Monday, September 28, 2009

A Note on the Translation of Gen 3:15

A Roman Catholic deacon, in a talk I heard yesterday, asserted that the usual English translations of Gen 3:15b, "He/it shall bruise your head," are mistaken. The proper translation, he said, was "she shall bruise your head," and refers allegorically to the Virgin Mary.

I checked this when I got home and the Hebrew clearly says הוא ישופך ראש, "he/it will bruise your head." Whence the good deacon's assertion? The Septuagint also clearly uses the masculine form. But the Vulgate says ipsa conteret, "she will bruise." A little research turned up a boatload of comment on this reading (a controversy of which I had been until yesterday completely unaware). The RC Douay Rheims translation follows this reading. However, the Nova Vulgata, the revised Latin version authorized by the Vatican now reads ipsum conteret, "it will bruise." This is no doubt correct in terms of the original text; nor can I believe that St. Jerome's original translation of the Hebraica veritas was anything but ipsum.

What amazed me in the literature was the fierceness of the opposing sides. Apparently in a previous age, up to the 19th century, the question of Gen 3:15 seemed to both RC and Protestant to involve crucial questions, and that to retreat amounted to surrendering a key point. But there could only be one outcome to the debate, and the RC church has accepted it, recognizing, I think, that its claims about Mary are not really at risk in the question of the translation of this verse. Nevertheless, I can tell you that at some levels, among the laity, the old debate is still very much alive.

UPDATE: Translation of ipsum corrected to neuter, with thanks to Scott Johnson.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Apposition in Biblical Hebrew

I've been going through Waltke and O'Connor's Intro to Biblical Hebrew Syntax with some students, giving it a detailed read and appraisal. It's been tremendously influential and is without question a magisterial work. However, I must admit I'm not wholly sold on everything in it.

An example is the treatment of apposition (Chapter 12). Apposition is described as a "sequence of nouns ... with the same syntactic function and agreement and with comparable reference" (p. 226). This is not very clear, as W&OC seem to recognize. I want to discuss a different set of criteria, without discussing all the details of the chapter.

The appositive phrase is basically of the structure N1 N2. This is similar to the structure of the construct phrase, but in the construct phrase the N2 cannot be omitted without disturbing the phrase structure. In apposition N2 can be dropped and the phrase structure is left intact. For instance in the construct phrase nehar Perat, "the river Euphrates", while notionally appositional, is syntactically a construct phrase and Perat cannot be omitted leaving only nehar. But in the phrase ha-melek Dawid, "king David," Dawid could be omitted leaving ha-melek to function as a one member noun phrase. So the first test is omission of N2.

The omission test doesn't work against adjectival phrases however. In the phrase N-Adj, Adj could be dropped, just like N2 in the appositional phrase, e.g., ish tov, "a good man" could be pared to just ish. We could say that tov has a "distinct sort of reference" (W&OC 12.1c) as an adjective, but not every word used attributively in Biblical Hebrew is morphologically an adjective, e.g., ish yoshev ba-bayit, "a man dwelling in the house," where Adj = participle + prepositional phrase.

In fact, it is not easy to find further tests to differentiate appositional phrases from adjectival, but I propose two possibilities. One is the reversibility test. One could conceivably reverse the order of N1 and N2 in apposition, e.g., ha-melek Dawid = Dawid ha-melek. One could not similarly reverse ish tov into *tov ish. Thus the adjectival phrase shares with the construct phrase the trait of irreversibility.

However, I am not sure this works all the time. My intuition (as well as W&OC) tells me that ishah almanah "woman, widow" in Hebrew is apposition, but it is not reversible. One could not say, I don't think, *almanah ishah just as well as ishah almanah. Perhaps this means we should actually understand this phrase and others like it as adjectival modification, and not apposition.

Another possible test is the repetition of the preposition test (or: "rep of prep"). In apposition, a governing preposition may be repeated before N1 and N2, e.g., livni le-Yitzxaq, "to my son, to Isaac" (Gen 24:4). The same could not happen in the adjectival phrase, e.g., ha-ish ha-tov "the good man" cannot become *la-ish la-tov "to the good man." But as W&OC point out (12.3f), the preposition or other particle is not repeated in apposition if N1 is a proper name. It is not clear why this is.

In any case, I think it is clear that some of the further cases mentioned by W&OC, e.g., shloshah banim, "3 sons," cannot possibly be apposition. The relation between numeral (or other quantifier) and the quantified noun does not meet any set of criteria for apposition, including W&OC's. Further discussion of quantifiers will have to wait, however. For now, I'd be interested in hearing comments about apposition.

Monday, September 07, 2009

Teaching Aramaic: Diachronic or Synchronic?

This note is more jottings for my own benefit --a form of thinking out loud -- than a fully considered proposal. Comments from scholars are welcome.

In teaching introductory Aramaic, the decision has to be made whether a synchronic or diachronic approach is to be used. The textbook I currently use (an unpublished text by another scholar) uses the synchronic approach, with the Aramaic of Targum Onkelos as the beginning dialect.

For a certain class of nouns, the synchronic approach leads to certain problems. Consider the two words gabra "man" and nahra "river." Although they are alike on the surface, a diachronic approach would discern historical etymons of a different shape, namely [gabr] and [nahar]. Because of differing processes of historical change, these forms have a similar outcome. Because of changes affecting monosyllablic nouns ending in a consonant cluster, [gabr] becames at a certain point [gabar] (with anaptyxis), and then [gbar] (with pretonic short vowel reduction in open syllables), although the base form for suffixes remains [gabr]. On the other hand, [nahar] was bisyllabic from the beginning, and only underwent the vowel reduction yielding [nhar] for the absolute, while the base form for suffixes also underwent vowel reduction, yielding [nahr-] out of [nahar].

But in the synchronic approach, is there any reason to posit different historical base forms? Can one come up with a set of rules that generates all the relevant forms, both absolute and determined, without appeal to historical forms?

Let's propose for both forms the underlying base forms [gabr, nahr]. The next rule would be:
A. CVCC bases must be changed to CVCVC in free-standing forms. This gives us [gabar, nahar]

Next rule:
B. Short vowels in open unstressed syllables reduce to shewa or zero. This gives us [gbar, nhar].

One could even reduce it to one rule, as follows:
A'. CVCC bases must be changed to CCVC in free-standing forms.

Does this work? Let's try it on two more nouns: sipra "book" and zimna "time."
A'. The rule rewrites [sipr, zimn] as [spar, zman]. These are the correct absolute forms.

But the rule should probably specify that the vowel in the rewritten form has to be /a/.
A''. CVCC bases must be changed to CCaC in free-standing forms.

Does this work? Let's try two more, malka "king" and laxma "bread." Application of A'' should yield [mlak, lxam]. However, these forms are not correct. The absolute forms are [málak, lxem]. Now what?

For malka, there has to be another rule modification, namely
A'''. CVCC bases must be changed to CCaC in free-standing forms, or else to CáCaC.

For laxma, the rule needs a further modification, namely
A'''''. CVCC bases must be changed to CCaC or CCeC or CáCaC in free-standing forms.

This rule might cover most forms. However, the rule has to be understood as predicting the parameters of possible lexical surface forms, and not as generating forms on its own.

I'm starting to think that the diachronic approach might just as well be introduced at this point. For instance, the diachronic approach will predict correctly that historical CVCC bases can become CáCaC or CCaC or CCeC, while historical CVCVC bases will become only CCaC or CCeC. This seems like a useful distinction to make.

Of course, this doesn't even start to deal with the question of spirantization. Maybe I'll deal with that in the next post.