Toward the Meaning of the Biblical Hebrew Piel Stem

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Toward the Meaning of the Biblical Hebrew Piel Stem

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Title: Toward the Meaning of the Biblical Hebrew Piel Stem
Author: Beckman, John Charles ORCID  0000-0003-0098-8824
Citation: Beckman, John Charles. 2015. Toward the Meaning of the Biblical Hebrew Piel Stem. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
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Abstract: The biblical Hebrew D stem (piel) seems to be inconsistent from verb to verb, both in its meaning and in its relationship to the G stem (qal). For example, the D stem has a higher valency than the G stem for some verbs (e.g., קדשׁ G ‘to be holy’, D ‘to make holy’), whereas for other verbs, the G and D stems seem to be interchangeable (e.g., שׁבר־1 can be glossed ‘to break’ in both the G and D stems).

The dominant explanation for this is by Waltke and O’Connor (1990), who draw upon earlier work by Jenni (1968) and Goetze (1942). They posit that the D stem is factitive/resultative, meaning that it describes the subject causing a passive undersubject to enter a state without describing the process. Thus שׁבר־1, which means ‘to break’ (process) in the G stem, means ‘to make broken’ (resultative) in the D stem. By developing criteria to detect this distinction and by examining every occurrence of every verb in the Hebrew Bible, we found that the D stem has a process meaning far more often than a resultative meaning, contrary to Waltke and O’Connor’s hypothesis. Furthermore, their hypothesis cannot explain verbs that lack a direct object in the D stem.

As an alternate explanation, Kouwenberg (1997, 2010) argued that the D stem originally expressed verbal intensity but then developed a variety of meanings, including verbal plurality and high semantic transitivity. In addition to having cross-linguistic support, this hypothesis also passed all three tests that we devised regarding its use in the Hebrew Bible: (1) The D stem adds an agent only to verbs that have low semantic transitivity in the G stem. (2) For verbs with roughly the same meaning in the D and G stems, the D stem is more likely in contexts that have high verbal plurality or (3) high semantic transitivity. Nevertheless, the difference in likelihood is often slight. Furthermore, the flexibility of Kouwenberg’s explanation makes it difficult to falsify, even in theory. Therefore, the level of support for Kouwenberg’s hypothesis is modest.
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