God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Too Much Emphasis

It seems that the default explanation for an unknown grammatical feature is to assume, often wrongly, that it is “emphatic.” Here are four examples, three from Hebrew (skip to them: one, two, three) and one from Greek (skip to it here).

The Examples

The Infix Nun

From time to time, a nun will appear between a verb and its pronominal objective ending. For example, in Psalm 72:15, we find y’varachenhu. Breaking down the verb form, we find the prefix y’- representing third-person singular future; the verb varach, “bless”; and the suffix -hu for “him.” So far, the verb means “he will bless him.” But there’s also an added -en- in the middle. That’s the infixed nun, commonly called the “nun emphatic.”

Because nuns are frequently replaced by a dagesh in Biblical Hebrew, it is more common to find the “nun emphatic” represented by nothing more than a dagesh. Probably the best known example is in the Priestly Benediction from Numbers 6:24-26. The last verb of Numbers 6:25 is vichuneka, with a dagesh in the final kaf representing the “nun empahtic” that dropped out.

But there is no evidence anywhere to suggest that this nun has emphatic force.

The Infinitive Absolute

A much more common Hebrew construction is the “infinitive absolute” in conjunction with a conjugated verb form. For example, in Genesis 2:17 we find mot tamut, which the KJV notes in a footnote is literally “dying thou shalt die.” Based on the (wrong) assumption that this doubling of verb forms is emphatic, the KJV translates “thou shalt surely die” here. (As it happens, this Hebraism is preserved in the LXX thanatu apothaneisthe, “by death die.”)

But not only is there no evidence that this construction is emphatic, there is evidence that it is not. In Genesis 3:4 the snake tries to convince the women to eat from the forbidden tree; he (it?) reassures her that lo mot t’mutun. Obviously this doesn’t mean “you will not surely die.” It just means “you will not die.”

The Lengthened Imperative

Frequently a verb form will have two imperatives: a shorter one, essentially the future without the prefix, and a longer one with an additional heh at the end. For example, from titen (“you will give”) we have both ten in Genesis 14:21 and t’nah in Genesis 30:26. Some grammars, such a Gesenius (wrongly, in my opinion), suggest that the latter is “give!” Again, there’s no evidence for an emphatic reading in these verb forms. (The forms are also not limited to the imperative, as we see in the continuation of Genesis 30:26, with elecha for elech.)

The Greek Emphatic Pronouns

The forth example comes from Greek, which has two sets of 1st- and 2nd-person pronouns. For example, “my” is either mou or emou. The latter form is called “emphatic” because it is widely assumed to convey particular emphasis. Once again, though, there is nothing to suggest that the longer forms are necessarily more emphatic than the shorter ones. (Bill Mounce has a post — also available here — where he similarly notes that sometimes the “emphatic forms […] are significant, but when they are objects of prepositions, evidently not.” In other words, he notes a case where the “emphatic” forms are not emphatic.)

Summary

What all four of these cases have in common is that the supposedly emphatic forms are longer than the ordinary ones. I think there has been a general if misguided assumption that longer words are more emphatic that shorter ones. At one level, it seems reasonable. And there are even times when it’s true (I give some examples here). But it’s not a general principal.

I think we have to rethink all of these “emphatic” forms with an eye toward figuring out what they really represent.

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December 21, 2009 - Posted by | general linguistics, translation theory | , , , , , , , , ,

12 Comments »

  1. So what you are saying is that:

    “Dying, you will die” = “you will die”

    No difference?

    And the evidence is that:

    * the snake’s words don’t seem emphatic
    * EMOU is not emphatic behind a preposition

    That doesn’t seem like such powerful evidence, when the longer form seems to “fit” with the idea of emphasis, or certainty, in significant contexts. I don’t have a problem with the snake saying “you won’t *certainly* die” (just, maybe).

    I’m just giving you my subjective response, as I really don’t know.

    Comment by WoundedEgo | December 22, 2009 | Reply

    • “Dying, you will die” = “you will die”

      No difference?

      I think there’s a huge difference. I believe that he Hebrew means “you will die” and that the LXX and the English “dying, you will die” are mistranslations. (How to translate the LXX into English in this case is a harder question.)

      And the evidence is that:

      * the snake’s words don’t seem emphatic
      * EMOU is not emphatic behind a preposition

      Maybe I wasn’t clear. My example from Genesis was meant as an illustration, not a demonstration. In the entire corpus of Hebrew, I’ve found no evidence that the absolute-infinitive doubling is emphatic.

      I would turn the question around. What evidence do people use to conclude that the construction is emphatic? My understanding is that it is simply the fact that there are more words, which is the kind of flawed reasoning that was popular many years ago.

      Another way to look at it is this: Maybe the doubling is ironic. Maybe it is reverential. Maybe it is tentative. These three possibilities are all equally as (un)likely as an emphatic reading. (I would reject them all until I have reason to believe one of them.)

      Comment by Joel H. | December 22, 2009 | Reply

    • I see. So you think that there is likely *a* significance to the repeat, but that “emphasis” may or may not be *the* significance, since not every case fits that model. Good point.

      Might it signal some kind of progressive aspect? I’m thinking, “you’ll start to die, and eventually be dead.” And “I’ll start multiplying you, and eventually you’ll be greatly multiplied.”

      Obviously, Adam didn’t die right away, but, denied access to the healing of the tree of life, he began to decay and die. So also, multiplication of the Jews is ongoing.

      Comment by WoundedEgo | December 22, 2009 | Reply

      • Yes, I think the grammatical construction conveyed something, but I don’t think it was emphasis.

        As for figuring out what it means, looking at this one case is not nearly enough.

        Comment by Joel H. | December 22, 2009

  2. Very interesting post, Dr. Hoffman! Thank you.

    I can’t say that I’d consider progression to be the idea of the doubling in Genesis 3 — that would make the snake seem a straightforward liar rather than a devious lawyer, a devil of technicalities.

    As for the last example (emou, eme, emoi, etc.): It is not significantly longer just because it is not an enclitic. It may signify only how much breath someone had in speaking the sentence, which means practically nil for translational purposes. Now, if a word had a variant form three syllables longer and it was rare, then I would be inclined to suspect emphasis.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | December 27, 2009 | Reply

    • Now, if a word had a variant form three syllables longer and it was rare, then I would be inclined to suspect emphasis.

      For what reason? I don’t think that length (or rareness) is an indication of emphasis. Just to give one example, Modern Hebrew has two words for “I,” the shorter ani and the longer anochi. It also has two words for “we,” the shorter anu and the longer anachnu. As it happens, ani (the shorter word for “I”) and anachnu (the longer word for “we”) are the common pronouns. The others (anochi and anu) are formal, but not emphatic.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 27, 2009 | Reply

  3. Point taken. I would have suspected emphasis as a possibility, but formality would be another logical one for the rarity of a form. Emphasis ultimately doesn’t lie in the number of syllables, I now realize.

    I must ask: what about the double use of “comfort” in Isaiah 40:1? My NIV study Bible says it is doubled for emphasis. Is the double-imperative emphatic.

    Comment by Gary Simmons | December 27, 2009 | Reply

    • Emphasis ultimately doesn’t lie in the number of syllables, I now realize.
      Exactly. And when you phrase it that way — “the more syllables a phrase has the more emphatic it is” — you realize how silly it is.

      I must ask: what about the double use of “comfort” in Isaiah 40:1? My NIV study Bible says it is doubled for emphasis. Is the double-imperative emphatic?

      Probably. I think that doubling a word is different that merely adding syllables. And while I can imagine a host of affects that a doubled word might have, emphasis seems the most likely. Buy I think Isaiah 40:1 is a little different, because no one (that I know of) is claiming that doubling an imperative is a uniquely Hebrew construction, while the claim is precisely that for the one Greek and the three Hebrew examples I gave.

      Comment by Joel H. | December 28, 2009 | Reply

      • I wonder if Isaiah 40:1 is an allusion to the “comfort” that Noah was to bring after the flood. The idea that the comfort is that the destruction brought about because of their sin is now over.

        Isa 40:1 “Comfort, comfort my people,”
        says your1 God.
        Isa 40:2 “Speak kindly to2 Jerusalem,3 and tell her
        that her time of warfare is over,4
        that her punishment is completed.5
        For the LORD has made her pay double6 for all her sins.”

        Gen 5:29 He named him Noah,21 saying, “This one will bring us comfort22 from our labor and from the painful toil of our hands because of the ground that the LORD has cursed.”

        Since they had received double for their sins, perhaps they needed double comfort?

        Isa 40:2 “Speak kindly to2 Jerusalem,3 and tell her
        that her time of warfare is over,4
        that her punishment is completed.5
        For the LORD has ***made her pay double6 for all her sins***.”

        Comment by WoundedEgo | December 28, 2009

      • Note also the double use of “double portion” in 61:7. I wonder if Isaiah had double-vision…

        Comment by Gary Simmons | December 30, 2009

      • Or maybe just a stutter!

        Comment by WoundedEgo | December 30, 2009

      • Isa 57:19 I create the fruit of the lips; **Peace, peace** to him that is far off, and to him that is near, saith the LORD; and I will heal him.

        Isa 28:11 For with stammering lips and another tongue will he speak to this people.

        Comment by WoundedEgo | December 30, 2009


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