analysis which has found that written discourse generally prefers long noun groups, two or more arguments including a high frequency of prepositional phrases and modifiers, subordination including participial phrases and indirect discourse, and complex subordination. This suggests that texts in this  “complex-nominal” style are at home in a professional scribal culture, much like what is known from the Persian period. On the other hand, those in the “rhythmic-verbal” style have their roots in oral narrative.

New Hebrew Inscription

September 13, 2008

Yesterday on the ANE-2 newsgroup, Aren Maeir announced that an important inscription had been found at Khirbet Qeiyafa in the Elah valley (see I missed it the first time, but Duane at Abnormal Interests was quite excited. There is also info at the BiblePlaces blog

Duane laments how long we’ll have to wait for the inscription to be published. Well, this is highly unethical, but through unnamed sources I have gotten my hands on the text. It is a little difficult to read, but here it is with some proposed reconstructions:

1. אל שאול ברכת[כ לי]הוה ועת
2. הנ ה[כה ד]וד את הפלשתי
3. הערל את גל[..] ויקטלה
4. על כנ נכזבו
5. המנ[מל]יסטימ

Summary of Old Aramaic

September 12, 2008

I have posted my summary of Old Aramaic under Essays (see sidebar). I ended up doing much more than I planned, so who knows how far I am going to get with this. I basically followed the outlines in Dr Kaufman’s articles on Aramaic in both the Anchor Bible Dictionary and The Semitic Languages (Edited by Hetzron), supplementing them with class notes, further examples, and material from other works as footnoted. I will be moving on to Imperial Aramaic next, but it may take me a few weeks.

The Importance of Aramaic for Biblical Studies

September 9, 2008

Most everyone learns Hebrew in seminary (or at least is introduced to Hebrew, technically I wouldn’t call knowing enough to look up words in BDB or double-clicking your computer program “learning” Hebrew, but that’s a discussion for another day…), but few of us learn Aramaic. This despite the fact that there actually is some Aramaic in the Bible (albeit a very small percentage). I guess nobody is expected to preach from Daniel or Ezra? I know, when exactly would seminarians find time to study Aramaic as well, when they hardly learned Hebrew?

I didn’t formally study any Aramaic in seminary either, but during my three years at HUC I have begun to appreciate its importance for both Hebrew linguistics and Biblical Studies (you probably have noticed an Aramaic bent to my blog over the last months as I study for comps). This is most likely due to the fact that my adviser is an expert in Aramaic, but the more I study the harder it is to ignore its importance.

For instance, the way various standard literary dialects of Aramaic have developed with a mix of features of other dialects provide insight into the issues of chronology and typology in biblical Hebrew that I have been posting about. In fact, in his paper, “Contributions of Aramaic Studies to Hebrew Philology” in the IOSOT congress volume (Basel, 2001), Dr Kaufman says:

Indeed I would venture to claim that the scholar who attempts to master the intricacies of Biblical Hebrew dialectology without more than a passing acquaintance with Aramaic dialectology of those periods does so at his or her peril (pp 50-51).

Read the rest of that paper for other important contributions of Aramaic. For my part, I am beginning to try and compile some of these features for myself, and I will try and make my summaries and synthesis available in a new essay series. I will begin with an introduction to Aramaic, and shortly I hope to have finished a summary of the Old Aramaic dialects. As always, I appreciate any comments or suggestions anyone has.