Sunday, December 6, 2009

To be or not to be

When I was (living) in my ignorance, a time that may never have ceased, (or was I alive?), I was told or I heard that Hebrew was no verb 'to be'. I was also told that Hebrew has no vowels. Both these sentences (not this one) are untrue.

The Hebrew alef-bet has vowels - yod י - vav ו - aleph א - and he ה can all act as 'vowels'. Both Lambdin and Putnam agree that the third character of the stem of III-He verbs is not a 'real root consonant but a mater lectionis for the final vowel' (Lambdin page 51). Putnam puts it this way (page 127) 'The chief characteristic of III-ה verbs is that the final ה (which is a vowel letter, not a radical) disappears before person-gender-number endings in all forms. It is replaced by a yod which is a vowel letter...'

And Hebrew has a verb to be - even though Hebrew also has verbless clauses where the attribution of the connection of being is implied but not written or spoken. Only a deeper guttural onset separates the verb to be (היה) from the verb to live (חיה)! Becoming alive is just a matter of reaching deeper into the throat.

How much of this verb היה to be is found in Ruth?
We begin with the third person story telling aspect - and there was, וַיְהִי (vayihi) which recurs immediately - Now there was in the days of the judgment of the judges,
and there was a famine in the land.
Putnam calls this preterite and notes that the final ה drops off. The form is very common in prose. Lambdin does not use the term preterite but notes that these jussive forms 'are used regularly with the waw-conversive in the past narrative sequence.' (p145)  The grammar books are so different in their terminology that if I had learned grammar first, I would have stopped reading. Not good.

Then in the next verse we have something that feels to me like - and there they were! וַיִּהְיוּ שָׁם When I listen to it it sounds like vayihiyu sham. The vav does not sound like 'v' but just 'u'. Sounds to me like a consonant in vowel's clothing. A diphthong even. So there we have the third person singular and the third person plural in verses 1 and 2.

I don't see the verb again till verse 7 - loaded with potential resonance:

and she emerged from the place which had been hers
 The verb to be occurs in the phrase literally 'where she was there'.
וַתֵּצֵא מִן-הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר הָיְתָה-שָּׁמָּה

The form is third person feminine Qal perfect. Another over-simplification I was told about Hebrew - that it only had two tenses: finished and over with, and ongoing. The arguments over the complexity of Hebrew verb forms seem endless to me and I have learned more new English words talking about Hebrew than I learned Hebrew grammar! Hebrew can express any subtlety of mode, mood, aspect, tense, imperative, future, past, indeterminate, causal, active or passive that one can imagine and probably some one need not imagine. If one finds the anointing grace that this ancient elect people found, one will express joy in all its moods, tenses, aspects and imperatives and one will not lose the message even as they have not lost the message. The gifts of God are without repentance. Now I must walk to sing. Mass in 45 minutes.

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