Rainey, A.F. “The Prefix Conjugation Patterns of Early Northwest Semitic.” Pages 407-420 in Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran. Ed. by T. Abusch, J. Huehnergard, P. Steinkeller. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.

The Amarna letters give important information about the West Semitic verbal system in the 14th century BCE as reflected in the Canaanite scribes’ use of West Semitic prefixes and suffixes on Akkadian verbal stems. Moran was the first to apply a rigorous analysis and produce a clear picture of the system at work. Rainey has followed in Moran’s footprints and suggests that the verbal morphology discerns two modes – indicative and “injunctive” (volitive) – each with three parallel forms (-û forms indicate the plural):

  Indicative   Injunctive
Preterite yaqtul, -û Jussive yaqtul, -û
Imperfect yaqtulu, -ûna Volitive yaqtula, -û
Energic yaqtulun(n)a Energic yaqtulan(n)a

I. The indicative mode

The yaqtul preterite is rare in the Byblos texts that Moran analyzed since the suffix conjugation seems to have largely taken over the past tense function as in later Phoenician. However, Rainey finds more preterite forms in the letters outside of Byblos, especially southern Canaan, which were contrasted with the long prefix forms following the opposition preterite :: present/future continuous.

The yaqtul preterite is evidently preserved in Ugaritic poetry, but the script makes it hard to discern. However, the ubiquitous III-weak ˤnh seems to be a preterite in short forms such as wˤn aliyn bˤl “and mighty Baal answered”. In everyday prose it seems that the suffix form qtl has taken over the past tense function as in later Phoenician and contemporary Byblos. Biblical Hebrew employs the preterite yaqtul in poetry and as the narrative tense wayyiqtol. The distinction of the short and long forms can also be seen in Hebrew weak verbs and the Hifil. 

Besides its function as present-future, Moran also isolated many cases where the long yaqtulu form was used to express continuous action in the past. This function is hard to discern in Ugaritic, but it is well known in Biblical Hebrew as well. 

The Amarna yiparras form does not seem to represent a Canaanite conjugation pattern but the Canaanite affixes on a geminated stem. Akkadian iparras and West Semitic yaqtulu are mutually exclusive, and attempts to find a yaqattal pattern in Ugaritic or Hebrew have failed. Goetze was the primary proponent of yaqattal in Ugaritic, but he was refuted by Ginsberg and Fenton. 

Rainey argues that the opposition of yaqtulu to the simple tense form yaqtul shows that system is not aspectual and that tenses were distinguished, even though yaqtulu itself can be used in past, present, and future contexts (note my post here and the discussion following this post on Rainey’s insistence that the West Semitic verbal system indicates tense rather than aspect).   

The energic is a “strengthening” of the imperfect, and is practically always used in questions (which Kaufman argues suggests that it is not a “strengthening” but a “softening”). The energic seems to be indicated in Ugaritic by the unusual spelling with double alef signs: yraun aliyn bˤl (presumably yîraˀunnû ˀAlˀiyânu Baˤalu) “Mighty Baal fears him” (KTU 1.5 II 6).

The only survival of the energic in biblical Hebrew is the nun used to attach 3s and 2ms suffixes to the verb. These nuns occur only on indicative forms, not jussives or narrative preterites (except for scribal errors). Thus these suffixed forms provide an additional diagnostic for distinguishing the yaqtulu from the yaqtul form. 

II. The injunctive mode 

Moran’s other contribution was demonstrating the existence of a yaqtul jussive and yaqtula subjunctive in the Amarna letters. Note that both forms have the same plural in , in contrast to the imperfect in –ûna. By the 14th century both forms were also fulfilling the same syntactic function, and there is an obvious correspondence to the biblical Hebrew jussive and cohortative forms. The main categories are expressions of volition, purpose, and condition. A first person volative can also be used as a polite form indicating submission to the will of the speaker or someone else. The Arabic grammarians picked up on this inherent idea of subordination, whether in a subordinate clause or as a polite form, and noticed that the –a ending is the accusative suffix, while the indicative yaqtulu has the nominative suffix. 

The jussive and yaqtula volitive are also found in Ugaritic. In biblical Hebrew the yaqtula form has survived mainly as the first person cohortative. though the volitive morpheme –a also appears with the imperative.

There is one example from the Byblos letters of an injunctive energic in a negative purpose clause: pal-ha-ti LÚ.MEŠ hu-up-ši-ia ul ti-ma-ha-ṣa-na-ni “I am afraid of my tenant farmers lest they smite me.”

It is also attested at Ugaritic. In biblical Hebrew the 3s suffixes attach to the cohortative like in Ps 119:34 wəˀešmərennā “that I might observe it”. Here it might be tempting to see an energic form, but Rainey thinks it more likely that we merely have a later development of the longer suffixed forms with nun being attracted to the cohortative. In later passages where the cohortative is (mis)used for the narrative preterite, the suffix forms with nun are not used (see Hos 11:1).

Explore posts in the same categories: Rainey, Anson, Semitic Verbal System

One Comment on “Rainey, A.F. “The Prefix Conjugation Patterns of Early Northwest Semitic.” Pages 407-420 in Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran. Ed. by T. Abusch, J. Huehnergard, P. Steinkeller. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.”

  1. […] A curiosity is the energic nun in the verbs of lines one and […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: