Can Qur’anic i‘rāb help us decipher ancient Hebrew’s forgotten code?

Hiding in the shadows of Hebrew words in the Tanakh, tucked in subtly between words and hiding under dummy vowels, are hints of a system that once tied Hebrew words and sentences together in ways that mystify modern speakers, and hearkens back millennia to Semitic languages’ distant common past.

Such phenomena abound in the text of the Tanakh. In Psalm 114, included in the Passover Haggadah, several words end with an unexpected –i or –o tacked onto them (as in ḥuli and ha-hofkhi, or the phrase le-ma’yano mayim). Eikhah, the Book of Lamentations, has several female nouns that end with a seemingly inexplicable –i (rabbati, sarati). In Bereishit / Genesis, the phrase “animal of the land” (1:24 has an inexplicable –o tacked onto its first element (ve-ḥayto – eretz). Elsewhere in Bereishit / Genesis a place name switches from Peni’el to Penu’el for no apparent reason. And some words have a seemingly nonsensical –a tacked on to them.

What’s going on here?

When a word ends with an unexpected added vowel which cannot be explained by the usual meanings of such suffixes (particularly as possessives), grammatical case is sometimes mentioned as a possible cause, but generally without back-up as to what the suffix would then indicate, or how it would fit into a supposed Proto-Hebrew noun case system. (Gesenius’ classic Hebrew Grammar, §90, does give a very rough idea, but mostly without providing the context needed to make sense of the matter.) What then do these strange word endings actually mean?

To understand what these lonely bits of syntax are – or what they once were – we have to look back at Hebrew’s Semitic sister languages, particularly those with even deeper documented roots. The Akkadian language, which was in use primarily between some 4500 and 2800 years ago (with some liturgical use until around 2000 years ago), is particularly relevant, as is Hebrew’s very close relative, Ugaritic, which is known from texts that survived from about 3400-3200 years ago.

In the cuneiform characters that Ugaritic adapted into a kind of alphabet, vowels are only indicated if they are tacked onto an alef (which is a glottal consonant in the Semitic languages, not a vowel itself). It is only due to this fluke that the Ugaritic noun case system was documented and preserved for posterity. In this same way, it is quite possible that Hebrew and its sister languages had such a system when they invented the alphabetic script, but since the script for these languages showed no vowels for millennia thereafter (not even on the alef), the noun case system was mostly lost with time. We don’t know when the speakers of such languages as Hebrew (including Edomite, Ammonite and Moabite), Phoenician, or Aramaic last would have used a noun case system in their speech.

When Classical / Qur’anic Arabic was fully written down and vocalized (some 1250 years ago), it revealed that the Arabic tradition (which had been mostly oral over the preceding centuries and millennia) had been preserving and maintaining a sophisticated and subtle version of the Semitic noun case system the whole time. This was around 7 centuries after Akkadian had finally disappeared as even a liturgical language, and some two millennia after the time of the Ugaritic tablets! The classical Arabic case system – which characterized the Qur’an, classical poetry, and any written and vocalized text or speech – became known as i‘rāb (إعراب), meaning roughly “to put one’s speech or poem into proper Arabic”. The prestige that Arab culture placed on oral poetry and language over the millennia is apparently what kept this system alive, not as some burdensome grammatical bother, but as a tool of expression appreciated for its grace, subtlety and aesthetic value.

But what is grammatical case? To quickly illustrate using an Indo-European language, or refresh the memories of those who once studied Latin, noun case is the reason that Julius Ceasar’s dying words were “Et tu, Brute?” and not “Et tu, Brutus?” Or to use a more relevant example: The word “virus” (originally meaning a slimy, disgusting liquid, or snake venom) was borrowed into English in the nominative (-us) form. If the word had been borrowed together with the full system governing its use in Latin, one would correctly say “The virus is spreading quickly” (with virus as the subject of the sentence), but “He contracted the virum”, –um being the accusative suffix used for a direct object, and “Do you know the status viri?”, –i indicating the genitive case, so meaning “of the virus”.

(Yes, this should then be, “Do you know the statum viri ?”, status being the direct object of the sentence, so placed in the –um accusative.) Someone would, by the same token, be described as having “recovered virō”, –ō being the ablative suffix, meaning “from the virus.” And one would theoretically address the virus directly as “vire!”, using the vocative suffix –e, just as Julius Ceasar called his friend and killer “Brute!”, not Brutus.
[update! I’ve been informed that my use of virus as a model of the Latin noun system is complicated by the fact that it is irregular: it stays as virus in both accusative and vocative cases.]

The old Semitic system, as seen in Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Classical Arabic (i‘rāb) was less conspicuous, taking the form of unaccented short-vowel suffixes, uttered almost under one’s breath. And it was less intricate, being limited to the three vowels of the classical Semitic languages: –u (for nominative), –i (for genitive) and –a (for accusative).

Each of the Semitic languages or proto-languages had its own idiosyncrasies and manners of using the system. More can be read about the Akkadian and Ugaritic systems here and here. In Classical Arabic, the suffix is nasalized when the word in question is indefinite (without a real or suggested “the” or possessive, for instance), and then written as a doubling of the vowel, without an actual nūn (“n”) consonant added, but pronounced –un, –in and –an, respectively.

To illustrate the Semitic system with a sentence from the Caspari / Wright grammar of classical Arabic:

ضَرَبَ زَيْدُ بْنُ خَالِدٍ سَعْدَ بْنَ عَوْفِ بْنِ عَبْدِ ﭐللهِ

Ḍaraba Zaydu bnu Khālidin Sa‘da bna ‘Awfi, bni ‘Abdi-llāhi

Meaning: “Zaydu bnu Khālidin hit Sa‘da bna ‘Awfi, bni ‘Abdi-llāhi”, or simply: “Zayd, son of some Khālid, hit Sa’d son of ‘Awf, son of ‘Abdullah”.

With the vowels written, we see the subject of the sentence, the person doing the hitting, marked in the nominative case (Zaydu bnu …), the object of the sentence, the person who was hit, marked in the accusative case (Sa’da bna …), and the fathers of Zayd and Sa’d mentioned in the genitive case (Khalidin and ‘Awfi bni …), as is the father of ‘Awf, ‘Abdullāh. Zayd’s father Khalid is named using the indefinite genitive suffix (-in), meaning something closer to “Zayd, the son of some [unknown] Khalid”, or “Zayd, the son of some Khalid”. The other fathers are apparently known to the speaker or otherwise confirmed.

Without the vowel marks, the lines and loops shown above and below the letters, the sentence would appear to be simply: “Zayd bin Khalid hit Sa’d bin ‘Awf, bin ‘Abd-Allāh,” and this is roughly how it would be written by an Arabic-speaker reading it out loud in a modern dialect. All of these suffixes are presented graphically only as short vowel markers, which are generally not used in daily writing.

A further illustration of the system can be seen in classical Arabic translations of the Bible, in Genesis 21:16, 19, describing Hagar’s struggle to survive in the desert, with the various forms used for the word “water”. “And the water (al-mā’u الماَءُ) ran out … And she saw a well of water (mā’in ماَءٍ), … and she filled the flask [with] water (mā’an ماَءً).” When water (mā’ ماَء) is the subject of the verb “to run out”, it has the nominative –u suffix; when it is mentioned in relation to “its” well it has the genitive –i(n) suffix; and when it is an indirect object of the verb “to fill” it has the accusative –a(n) suffix.

If the i‘rāb system had not survived through the ages to be documented in the 8th century CE – if the vowel markings had not transmitted the tradition of differentiating between the cases in written and poetic Arabic – we wouldn’t know how the Arabic version of the system had once worked. We wouldn’t have known that the Arabic language so faithfully preserved a feature apparently lost in other Semitic languages millennia before, into late antiquity and beyond. It would have remained largely invisible, aside from an eyebrow-raising fossilized phrase or usage here and there.

Similarly, the texts of the Tanakh, the Hebrew Bible, were transmitted and preserved without vowel markings for millennia. The Masoretes only started putting the full tradition into writing – with the addition of vowels and accent / cantillation markings – around 1400 years ago. Until that time, how to actually read the biblical texts, which consisted only of consonants with no vowels and no punctuation, was purely the subject of living oral tradition among Jewish communities, painstakingly passed down from generation to generation.

The oldest vocalized manuscripts that we have today – such as the Aleppo Codex and the Leningrad Codex – were produced in Northern Israel less than 1100 years ago. We can assume that over the millennia that passed until the Masoretes set it all down in writing, the traditions of pronunciation underwent a certain degree of development. We can see evidence of this in how the Septuagint transliterated the Tanakh’s Hebrew names and untranslated phrases into Greek letters around 2300 years ago (as I discussed in another blog entry), as well as in the differences between the two primary Hebrew vocalization systems that survived, reflecting the Tiberian (Northern Israel) and Babylonian traditions, and in differences in how these were pronounced historically among the various Jewish communities.

Are the mysteriously nonsensical suffixes seen in the Tanakh remnants of a complete noun case system that was still intact when the biblical texts first came into being, and lost between then and the emergence of the fully vocalized texts? Or are they the last vestiges of something that had already mostly faded away before the biblical texts came into being in the first place?

We first have to take stock of what did survive:

What can we reconstruct of the Proto-Hebrew case system? What traces of it can we see in the Tanakh? To take it one suffix at a time:

Is there any remnant of –u as a nominative suffix?

The clearest vestiges of the –u nominative suffix are preserved in personal names, such as Metushelaḥ (מְתוּשֶׁלַח), Metusha’el (מְתוּשָׁאֵל) and Betu’el (בְּתוּאֵל). These are reminiscent of the nickname of Dan’ilu or Dani’ilu (דַנאִלֻ), hero of the Ugaritic Epic of Aqhat, who is apparently the same Dan’el or Daniel mentioned in Yeḥezqel / Ezekiel 14:20. In the epic, he is repeatedly called Dan’ilu matu-Rāpi’i (דַנאִלֻ מַתֻ-רַפִּאִ), meaning “Dan’ilu, Man of Rāpi’u.” (Rāpi’u רַפִּאֻ was a Canaanite-Ugaritic healing deity, whose name is cognate with the Hebrew word רֹפֵא rōfe’, meaning a healer or doctor). So the names Metushelaḥ, Metusha’el and Betu’el seem to mean “Man of Shelaḥ”, “Man of Sha’el”, “House of El” (or a corrupted Metu’el, “Man of El”), respectively, with the first element (metu-/betu-) frozen in the nominative (-u) form*.

In the story of Balaq and Bil‘am, both characters are referred to with patronyms (“son of -”), reminiscent of the Arabic example from the Caspari / Wright grammar cited above, but which seem to be stuck in the nominative form (like bnu in the example from classical Arabic). In one instance (Bamidbar / Numbers 23:18), this occurs in the vocative position, which in Arabic is indeed generally nominative**, “Arise Balaq, and hear! Listen to me, Son of [Beno] Tsippor!” (ק֤וּם בָּלָק֙ וּֽשְׁמָ֔ע הַאֲזִ֥ינָה עָדַ֖י בְּנ֥וֹ צִפֹּֽר). In verses 24:3 and 24:15, however, it is in what would be the genitive position: “[This is] the speech of Bil‘am Son of [Beno] Be‘or”. In this case, it should theoretically be in the genitive form beni (“of the son (of –) “), like bni in the Arabic example above.

Some names seem to have survived both in and out of the nominative form. The –o at the end of Yitro / Jethro, for instance, disappears in Shemot / Exodus 4:18, when the name is put into a prepositional phrase: וַיֵּ֨לֶךְ מֹשֶׁ֜ה וַיָּ֣שׇׁב אֶל־יֶ֣תֶר חֹֽתְנ֗וֹ  (“And Moshe went and returned to Yéter his father-in-law”), but is replaced in the same verse when the name is indeed in the nominative (–u) position:  […] וַיֹּ֧אמֶר יִתְר֛וֹ לְמֹשֶׁ֖ה לֵ֥ךְ לְשָׁלֽוֹם (“And Yitro said to Moshe, ‘Go in Peace’.”). Assuming the –o of Yitro is a nominative marking, and the sound –o has taken the place of –u (as happened elsewhere in Hebrew in relation to earlier phases of the language), it is being used correctly in this verse (“Yitru (יִתְרֻ) said”). It could then be that the “Yéter” form, seemingly without a case ending, here originally had a different short-vowel suffix, since lost, which reflected its position in the prepositional phrase. (In Arabic that would be the genitive –i, but as we’ll see below there is evidence that Proto-Hebrew would have used the accusative –a instead, in order to mark it as an indirect object: “to Yitra (יִתְרַ)”.)

At the end of the Book of Ruth (4:20), the name of one of the ancestors of King David is mentioned in what seems to be both nominative and accusative cases: וְנַחְשׁ֖וֹן הוֹלִ֥יד אֶת־שַׂלְמָֽה: וְשַׂלְמוֹן֙ הוֹלִ֣יד אֶת־בֹּ֔עַז, “[…] and Nashōn fathered Salmåh. And Salmōn fathered Bó‘az […]”. Given the context, it is clear that Salmåh and Salmōn are one and the same person. A plausible explanation for the different forms given for his name is that Salmåh developed from an accusative form (Sálma שַׂלְמַ) and Salmōn developed from a nominative form (Sálmu שַׂלְמֻ). Though the accent would then have shifted to the last syllable, such a hypothesis is helped by the fact he is called “Salmåh” when the name should indeed be in the accusative case (as the direct object of the verb “fathered”), and “Salmōn” when the name should be in the nominative case (as the subject of the verb).

Another name that survived in both forms is, perhaps not coincidentally, the only properly Arab character mentioned by name in the Tanakh (not including the sons of Ishma’el), Géshem the Arab, a hostile chieftain mentioned in the book of Neḥemyah. In the narrative text itself, his name is left in its normal Hebrew form “Géshem”, but when he is quoted in a letter sent by his ally Sanballat to Neḥemyah (6:6), the letter is quoted as reading “And Gashmu says, […]” (וְגַשְׁמ֣וּ אֹמֵ֔ר). Is this quote evidence that, by that time (the beginning of the period of Achaemenid Persian rule in Israel, some 2540 years ago), the nominative form Gashmu (גַּשְׁמֻ) was already seen as foreign – as a conspicuous characteristic of the speech of a (closely related) enemy?

Famously, in Bereishit / Genesis 32:31-32, Ya‘aqov-Yisra’el / Jacob-Israel names the place where he wrestled a supernatural being “Penī’el” (וַיִּקְרָ֧א יַעֲקֹ֛ב שֵׁ֥ם הַמָּק֖וֹם פְּנִיאֵ֑ל כִּֽי־רָאִ֤יתִי אֱלֹהִים֙ פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים וַתִּנָּצֵ֖ל נַפְשִֽׁי׃), but the place is called “Penū’el” in the following verse (וַיִּֽזְרַֽח־ל֣וֹ הַשֶּׁ֔מֶשׁ כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר עָבַ֖ר אֶת־פְּנוּאֵ֑ל וְה֥וּא צֹלֵ֖עַ עַל־יְרֵכֽוֹ׃). Why the sudden switch? As the verse clearly indicates, his inspiration for naming the place Penī’el/ Penū’el comes from the fact that he believes he encountered the Creator there “face to face”, pånīm el-pånīm (פָּנִ֣ים אֶל־פָּנִ֔ים), and lived to tell about it. The word for “face” in Hebrew (pånīm) is plural, and though it is feminine, it takes the ostensibly masculine plural form –īm/ei, parallel to the Arabic plural suffix –īn/ī. But the equivalent Akkadian and Arabic plural suffix had two forms: In the nominative position, it was –ū or –ūn, while –ī or –īn marked words in the non-nominative position (called the oblique plural case, grouping together genitive and accusative).

So, how do the Akkadian and Arabic forms fit with the –ū /ī switch seen in Bereishit / Genesis 32:31-32? Well, they don’t. Or in fact, the forms appear to have been switched around. The first verse, where he is simply naming the place as “Penī’el”, would theoretically be in the nominative, and should then be “Penū’el”. In the second verse (“And the sun shone when he passed Penū’el …”), the place name should clearly be in the accusative-oblique plural form “Penī’el”, since it is in the accusative position, as a direct object to the verb “passed”, and is even unambiguously marked as such (by the direct object particle אֶת et-). Could the ancient historical memory of the differing case forms in these two adjacent verses been preserved, but accidentally switched around over the centuries?

Evidence of such confusion between the same vestigial forms can also be seen in Yirmeyahu / Jeremiah 52:1:

בֶּן־עֶשְׂרִ֨ים וְאַחַ֤ת שָׁנָה֙ צִדְקִיָּ֣הוּ בְמׇלְכ֔וֹ וְאַחַ֤ת עֶשְׂרֵה֙ שָׁנָ֔ה מָלַ֖ךְ בִּירוּשָׁלָ֑‍ִם וְשֵׁ֣ם אִמּ֔וֹ חמיטל חֲמוּטַ֥ל בַּֽת־יִרְמְיָ֖הוּ מִלִּבְנָֽה:

“Tsidiqyåhu [was] twenty-one years old when he became king, and he reigned in Jerusalem eleven years, and his mother’s name [was] Ḥamūṭal daughter of Yirmeyåhu from Livnåh.” The manuscript was corrected from Ḥamīṭal, however, … correcting from oblique to nominative?

In Hebrew, as in spoken Arabic, the oblique (non-nominative) form seems to have prevailed in both the plural male suffix (–īm/-ei, like Arabic –īn/ī) and dual suffix (-ayim, like Arabic –-ayn). The Akkadian and Arabic nominative forms (plural –ūn/-ū and dual –ān/-ā, which in Hebrew would theoretically have been plural –ūm/-ū and dual –ām/-ā) are preserved in written Arabic, but have disappeared entirely from Hebrew. The only remnants of the nominative plural forms in Hebrew appear to be the names noted above, and the word ירחו in the Gezer Calendar, if it indeed means “moons of” (yarḥū-), as I suggested in an earlier blog entry.

Besides the names discussed above, several other nouns with a suspected case suffix are in the nominative position, but the suffix they carry can be surprising. Consider the following examples from Tehillim / Psalms:

לְ֭הַגִּיד כִּֽי־יָשָׁ֣ר יְהֹוָ֑ה צ֝וּרִ֗י וְֽלֹא־עַוְלָ֥תָה עלתה בּֽוֹ׃

“To shew that the LORD is upright: He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness (‘avlátå) in him.” (92:16)

יָ֭קָר בְּעֵינֵ֣י יְהֹוָ֑ה הַ֝מָּ֗וְתָה לַחֲסִידָֽיו׃

“Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death (ha-mmávtå) of his saints.” (116:15)

אֲ֭זַי הַמַּ֣יִם שְׁטָפ֑וּנוּ נַ֗֝חְלָה עָבַ֥ר עַל־נַפְשֵֽׁנוּ׃

“Then the waters had overwhelmed us, the stream (náḥlå) had gone over our soul.” (124:4)

The fact that the –a suffix in these verses is unaccented lends credence to its authenticity as a vestige of the noun case system. In all cases, an unaccented qamatz (å) is tacked onto a noun that would most seem to be a subject of the phrase in the Hebrew, therefore most likely originally in the nominative. Did, with time, an unaccented qamatz (-å) replace an unaccented short –u in these verses? Given the traditional pronunciation of unaccented qamatz as an “oh” sound (depending on its place in a word), this could indeed be the case.


Did Biblical poetry selectively remember early Hebrew genitives (i)?

The genitive case marks the noun as having something subjugated to it, essentially placing an imaginary “of” before it, and connecting the noun thus marked to a person or thing that is “of” it. In classical Arabic idhāfa phrases, which parallel Hebrew smikhūt, the second or last object (and any adjectives describing it) is thus marked with the genitive short –i suffix as “possessing” the object or objects that precede it. In the Arabic example given earlier, all the fathers mentioned are marked in this way in relation to their sons (genitives italicized):
ضَرَبَ زَيْدُ بْنُ خَالِدٍ سَعْدَ بْنَ عَوْفِ بْنِ عَبْدِ ﭐللهِ 

“Ḍaraba Zaydu bnu Khālidin Sa‘da bna ‘Awfi, bni ‘Abdi-llāhi”, or: “Zayd, son of some Khālid, hit Sa’d son of ‘Awf, son of ‘Abdullah”. All parts of the name “‘Awf the son of ‘Abdullah” are in the genitive case (notice the –i suffix tacked onto all four elements: ‘Awfi, bni ‘Abdi-llāhi). ‘Awf is mentioned in relation to his son Sa‘d, and then noted in turn to be “the son of ‘Abdullah”; the word for “son of” in his case is in genitive, still in relation to his own son Sa‘d; his father’s name is in genitive (“of ‘Abdullah”) in relation to him (“‘Awf, son of”). But since his father’s name in turn means “servant of God”, both the words “Servant” (‘Abdu) and “the God” ((A)llāhu) are genitive: “of the Servant” (‘Abdi) is still genitive in relation to his son ‘Awf, and “the God” is in genitive ((A)llāhi, “of the God”) in relation to his “servant”.

As this example illustrates, the genitive case can serve as a tool subtly connecting words. In Arabic poetry, it was therefore used to mark a word appearing in one line as referring back to something mentioned previously.*** There are several poetic segments in the Tanakh with enigmatic repeating –i suffixes that are tempting to read in this way.

One such example is in Yesha‘yahu / Isaiah 22:16, where it is the repeated –i suffix that gives the verse, and the rebuke it contains, a certain cadence and a more clearly poetic character:

מַה־לְּךָ֥ פֹה֙ וּמִ֣י לְךָ֣ פֹ֔ה
כִּֽי־חָצַ֧בְתָּ לְּךָ֛ פֹּ֖ה קָ֑בֶר
חֹצְבִ֤י מָרוֹם֙ קִבְר֔וֹ
חֹקְקִ֥י בַסֶּ֖לַע מִשְׁכָּ֥ן לֽוֹ׃

The words with an –i suffix are bolded; the word they seem to refer to, if they are in fact genitive, is italicized and underlined. Such a reading does have the effect of making the tomb, and the subject of the prophet’s rebuke, all the more pathetic. To adapt the translation accordingly:

“What have you here, and whom have you here?
That you have hewn yourself here a tomb?
[A tomb of one who] hews out his tomb on high,
[A tomb of one who] engraves a dwelling place for himself in the rock.”

You can almost hear Yesha‘yahu spitting it out with indignation and disdain.

Yirmeyahu / Jeremiah seems to have used the genitive in a similar way (in 49:16):

תִּֽפְלַצְתְּךָ֞ הִשִּׁ֤יא אֹתָךְ֙ זְד֣וֹן לִבֶּ֔ךָ
שֹֽׁכְנִי֙ בְּחַגְוֵ֣י הַסֶּ֔לַע
תֹּֽפְשִׂ֖י מְר֣וֹם גִּבְעָ֑ה
כִּֽי־תַגְבִּ֤יהַּ כַּנֶּ֙שֶׁר֙ קִנֶּ֔ךָ
מִשָּׁ֥ם אוֹרִֽידְךָ֖

“[In] your terribleness, the malice of your heart has deceived you,
[The malice of the] dweller in the clefts of the rock,
[The malice of him who] holds the height of a hill.
Though you will put your nest like an eagle on high,
From there I will take you down.”

In this case as well, the use of the genitive tying together the images of the prophet’s rebuke helps unify them into one theme, tying the futile actions of the person described to his maliciousness, and highlighting them as ironic expressions of this same lowly aspect of his character.****

Use of the genitive case could also have been used to tie together the several verses making up the blessing given to the tribe of Yehudah / Judah in Bereishit / Genesis 49:10-12, emphasizing the seeming improbability of the destiny that awaits a tribe living on the edge of the desert and concerned mostly with tending its vines and its livestock.

[…] וְל֖וֹ יִקְּהַ֥ת עַמִּֽים׃
אֹסְרִ֤י לַגֶּ֙פֶן֙ עִירֹ֔ה וְלַשֹּׂרֵקָ֖ה בְּנִ֣י אֲתֹנ֑וֹ
כִּבֵּ֤ס בַּיַּ֙יִן֙ לְבֻשׁ֔וֹ וּבְדַם־עֲנָבִ֖ים סוּתֹֽה׃
חַכְלִילִ֥י עֵינַ֖יִם מִיָּ֑יִן וּלְבֶן־שִׁנַּ֖יִם מֵחָלָֽב׃

“[…] and the honor of the nations shall be his.
[Of him who] tethers his donkey to a vine, his donkey colt to a grape branch,
He washes his clothing in wine, his robe in the blood of grapes.
[Of the] dark-eyed, [darker] than wine, his teeth whiter than milk.”

In other instances, perhaps the genitive was used (or remembered) as a tool of poetic emphasis, drawing attention to the word. Devarim / Deuteronomy 33:16, where the occurrence of the –i suffix would be a correct use of it, could be an example of that. In such a case, the question is more one of why the case suffix would have persisted on one word, and not another.

וּמִמֶּ֗גֶד אֶ֚רֶץ וּמְלֹאָ֔הּ וּרְצ֥וֹן שֹׁכְנִ֖י סְנֶ֑ה

“And of the excellent produce of the earth and its fullness, and the goodwill of Him who dwells in the [burning] bush”

An intriguing use of the genitive –i suffix in Qur’anic poetry, that should also be taken into consideration, is to leave the thing to which the noun is referred, or which it possesses, unnamed, and perhaps in that way to paradoxically evoke or emphasize the noun marked somehow in its own right. A kind of dramatically indirect vocative case. In several such surahs in the later part of the Qur’an, this is translated as invoking the objects named*****, as if to call them as witnesses (or swear by them) for the content that follows. One characteristic example is سُورَةُ ٱلشَّمْسِ Sūratu ‘sh-Shamsi, the “Surah of the Sun”, which begins with the following series of invocations (91:1-7):

وَٱلشَّمْسِ وَضُحَىٰهَا
وَٱلْقَمَرِ إِذَا تَلَىٰهَا
وَٱلنَّهَارِ إِذَا جَلَّىٰهَا
وَٱلَّيْلِ إِذَا يَغْشَىٰهَا
وَٱلسَّمَاءِ وَمَا بَنَىٰهَا
وَٱلْأَرْضِ وَمَا طَحَىٰهَا
وَنَفْسٍ وَمَا سَوَّىٰهَا

Wa-sh-shamsi wa-ḍuḥāha = And [by] the sun and its brightness
Wa-l-qamari  idha talāha = And [by] the moon as it follows it [the sun]
Wa-n-nahāri idha jalāha = And [by] the daylight as it reveals it [the sun’s brightness]
Wa-l-layli idha yaghshāha = And [by] the night as it conceals it
Wa-s-samā’i wa-ma banāha = And [by] the heavens and [Him] who built them
Wa-l-’arḍi wa-ma ṭaḥāha = And [by] the earth and [Him] who spread it
Wa-nafsin wa-ma sawwāha = And [by each] soul and [Him] who perfected it in proportion, […]

The word “by” in the English translation is only added in an attempt to convey the meaning of the –i suffix in these verses, where it seems not to refer back to anything concrete. Instead of “by”, one could more literally put “of”. What is it that is “by” or “of” the sun etc.? Since this answer is unclear, the verses are understood as invoking the celestial bodies and phenomena, and the Creator himself, as witnesses to the surah’s content that follows.

Could some of the more dramatic –i suffix instances in the Tanakh, that don’t seem to clearly and concretely link the words marked to something else, be the product of a similar poetic convention, somehow invoking them, or marking them as a kind of expletive, being called out? It is tempting to read the mysterious –i suffixes in the opening of Eikhah / Lamentations in such a way, with the words marked being called out in grief, invoked in bitter despair. To break up the verse and translate it accordingly, as being dramatically vocative:

אֵיכָ֣ה יָשְׁבָ֣ה בָדָ֗ד הָעִיר֙
רַבָּ֣תִי עָ֔ם
הָיְתָ֖ה כְּאַלְמָנָ֑ה
רַבָּ֣תִי בַגּוֹיִ֗ם
שָׂרָ֙תִי֙ בַּמְּדִינ֔וֹת
הָיְתָ֖ה לָמַֽס׃

“Eikha yashvah vadad ha- ‘ir,
Rabbati ‘am!
Haytah ke’almanah,
Rabbati va-goyim!
Sarati ba-medinot!
Haytah la-mas.”

“How the city sits alone,
[oh] Mighty [city] of the people!
She has become as a widow,
[oh] Mighty [city] among the nations!
[oh] Noble [city] among the countries!
She has become [mere] plunder.”

Another intriguing aspect of the fate of the –i suffix in Hebrew is its surprisingly slow transformation into the –ī adjective suffix we know today. (Ernest Klein proposed that the Hebrew –ī adjective suffix is derived from the Semitic genitive –i suffix in his Hebrew etymological dictionary.) Though the –ī adjective suffix is very common in Hebrew (and Arabic), and has been since the Middle Ages, it is actually quite difficult to find an example of a normal adjective with the –ī suffix in the Hebrew of the Tanakh. Those that occur primarily indicate someone’s place of origin or ethnic or tribal affiliation (Egyptian, Aramaean, Amalekite, Ephraimite, etc.) or are ordinal numbers (“second” through “tenth”). Exceptions to these two categories are almost non-existent. What’s more, all such occurrences can be read as something in between a genitive noun and an actual adjective: “of Egypt”, “of Aramaea”, … “of [the number] two”, “of [the number] ten”.

It appears that the translators of the Septuagint, for instance, read –ī suffix adjectives as genitive nouns on several occasions. One that stands out is in Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:5, in the phrase Arammī oved åvī (אֲרַמִּי֙ אֹבֵ֣ד אָבִ֔י), which may mean either “My father was a wandering Aramaean” or “An Aramaean [sought to] kill my father” (as I discussed in an earlier blog). The Septuagint’s translators seem to have seen the –i suffix on Arammī as a genitive (or ablative) marker, making the sentence mean “My father [was] a wanderer [out] of Aram”, which they rendered into Greek more simply as “Syrían ’apébalen ‘o patēr mou”, meaning “My father abandoned Syria”, with Syria (a rough equivalent of Aram) in the accusative case (marked by the suffix –an), as an obect of the verb “abandoned”. In any event, they did not read Arammī as a simple ethnic adjective in the way that we would today.

Another example of a similar reading is from 1 Shemu’el / Samuel 15:15, in which מֵעֲמָלֵקִ֣י  mē-‘Amåleqī is translated in the Septuagint as “out of Amalek” (ἐξ Ἀμαλήκ). This reading was likely encouraged by the wording several verses beforehand (15:6), מִתּ֣וֹךְ עֲמָלֵקִ֗י, mittōkh ‘Amåleqī, which is generally understood as meaning “Out of among [the] Amalekite[s]”. But the missing “the” seems to hint that the –ī suffix is indeed something else, perhaps an archaic genitive / prepositional marker, as a final –i would be in written Arabic in such a phrase. It should be noted that both of the –ī suffixes in 1 Shemu’el / Samuel 15 occur in quoted speech, attributed directly to King Sha’ūl / Saul. After the quote ends, in verse 15:6, the same phrase occurs in the narrator’s voice, but without the –ī suffix (just מִתּ֥וֹךְ עֲמָלֵֽק mittōkh ‘Amåleq). In this chapter, the word עֲמָלֵקִ֗י ‘Amåleqī does not occur outside of the king’s quotes. Could the scribes who wrote the story down have been consciously preserving archaic speech patterns of the king who may have lived centuries before the oral accounts were set down in writing?

The very first chapter of Bereishit / Genesis, the Creation Story, provides an example of ordinal numbers that seem to be potential genitive noun forms of the numbers. The first day is called simply י֥וֹם אֶחָֽד, (yōm eḥåd) “day one” (strangely not using the word for “first”). Thereafter come the second through sixth days, generally without any other syntactical elements, just י֥וֹם שֵׁנִֽי  yōm shēnī, ostensibly meaning “[a] second day”, and the others follow in suit: yōm shelīshī (י֥וֹם שְׁלִישִֽׁי), yōm revī‘ī (י֥וֹם רְבִיעִֽי), yōm ḥamīshī (י֥וֹם חֲמִישִֽׁי) – [a] third day, [a] fourth day, [a] fifth day. But then comes “the sixth day”, yōm ha-shishshī (י֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי). Yet how it is phrased, the word shishshī seems to be a noun, “The day of six”. If it were an actual adjective describing yōm (day), then yōm too would have to have the definite article (ha-, “the”) attached to it, and the phrase would be ha-yōm ha-shishshī (הַיּ֥וֹם הַשִּׁשִּֽׁי), “the sixth day”. Without a “ha-” (“the”) on yōm as well, the word ha-shishshī does not seem to be an adjective describing it, but the genitive second part of a smikhūt / idhāfah phrase. If yōm ha-shishshī is in fact “the day of six”, and the word “six” is in fact in genitive form with an –i suffix, that would mean that the previous four numerals (“second” through “fifth”) are also in the genitive form with an –i suffix: “day of two”, “day of three”, “day of four” and “day of five”. The first day, “day one” would then be “day of one”, just like the others, with the word “one” (eḥåd) similarly in genitive, which explains why it is not “first day” (yōm rīshōn , יום ראשון). Perhaps it was originally yōm eḥådi (יום אחדִ), or something of the sort, and only its –i suffix was left by the wayside?

(In any event, in the following chapter, in Genesis 2:1 the ordinal number is syntactically treated as a proper adjective, with the definite article (ha-) on both yōm and shevī‘ī in the phrase “on the seventh day” (בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֔י). Is this a later text or the product of more thorough editing?)

As noted, other –ī suffix adjectives – those that denote neither origin nor an ordinal number – are nearly non-existent in the pages of the Tanakh. One of the only quasi-exceptions is the word  רַגְלִ֛י (raglī) “infantrymen”, ostensibly an adjective that became a noun. It is built from the word רֶגֶל (leg) and the –ī suffix, but it is not declined like an adjective. It stays frozen in this form, which would be singular if it were a normal adjective (instead of becoming רַגְלִיִּים ragliyīm in the plural), as can be seen in Shemot / Exodus 12:37, among other similar examples:

וַיִּסְע֧וּ בְנֵֽי־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל מֵרַעְמְסֵ֖ס סֻכֹּ֑תָה כְּשֵׁשׁ־מֵא֨וֹת אֶ֧לֶף רַגְלִ֛י הַגְּבָרִ֖ים לְבַ֥ד מִטָּֽף׃

“And the Children of Israel journeyed from Ra‘mses to Sukkōt, some six hundred thousand infantrymen (raglī), the men, besides the children.”

The word “the men” הַגְּבָרִ֖ים (hagevårīm) is given in plural form immediately thereafter. Since it alone is not declined accordingly, the word רַגְלִ֛י (raglī) does then seem to be perhaps still halfway between a genitive noun (“six hundred thousand by/of foot”) and an adjectival noun (“six hundred thousand footmen”).

In a similar case of an –ī adjective that seems to defy definition as a mere adjective, the man designated to take the scapegoat offered on Yom Kippur from the Jerusalem Temple and into the desert (Vayyiqra / Leviticus 16:21) is called an “īsh ‘ittī(אִ֥ישׁ עִתִּ֖י). The first part means “man” and the second part is based on the word ‘ēt (עֵת), meaning “a moment”, or “a time”. Does this indicate that he is a “temporary man” (to render it literally as an adjective), or would it be perhaps more accurate to translate his title as if it’s a genitive phrase (semikhut / idhāfah), as “a man of [the] moment”? Or as something between the two?

The persistence of early Hebrew accusative permutations (-a/-am)

The Semitic accusative –a suffix is most rare in Hebrew in its original function, that of marking direct objects, but several instances can still be found, and stand out due to the penultimate accent of the word in question, as the –a suffix doesn’t take the accent off of the accented syllable in the original word it marks.

The most common direct object still marked with the accusative –a suffix is found in phrases using the fossilized locution “lo … me’ūmåh” (with the accent on the penultimate syllable, bolded), which is identical to the French phrase ne … rien, both roughly meaning “not … a thing”. (And like the Hebrew word me’ūmåh is the accusative form of the word me’ūm, the French word rien is derived from the Latin word for “thing” res, similarly frozen in its accusative form rem, which developed into rien). To cite a couple famous examples of this phrase:

When Avråhåm / Abraham was about to sacrifice Yitzḥåq on Mount Moriah, the divine voice called out from the heavens, saying: “אַל־תִּשְׁלַ֤ח יָֽדְךָ֙ אֶל־הַנַּ֔עַר וְאַל־תַּ֥עַשׂ ל֖וֹ מְא֑וּמָה” (Bereishit / Genesis 22:12), “Don’t use your hand against the lad and don’t do a thing to him, […]”, the last part being “al ta‘as lō me’ūmåh”.

Yosef / Joseph praises the hospitality of his benefactor, Potiphar, saying to his wife that her husband “had not spared anything from me, besides you”, וְלֹֽא־חָשַׂ֤ךְ מִמֶּ֙נִּי֙ מְא֔וּמָה כִּ֥י אִם־אוֹתָ֖ךְ , ve-lo ḥåsákh mimmenni me’ūmåh, kī im ōtåkh (Bereishit / Genesis 39:9) Later, Yosef / Joseph recounts having been falsely imprisoned due to Potiphar’s wife’s accusation against him, arguing that “Here as well I had not done a thing […]”, וְגַם־פֹּה֙ לֹא־עָשִׂ֣יתִֽי מְא֔וּמָה, Ve-gam poh lo ‘åsītī me’ūmåh (Bereishit / Genesis 40:15).

Besides the “lo … me’ūmåh” construction, other examples of the use of the –a suffix to mark direct objects are exceedingly rare. One, for instance, appears in 2 Melakhim / Kings 15:29, describing the conquest of Northern Israel by Tiglath Pil’eser III:

[…] וַיִּקַּ֣ח אֶת־עִיּ֡וֹן וְאֶת־אָבֵ֣ל בֵּֽית־מַעֲכָ֡ה וְאֶת־יָ֠נ֠וֹחַ וְאֶת־קֶ֨דֶשׁ וְאֶת־חָצ֤וֹר וְאֶת־הַגִּלְעָד֙ וְאֶת־הַגָּלִ֔ילָה כֹּ֖ל אֶ֣רֶץ נַפְתָּלִ֑י וַיַּגְלֵ֖ם אַשּֽׁוּרָה׃

“[…] and he took ‘Iyyōn and Åvel Beit-Ma‘akhåh and Yånōaḥ and Ḥåtzōr and the Gil‘åd and the Gålīlåh, the whole Land of Naftåli, and he exiled them to Ashūr.” The Galilee region is generally called the Gålīl in Hebrew, so the unusual addition of the –åh suffix, together with the penultimate accent (keeping the emphasis on the syllable līl) and the fact that it is indeed a direct object of the verb in the sentence (“took”), all seem to indicate that this is a case of an authentic accusative –a suffix that survived.

Another rare instance combing all three factors, (an enigmatic –åh suffix, penultimate accent, and being the direct object of a verb), is seen in the words of the prophet Hoshea‘ / Hosea (8:7): כִּ֛י ר֥וּחַ יִזְרָ֖עוּ וְסוּפָ֣תָה יִקְצֹ֑רוּ , Kī rūaḥ yizrå‘ū ve-sufåtåh yiqtzórū, “For they shall sow wind and reap a storm”.

The most common permutation of the accusative –a suffix  surviving in Hebrew, however, is as ubiquitous as it is enigmatic: its use marking a destination or direction, which it does without an explicit preposition meaning “to” or “toward”. The suffix itself is simply another way of saying “to” or “toward”.  It can be tacked onto places, objects, or somewhat more abstract directions. To illustrate with some examples:

  • לָלֶ֙כֶת֙ אַ֣רְצָה כְּנַ֔עַן , lålékhet ártzåh Kená‘an (Bereishit / Genesis 11:31), “to go to the Land of Kená’an”
  • וַיּוֹצֵ֨א אֹת֜וֹ הַח֗וּצָה וַיֹּ֙אמֶר֙ הַבֶּט־נָ֣א הַשָּׁמַ֗יְמָה , vayyōtzē otō ha-ḥūtzåh, vayyōmer ‘habbēt-nå ha-shshåmaymåh (15:5), “and he took him outside, and he said ‘Look towards the heavens’”
  • ַיִּשְׁתַּ֖חוּ אָֽרְצָה , vayyishtáḥū ártzåh (18:2), “and he bowed [down] to [the] ground
  • וַיְמַהֵ֧ר אַבְרָהָ֛ם הָאֹ֖הֱלָה , vaymahēr Avråhåm hå-óhelåh (18:6), “and Avraham hurried to the tent
  • וַ֠יָּבֹ֠אוּ שְׁנֵ֨י הַמַּלְאָכִ֤ים סְדֹ֙מָה֙ , vayyåvó’ū shenēi ha-mmal’åkhīm Sedómåh, “and the two angels came to Sedóm
  • וְרֹאשׁ֖וֹ מַגִּ֣יעַ הַשָּׁמָ֑יְמָה , ve-rōshō maggīa‘ ha-shshåmåymåh (28:12), “and its top reached to the heavens
  • יָ֥מָּה וָקֵ֖דְמָה וְצָפֹ֣נָה וָנֶ֑גְבָּה , yåmmåh vå-qēdmåh ve-tzåfōnåh vå-négbåh (28:14), “seaward, and eastward, and northward and southward
  • נֵלְכָ֖ה דֹּתָ֑יְנָה , nēlekhåh Dotåynåh (37:17), “Let’s go to Dotån
  • וַיָּבֹ֥א הַבַּ֖יְתָה , vayyåvó ha-bbáytåh (39:11),“and he came to the house
  • שְׁאֽוֹלָה , She’ōlåh (42:38), “to She’ōl
  • אַל־תִּירָא֙ מֵרְדָ֣ה מִצְרַ֔יְמָה , al tīrå mēredåh Mitzráymåh (46:3), “do not be afraid to go down to Egypt
  • וַיַּעֲל֤וּ […] אֶל־שָׁא֔וּל הַגִּבְעָ֖תָה , vayya‘alū […] el Shå’ūl ha-Giv‘åtåh (1 Shemu’el / Samuel 23:19), “and they went up […] to Shå’ūl /Saul to the Giv‘åh [the Hill]”
  • וַתָּבֵא֩ אֹתִ֨י יְרוּשָׁלַ֜‍ְמָה , vattåvē otī Yerūshålámåh (Yeḥezqēl / Ezekiel 8:3), “and it brought me to Jerusalem
  • לָב֤וֹא עִמָּהֶם֙ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה , låvó ‘immåhém Tarshīshåh (Yonah / Jonah 1:3), “to come with them to Tarshīsh
  • שָׁ֠לַ֠ח סַנְחֵרִ֨יב מֶלֶךְ־אַשּׁ֤וּר עֲבָדָיו֙ יְר֣וּשָׁלַ֔יְמָה , shåláḥ Sanḥērīv melekh Ashshūr ‘avådåv Yerūshåláymåh (2 Divrei HaYamim / Chronicles 32:9), “Sanḥērīv king of Assyria sent his servants to Jerusalem

In several cases, the ending is –eh instead of –åh (see Gesenius §90f), likely due to the fact that the original vowel was –a, somewhere between –åh and –eh (and ending a word with a pataḥ, a flat ah vowel, together with a letter hei is not done in Hebrew).

Superficially, this Hebrew suffix seems to resemble the –a/ –e suffix tacked onto destinations in Turkish (meaning simply “to”), or the –e suffix in Japanese and Korean, meaning the same thing. Its origin in the Semitic accusative case suffix, however, would make the Hebrew suffix conceptually closer to the parallel phenomenon in Latin, where the accusative case also came to mark destinations and directions, with the meaning of “to” or “toward” the place indicated. (When John Cleese, as the Roman soldier, corrected Brian’s “Romans Go Home!” graffito in his impromptu Latin lesson in the Life of Brian, with an extra twist of the ear Brian remembered to put domus into accusative, making it domum, to mean “home”, or “to the house”. This is then identical to the Hebrew formulation הַבַּ֖יְתָה ha-bbáytåh, which means both “to the house” and “home” in the sense of a destination.)

But how did the accusative suffix, originally marking direct objects, come to mark destinations and directions?

It seems that the unaccented –a suffix had first spread to indirect objects generally, both with and without an explicit preposition in front of them (whether meaning from, to, in or at); numerous examples of this phenomenon survived. (In written Arabic, as noted, it is the genitive –i suffix that generally took over the function of marking indirect objects in prepositional phrases, but indirect objects can also sometimes be put into the accusative with an –a/-an suffix.) To cite some verses from the Tanakh in which an unaccented –a/åh suffix is attached to indirect objects in various kinds of prepositional phrases:

  • עַד־אֲפֵ֑קָה , ‘ad Afēqåh (Yehoshua / Joshua 13:4), “until Afēq”
  • מִצָּפ֖וֹנָה , mi-tzåfōnåh (15:10), “from [the] north”
  • מֵעֶגְל֖וֹנָה , mē-‘Eglōnåh (10:36), “from ‘Eglōn”
  • מִבָּבֶ֖לָה , mi-Båvélåh (Yirmiyahu / Jeremiah 27:16), “from Båvél”
  • בְּרִבְלָֽתָה , be-Rivlåtåh (52:10), “in/at Rivlah”
  • בַּנֶּ֑גְבָּה , ba-Négbåh (Yehoshua / Joshua 15:21), “in the Négev”
  • בְתִמְנָ֖תָה , ve-Timnåtåh (Shoftim / Judges 14:2), “in/at Timnah”
  • בַּחֹֽרְשָׁה , ba-ḥórshåh (1 Shemu’el / Samuel 23:15), “in the wooded thicket”
  • בְּיָבֵ֑שָׁה , be-Yåvēshåh (31:13), “in/at Yåvēsh”
  • לִשְׁא֑וֹלָה , li-Sh’ōlåh (Tehillim / Psalms 9:18), “to She’ol,” with the “to” preposition present
  • אֶל־הַצָּפ֑וֹנָה , el ha-tzåfōnåh (Yeḥezqel / Ezechiel 8:14), “to the north,” with the “to” preposition present

The last two examples, which involve both the –åh suffix and an explicit “to” preposition, seem to be the missing link between the use of the –åh suffix in prepositional phrases generally, and its use more specifically (and without the need for an explicit preposition) to mean “to” / “toward”.

For further evidence of how this could have happened, we can find rare cases of an unaccented –a suffix without an explicit preposition, but where the preposition hinted at is not “to” / “toward”. One example of an unaccented –a suffix in something like an in/at prepositional phrase without the actual preposition is in Bereishit / Genesis 28:12, “וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה“, ve-hinneh sullåm mutzåv ártzåh, “and behold, a ladder [was] placed [on] the ground”. (the preposition implied would seem more likely to be ב- or על (“on” or “at”) than ל- (“to”/”toward”).) Similarly, in several verses, such as Vayiqra / Leviticus 5:12, the phrase וְהִקְטִ֣יר הַמִּזְבֵּ֔חָה , ve-hiqtīr ha-mmizbēḥåh, means “and he shall burn [it] on the altar”. In Tehillim / Psalms 45:14, the phrase כׇּל־כְּבוּדָּ֣ה בַת־מֶ֣לֶךְ פְּנִ֑ימָה , kol kevūdåh våt melekh penīmåh, is translated in the King James Version as “The king’s daughter is all glorious within”, not “inward”, indicating that this –åh suffix as well is likely closer to indicating a static location (“in/at”) than a direction or destination (“to/toward”).

(It seems that this accusative a suffix used for indirect objects morphed in some cases into an –o suffix, as seen in Tehillim / Psalms 114:8 לְמַעְיְנוֹ־מָֽיִם , le-ma‘yno måyīm, meaning “(in)to a spring of water”, or in 79:2, לְחַיְתוֹ־אָֽרֶץ , le-ḥayto åretz, meaning “to the living thing(s) of the earth”. In Bereishit / Genesis (1:24), it is then less surprising to see the –o suffix seemingly marking the same phrase as a direct object: תּוֹצֵ֨א הָאָ֜רֶץ נֶ֤פֶשׁ חַיָּה֙ לְמִינָ֔הּ בְּהֵמָ֥ה וָרֶ֛מֶשׂ וְחַֽיְתוֹ־אֶ֖רֶץ לְמִינָ֑הּ, “Let the earth bring forth every kind of living creature: cattle, creeping things, and beast(s) of the land of every kind.”)

To summarize: From an original function marking direct objects, the accusative –a suffix grew into a wider role, applied to various kinds of indirect objects, both with and without an explicit preposition. And, from this phase, its use appears to have mostly contracted to specifically indicate destinations and directions – a specific kind of indirect object.

What did occur in both Proto-Hebrew and Arabic is that the accusative case mutated, strangely enough, into an adverbial suffix, like –ly in English, apparently by way of its use for marking indirect objects. (In Hebrew, prepositional (indirect object) phrases are the primary way that adverbs are formulated and conveyed.) In Arabic, its adverbial function is considered to be simply another aspect of the indefinite accusative suffix اً (-an), and in this use it is quite common and productive, found in relatively recently coined words as well. Consequently, Arabic has a whole slew of such words, such as ‘adatan (عَدَةً) for “usually”, faj’atan (فَجَأَةً) for “suddenly”, aḥyānan (أحْياَناً) for “occasionally”, ṭab‘an (طَبْعاً) for “naturally, of course”, abadan (أَبَدَاً) for “never” (originally needing a negative, like French ne … jamais), jiddan (جِدّاً) meaning something like “very” or “very much so”, awalan (أَوَلاً) for “firstly”, ra’san (رَأْساً) for “immediately, directly”, akhīran (أَخِيراً) for “lastly”, mathalan (مَثَلاً) meaning “for example”, and many more.

In Hebrew, we have only inherited quite a short list of very ancient adverbs formed in this way, with åm or –om as the adverbial suffix, and no new adverbs have been created using this suffix for millennia. These adverbs seem to be limited to the following, to cite them by way of their appearance in verses from the Tanakh:

  • הַאַ֥ף אֻמְנָ֛ם אֵלֵ֖ד וַאֲנִ֥י זָקַֽנְתִּי (Bereishit / Genesis 18:13), “Will I too indeed (umnåm) give birth, though I have aged?” This word for “indeed” is based on the same root as amen, and literally means something closer to certainly, surely.
  • עַתָּ֖ה רֵיקָ֣ם שִׁלַּחְתָּ֑נִי (31:42), “now you have sent me off empty-handed (reiqåm)”, based on the word רֵיק (reiq) connoting emptiness.
  • זָכַ֙רְנוּ֙ אֶת־הַדָּגָ֔ה אֲשֶׁר־נֹאכַ֥ל בְּמִצְרַ֖יִם חִנָּ֑ם (Bemidbar / Numbers 11:5), “We remember the fish, which we ate in Egypt for free (ḥinnåm)”, which literally means something like “graciously”, based on the word חֵן (ḥēn), meaning “grace”.
  • וְכִֽי־יָמ֨וּת מֵ֤ת עָלָיו֙ בְּפֶ֣תַע פִּתְאֹ֔ם (6:9), “And when a dead [person] dies on him without warning, suddenly (pit’óm)”, which seems to be an adverbial form of the word immediately preceding it péta‘ (פֶּ֣תַע), by way of an unusual shift of guttural sounds, from ‘ayin (ע) to alef (א).

An additional group of Hebrew words may be vestigially accusative adverbs with a shortened –åh suffix instead of the expected adverbial –åm. One example is ‘attåh עַתָּ֖ה, which is one of the common words for “now” (used in Bereishit / Genesis 31:42, above, and elsewhere), and is based on the same word ‘ēt (עֵת), meaning “moment” or “time” mentioned earlier.

Bearing this in mind: An oft-occurring phrase apparently including both an adverbial –åm and adverbial –åh is יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, yōmåm vå-láylåh, meaning “by day and by night”. Examples of its use are seen in Shemot /Exodus 13:21, לָלֶ֖כֶת יוֹמָ֥ם וָלָֽיְלָה,”to go by day and by night”, and in Yehoshua / Joshua 1:8: וְהָגִ֤יתָ בּוֹ֙ יוֹמָ֣ם וָלַ֔יְלָה, “and you shall speak of it day and night”.

(The two elements can be separated from each other, as in the first part of Shemot /Exodus 13:21 and in 13:22, and even switched around, as in Tehilim / Psalms 91:5: לֹֽא־תִ֭ירָא מִפַּ֣חַד לָ֑יְלָה מֵ֝חֵ֗ץ יָע֥וּף יוֹמָֽם׃, “You shall not be afraid of fear by night (låylåh), of an arrow flying by day (yōmåm)”.)

The words yōmåm and láylåh make use of a special kind of adverbial accusative, denoting time or periods of the day in which an action occurs, which includes a wider range of words in Arabic. In Arabic, not only do يَوْماً yawman (which means more “yet”, “one day”, though cognate with Hebrew yōmåmיוֹמָם ) and لَيْلاً laylan (“by night”, “at night”) exist, but they are joined by نَهاَراً nahāran (“by daylight”, “during the day”), صَباَحاً ṣabāḥan (“by morning”, “A.M.”), مَساَءً masā’an (“by evening”, “in the evening”), and others.

Ostensibly, As anyone who knows some Hebrew will tell you, the word לַיְלָה láylåh just means “night”; “Good night!” is simply לַיְלָה טוֹב, “láylåh ṭōv”. However, as seen in the phrase above, it appears that the Hebrew word for “night” simply got stuck in the accusative case, with the ancient –a suffix tacked onto the original word, láyil לַיִל, which is still seen in such phrases as לֵ֣יל שִׁמֻּרִ֥ים lēyl shimmūrīm, a “night of vigilance” (Shemot / Exodus 12:42), לֵיל אֶמֶשׁ lēyl émesh last night”, and חֲצוֹת לַיִל ḥatzōt láyil, meaning “midnight”. In at least one case, in the middle of Eshet Ḥáyil (Mishlei / Proverbs 31:18), the traditional Tanakh manuscript preserves the spelling of “at night” as בליל (ostensibly va-láyil), but includes a special correction or vocalization indicating that it should be read as בַלַּיְלָ or בַלַּיְלָה (va-láylåh).

Being stuck in the accusative would also explain why לַיְלָה láylåh is accented on the first syllable, which is otherwise unusual in Hebrew, and why it is a masculine word (as shown by the fact that it takes the adjective טוֹב ṭōv, not טוֹבָה ṭōvåh), despite its –åh ending, which is generally feminine.

Further proof that the word לַיְלָה láylåh is in fact an adverbial accusative is found in several additional verses, in which the word is awkwardly floating there, without the “in/at” prefix בְּ be- or בַּ ba- that would normally be needed to make it mean “at night”. (As an adverbial accusative, it already carries that meaning, as seen in the phrase יוֹמָם וָלַיְלָה, yōmåm vå-láylåh.) Shemot / Exodus 12:30-31 contain two examples of this usage: וַיָּ֨קׇם פַּרְעֹ֜ה לַ֗יְלָה […]וַיִּקְרָא֩ לְמֹשֶׁ֨ה וּֽלְאַהֲרֹ֜ן לַ֗יְלָה, vayyåqom Par‘óh láylåh […] vayyiqrå’ le-Moshéh ūl-Aharón láylåh, “and Pharaoh rose at night […] and he called to Moshe and Aharon at night, […]”.

“Floating”, since from the viewpoint of modern Hebrew these verses look more as if they’re saying “and Pharaoh rose night … and he called to Moshe and Aharon night”. Something appears to be missing.

Paradoxically, just this sensation that something is missing seems to hint that case suffixes were much more widespread when the biblical text was first set down on paper. There is much scholarly debate as to when that may have been, but the dates hovering between roughly 2600 and 3000 years ago in any event give us plenty of room for development – and forgetting – until the Masoretic vowels and other marks fleshed out the traditional Jewish reading of the Tanakh on paper (in turn recording the classical Hebrew language and grammar system as a whole), between 1100 and 1500 years ago.

Due to the use of the accusative –a suffix for directional phrases in particular, and evidently for prepositional phrases in general, we can assume that it would have been an –a suffix that was lost in these instances. Nominative or genitive suffixes would theoretically also have been dropped, but their absence would be harder (in fact, impossible) to detect, since they wouldn’t involve a conspicuously missing preposition.

“Floating” words that seemingly indicate lost case endings can be divided into two primary categories: (1) destinations and directions lacking the –åh directional suffix discussed above (as well as a preposition meaning “to” or “towards” that would take its place), and (2) words seemingly missing a preposition meaning “in” or “at”. Both can be found quite frequently in the Tanakh.

To cite a few examples from the first category, with the floaters indicated by a bracketed (absent) preposition in the translation:

וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ רְחַבְעָ֖ם שְׁכֶ֑ם כִּ֥י שְׁכֶ֛ם בָּ֥א כׇל־יִשְׂרָאֵ֖ל לְהַמְלִ֥יךְ אֹתֽוֹ׃ (מלכים א’ י”ב: א)

“And Reḥav‘åm / Rehoboam went [to] Shekhem: for all of Israel had come [to] Shekhem to make him king.” (I Melakhim / Kings 12:1)

וַיְהִ֗י הֵ֣מָּה הֹלְכִ֤ים הָלוֹךְ֙ וְדַבֵּ֔ר וְהִנֵּ֤ה רֶֽכֶב־אֵשׁ֙ וְס֣וּסֵי אֵ֔שׁ וַיַּפְרִ֖דוּ בֵּ֣ין שְׁנֵיהֶ֑ם וַיַּ֙עַל֙ אֵ֣לִיָּ֔הוּ בַּֽסְעָרָ֖ה הַשָּׁמָֽיִם׃  (מלכים ב’ ב’ : י”א)

“… and Eliyåhu / Elijah went up by a whirlwind [into] heaven.” (II Melakhim / Kings 2:11)

אָ֣ז יַעֲלֶ֣ה רְצִ֣ין מֶֽלֶךְ־אֲ֠רָ֠ם וּפֶ֨קַח בֶּן־רְמַלְיָ֧הוּ מֶֽלֶךְ־יִשְׂרָאֵ֛ל יְרוּשָׁלַ֖‍ִם לַמִּלְחָמָ֑ה (מלכים ב’ ט”ז: ה’)

“Then Retzīn king of Aram and Pékaḥ son of Remalyåhu king of Israel came up [to] Jerusalem to [wage] war.” (II Melakhim / Kings 16:5)

בָּעֵ֣ת הַהִ֗יא הֵ֠שִׁ֠יב רְצִ֨ין מֶֽלֶךְ־אֲרָ֤ם אֶת־אֵילַת֙ לַֽאֲרָ֔ם וַיְנַשֵּׁ֥ל אֶת־הַיְּהוּדִ֖ים מֵֽאֵיל֑וֹת וארמים וַֽאֲדֹמִים֙ בָּ֣אוּ אֵילַ֔ת וַיֵּ֣שְׁבוּ שָׁ֔ם עַ֖ד הַיּ֥וֹם הַזֶּֽה׃ (מלכים ב’ ט”ז: ו’)

“At that time Retzīn king of Aram recovered Eilat to Aram, and dispossessed the Jews from Eilat: and the Aramaeans came [to] Eilat, and dwelt there unto this day.” (II Melakhim / Kings 16:6; “Aramaeans” is corrected to read “Edomites” in light of Eilat’s geographical proximity to Edom.)

Floating destinations and ones properly anchored with the directional suffix (or an equivalent preposition) can even be found together within one verse:

וַיָּ֤קׇם יוֹנָה֙ לִבְרֹ֣חַ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָ֑ה
וַיֵּ֨רֶד יָפ֜וֹ וַיִּמְצָ֥א אֳנִיָּ֣ה ׀ בָּאָ֣ה תַרְשִׁ֗ישׁ וַיִּתֵּ֨ן שְׂכָרָ֜הּ
וַיֵּ֤רֶד בָּהּ֙ לָב֤וֹא עִמָּהֶם֙ תַּרְשִׁ֔ישָׁה מִלִּפְנֵ֖י יְהֹוָֽה׃  (יונה א’ : ג’)

“And Yonah / Jonah rose up to flee to Tarshīsh [Tarshīshåh] from the presence of YHVH, and went down [to] Yafo; and he found a ship going [to] Tarshīsh: so he paid its fare, and went down into it, to go with them to Tarshīsh [Tarshīshåh] from the presence of YHVH.” (Yonah / Jonah 1:3)

וַיֵּ֥לֶךְ מִשָּׁ֖ם אֶל־הַ֣ר הַכַּרְמֶ֑ל וּמִשָּׁ֖ם שָׁ֥ב שֹׁמְרֽוֹן׃ (מלכים ב’ ב’ : כ”ה)

“And [Elīshå‘] went from there to Mount Carmel [el Har ha-Karmel], and from there he returned [to] Shomrōn. (II Melakhim / Kings 2:25)

Similarly, occasional words seem to lack a preposition meaning “in” or “at” to put them in a proper context:

[…] וְה֛וּא יֹשֵׁ֥ב פֶּֽתַח־הָאֹ֖הֶל כְּחֹ֥ם הַיּֽוֹם׃ (בראשית י”ח : א)

“ […] while he [was] sitting [in] the tent’s opening in the heat of the day” (Bereishit  / Genesis 18:1)

וְהַקֹּ֣ל נִשְׁמַ֗ע בֵּ֤ית פַּרְעֹה֙ לֵאמֹ֔ר בָּ֖אוּ אֲחֵ֣י יוֹסֵ֑ף (בראשית מ”ה : ט”ז)

“And the rumor was heard [in] Pharaoh’s house, saying, Joseph’s brothers have come.” (Bereishit / Genesis 45:16)

וּמֶ֣לֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵ֡ל וִיהוֹשָׁפָ֣ט מֶלֶךְ־יְהוּדָ֡ה יֹשְׁבִים֩ אִ֨ישׁ עַל־כִּסְא֜וֹ מְלֻבָּשִׁ֤ים בְּגָדִים֙ בְּגֹ֔רֶן פֶּ֖תַח שַׁ֣עַר שֹׁמְר֑וֹן וְכׇ֨ל־הַנְּבִיאִ֔ים מִֽתְנַבְּאִ֖ים לִפְנֵיהֶֽם׃ (מלכים א’ כ”ב : י’)

“And the king of Israel and Yehoshåfåṭ the king of Judah were sitting, each on his throne, having put on their robes, in a threshing floor [at] the entrance of the gate of Shomrōn; and all the prophets prophesied before them.” (I Melakhim / Kings 22:10)

וַיִּקַּ֨ח אָחָ֜ז אֶת־הַכֶּ֣סֶף וְאֶת־הַזָּהָ֗ב הַנִּמְצָא֙ בֵּ֣ית יְהֹוָ֔ה וּבְאֹֽצְר֖וֹת בֵּ֣ית הַמֶּ֑לֶךְ וַיִּשְׁלַ֥ח לְמֶֽלֶךְ־אַשּׁ֖וּר שֹֽׁחַד׃ (מלכים ב’ ט”ז : ח’)

“And Aḥaz took the silver and gold that was found [in] the House of YHVH, and in the treasures of the king’s house, and sent it to the king of Assyria [as a] tribute.” (II Melakhim / Kings 16:8)

וַתֵּ֜לֶךְ וַתְּמַלֵּ֤א אֶת־הַחֵ֙מֶת֙ מַ֔יִם וַתַּ֖שְׁקְ אֶת־הַנָּֽעַר׃ (בראשית כ”א : י”ט)

“ […] and [Hagar] went and filled the flask [with] water […] (Bereishit / Genesis 21:19). As noted above, the word “water” here is treated similarly in the classical Arabic translation (without an explicit preposition), and marked as being an indirect object in the accusative case (with the –a(n) suffix, as mā’an ماَءً).

Based on the use of the proto-Hebrew accusative –a/åh suffix for indirect objects in a wide variety of prepositional phrases detailed above, as well as for indirect objects missing an explicit “in” / “at” preposition (as noted in Bereishit / Genesis 28:12, “וְהִנֵּ֤ה סֻלָּם֙ מֻצָּ֣ב אַ֔רְצָה“, ve-hinneh sullåm mutzåv ártzåh, “and behold, a ladder [was] placed [on] the ground”), it would seem that –åh is the missing suffix in these cases as well.

The erratically missing bits of syntax in both categories seem to indicate that unaccented short-vowel suffixes were once there, but were not preserved by the Masoretic tradition. These are important since they hint that theoretically much more may have been lost.

The full picture that emerges from analysis of the remnants of the Semitic grammatical case system as a whole is intriguing. Was the whole Tanakh in a kind of proto-Hebrew i‘rāb at first? Or does the Tanakh provide a series of snapshots of the Hebrew language while it was in the process of losing its grammatical case system, and expanding the use of prepositions accordingly?

At the very least, it seems that examining the biblical remnants of the case system, and attempting to reconstruct the meanings they originally conveyed from within that system, can potentially provide new and surprising insights in how to understand difficult pieces of text.


* The מְתוּ (mtu) element in these names has nothing to do with “death” or “dead”, as many Hebrew-speakers would guess, but is an old Semitic word meaning “person” or “man”, known from several instances in the Tanakh, mostly from the phrases מְתֵי מְעָט metei me’at (Devarim / Deuteronomy 26:5, 28:62, ) and מְתֵי מִסְפָּר metei mispar (Devarim / Deuteronomy 4:27, Tehilim / Psalms 105:12), both meaning “[just] a few people”. In the book of Iyov / Job, it is used in several other phrases, still in the plural form: מְתֵי שָוְא metei shav (“useless people”), מְתֵי אָוַן metei aven (“people of injustice”, criminals) , מְתֵי אָהֳלִי metei oholi (“the people of my tent”, my family members), מְתֵי סוֹדִי metei sodi (“the people of my secret”, my confidants). It also occurs occasionally on its own (in plural form), as metīm מְתִ֔ם, in Devarim / Deuteronomy 2:34, for instance, meaning simply “men”.

** In this case, however, the somewhat intricate Arabic grammatical rules would put the vocative in the accusative case, since nominative is only used for one-word names in the vocative, and this is the first part of a longer phrase “Son of ___”. So in Arabic it would be “Listen to me, bna Tsippor!” Could this have been an –a suffix that developed into an –o? Or was this an idiosyncrasy restricted to Arabic?

*** In Arabic, the genitive case is also used for the objects of most prepositional phrases, so it can have the effect of extending the prepositional phrase over several lines, referring multiple objects back to a preposition occurring earlier. This gives special resonance to the Arabic name of the genitive case, majrūr, meaning “in tow”, like multiple trailers on a car (which in Israel carry a license plate with the Hebrew word nigrår, using the same Semitic root (g-r-r) and meaning the same thing.). One example of this use of the Arabic genitive / majrūr can be seen in Umm Kulthūm’s song Al-Aṭlāl, by the 20th century Egyptian poet Ibrahim Nagi, reading as follows:

لستُ أنساكْ ، وقدْ أغريتَنِي … بفمٍ عذبِ المُنَادَاةِ رَقِيقْ
ويدٍ تمتَدُّ نحوي، كَيَدٍ … من خلالِ الموجِ مُدَّتْ لِغَرِيقْ
وبريقٍ يظمَأُ السَّارِي لَهُ […]

Lastu ansāk, wa-qad aghrītanī … bi-famin ‘adhabi ‘l-munādāti raqīq
Wa-yadin tamtaddu naḥwī, ka-yadin … min khilāli ‘l-mawgi muddat li-gharīq
Wa-bi-rīqin yaẓma’u as-sārī lahu

All case endings are underlined, but the words that are connected together and linked back to the original preposition (bi- “with”), by dint of being in the genitive case are bolded. To translate it roughly:

“I didn’t forgotten you, for you had seduced me … with a mouth sweetly and gently calling
And a hand stretched out towards me, like a hand … through the wave stretched out to someone drowning
And with moisture [of your mouth] that the night traveler thirsts for …”

Though the word “with” (bi-) is repeated in the third line, before rīqin, the genitive case ending alone would have sufficed to link it with the prepositional phrase in the first line (bi-famin), as it did one line before it to clearly but subtly include wa-yadin (“and a hand”) in the “with”.

**** Arabic poetry has some interesting parallels to this, as can also be seen in Al-Aṭlāl. In one such line, where the genitive –i suffix emphatically connects behavior with character traits, Ibrahim Nagi writes:

لَكَ إِبْطَاءُ المُذِلِّ المُنْعِمِ … وَتَجَنِّي القَادِرِ المُحْتَكِمِ

Laka ibṭā’u ‘l-mudhilli ‘l-mun‘imi … wa-tagannī ‘l-qādiri ‘l-muḥtakimi

“Yours is the hesitance of the disrespectful, of the spoiled … And the wrongdoing of the powerful, of the tyrant.”

***** For instance in Interpretation of the Meanings of the Noble Qur’ān in the English Language, by Dr. Muhammad Taqi-ud-Din Al-Hilāli and Dr. Muhammad Muhsin Khan, Darussalam, Riyadh, 1996.

About the Author
Daniel Kennemer is the founder of the Mount Carmel Arabic Immersion and teacher of Hebrew, English and more through Mount Carmel Languages. He studied Archaeology and Geography at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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