Archive for the ‘Author’ category

Joshua Blau, Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew, LSAWS 2, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010.

January 1, 2011

I have the utmost respect for Professor Blau and was very excited to receive his Phonology and Morphology for Christmas. As I have progressed in my studies/career (when does that transition officially occur?), I have begun to realize the benefit of sitting in class with a great scholar. Published works often represent only a random sampling of knowledge, and they particularly lack synthesis of the field as a whole. Blau’s book is the next best thing to being there. It is like having access to someone’s edited class notes (and even better the bibliography was updated by the late Michael P. O’Connor).

At the beginning Blau gives a very helpful introduction to comparative and historical linguistics, situating Biblical Hebrew within its Semitic context. The book then moves into sections on phonology and morphology. At the beginning of each he provides a short orientation towards phonetics/phonology and morphology. These introductions are very much in the spirit of what I have tried to provide in the sidebar (and remarkably similar in both form and content).

In each section, Blau moves through the standard list of issues, giving concise yet informative summaries of the various viewpoints before giving his synthesis or alternative explanation. For instance, in the section on pretonic lengthening ( he presents two main views explaining the phenomenon. The first follows Goetze and Poebel and argues that the length was due to the existence of stress on the pretonic syllable in some earlier stage of the language. Blau rejects this since pretonic lengthening also occurs on the conjunction in a phrase such as יוֹם‭ ‬וָלַיְלָה‭ ‬ (Gen 8:2), and it is unlikely that the conjunction ever carried stress. The second view follows Brockelman and argues that pretonic lengthening is a result of the influence of Aramaic on the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew after the former had replaced the latter as the spoken tongue. Aramaic speakers could not pronounce short vowels in open unstressed syllables, in an attempt to better preserve Hebrew pronunciation, these vowels would be lengthened when read aloud in the synagogue. Blau’s counter argument is a form such asשָׁמְרוּ‭ ‬ ‘they preserved’. In this case, the long vowel in the first syllable is best explained as a result of pre-tonic lengthening from a stage of the language when the stress resided on the second syllable (c.f. pausal form שָׁמָרוּ). Therefore, pre-tonic lengthening must have existed while Biblical Hebrew was still a spoken language. Blau adapts Brockelman’s explanation, but argues, in effect, that pretonic lengthening is a socio-linguistic phenomenon related to competition with Aramaic during the period in which Biblical Hebrew was still spoken. In order to emphasize the contrast with Aramaic, Hebrew speakers lengthened short pre-tonic vowels which Aramaic speakers would have reduced.

This project was begun in 2002 as a translation of earlier work in Modern Hebrew. After significant delays, including the unfortunate passing of Dr O’Connor, you may rightfully be concerned whether the book is sufficiently up to date. I noticed a few places where this may be an issue, though it must also be remembered that Dr Blau is somewhat “Old School” which is one of the reasons I appreciate him. For instance, he presents the standard threefold chronological division of Archaic Biblical Hebrew, Standard Biblical Hebrew, and Late Biblical Hebrew with no acknowledgement of recent discussion of chronology and typology. Dr. Blau also categorizes Arabic with South Arabian and Ethiopic as Southwest Semitic, rather than with Hebrew and Aramaic as Central Semitic, though he does briefly defend this decision. Most puzzling, in the last section (5.2) he discusses the “conversive wāw, which converts past to future and future to past.” This sentence is odd, since I am pretty sure from his writings on the verbal system that Blau rejects the “conversive” explanation, and to be fair, he is only interested in the morphology of the conjunction in this very brief section and not its function.

Frankly, though, when reading through the rest of the book, I was struck by just how out-of-date “phonology and morphology” are. Though Dr O’Connor updated the bibliography, rarely is a work cited from the late 1990’s, much less the 2000’s. Indeed, though my dissertation focuses on both the object markerאת‭ ‬ and the definite article, I am completely uninterested in discussing either the phonology or morphology of either. Much more interesting to me (and my generation, I would assume) are studies in syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Unfortunately, the classical order of phonology, morphology, and then syntax seems to prevent anyone from ever getting there.



Young, Ian, “What is ‘Late Biblical Hebrew’?” Pages 253-268 in A Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Ideology, Stylistics, and Language Relating to Persian Israel, Edited by Ehud Ben Zvi, Diana Edelman, and Frank Polak. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009.

November 4, 2010

The third chapter of my dissertation explores the difference in the use of את between SBH and LBH, so I have been wading into some of the recent debate over chronology and typology in biblical Hebrew. In this short article, Young gives a helpful summary of the new approach that he has developed along with Robert Rezetko and Martin Ehrvensärd.

While most students learn Biblical Hebrew (BH) as a monolithic whole, the Hebrew Bible does reflect a certain degree of linguistic diversity. Scholars commonly distinguish three types of Hebrew in the biblical period:

1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew is only represented in older poetry such as Jd 5, Ex 15, etc.

2. Early Biblical Hebrew (EBH, also termed Classical Biblical Hebrew or Standard Biblical Hebrew) is the type normally taught in BH grammars. This is generally considered to be a literary language used during the pre-exilic, monarchic period. The core EBH books include the Pentateuch and Joshua-Kings.

3. Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) is the post-exilic language found primarily in the books of Esther, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah.

It has generally been assumed that the exile marked a time of social and political upheaval which had linguistic repercussions. The returning exiles would have mainly spoken Aramaic, the high language, while the lower classes who remained in the West would have spoken a vernacular Hebrew which was the ancestor of Rabbinic Hebrew. The new literary language, LBH, therefore, represents the chronological development of EBH under these influences.

Hurvitz (and others) has further argued that post-exilic authors would be unable to write in proper EBH, but that LBH features betray their setting. Therefore, scholars have attempted to use the linguistic typology developed for works whose provenance is relatively certain to establish the chronology of works whose dating is less certain. For instance, Polzin (1976) isolated several features of LBH which he then used to analyze the date of the P source. Hurvitz has also analyzed the date of several Psalms (Hurvitz 1972) and the relationship of P to Ezekiel (Hurvitz 1982).

The relationship between typology and chronology, however, is always troublesome, particularly when there are few independent data points to connect the two. As Kaufman (1986) has argued in regards to script typology, socio-linguistic issues such as dialect geography and diglossia must also be taken into consideration. In this vein, Young, along with Rezetko and Ehrvensärd, has developed the argument that EBH and LBH do not represent the chronological development of a single dialect, but two separate dialects which could have coexisted within the same language community. EBH is a more conservative dialect while LBH is less-so, allowing more variety.

Though Hurvitz argued that the presence of LBH features betrays the hand of post-exilic authors, most of the features isolated as representative of LBH are also found in the core EBH works, just less frequently. Therefore, the presence of a feature itself cannot be an indication of date. Young, Rezetko, and Ehrvensärd illustrated this by counting the number of LBH features in random 500 word samples from various biblical and non-biblical texts. While the accumulation of LBH features is greater in the core LBH books, there were several works which were clearly written in the post-exilic period but which feature a low density of LBH features (e.g. Job 1:1-2:11a, Ben Sira 41:2-44:4, Pesher Habakkuk 5:3-12:13). On the other hand, the pre-exilic Arad Ostraca had more LBH elements than any of the EBH samples considered.

Therefore, if these core EBH texts are in fact pre-exilic, then these LBH features cannot be post-exilic, and Young argues that the choice to use the LBH or its corresponding SBH feature must be stylistic rather than chronological. It is better, therefore, to view LBH not as a ‘deteriorated’ form of SBH, but as a distinct dialect.

In the conclusion to his earlier edited volume (Young 2003), Young suggested that the use of the two dialects could relate to geography. The books written in LBH are also generally considered to have an eastern provenance, while the books written in EBH originated in Judah. While he still likes this theory, he also notes several problems, most notably that Chronicles is generally considered to have a western provenance (though see Person 2010). Here, Young refines this view, suggesting that while LBH features were available to EBH writers, it was only in the eastern diaspora that a new literary style developed which was open to their use. This LBH style may have then migrated to the west where it was used for the last chapters of Daniel and at Qumran.

Van Wolde, Ellen. “Reframing Biblical Studies: When Language and Text Meet Culture, Cognition, and Context.” Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2009.

February 23, 2010

With the growth of the knowledge base in Biblical Studies, it has become increasingly difficult to build a broad repertoire. Rather, as in academia in general, the tendency is for scholars to become more and more specialized, with the unfortunate result that knowledge within the general field has become fractured. Gone are the days of an Albright who could move equally well among archaeologists, palaeographers, philologists, and biblical scholars.

Van Wolde began this work as a brief introduction to Ronald Langacker’s Cognitive Grammar (CG), but as the project progressed she realized that the approach could form the basis for the integration of language and text study with, for instance, historical context and material remains. She terms this method a cognitive relational approach. Thus, after beginning with a summary of CG (Ch 2-6), she outlines her particular method (Ch 7), and then applies it in an extended example from Genesis 34 (Ch 8-9).

Langacker situates CG within the group of functional approaches to the description of language, which also include inter alia discourse-pragmatic, grammaticalization, and universal-typological methods, and which share the conviction that language is shaped and constrained by the function it serves. CG is “cognitive” in that language is viewed not as an isolated system, but as an integral part of cognition in general which draws on more basic systems such as memory, perception, and categorization. This is the integrative value of CG as a theory. To the extent that memory, perception, and categorization reflect the speakers’ experience, language use offers a glimpse below the surface into their cognitive world.

In regard to categorization, CG is heavily dependent on the prototype approach to categories typified by the work of Eleanor Rosch. This approach does not draw strict borders around categories based on some set of essential characteristics, but leaves them fuzzy. A category is defined by some prototypical member, and other members are judged by the extent of their similarity or dissimilarity with this member, thus allowing degrees of membership. Nouns can be considered instances of things grouped around a prototypical example, while verbs are similarly instances of events.

Among the other functional approaches, CG particularly emphasizes the symbolic nature of language. Langacker argues that all grammatical structures can be reduced to form-meaning pairs as in the classic Saussure-ian sense, such as [TREE]/[tree]. CG also differs from more conventional approaches by eliminating the strict distinction between syntax and semantics. In practice, this means that when flipping through Langacker’s work, instead of  nice trees diagraming example sentences, one encounters numerous squares and circles floating over top of each other.

The oddity of these diagrams illustrates one of the primary hurdles in introducing CG to Biblical Scholars. Even those with a sophisticated linguistic background will find CG unconventional and foreign at first. The most basic notions such as noun and verb remain, but instead of discussions of inflectional morphology or tense and aspect, one encounters terms such as profile, base, trajector and landmark. Van Wolde spends five chapters explaining the central ideas of Langacker’s approach, giving abundant examples, but I will be interested to hear how well the uninitiated were able to follow her introduction. As Langacker himself cautions, “It is quite easy to do CG badly, and not so hard to do it indifferently (Ronald Langacker, Cognitive Grammar: A Basic Introduction, New York: Oxford, 2008, 12).”

You may remember that the press clip announcing the book’s release singled out one of these examples—her treatment of the verb ברא. In short, van Wolde argues thatברא‭ ‬ does not mean ‘to create’ in the sense of making something from nothing, but rather it has to do with differentiating or classifying. In each case whereברא‭ ‬ is used, there seem to be two entities involved. If both are equally prominent, then ברא  means “to distinguish between them,” for example ‏אֵ֥ת‭ ‬הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם‭ ‬וְאֵ֥ת‭ ‬הָאָֽרֶץ‭ ‬ in Genesis 1:1. If one is more prominent than the second, thanברא‭ ‬ means “to distinguish one from the other,” as in ‏ אֶת־הָֽאָדָםfrom the‏צֶ֥לֶם‭ ‬אֱלֹהִ֖ים‭ ‬ in Genesis 1:27. If you will indulge me here, I would like to reserve more detailed interaction with this argument for a separate post. In short, I see some merit in van Wolde’s discussion, but I think there are some problems as well (how’s that for equivocation?).

Unfortunately, overall, I was disappointed in this book. I had great hope for the approach, but I think it suffers from trying to do too many things at once. On the one hand, I worry that CG is too complicated to have influence beyond those who are already linguistically inclined, and on the other I did not always see the value that the CG methodology added to the discussion.

For instance, one of the more interesting examples is the analysis of שער‭ ‬ on pages 72-103. From the archaeological record it seems that 9th-8th century city gates in the Cisjordan region were large four- or six-chambered complexes which served administrative functions for the city. With Assyrian domination of the North at the end of the 8th century, the complex city gates were destroyed, and the same fate befell the South when Sennacherib swept through in 701, with only Jerusalem being spared. Accordingly, analyzing the occurrences of שער‭ ‬ in the Hebrew Bible, van Wolde notes a distinct change in the conceptualization of a שער‭ ‬ as a complex city-gate which served an administrative function to merely an entrance way (She also suggests that the distribution of the two may provide a means to date the texts, but this is subject to the same limitations as all linguistic approaches to dating). In this case, however, the method primarily consisted of judging whether a given verse implied the existence of a complex structure or not, which it seems could have been done without the theoretical framework of CG and probably would have been clearer were it translated into more natural prose.

My largest disappointment with the book though is that the pinnacle example (which studies the verb טמא‭ ‬ within the Hebrew Bible as a whole and then specifically within Genesis 34 covering two chapters and 147 pages) is completely a text study and does not interact with any other sub-disciplines other than beginning with a brief mention of Mary Douglas’ views on purity. While many of van Wolde’s insights are helpful, especially the discussion of whether Shechem loved Dinah or raped her, the promise of the book is that this method will help integrate these other disciplines such as archaeology, anthropology, sociology, etc. Unfortunately, none of the problems of synthesizing these approaches are addressed. Instead, in the end it seems that what we have is primarily another method for reading the Hebrew text.

Two new(ish) works on the Biblical Aramaic verbal system

May 1, 2009

The Verbal System of Biblical Aramaic

The Verbal System of Biblical Aramaic
A Distributional Approach
Studies in Biblical Literature (Peter Lang series) – SBL 116
by Michael B. Shepherd
Peter Lang, 2008
xiv + 178 pages, English
ISBN: 9781433102011
Your Price: $64.95

The Verbal System of the Aramaic of Daniel
An Explanation in the Context of Grammaticalization
Studies in the Aramaic Interpretation of Scripture – SAIS 8
by Tarsee Li
Brill Academic Publishers, Forthcoming June 2009
xvi + 199 pages, English
ISBN: 9789004175143
List Price: $132.00
Your Price: $125.40

The Semitic verbal system has long been a source of debate, and much effort has been expended in the attempt to explain the functions of the verbal forms. Most of the work has concentrated on Biblical Hebrew (BH), but in the last year two works have come to print dealing with the verbal system of Biblical Aramaic (BA), though with vastly different methodologies. Li adopts the grammaticalization approach exemplified by the work of Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca (see The Evolution of Grammar, University of Chicago Press, 1994) and previously applied to BH by John Cook in his U-W Madison dissertation. Shepherd, on the other hand, adopts a text-linguistic approach following Wolfgang Schneider and John Sailhammer among others. It should further be noted that Shepherd deals with all Biblical Aramaic, while Li limits his study to the Aramaic found in the book of Daniel.

Like BH, the primary verbal forms in BA are the prefix conjugation yqtl (traditionally the “imperfect”) and the suffix conjugation qtl (traditionally the “perfect”). The BH system is further clouded by the existence of the so-called “waw-consecutive” forms, but while Old Aramaic (OA) does know an “imperfect consecutive” (better, “narrative preterite”), it had fallen out of use by the time of BA. Thus, the principal parts of BA are yqtl, qtl, and the imperative. The infinitives do not participate in the verbal system proper, but the role of the participle, which occurs both on its own and in combination with הוה, is less clear.

As in BH, the chief difficulty in describing the BA verbal system is that both the prefixed and suffixed forms can occur in past, present, and future contexts implying that the basic opposition is not one of tense. At the same time, the distribution of forms is not spread equally among the tenses. The suffixed form primarily refers to events in the past, and the prefixed form primarily refers to events in the present or future, neither form seeming to have much aspectual nuance in these cases. Thus it is difficult to argue that the basic opposition yqtl :: qtl is based on aspect. Therefore, whether an attempt is made to explain the basic opposition as tense or aspect, numerous exceptions remain unexplained.

Shepherd argues that the failure to find a satisfactory explanation based on tense or aspect is due to the fact that tense, aspect, and Aktionsart are functional categories derived from Greek and Latin, but foreign to BA. In order to determine the functional opposition of qtl :: yqtl within BA itself, a bottom-up approach must be employed using a text-linguistic methodology.  His working thesis is that the opposition is not based on tense or aspect, but narrative :: discourse. This follows Schneider’s conclusion that in BH the imperfect consecutive wayyiqtol is the narrative form, while yiqtol (and weqatal) is the discourse form.

Shepherd’s method is to divide the text at the clause level, assigning each clause to one of six levels: 1) Narration; 2) Discourse; 3) Narration in discourse; 4) Reported discourse; 5) Narration in reported discourse; and 6) Reported discourse in reported discourse. It should be noted that Shepherd has only included clauses that he has deemed to be on the main line of narration or discourse. He has therefore omitted clauses which are themselves constituents of higher-level clauses such as relative or purpose clauses (note that this does not seem to be a pragmatic distinction of foreground and background, but merely a syntactic distinction of the head phrase from complements and specifiers). Each clause is also marked for its verbal form (qtl, yqtl, imperative, or nominal clause including participles), whether the clause begins with the conjunction waw or edayin, and whether the first position in the clause is occupied by a verbal form or shows an inverted word order. His results seem to confirm his thesis as qtl occurs in 65% of main narrative clauses (levels 1, 3, and 5) in contrast to 6% for yqtl, while yqtl occurs in 53% of main discourse clauses (levels 2, 4, and 6) compared to 0% for qtl.

Unfortunately, Shepherd’s book is disappointing overall. While there are many unnecessary digressions (such as a lengthy defense of BA as a dead language), there is a glaring omission of any justification for the bifurcation of texts into narrative and discourse, no formal definition of his proposed six levels, and therefore no explanation of how he assigned clauses to these levels without relying on any assumed tense or aspectual value for the verbal forms. In fact, in his examples, Shepherd consistently translates qtl as a simple past while yqtl is translated either as a future or modal when he deems them to be on the main line. This begs the question whether the primary opposition is narrative :: discourse, or whether the distribution follows the tense and aspect of the verbal forms.

Among others, Hopper and Thompson (“Transitivity in Discourse”, Language 56/2 1980), argued that the distinction of foreground from background is universal and that languages often have several features for this purpose. For instance, many languages have a special narrative tense that is reserved for the foreground in narrative, such as the wayyiqtol narrative preterite in BH (note that qtl can occur in background clauses in BA, and is therefore not a narrative tense). Another important feature is aspect since punctual action is more likely to be in the foreground than durative or habitual/iterative actions. Thus, if narrative is loosely defined as a sequence of past events, then the distribution of qtl and yqtl may merely confirm that qtl often functions as a simple past tense and is therefore the natural choice for main foregrounded clauses in narrative, while yqtl in the past has a durative or habitual/iterative aspect and therefore does not occur in foregrounded clauses (but may occur in “main” clauses based on Shepherd’s definition). If the remaining clauses are considered discourse, that leaves non-past uses of yqtl for the foreground, in which case it must not have any special aspectual nuance. In this way Shepherd’s approach, with a better refined methodology, could be a helpful guide for the analysis of the BA verbal system by setting limits on the interpretation of tense-aspect. However, I am not convinced that the opposition of narrative :: discourse is a suitable alternative to a system based on tense and aspect.

In contrast to Shepherd, Li argues that the failure to explain the BA verbal system is not due to the unnatural imposition of the categories of aspect and tense, but the structuralist assumption that the system must be based on binary oppositions. Note that such an assumption lies at the heart of Shepherd’s study as he is motivated to find a different basic opposition since neither tense nor aspect seem to work.

Grammaticalization is the process by which lexical items come to have a primarily grammatical function, or grammatical items obtain a new grammatical function. A good example from English is “going to”, which moved from primarily indicating movement in space, “I am going to school”, to also express future tense, “I am going to read”. Grammaticalization seems to be a uni-directional process with some common paths of development cross-linguistically. Within a language there is constant development of new forms through grammaticalization so that at any one point in time, there may be more than one form available for expressing similar functions, while traces of older functions may also remain. These two concepts are labeled layering and persistence.

Thus at any given time, it is not unexpected that we should find more than one form serving similar functions or that a single form may have multiple functions rather than a neat system of oppositions. Proponents of grammaticalization argue that such a situation is better explained by locating each form along its path of grammaticalization rather than trying to relate the forms to each other. Li has chosen Daniel as the subject of such a study because it sits at the crossroads of two major periods of Aramaic, Imperial Aramaic and Middle Aramaic. This has contributed to making the verbal system of Daniel among the most difficult to explain.

Li begins his analysis with the suffix conjugation which seems to be on the path from an anterior to a simple past. In Daniel it is primarily a simple past, but it has not completely lost the old anterior/resultative function which can occur in past, present, and perhaps even future tense contexts. For example, Dan 4:28-29a:

לך אמרין נבוכדנצר מלכא מלכותה עדת מנך 29 ומן־אנשא לך טרדין

“To you it is said, king Nebuchadnezzar, the kingdom has departed from you, and you will be driven from men…”

This is the beginning of a pronouncement of future judgement, thus Li argues that עדת cannot be a simple past, but must be anterior to the following string of participles. 

The prefix conjugation, on the other hand, is on the path from an earlier imperfective to a future. The imperfective use is retained in past tense contexts with a progressive or habitual/iterative function. The prefix conjugation can also express general present and various modalities, which  probably develop from the future function.

The main wrinkle in the Aramaic of Daniel is the beginning of the incorporation of the participle into the verbal system. The active participle is developing from a progressive to a general imperfective which has begun to take over the imperfective and present from the prefix conjugation (helping to limit it to future and modal uses). It may also occasionally express modality. The active participle can be used in past tense contexts for progressive, habitual/iterative, and perhaps inceptive functions. For instance, Dan 5:5 demonstrates the past progressive:

ומלכא חזה פס ידה די כתבה

And the king was watching the back of the hand that was writing.

Unlike the prefix conjugation, which only is used for general present, the active participle can express both the general and real present. More difficult to analyze is its alleged function as a historical present. Li argues that the use of the participles ענה and אמר to introduce direct speech within narrative is formulaic, and the remaining cases can be explained as past imperfectives or regular presents. 

Li also argues that the passive participle has not yet fully entered the verbal system but is a verbal adjective which is developing into a resultative participle (and which will later become the base for the past tense in Neo-Aramaic). At the same time, the T-stem participle has become the true passive counterpart of the active participle and thus is also an imperfective.

In the Aramaic of Daniel, the participle has also been incorporated into a complex verb phrase with a conjugated form of הוה (and sometimes איתי). Here הוה functions as a tense-marker, but Li argues that the complex is in the early stages of grammaticalization as the new imperfective. Since the participle on its own can function as an imperfective, the majority of the cases are with the suffix conjugation of הוה which is being reanalyzed from הוה [past] + participle [imperfective] to הוה + participle [past imperfective]. Thus in some later Aramaic dialects, the active participle loses its imperfective function and is restricted to present tense.

While I agree substantially with Li’s conclusions, there are two main weaknesses to his study. The first is his almost exclusive reliance on the work of Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca. While they are certainly the leaders in the field, I am a bit wary of a methodology that takes the latest linguistic theory and demonstrates how it can be applied to the biblical text, rather than beginning with the biblical text and pulling from linguistics more broadly to explain the features. Here I can appreciate Shepherd’s hesitation in imposing foreign categories onto the text, but I think he has pushed this too far. The work of Bybee, Perkins, and Pagliuca is cross-linguistic and in my opinion demonstrates strongly that the categories of tense, aspect, and modality are indeed universal.

The second weakness is common to works on the verbal system of BH and BA. Too often justification for assigning a particular verbal form to a specific category of tense and/or aspect is based on the translation into English (or German, etc), and not on any formal criteria within the language itself. Of course, this is something of a catch-22 if the tense and aspect marking is primarily within the verbal morphology and we are left without any native speakers. Again, I think Shepherd has overstated this objection. As I stated earlier, I think his text-linguistic methodology could be helpful for establishing limits on our analysis of tense and aspect based on what type of forms we expect in which level of discourse, and I think that the grammaticalization approach is also very powerful for explaining the apparent unevenness of the system.

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.

February 24, 2009

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).

Morag, Shelomo, “Qumran Hebrew: Some Typological Observations,” Vetus Testamentum 38.2 (1988): 148-164

February 23, 2009

The discovery of Qumran was obviously quite revolutionary. In particular, the corpus of Qumran texts provided evidence of Hebrew language (QH) from the period between Biblical Hebrew (BH) and Mishnaic Hebrew (MH). But what were the relationships between the three?  Some scholars consider QH a direct continuation of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), others an artificial literary language based on an attempt to revive Biblical Hebrew, or perhaps it consists of LBH features mixed with lines of archaization. In this essay, Morag argues that typological features of QH suggest that it is the result of natural changes in a living, spoken language. However it is not simply a continuation of LBH, but reflects earlier dialectal diversity.

The literature composed at Qumran roughly spans the period of the beginning of the first century BCE to the end of the first century CE. Morag does not list which documents he includes in this corpus, which he labels General Qumran Hebrew (GQH), but I assume he follows something similar to Diamant. He does specifically exclude the Copper Scroll and 4QMMT which show features of a dialect closer to MH. For his study he lists the ten most significant features of GQH, finding only one in common with BH (no 1) and two in common with MH (nos 5 and 10a):

1. Preference of ˀašer to š- as relative marker.

2. Contraction of –aw in final position.

3. Dissimilation of CC to nC.

4. wˀqtlh (cohortative) form used for 1cs waw-consecutive

5. Occurance of pausal forms in non-pausal positions, ie yqtwlw for yqtlw.

6. Imperfect pron suff for 3ms: yqwtlhw.

7. Long-form of 3ms/3fs pronoun: hw’h and hy’h.

8. –hw­ and –w as pronominal suffix for word ending with ī.

9. –mh ending for 2mp perfect, 2mp pronoun (‘tmh) and 2mp/3mp suffix (-kmh and –(h)mh)

10. Syntactic features:

            a. Use of composite verbal forms hyh (yhyh / lhywt) + participle

            b. usage of prepositions such as b varies from standard use

He finds that to describe GQH as merely a continuation of LBH does not do it justice. There are several prominent features that are not continuations of LBH, but instead may be a continuation of older dialectal variations. The features shared by both GQH and MH can be divided into two categories:

 a. Features reflecting stress patterns different from those of BH (TH), specifically 5 and 6.

b. Syntactic features such as periphrastic use of the participle (10a).

Thus GQH contains both LBH and non-LBH features, some of which reflect older dialectal variation. Diachronic components such as stress shift and Aramaic influence should also be taken into account. However, most interesting is that many of the features that differ from LBH are phonological, reflections not of a literary tradition but of a living language. Thus GQH must reflect living dialects of Hebrew.


Alexander, Philip S, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?” Pages 71-89 in Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda. Edited by W. Horbury. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999.

February 16, 2009

Mishnaic Hebrew seems to have been finally supplanted as a spoken language by Aramaic in the 2nd century CE., after which it was maintained as a literary and liturgical language. Thus the mother tongue of a Rabbinic scholar living after this time period would be Aramaic, yet he would be expected to have command of two large and linguistically diverse Hebrew corpora – the biblical text and the collections of Mishnayot. As modern learners we have recourse to dictionaries and grammars as well as theories of second language acquisition, but in this essay Alexander asks, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?”

Rote learning by reading large amounts of text over and over may have played a part, but such students seem to reach a ceiling quite quickly. They may recognize forms easily, but they are unable to move towards active comprehension and use of the second language. The Rabbis most likely did not attain competency through everyday use since their were no ‘native’ speakers left. Further, the level of the literature they were studying is much different than street language. Quite often people who live in foreign countries can master the vernacular through everyday use, but never move into the higher registers of the language. 

There is no evidence that the Rabbis ever undertook a systematic study of the grammar of the language. Thus we know of no aids for learning such as grammars, dictionaries, etc. By the 2nd century CE grammatical analysis of Greek was well established, but the Rabbis did not seem interested in such an approach. Rather, their interests seem to have been a somewhat quirky aggadic approach to words, etymologies, and some syntactic structures. They did not classify the parts of speech or attempt to analyze the triliteral root, etc. 

The scientific study of Hebrew only begins in the Middle Ages with the Karaites, who applied the sophisticated contemporary theories of Arabic grammar to Hebrew. The medieval Rabbinate scholars on the other hand did not immediately accept such an approach to the ‘holy tongue’, which they felt was unique and incomparable. Even a scholar such as Menahem ben Jacog ibn Saruq, who accepted the principle of linguistic analysis, avoided the comparisons between Hebrew and Arabic other grammarians made.

However, a ubiquitous feature of scholarship in the ancient world was the creation of lists, and we do find linguistic items regularly itemized in early Rabbinic literature such as concordances, statistics of the frequency of words used in the Bible, etc. It should also be noted that the lack of grammatical understanding of the workings of Hebrew in no way hinders the Rabbis competency in the language.

Hebrew was acquired in the Jewish school system, and schools were widespread in Jewish communities of Palestine from late Second Temple times into the Talmudic period. The elementary level was the Bet Sefer (ages 6 – 9) followed by the Bet Talmud (9-13). After this a student could continue to the Bet Midrash if his family could afford it. The sole purpose of the Bet Sefer was to teach the children to read Hebrew, with no ‘practical’ training at all. This includes learning to read the text, learning how to pronounce it properly, and probably learning the targum along with it to aid in understanding. In fact, Alexander suggests that the Bet Sefer may have been the original setting for the targum, and only later was it incorporated into the synagogue. This also fits the nature of the targum as a word for word translation. The student could line up the Aramaic word with its Hebrew counterpart as a learning aid.

This method of using a translation to learn a foreign language seems to have been standard in the Graeco-Roman world during the time of the Rabbis. Their are a number of Latin-Greek papyri from Egypt, for instance of Virgil’s Aeneid, which seem to have been used in teaching Latin. The Greek translation of Aquila may serve the same purpose. The peculiarity of the translation is its hyper-literalness, despite the fact that Aquila seems to have a firm command of the language. This characteristic begins to make sense if it is viewed as a crib for students to learn Hebrew rather than a free-standing translation. Extrapolating from the Rabbinic tradition, Aquila was most likely prepared under Rabbinic guidance in Palestine in the early 2nd century CE. 

The Mishna was possibly taught in the Bet Talmud, and definitely in the Bet Midrash. Here Alexander also suspects that some translation in Aramaic must have been used to aid with the massive vocabulary. Of course, in the later Amoraic schools Aramaic was most certainly the language of instruction.