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Bible Lexicons

Gesenius Hebrew Grammer

Part 83

§83. Verbal Nouns in General.

1. In Hebrew, as in Greek and Latin, the verbal nouns are connected in form and meaning primarily with certain forms of the verb, especially the participles and infinitives, which are themselves, even in their ordinary form, frequently used precisely like nouns, e.g. אֹיֵב‎ enemy, דַּ֫עַת‎ to know, knowledge. Still oftener, however, certain forms of the infinitive and participle, which are seldom or never found as such in the strong verb, though in use in the weak verb and in the kindred dialects, came to be commonly used for the verbal noun; e.g. the participial form קָטֵל‎, the infinitives of the (Aramaic) form מִקְטַל‎ (as a noun also מִקְטָל‎), further קְטֹ֫לֶת‎, קִטְלָה‎, קָטְלָה‎, קֻטְלָה‎ (§45d), &c. Others (as the Arabic shows) are properly intensive forms of the participle.

2. As regards their meaning, it follows from the nature of the case that nouns which have the form of the infinitive regularly denote the action or state, with other closely related ideas, and are therefore mostly abstract; while the participial nouns, on the contrary, denote for the most part the subject of the action or state, and are therefore concrete. Moreover, it is to be noticed, that a particular meaning is attached to many of the special forms of derivative nouns, although it does not appear equally in them all.

Rem. It need not appear strange, when we consider the analogy of other languages, that a noun which in form is properly abstract afterwards acquired a concrete sense, and vice versa. So in English, we say his acquaintance, for the persons with whom he is acquainted; the Godhead for God himself; in Hebrew מוֹדַע‎ acquaintance and an acquaintance.

The inner connexion in thought between Semitic noun-forms and the corresponding verbal forms is investigated in the works of De Lagarde and Barth (see the titles at the head of §79) on very different lines, but with many points of agreement. De Lagarde starts from the fact that language consists of sentences. A sentence which consists of only one word is called a verb, and anything which serves as a complement to it is a noun. The oldest form of the sentence is the imperative. Closely related to it are three kinds of sentences of the nature of verbal forms, differing according as the property of the particular object of sense is to be represented as invariable (form qatula), or as liable to change (form qatila), or, finally, as a circumstance which takes place before our eyes (form qatala). Like the imperative, these three forms of sentences have also been transformed into nouns, by means of certain phonetic changes,—especially by the omission of the final vowels and the addition of different terminations to the last consonant of the stem. But just as the forms of the verbal sentence undergo numerous modifications (in the tenses, moods, and conjugations), so also do the nouns, sometimes by assimilation of the unessential to the characteristic vowel (qutul, qitil), sometimes by the lengthening of the characteristic vowel (qatûl, qatîl, qatâl), or else through the displacement of the accent and the consequent reduction of the noun to a monosyllabic form (qatl, qutl, qitl), or, finally, by their being formed from the derived stems (or conjugations), e.g. qattal, qattâl; qutil, qittâl, &c. Further modifications arise from the use of the various imperfect and infinitive forms, and also from the employment of the prefix m. Lastly, denominalia are formed from deverbalia by appending certain suffixes.

De Lagarde does not, however, claim to be able to show in the case of each particular noun the sense it conveyed in primitive times; the origin of a number of nouns can now no longer be detected. In those, however, which are clearly derived from verbs, the original meaning is chiefly determined by the characteristic vowel.

Barth’s system is based on the thesis that ‘all Semitic nouns, adjectives, and participles are derived from either the perfect or the imperfect stem’. Thus, e.g. קָטוֹל‎ is the infinitive of the perfect stem, קְטֹל‎ the infinitive of the imperfect stem, שְׁכַב‎ infinitive of יִשְׁכַּב‎, &c. In dissyllabic noun-forms the second vowel is always alone characteristic and essential, the first vowel unessential, and therefore variable. Further modifications of the simple form are effected by strengthening (sharpening) the second or third consonant, by lengthening the characteristic vowel (instead of which, however, the feminine termination may also be used), or by ‘metaplasm’, i.e. by the use of noun-forms derived from one of the two intransitive stems for the other, e.g. qutl for qitl, and vice versa.

In nouns of the perfect stem, the vowels i and u indicate intransitive formations, the vowel a a transitive sense. In nouns of the imperfect stem on the contrary, u and i, being characteristic vowels, indicate a transitive and a an intransitive sense: for yaqtŭlŭ is imperfect of the transitive perfect qatala, and yaqtŭlŭ imperfect of the intransitive perfects qatila and qatula, &c. This explains how nouns, apparently identical in form, may yet in sense belong to different classes: a qutl-form from a u-imperfect has a transitive meaning, but the same form from a u-perfect has an intransitive meaning. This double system of perfect and imperfect forms runs through the whole scheme of noun-formation, not only the forms connected with the conjugations, but also the forms with prefixes and suffixes.

Against the whole theory it has been urged that it postulates for the development of the language a much too abstract mechanism, and further, that the meanings of words as we find them may in many cases be due to a modification of the original sense. But though many of the details (e.g. the alleged unessential character of the vowel of the first syllable) remain doubtful, yet the agreement between the characteristic vowel of certain noun formations and that of the perfect or imperfect stem, is supported by such a number of incontestable instances, that there can be no doubt as to a systematic, intimate connexion between the two. At the same time it must be admitted that De Lagarde has put forward many important and suggestive points, and both scholars agree in laying stress on one characteristic vowel as indicative of the meaning.

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