Sunday, December 20, 2009

On each of the Hebrew letters, individually - Aleph

How are the letters used? This is an open question and one that does not need to be answered by metaphorical interpretation. With the division of the 22 letters into two distinct subsets of 11 (here and here), I think it appropriate that I attempt to specify their individual grammatical roles. So when I see such and such a letter, what might I recognize as its role? This series will annotate the roles that I can identify from aleph to taf with examples.

א is a guttural and will therefore behave differently in some verbal paradigms - just how strangely, I do not yet know. א also may signal the first person singular imperfect (either masculine or feminine). It seems that with verbs beginning with א the consonant is not 'doubled'. So here is an example of this use of א with both types of verb - one beginning with aleph and one not. This is an example with several of the grammatical letters.

וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי־נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתֶּה
 and let it be that the lass to whom I will say, give me please your pitcher that I may drink

Which of the four highlighted aleph's that 'begin' a word signals the first person imperfect? Not the first - that's part of the word asher, the relative pronoun. Not the third, that's a preposition with a third person feminine pronoun. Yes to the second, and note this is the same three consonants that we would see if the word was in the perfect 3rd person masculine singular אמר or with the vowels אָמַר. So without vowel markings we need to hear the 'future' rather than the past from the context.

And the fourth וְאֶשְׁתֶּה though itself preceded by a vav is also 'imperfect'. Here it seems that the imperfect covers potential future, and conditional or modal usage (as well as preterite - which might be translated as past or even continuous present). That verb 'drink' שתה has three of the grammatical consonants acting in non-grammatical ways. The form is first person imperfect. The verb type is III-ה. The name of this class of verbs including the numeral III means that the third consonant of the root - or the third 'radical' is ה.

Just for fun, this phrase has 6 consonants from group 2 out of a total of 31 (<20%). Of the remaining 27, I count 9 or 11 in grammatical roles (11 if I include prepositions and exclude 'please'). Including prepositions will eventually drag some consonants from group 2 to do duty in group 1.

וְהָיָה הַנַּעֲרָ אֲשֶׁר אֹמַר אֵלֶיהָ הַטִּי־נָא כַדֵּךְ וְאֶשְׁתה
As I have continued this series, I have concentrated more and more on reading Ruth 'letter by letter'. So Here are a few examples of aleph from Ruth (excluding the ones already covered here):

An obvious example of the grammatical use of this letter and taf also is in the direct object marker, e.g. in Ruth 1:6
כִּי-פָקַד יְהוָה אֶת-עַמּוֹ
that יְהוָה had visited his people
The imperfect appears first in Ruth 1:16, the famous lines that join Ruth to Naomi in spite of the 10 years of barrenness after having been 'taken' as a wife by foreigners (to her)
 כִּי אֶל-אֲשֶׁר תֵּלְכִי אֵלֵךְ
וּבַאֲשֶׁר תָּלִינִי אָלִין
for wherever you go I go
and in whatever you stop over I stop over
In Ruth 1:18, here are two uses that illustrate aleph-taf when they are not the object marker and aleph as part of a common preposition. (I have not included stand-alone prepositions or stand-alone pronouns in my 'grammatical use' list since they stand alone and also include a few other stray non first 11 letters. Only 'tet' is allowed the privilege of acting as scorekeeper for the first 11 and that rarely.)
וַתֵּרֶא כִּי-מִתְאַמֶּצֶת הִיא
לָלֶכֶת אִתָּהּ
וַתֶּחְדַּל לְדַבֵּר אֵלֶיהָ
and she saw that she was determined
to go with her
and she ceased to speak with her

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