My Honours Thesis

28 09 2006

It is so much easier to write another post than it is to actually do some real work, so I figured that I should utilise my addiction to blogging by writing about what I am supposed to be doing right now. Hopefully the effort of having to describe the state of my thesis at the moment should be enough to get me going again with actually writing it. It is supposed to be submitted by the end of next month (yikes!) and the fact that it is only meant to be 15,000 words is the one reason that I am not currently stressing about the fact that I have not yet written anything.

For the sake of anyone who is not directly familiar with what I am presently doing, I am undertaking a “Joint Honours” in both Classical Hebrew and Biblical Studies. My thesis topic is specifically related to Classical Hebrew and I have chosen to undertake an analysis of a particular grammatical feature of the language, known as the heh locale. In brief, this is the addition of a long /a/ vowel, followed by a heh (ה), appended on the ends of certain nouns. With exceptions, the meaning is a locative one:

ירושלם => ירושלמה
Yerushalayim => Yerushalayma
“Jerusalem” => “to Jerusalem”

ארצה => ארץ
eretz => artzah
“the ground” => “to the ground”

etc.

The utilisation of this particular feature of the language is supposedly very common in pre-Biblical inscriptions (although this is an area that I have not chosen to research), but very scarce in post-Biblical literature. It is exceptionally rare, for example, amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls (generally composed between 200 and 50 BCE) and virtually absent throughout the pages of the Mishna. The scarcity of this feature in the Samaritan Pentateuch is generally understood to be a modernising feature, reflecting the fact that the heh locale was understood at the time to be an archaic element of the language. What about the Bible itself?

Well, so far as the Hebrew Bible is concerned, people have long assumed that the usage of this particular feature dropped away over time. It occurs frequently in books like Genesis, but only rarely in books like Chronicles. What is more, some Biblical Hebrew texts seem to use the feature redundantly (witness, for example, Jeremiah 48:21 where the particle אל [‘towards’] is used with two different nouns, one of which features the heh locale). So far as scholars are concerned, the passage of time marked a decrease in the relevance of this suffix over a preposition with the same meaning and by the time we get to Chronicles (the Late Biblical Hebrew text par excellence) it is hardly employed at all.

The only problem with this theory (and it is a theory) is that nobody has bothered to check it. This suffix is employed some 1,101 times throughout the entire Bible (including words where the suffix is printed but not read¹). While it is used frequently throughout the Pentateuch (occurring some 396 times), its usage in Late Biblical Hebrew books of the Bible is only slightly scarcer (80 times altogether in Chronicles). Remember as well that the Pentateuch is composed of five books and Chronicles is only one (two in the modern reading tradition, but one so far as compositional structure is concerned). Of the individual books in the Pentateuch, only two possess a count higher than that which is in Chronicles: Numbers, which has 90 hits and Genesis with 138. Not much of a difference.

Furthermore, those few studies that did actually attempt to justify this theory with proper evidence-based research failed to take into account the obvious fact that books like Genesis are completely different (thematically, generically, stylistically and linguistically) to books like Chronicles. To give but one example, the verb √בוא (“coming, to come”) followed by the proper name מצרים (“Egypt”) does not occur so much as once throughout any of the Late Biblical Hebrew literature. This combination of words occurs ten times in Genesis with a locative meaning, and each of those times sees the inclusion of the heh locale. Does this indicate that the author of Chronicles is disregarding the heh locale in this instance? Not at all! Were the author to include this combination of words they may very well have seen fit to employ the suffix as well: we have no way of knowing.

Again, if we look at the same combination of words but supplant the noun for ירושלם (“Jerusalem”) we find that of the 41 instances that this combination appears, only twice does it feature the heh locale and that of those two times, one of them is in Chronicles! There is, indeed, no evidence whatsoever for the assertion that this decline in the suffix’s use is in any way reflected within the pages of the Bible itself. And to that end, I am hoping to demonstrate that the evidence altogether is completely inconclusive. In doing this, I am relying upon the data that I have spent the last several months accumulating: long lists of linguistic combinations, classed and categorised and ready to write up in tabular form. This should comprise a chapter or two of my actual thesis, the rest being made up of introductions to the various topics on which my thesis touches and conclusions to the same.

As I say, it’s only 15,000 words; a month is more than enough time to get it written up. All I need to do is start…

¹ This phenomenon is known as a qere/ktiv, and reflects editorial decisions on the part of Tiberian Jewish scholars of the 9th century.

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5 responses

28 09 2006
Conrad

Wow! Sounds useful and impressively dry!

28 09 2006
Daniel

I find it interesting that the “creators” of Modern Hebrew saw fit to incorporate this feature of language – בוא הנה, עלייה ארצה, even תל אביבה, if indeed the feature was considered by scholars to have obsolesced already by Mishnaic times. I wonder whether other, unequivocally archaic, features found their way into the modern language?

28 09 2006
Simon

Yes, the most common example of it in Israeli Hebrew is with the noun בית, where going הביתה means “going home”. I’ve never seen תל אביבה – that’s interesting! Normally when dealing with a genitive construction it is the first word (the “regens”) that takes the suffix. So, בארה שבע, for example.

5 10 2006
John Cowan

I suppose one could make a case that if a locative survives anywhere, it survives in the word for “home”, because “going home” is such a commonly expressed notion. Compare “ite domum” in Latin, and the lack of a preposition in English.

1 03 2007
billy

hi.good site.

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