Thursday, April 14, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- Third modality

The third broad kind of modality is the epistemic. If you have ever read about epistemology, you know that it’s the subject of how we know what we know.

A verb in epistemic modality expresses something about the speaker’s knowledge or lack thereof. In English we say things like “I know,” “I’m sure,” “I’m convinced,” “I believe,” “I guess,” “I accept,” ands so on.

Hebrew has words for these concepts, but it also has two modal epistemic forms, each with its own interesting consequences.

When you have a verb in the imperfect and it starts like the narrative past, but it only seems to have two root letters, try looking it up as a lamed heh verb. Actually, the examples I have found in Torah are all from a limited set of verbs.


Anah, that last verb, has two meanings.  One is to torment, as in tormenting yourself at Yom Kippur.  The other is an answer, a response, payback.  It’s this second version that you will find in the epistemic.

Gesenius calls this “shortened imperfect” and say that it’s a jussive or command form. That’s true only if there’s no vav at the start, and every example I can think of is a form of hayah, “to be”.  If you find a non-epistemic that isn’t “be”, let me know.

Here’s the explanation for the vav-prefixed form.  See Deuteronomy 10:3 for one example.

ג וָאַעַשׂ אֲרוֹן עֲצֵי שִׁטִּים וָאֶפְסֹל שְׁנֵי־לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים כָּרִאשֹׁנִים וָאַעַל הָהָרָה וּשְׁנֵי הַלֻּחֹת בְּיָדִי:

 The bolded words are first person singular.  I have to really twist my brain around to get a jussive out of that and even then, I don’t really believe it.

I sometimes call this the chaser lamed heh form, but that would leave out the possibility that it might show up in other ancient Semitic languages, which have lamed yod or lamed vav verbs; lamed heh is strictly Hebrew. To apply across the board, we can call this a “certainty epistemic.” What it means is that the speaker (or narrator) is absolutely certain something happened. The context suggests the reason they are so certain of this.  It can also be called an “evidentiary epistemic” for reasons that I will soon discuss.

This goes with something I am going to discuss in detail on the Fact-Checking page of the blog but I will discuss it briefly here because I won’t get around to it for a couple of years yet (!) and it’s important for understanding Torah.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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