Against any misfortune—may it not come

I was recently asked: What is something about your language that you’ve never noticed until a foreign learner pointed it out?

I recalled that only the night before, my good friend Bob Macdonald, who has undertaken a mammoth task of making a musically-oriented English translation of the Hebrew Bible, asked me why in the Hebrew, Zephaniah (2:2) says:

 בטרם לדת חוק, כמוץ עבר יום; בטרם לא-יבוא עליכם, חרון אף-יהוה

(Beterem ledet ḥoq, kamotz avar yom; beterem lo-yavo aleikhem ḥaron af-Adonai)

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Q: Is there a rule for determining the vowels in Hebrew conjugation (present, past, future and passive)?

Yes, there is: it’s determined by the binyan (construction) of the verb.
There are seven binyanim, each with its characteristic pattern of vowels. Their names reflect the vowel pattern in the past tense (3rd person singular, masculine)—thus:

1181105_binyanim_table4

The appropriate binyan of a verb is determined by whether it is a simple verb, or one that refers to an action to or on something else; or a manipulation of an object or a person; or a continuous or repeating operation—or the passive corollary of any the above. (For more information on that, see my post on How do I know if a verb in hebrew is pa’al type, pi’el type, or other?)

Q: Which letters of the Phoenician or Proto-Canaanite alphabet were used with the lowest letter frequency?

[A2A] Fun exercise.

In biblical (Old Testament) times, the Canaanite alphabet was common to all Canaanite nations—from Moab and Edom in the southeast to Phoenicia in the northwest. The language was substantially the same, as well, throughout that period, with dialectal differences that widened over the centuries, so that by the time of the late First Temple period (750–580 BCE) mutual comprehension was only partial.

There are plenty of references to letter frequency in modern Hebrew (one good English-language one is Stefan Trost’s Character Frequency: Hebrew). However, although linguistically modern Hebrew is very similar to biblical Hebrew, it does contain many words of foreign origin, and tends to use ‘full spelling’ (i.e. use the letters vav and yod to indicate the vowels /o/u/ and /i/, respectively), which can skew the results somewhat.

So a better test would be a certified ancient text of sufficient length to be indicative.

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The Mesha Stele—a commemoration by King Mesha of Moab of the liberation of his people from the “yoke” of Israelite rule—is a good candidate in that regard, as it dates to around 840 BCE, and is written in the Moabite language, in the Canaanite script (see right).

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In-At-On

One of the recurring problems for ESL (English as a Second Language) learners and other non-native English speakers is what preposition to use with regard to location—specifically, in, at, or on.

This varies seemingly unpredictably, so that one says:

  • in the room, but at the house, and on the street
  • in Parliament, but at the Legislature.

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Q: Would using the pronouns they, them, and their, along with an individual’s name, eliminate the need for alternative pronouns?

The lack of a neutral pronoun in English is a persistent thorn in the side of academic writing—especially given that, with the growing demands for gender equality, the old-fashioned use of the masculine form for generic descriptions is increasingly frowned upon.

220px-hen_-_the_swedish_pronoun-svgAs a translator and editor, I frequently witness what a serious headache this problem is for my academic clients. It would be good if we could do what Swedish has done, which is adopt a new word for the purpose (hen—which is between hon [she] and han [he]). But as far as I know, there is nothing like that on the horizon (perhaps se—pron. /si/—a blend of she and he?).

So we are forced to improvise.

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If the Bible were set in the forests of ancient Europe, how would the stories be different?

If the Bible were set in a purely desert environment (as it is usually depicted in Western films), it would not likely not have produced stories that Europeans could relate to. But it wasn’t. The landscapes of the Galilee and the Judea-Samaria mountain range west of the watershed were (and are) very similar to those found in southern Europe (Greece, Italy, and Spain).

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