God Didn't Say That

Bible Translations and Mistranslations

Q&A: How do you work, O vocative?

From the About page:

As a grammar lesson, I tried parsing Psalm 117. There is a possible usage of a ‘he’ marking the use of the vocative (BDB 1.i) but the article is missing on the first colon kol goyim and present on the second shavxuhu col ha’umim. It seems to me that ‘praise the Lord all ye nations’ is different from ‘praise the Lord, all nations’. While both may be vocative, English vocative would be ‘praise the Lord O nations all’, and English suggests preaching rather than invitation if the you or ye is added. What do you think about the use of ‘he’ as signaling the vocative and then the problem of expressing this in English?

As you identify with your two-part question at the end, there are two parts to translating the vocative (as there are with most matters of translation): (1) understanding how it works in Hebrew; and (2) figuring out how to do the same thing in English.

Part 1 is comparatively easy. Part 2 is harder.

First, for those who don’t know, “vocative” technically refers to a specific noun form that is used in addressing someone (or something). For example, in Russian, bog means “God,” but if you’re talking to God, you use the word boge instead. That’s the vocative. We don’t have a true vocative in English, but when we really need it, we can use the prefix “O,” as in, “O God….” (The Russian case is complicated. Poke around in various grammars and you’ll learn two things: Russian has a vocative case and Russian doesn’t have a vocative case. But it does. Really.)

To the best of my knowlege, Hebrew also doesn’t have a vocative. And the heh does not serve this fucntion.

Rather, nominative nouns in Hebrew are used for address. So elohim is “God” both as a form of reference and as a form of address. Conveniently, the verb form in Hebrew (usually) makes it clear when someone is being addressed rather than talked about. In Psalm 117, the verbs hal’lu and shabchuhu are both plural imperative, indicating that a group is being addressed. In other languages, the addressees might be in the vocative case.

In addition, both definite and indefinite nouns can be addressed. We see both in Psalm 117. First “all nations” are addressed, then “all the peoples.” It’s not clear why one should be definite and the other not, but this doesn’t affect the vocative nature of the phrases. (As a guess, the heh was omitted from the first half of the line to make it sound better in ways that we no longer understand.)

Expressing the vocative is tricky in English. Sometimes we can make do without any marking. For example, “God, save me!” is clear and grammatical in English.

Other times — for reasons that are not clear — the vocative interpretation is unavailable in English. For example, Psalm 103 begins with a command to “my soul” to praise the Lord. But “Praise the Lord, my soul” doesn’t quite sound right. It’s unclear. (Also, nefesh doesn’t mean “soul,” but that’s for another time.)

Two partial solutions present themselves in English.

The first is the archaic “O.” For example, “Praise the Lord, O my soul” for Psalm 103 is clearer. But it sounds archaic, because we don’t use “O” in normal speech in English. (“O police officer, please don’t give me a ticket…”)

The other solution in English is to use the pronoun “you.” This, too, is stilted, and only works sometimes. “Praise the Lord, you my soul” sounds ridiculous in English.

On the other hand, this second solution works marginally well in Psalm 117. “Praise the Lord, all you nations” is a little bit clearer (to my ear) than “Praise the Lord, all nations.”

Still, both “O” and “you” turn what should be a simple sentence into an overly formal or archaic one. But to leave them both out sometimes leaves an unclear sentence.

The problem isn’t just the lack of a vocative in English, by the way. It’s the combined lack of a vocative and clear imperative.

So Psalm 103, Psalm 117, and many of the other imperatives cause problems for the translator.

I think that these vocatives/imperatives — so simple in Hebrew and so convoluted in English — also serve to remind us how complex translation can be.


January 12, 2010 - Posted by | general linguistics, Q&A, translation practice, translation theory | , , , , , ,


  1. Precisely one modern Russian word has a distinct vocative form – the one you mentioned (but the vocative is bozhe, not boge). This is an exception, perhaps an archaism. Is such an exception really to be considered a “case”? If so, you could claim that English has a vocative case because of the form “Jesu” used as a vocative of “Jesus” in some hymns.

    Comment by Peter Kirk | January 12, 2010

  2. Thanks again, Joel. It is nice to see that there are some possible disputes with BDB and their inferences on how the ancient tongue worked.

    And Peter – Jesu is a Latin form imported into English. Of course, Latin is fully declined for vocative.

    Comment by Bob MacDonald | January 13, 2010

    • BDB was compiled before the advent of modern linguistics, so it’s hardly surprising that some of it needs updating, sometimes significantly. Still, I was surprised when you pointed out BDB’s suggestion that the heh marks the vocative. At most, it seems to me that it might sometimes correlate with the vocative, in that one might be more likely to talk to something or someone represented by a definite noun than by an indefinite one.

      Comment by Joel H. | January 13, 2010

    • I have seen German use “Jesu” as a vocative as well, no doubt also a carry-over from Latin.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | January 13, 2010

  3. Precisely one modern Russian word has a distinct vocative form — the one you mentioned (but the vocative is bozhe, not boge). This is an exception, perhaps an archaism. Is such an exception really to be considered a “case”? If so, you could claim that English has a vocative case because of the form “Jesu” used as a vocative of “Jesus” in some hymns.

    I meant “g” as in the end of “garage” for боже, but you’re right, bozhe is clearer.

    And we digress, but my understanding is that many more words have vocative forms: Slav to address Slava, for example, but not when talking about him. As I said, poke around and you’ll see that most grammars miss this — and it’s seldom reflected in written Russian — but Russian linguists are aware of it, and it’s common in certain Russian dialects.

    Comment by Joel H. | January 13, 2010

  4. For me, the two most troubling vocatives (rightly, or wrongly so-called) are:

    Heb 1:8 But unto the Son he saith, Thy throne, O God, is for ever and ever: a sceptre of righteousness is the sceptre of thy kingdom.


    Joh 20:28 And Thomas answered and said unto him, My Lord and my God.

    For Hebrews 1:8, I wonder if it ought to read:

    “Thy throne [is] God..”

    and the second might read as an exclamation:


    Comment by WoundedEgo | January 13, 2010

    • The John one is poignant because it’s both.

      Comment by Gary Simmons | January 13, 2010

      • Is he saying “My lord!” and “My god!” ??

        No matter. Clearly whatever he said it does not contradict the words of Jesus just a few verses before…

        John 20:17 Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.

        If Jesus trumps Thomas, then we have the proper identification…

        Comment by WoundedEgo | January 13, 2010

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