Thursday, September 8, 2016

Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew -- the passive Hebrew never got rid of

So if you haven’t given  up on me for messing with your head, you are here because you agree that Biblical Hebrew doesn’t  have “passive” verbs, it has binyanim that are used in agentless statements.
You are familiar with the names of three of them: nifal; pual; and hufal.  I have coined the name qual for the fourth agentless binyan.
Before I go on, I want to take care of those of you who are bouncing in your seats waving your hands in the air because I know what you want to tell me. The “passive” of qal is nifal.
That’s true in Modern Hebrew, but Modern Hebrew has dropped the qual and the connotations  that agentless verbs have in Biblical Hebrew. What you’re reading is a lesson about Biblical Hebrew, where the qual is alive and well, so to speak.
But since you are more familiar with the nifal, I’ll get it out of the way. Nifal has the connotation of something that happens because of a legal decision. See Genesis 17:14:
וְעָרֵל זָכָר אֲשֶׁר לֹא־יִמּוֹל אֶת־בְּשַׂר עָרְלָתוֹ וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא מֵעַמֶּיהָ אֶת־בְּרִיתִי הֵפַר:
The term nikhr’tah ha-nefesh is a punishment at the Hands of Heaven called keret. It means all your descendants dying while you are still alive. The nifal in any context tells the audience that a legal decision applies in the given situation.  The agent in  a nifal can be understood as Gd or an earthly court, depending on the issue addressed by the ruling.  In the case of nikhr’tah ha-nefesh, it’s Gd.
The history of nifal is that every Semitic language has a comparable form with “n” in the prefix; in Arabic it’s Form VII and in Quranic Arabic it means submitting to a decree. Except Aramaic (Neo-Babylonian). It can make agentless statements, but it doesn’t have a form that takes “n” in the prefix or that only refers to legal rulings. I never looked into why that would be. There’s a doctoral dissertation in that for somebody, I’m sure.
My position is that languages don’t invent word forms for no reason, or preserve them when they have no use any more. So there has to be a reason why Biblical Hebrew has both nifal and qual, when Akkadian has no qual (as far as the fragments go) and Aramaic (Neo-Babylonian) has no nifal. Why do we find qual in Torah which also uses nifal?
That’s for  next week.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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