[b-hebrew] Fact of language?

Randall Buth randallbuth at gmail.com
Wed Jun 2 18:21:33 EDT 2010

>Hi, all.
>We have in Is 51:9 (word last but one) MXOLELET, of XLL, with a clear active
meaning: a female subject who pierces.
We know also of noun M$ORERET, poetess, also with a clear active meaning.
>But in today Hebrew this pattern is also used with a passive meaning (I
think no sample thereof  -passive-   is found in the Bible). For instance,
MSOBEBET, a female subject who is surrounded.
>Is there any "logical" basis for this double and somewhat contrary meaning:
active and passive at a time, surrounding and surrounded?
>Or is it merely a "fact of language" what means that the language works this
way and no especial reason is given to explain it?
>Pere Porta
>(Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain)>

Sorry for the late response.

Yes, there is a logical explanation for your question.

Languages have 'weak spots' where a certain amount of structural ambiguity
can be tolerated because of its low functional load.

With "piel"-type verbs whose roots have a doubled 2-3 consonant or whose
roots had a middle ayin/vav, an alternate biinyan was developed and used,
the so-called polel and polal (generally passive of polel verbs).
Now the participles of the respective binyanim would be
mefolel and mefolal. So far so good. (cf. Is 53:5 meHolal)
However, the feminine participles create an ambiguous situation when the
-et endings are used:  mesovevet (polel) and mesovevet (polal)!
Such is one cause of your ambiguity. The fluidity of 'middles' and
'intransitives' and 'passives' across languages is another.

It is also the case that words change over time and a 'weak spot' may
develop and be extended from a homonym or close homonym..
Ask an English speaker to give you the past tense of
'lay something down' (transitive)
'lie down' (intransitive).
there is a lot of fluidity in the current spoken language (see PS below
is interested)

In Hebrew we now have semi-transitive uses of a verb mesukkan
(dangerous>causing danger). These are things that form on the
edge of a language. Modern Aramaic developed a whole paradigm of
verb endings where a dative/middle lamed was expanded.

As for the history of Hebrew, that has been
debated in Israel for 100 years, though most view the whole language
from the Bible to the modern newspaper as one language. For best
perspective, the question is most meaningfully discussed by persons
acquainted with that history and who can read both poles easily.
With another longstanding language, Greek,
I have sometimes spent time on a Greek island under a
vow to only speak the 'ancient prosaic language' [Attic-Koine; not the old
poetry, or Ionic, etc.] I would say that the Greek gap is considerably
wider than the Hebrew one, really creating two Grk languages, but even
there it is possible to communicate with a lot of patience and good
will. Hebrew is considerably easier, especially after the spelling
'reforms' of Second Temple Hebrew and Judean Desert documents.
These latter have a spelling as 'full' as a modern newspaper.

Randall Buth
PS: from the web:
" 'lay' has been used intransitively in the sense of “lie” since the
14th century. The practice was unremarked until around 1770; attempts
to correct it have been a fixture of schoolbooks ever since.
Generations of teachers and critics have succeeded in taming most
literary and learned writing, but intransitive lay persists in
familiar speech and is a bit more common in general prose than one
might suspect. Much of the problem lies in the confusing similarity of
the principal parts of the two words. Another influence may be a folk
belief that lie is for people and lay is for things. Some commentators
are ready to abandon the distinction, suggesting that lay is on the
rise socially. But if it does rise to respectability, it is sure to do
so slowly: many people have invested effort in learning to keep lie
and lay distinct. Remember that even though many people do use lay for
lie, others will judge you unfavorably if you do.

Randall Buth, PhD
randallbuth at gmail.com
Biblical Language Center
Learn Easily - Progress Further - Remember for Life

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list