God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: Girl Nations and Boy Nations

From the About comes this great question:

I have a question about the gender of nations. It seems like nations can be referred with both masculine and feminine pronouns. Is there any significance with this change? For example, Moab is “he” in Isa 16:12, Israel is “he” in Jer 2:14; 50:17 but “herself” in Jer 3:11, and Babylon is “she” in Jer 50:29, just to name a few.

What a fascinating observation for those of us who love language.

Gender, as we know, is more complex than Language 101 classes would suggest (I have some particularly vexing examples here), and it’s not unheard of for words to allow two genders.

For example, the Modern Hebrew shemesh, “sun,” is generally feminine but in poetry can be masculine. In this case, the agreement choice even has implications for the translator, because masculine agreement is a sign of poetic register.

On the other hand, multiple gender agreement is fairly rare. So when we see dual agreement with so many nation-words (“Moab,” “Damascus,” “Egypt,” “Israel,” and others) we have to assume that this is more than coincidence.

To get a sense of the issue we need only look at Isaiah 17:1. There, damesek (“Damascus”) is first masculine, then feminine: hinei damesek musar [masculine] mei’ir v’hayta [feminine] m’i hapala, that is, “Damascus will cease to be a city and will become a pile of rubble.” “Will cease” is masculine and “will become” is feminine.

Another example is mitzrayim (“Egypt”). In Exodus 12:33 the word for the nation takes a feminine verb, in Psalm 105:38 (sometimes numbered 104:38), a masculine one.

Exodus 14:25 expands the data set a bit, because Egypt is personified as “I,” not “we”: vayomer mitzrayim anusa…, “Egypt said, ‘I will….’,” though every translation I know of, including the LXX, renders this as “we will…” Going back to Exodus 12:33, we see that even though mitzrayim takes a feminine singular verb at first, the continuation of the verse is masculine plural.

Unfortunately, I don’t have an easy way to gather all of the verbs that have a particular subject. So for now this is more like a “Q and not really A,” because I don’t have an answer yet.

(As a guess, this is a case of conflicting agreement considerations. For example, in English, “either he or I will be in jail” is perfectly grammatical. But it’s not so easy to put that sentence into the present. “Either he or I am in jail?” No. “Either he or I is in jail?” Also no. “Either he or I are in jail?” A little better. I suspect that, similarly, in Hebrew there were reasons for nations to be masculine and feminine, singular and plural. But without more data, it’s hard to form a more concrete conclusion.)

Can someone provide a complete or nearly complete set of the verbs for, let’s say, “Israel,” “Moab,” “Egypt” and “Damascus”?

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December 27, 2009 - Posted by | Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , , ,

3 Comments »

  1. I remember hearing or reading somewhere that in Hebrew poetry a masculine noun is often put in parallel with a feminine one to indicate totality, encompassing both the masculine and the feminine. Could the same be happening in Isaiah 17:1, for example, with the masculine and the feminine versions of Damascus being used to indicate that this disaster will be total and encompass the whole city?

    Comment by Peter Kirk | December 28, 2009 | Reply

    • I remember hearing or reading somewhere that in Hebrew poetry a masculine noun is often put in parallel with a feminine one to indicate totality, encompassing both the masculine and the feminine.

      I’ve never heard (or noticed) this before. Do you have examples? I also wonder if this might happen by accident. As you know, parallelism is very common in Biblical Hebrew. By chance, half of the time two nouns are in parallel they’ll have different genders.

      Could the same be happening in Isaiah 17:1, for example, with the masculine and the feminine versions of Damascus being used to indicate that this disaster will be total and encompass the whole city?

      Maybe. The Modern Hebrew equivalent with shemesh (e.g., hashamesh zarazh v’lo tafsik lizro’ach, “the sun shone [masc.] and will not stop [fem.] shining”) isn’t as bad as I thought it would be, at least not to my ear.

      Even so, I wonder if something else is going on in Isaiah 17:1. Maybe musar is a noun there, or maybe it was supposed to be the feminine future verb tusar, “will cease to be,” instead of the masculine present musar.

      At any rate, this strikes me as so odd that I’m reserving judgment.

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

  2. I think the pronoun choices have to do with the way these nations are personified. I think that the default for Israel is to be personified as a man (though I don’t have evidence for that), but it’s quite clear that when Israel’s relationship with God is compared to a husband and his adulterous wife/prostitute, that Israel is personified as a woman, as in Jeremiah 3:11.

    Comment by Dannii | December 28, 2009 | Reply


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