Monday, March 14, 2005

Saying Yes in Biblical Hebrew

Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log is annoyed, as well he might be. Someone on NPR was drawing unwarranted conclusions from the fact that Irish Gaelic has no word for "sex" (untrue) and also no word for "yes" (true, but with an explanation):

The story about Irish lacking particles meaning "yes" and "no" is true, by the way. But it has nothing to do with the Irish mind or spirit or way of looking at the world or the notion of neither agreeing nor disagreeing. In Irish you repeat the verb of someone's clause to agree with it (as if someone said "Got milk?" and the way you gave an affirmative response was to say "Got"), and you repeat their verb with the negation particle in front to deny it ("Not got"). But the same is true of Chinese. Anyone want to suggest that the Chinese have exactly the same cultural propensities and outlook on life as the Irish?

So Irish and Chinese don't have a word for "yes," but simply affirm part of the question for an affirmative response and negate it for a negative. I find that interesting, because the same is true of Biblical Hebrew. Modern Hebrew has a word for "Yes" (ken), but Biblical Hebrew doesn't.

Here are some examples. In Exodus 2:7-8, Miriam asks Pharaoh's daughter, "Shall I go and call to thee a nurse of the Hebrew women, that she may nurse the child for thee?" And Pharaoh's daughter says, "Go"; meaning "yes," as it is translated by the JPS and NRSV.

In Genesis 29:5-6, we have the following dialogue of Jacob with the men of Haran:

JACOB: Do you know Laban son of Nahor?
JACOB: Is he well? (ha-shalom lo?)
HARANITES: Well. (shalom)

In both cases, the JPS translates the Haranites' response as "Yes."

One last instance. In 2 Sam. 12:19, David, whose child is ill, sees his servants whispering together, and he asks:

DAVID: Is the child dead?

Some languages have a word for "yes" and some don't. I'm sure that somewhere, someone writing on "Hebrew thought" has tried to infer something about the "Hebrew mind" from this, but Pullum is right: there are no implications in this linguistic feature for understanding culture and life, and that includes ancient Hebrew.

Just for fun, here are some more examples (not an exhaustive list: Josh. 24:22, Judg 13:11, 2 Sam. 2:1, 2 Sam. 2:20, 1 Ki. 2:13, Jonah 4:9, Hag. 2:13.


Dave said...

James Barr refuted the widespread "Hebrew mindset" fallacy you mentioned in The Semantics of Biblical Language.

The Buck Stops said...

I thought this would be obvious to an expert in Semitic languages, but it seems to me (having only studied 3 of the Semantic languages) that the modern Hebrew word for 'yes' is nothing but the Semetic expression "it is", and the word for 'no' likewise means "it isn't" (literally, 'not', surferspeak style)

The Buck Stops said...

Sorry about all the typos in the above. I wasn't trying to be antisemantic.
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