A reassessment of the Hebrew negative interrogative particle hl'.

Author:McAffee, Matthew


The Hebrew language employs the combination of two separate particles in order to express a negative rhetorical question (cf. Latin none?). (1) According to the vowel pointing of the MT, the negative rhetorical particle consists of the interrogative {h} + the negative particle lo' > halo'. (2) Scholars have long observed that in certain contexts, the Hebrew negative interrogative seems to warrant an asseverative meaning. (3) For example, in H. A. Brongers' study of this particle, he provides the following assessment of its meaning in light of an ancient Near Eastern cultural context:

In the oriental way of thinking in colloquial speech one must avoid any statement that may possibly offend the partner. Hence the remarkable phenomenon that in cases where the partner is supposed to be fully aware of the positive content of the statement this is nevertheless preceded by the interrogative particle. This is nothing but courteousness, comparable with our introducing of a statement by the friendly "As everyone knows" or "As generally acknowledged." (4) Essentially, Brongers operates under the assumption that the asseverative meaning stems from the nature of the negative interrogative rhetorical question, which usually expects a positive response. (5) For the most part, Bronger's analysis falls in line with the traditional view, exemplified in GKC's remark on the positive force of the negative interrogative particle: "It serves merely to express the conviction that the contents of the statement are well known to the hearer, and are unconditionally admitted by him." (6)

Another approach has been offered by some Northwest Semitic grammarians, namely one which posits a new etymology for the asseverative meaning, separate and therefore distinct from the negative interrogative particle. (7) One of the more prominent studies on this topic is that of Michael L. Brown, who promotes the new asseverative etymology on the following grounds: 1) many examples throughout the Hebrew Bible are better suited to a meaning roughly equivalent to hinneh 'Look!, Behold!' and 2) comparative evidence attests the existence of an affirmative particle hlw 'Look!, Behold!' (8)

Much of the discussion has focused on the existence of presentative/asseverative particles in other Northwest Semitic languages as proof that a similar particle must have existed in Classical Hebrew as well. Perhaps Ugaritic has provided the most fodder for the debate with its presentative particle hl 'Look!, Behold!' allegedly providing the comparitive evidence for a counterpart in Hebrew, though now lost as a result of the MT's conflating it with halo' The El Amama (EA) particle allu has had a similar effect, leading some scholars to posit yet another etymological relative of the newly proposed Hebrew asseverative. (9) Finally, Aramaic has made its own contribution to this newly proposed etymology, offering the particles hlw (Imperial Aramaic) and 'aluw (Biblical Aramaic) for consideration in the conversation about Hebrew hl'. (10)

The following essay, then, will attempt to evaluate the legitimacy of this alternative etymological proposal for Hebrew halo'. Does the comparative evidence indeed make it necessary to reconstruct a now lost asseverative particle for Classical Hebrew? Furthermore, does the earlier approach, which makes an allowance for the gradual development of the original rhetorical negative question to a positive assertion in function, fail to account for those instances in the Hebrew Bible where the negative interrogative seems forced? Toward the end of this discussion, the syntax of Hebrew halo' will be considered briefly as another source of evidence in evaluating this new hypothesis, asking the question: does this particle correspond syntactically to other Hebrew particles? These questions will be entertained in what follows in an attempt to assess the available evidence for or against the newly reconstructed Hebrew asseverative.


The natural place to begin in dealing with the evidence from Ugaritic would be the particle hl/hln/hlny. However, due to the importance of its relationship with hn (and more specifically hnn and hnny) in Ugaritic epistolography, the following discussion will start off with a brief etymological overview of hn/hnn/hnny before treating hl/hln/hlny. Furthermore, their overlap in usage throughout the epistolary materials makes Ugaritic hl an unlikely parallel for the so-called Hebrew asseverative *halluw.

Ugaritic hn

Morphologically, the Ugaritic particle hnny amounts to an expansion of the presentative particle hn: hn + -n + -y. Scholars have noted this capacity of the particle, as for example C. H. Gordon, who interprets hn- as the equivalent of the Hebrew particle hinneh, 'behold', but does not comment specifically on the expanded form hnny. (11) Similarly, Stanislav Segert translates hn as 'behold, lo', but also notes that hn "and its derivatives hnn, hnny, and hi (and perhaps him) usually occur at the beginning of a clause," categorizing hn- and hl- together at least on the syntactical level. (12) Daniel Sivan also glosses hn (hinni?) as 'behold' on analogy to Hebrew hinneh, (13) but elsewhere categorizes hnny and hlny as locative adverbs meaning 'here, hither'. (14) Joseph Tropper identifies hn as both a "Lokaladverb" meaning 'hier', citing Hebrew hennah, Arabic huna, ha/inna, and Akkadian anna/i- for his categorization, (15) as well as the demonstrative pronoun hnd (hanna + di/a) 'dieser' and adverb hn (ha/innV) 'siehe!' (16) In an extensive review of Tropper's landmark grammar, Dennis Pardee suggests that the entire category for his locative hn depends upon a single example (RS 16.402:31), and that in this case it should be etymologically related to Arabic huna rather than Hebrew hinneh. (17) Bordreuil and Pardee define hn as a deictic particle (related to the Hebrew definite article /han-/ and the presentative particle hen/hinneh) which can be expanded with suffixed elements (in this case -n + -y). (18)

Ugaritic hl

The particle hl has garnered a number of interpretations, but it appears as though most scholars have viewed it primarily as a deictic particle. Gordon explains that functionally, hl may "emphasize the sentence it introduces" and simply translates 'lo'. (19) The deictic nature of hi is without dispute, (20) but the expanded forms (i.e., hln, hlny) also demonstrate an additional locative sense in Ugaritic letters. For Tropper, hl serves primarily as a deictic particle in both its initial and expanded forms: hl, hln, hlny = 'siehe!', (21) though he briefly notes a possible connection with Hebrew halo' 'nicht?', implying that the Ugaritic hl and the Hebrew form traditionally understood as the negative interrogative (interrogative ha + negative lo' = negative rhetorical question expecting affirmative answer) are etymologically related. (22) Brown has attempted to make the same etymological connection, suggesting that the "emphatic" force of the Ugaritic form compels a reanalysis of Hebrew halo' in certain cases, which would reduce it to the status of being a synonym of hinneh. (23) For Brown at least, this etymological connection is primarily grounded on those usages of hnny and hlny in the formulaic greeting under the assumption that in those cases they simply mean 'behold', (24) without any consideration of the independent examples of hlny at the beginning of letters. If one can demonstrate that hlny functions as a locative in those settings, this connection would be weakened, since the contexts of Hebrew halo' would not readily lend themselves to a locative interpretation. It seems that Pardee is right in suggesting that hlny is the particle that takes on "locative nuance"; (25) though hi can function deictically, the locative sense is well attested in Ugaritic letters. (26)

Epistolary Usage of hnny/hlny

The expanded particles hnny/hlny occur almost exclusively in the greeting formula of Ugaritic letters. (27) This greeting formula consists of a general statement of well-being, in which the writer acknowledges his own state of affairs, which may be followed by a request for the addressee to return word to him concerning his own state of well-being. A typical formula might look something like the following: hlny/hnny 'mn slm.... tinny 'mk mnm slm rgm ttb ly "Here with me all is well ... there with you, whatever is well return word to me." (28) As to the initial elements of the formula in question, it has often been noted that both hlny and hnny are utilized in the "here-there" formulation. However, some scholars move one step further in arguing that this interchange may indicate that the particles hlny and hnny were synonymous in their meaning and function. (29) One cannot deny that these two particles are interchangeable in this type of formula, (30) but as Pardee has already noted, their distribution does not warrant their being interpreted as complete synonyms, at least without qualification. He observes that in spite of the fact that hlny and hnny both occur in what he calls the "double well-being formula," hlny often occurs at the beginning of the main body of the letter, whereas hnny does not:

Certains textes permettent d'etablir une distinction semantique entre hn- et hi-: il s'agit de l'usage du seul hl- pour introduire le corps de la lettre lorsqu'il ne s'agit pas de la formule de bien-etre, toujours en rapport avec la situation de l'expediteur. En plus du sens presentatif, "void," ce mot comporte done la nuance locale d'"ici." (31) This observation in essence attempts to show that outside of the formulaic expression of well-being, hlny is the particle of choice to denote the writer's distance from the respective addressee. This situation contrasts with that of hnn(y) in its restriction to the formulaic well-being address, casting doubt on the innate ability of this particle to denote a locative nuance. (32) By way of example, RS 94.2479...

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