Thursday, July 7, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- what is that thing?

I mentioned an important structure in Biblical Hebrew some time ago. It’s time to discuss mot yumat and its grammatical relatives. You saw this in the Garden of Eden story, Genesis 2:13:
וּמֵעֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע לֹא תֹאכַל מִמֶּנּוּ כִּי בְּיוֹם אֲכָלְךָ מִמֶּנּוּ מוֹת תָּמוּת:
It also appears a lot in Leviticus 20 in a list of capital crimes. I already said that in the Genesis story, it introduces an expectation that Gd will follow due process and not kill Adam and Chavvah unless He has the right evidence.
Let’s look at the grammar. What is tamut?
Yep, it’s an imperfect aspect verb. Why?
Because there’s no guarantee that Gd can carry out the death penalty in this case. From the point of view of the story, it uses mot tamut because there’s no telling if Adam and Chavvah will even eat the fruit, let alone that there will be enough witnesses of the right kind and they can answer questions in such a way as to allow a death penalty. The usual phrase with the same idea is mot yumat and the second word is not only imperfect, it has another grammatical feature I’m not ready to describe yet.
The first component of the phrase is called the absolute infinitive, but I was studying Arabic this year for a different project and I learned some things that apply to Biblical Hebrew. The bottom line is, the grammatical terminology that you know and have been using to refer to Hebrew, was invented for other languages.  It doesn’t capture what Biblical Hebrew is really doing with the material.
Here’s the demonstration of what’s wrong with using terms from one language to describe another one. I have six sources for information about Arabic. Two of them deny that Arabic has infinitives. Three have sections on infinitives in Arabic. The sixth one is written specifically to help people understand Quranic Arabic, and it avoids using the term infinitive.
Are some of them liars?
Nope. The ones that talk about infinitives in Arabic are based on the grammatical terminology of the classics, Greek and especially Latin, which use the term “infinitive” for verbs that have no relationship to the time of the action they describe.
The Arabic grammars that discuss infinitives, talk about using them to look words up in a dictionary. This only works in Continental languages and Russian, where the base dictionary entry for a verb is the infinitive.
It doesn’t work in English. The “infinitive” in English is “to” plus some form of the verb. If the dictionary entry was sorted by infinitive, all the verb entries would be under “T”.
English does the same thing Arabic and Hebrew do. It selects a base form of the verb and uses that as the dictionary entry.
As with the so-called jussive, “infinitive” is a term imposed on Arabic and Hebrew grammar by westerners.  So what is that darned thing?
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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