Thursday, September 29, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- agentless, not passive

The agentless verb in Biblical Hebrew appears in both legal material and narratives. It lets us focus on the action and ignore the agent, in critical situations that may have deadly outcomes, and the type of verb tells us the role of the action in the law or the narrative.
Agentless verbs are rare and there’s a reason for that.
First, much of the material in Tannakh was transmitted orally for centuries or millennia. Up to the Babylonian Captivity, when it was put on record, Torah was transmitted orally in a population that was probably over 80% illiterate, so its narratives had to take a specific format that supports oral transmission.
When people transmit material orally, according to Axel Olrik, they tend to transmit action. The characters in the narratives reveal themselves through specific actions that delineate their natures and their roles in the narratives. So the majority of narrative material in Torah is going to use action-oriented verbs that relate to a specified agent – even if that agent’s name is not expressed in some of the verses.
Second, the situations in a legal code arise because of actions; it’s the purpose of the legal code to identify actions that society needs to deal with explicitly. The legal code prescribes actions that discourage or encourage whatever happened. Agentless structures capture definitions important to the legal code, and show that the law doesn’t care about the name of the individual performing the action or judging the case. But the actions that occur that invoke the law have to be performed by a specific entity – individual or collective – and that requires binyanim that take agents.
There’s an urban legend that “Hebrew was losing its passives over time”. You can now see that it’s not true.  What happened is that Hebrew transitioned from the Biblical form, which had the qual agentless binyan, to Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew which don’t.
The agentless binyanim in Biblical Hebrew had connotations that the passives in Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew don’t.
The agentless binyanim in Biblical Hebrew provide capsules of important issues both for narratives and legal material, something that passives don’t do in Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew.
Grammar is crucial to understanding a language because it encodes nuances that the bare words don’t convey, something I will soon go over in detail on the Fact-Checking page. The grammar of Biblical Hebrew is inseparably bound up with the culture in which it was used. While you try to understand Biblical Hebrew, you will keep coming up against places where you don’t understand why the grammar is what it is – unless you are deeply familiar with the culture.
The translation of a word is not its meaning, not just because no two languages have the same concepts, and can’t express alien concepts in one word, but also because no two languages have the same grammar.  Trying to pretend that grammar is universal by slapping labels from one language on a different language, is no way to understand the target language. The label is not the meaning of the grammar, and it does not necessarily relate to how the grammar functions.
If you’ve been having trouble learning Biblical Hebrew, it’s probably because you’ve been forced into a labeling system that doesn’t have anything to do with the nuances of meaning that the grammar embodies. 
Hopefully I’m giving you the key to really understand Biblical Hebrew.

And now to fill in a gap.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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