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Review of  Die biblisch-hebräische Partikel נָא im Lichte der antiken Bibelübersetzungen

Reviewer: Geoffrey Sampson
Book Title: Die biblisch-hebräische Partikel נָא im Lichte der antiken Bibelübersetzungen
Book Author: Peter Juhás
Publisher: Brill
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Subject Language(s): Hebrew, Ancient
Language Family(ies): Semitic
Issue Number: 29.689

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The title and subtitle of this book translate as ''The Biblical Hebrew particle na' in the light of ancient Bible translations, with special reference to its supposed function of politeness''. Hebrew na' is a suffix, commonly described as expressing ''entreaty'' and sometimes translated 'please', which is frequent in the Hebrew Bible (more than 400 instances); words to which it is suffixed are often imperative forms of verbs, but it can occur with other verb forms or with words that are not verbs. Europeans encounter this particle in the word ''hosanna'', which is a Greekified spelling of Hebrew hoshagh-na', suffixing the particle to an imperative form of a derivate of the root j-sh-gh that means 'save'. (For the Hebrew transcription system used here see

There has been much debate about just what force na' had in Biblical times. Juhás's approach in this book, which is a version of a Leiden University thesis, is to examine the question by seeing how the suffix was rendered in the three most significant early translations of the Bible, namely (with respective target language and likely translation date):

Septuagint, Greek, 3rd century BC

Peshitta, Syriac (which was a variety of Aramaic that became the language of the Nestorian Church), 2nd–3rd century AD

Vulgate, Latin, about AD 400

Chapter 1 of the book analyses the concepts of politeness and rudeness in language, with particular attention to the work of Brown and Levinson (1987). Juhás points out that Biblical Hebrew lacked a word for 'polite' – the words used to express the concept in modern Israeli Hebrew are based on loans from Greek and Arabic. (However, if Juhás believes that a language which lacks vocabulary for a concept must be a language which does not encode that concept grammatically, this is not an idea that he makes explicit.)

Chapter 2 discusses how discourse particles can be used to express the various senses attributed by different scholars to na'.

Chapter 3 describes the three Bible translations. Juhás points out that the Hebrew manuscripts from which they were prepared clearly differed in some respects (the Masoretic text which is now standard was redacted only many centuries after the latest of the translations studied). And the translations differ also in the extent to which they aimed at literal word-for-word equivalence rather than prose which read naturally in the target language. The Septuagint was produced over a long period during which the translators' practice shifted from semantic fidelity towards word-for-word rendering, whereas St Jerome, translator of the Vulgate, produced an output which was ''halfway between the Ciceronian prose of his own epistles and the laborious word-for-word style'' (quoting Bogaert 2013).

Juhás notes that the respective target languages differed greatly in how far they contained discourse particles which might be used to render the subtle force of these particles in another language. Greek was particularly rich in this respect, while Syriac and Latin had few discourse particles.

Chapter 4 examines the history of scholarly attempts to gloss na'. For Johann Reuchlin, a 15th–16th c. pioneer of Christian Hebrew studies, and for Wilhelm Gesenius, author of the early-19th c. standard grammar of Hebrew, na' was a polyvalent form, used for 'please' but also for emphasis, to express caution, etc. Later scholars sometimes treated the form as having a single function which was something other than entreaty. For Thomas Lambdin it expressed logical consequence, like English 'so'. For M. Bar-Magen the form stood for a nasal prolongation of the preceding word which functioned to draw that word to the hearer's attention. But in the last twenty years a series of Hebraists have in effect claimed that na' is always a politeness marker. It is this last view which Juhás aims to challenge. Juhás believes the form was polyvalent. His concept of its diverse functions draws on a theory about multiple ''discourse levels'', connected with work by Caroline Kroon (1995) and others, but it seems fair to say that his book is concerned more to argue against na' as always a politeness marker than to develop the discourse level theory in detail.

Chapter 4 also examines possible cognates of na' in other Semitic languages. It has often been linked to the so-called energic inflexional category in Arabic. (I have no Arabic, but I have seen the energic glossed as comparable to English ''I do like you'' as opposed to plain ''I like you''.) Juhás is sceptical about this. The only clear cognate he identifies is a form in Hatrani (a now-dead variety of Aramaic); in a later chapter he also concludes that it is probably cognate with a Syriac form written <n'> in the vowel-less Syriac alphabet (though alternatively this might be a loan from Hebrew, and, interestingly, Hebrew na' is rarely reflected by <n'> in the Peshitta).

Chapters 5, 6, and 7 study, instance by instance, the choices made by the three Bible translations in rendering na' (including the choice of leaving it untranslated). Chapter 5 covers the narrative books, from Genesis to Chronicles; Chapter 6 the ''non-prophetic poetic books'' (Psalms, Job); and Chapter 7 the prophetic books, particularly Isaiah and Jeremiah. Juhás notes that the incidence of na' is very different in different books: it is completely absent from the books of law (Leviticus, Deuteronomy), and after the Babylonian Exile (about 600 BC) na' seems to have ceased to be part of ordinary colloquial speech, perhaps being confined to poetic or liturgical registers. In Chronicles it occurs only in speech by David and other royal figures.

At various points Juhás claims that it is implausible to see given instances of na' as expressing politeness. At I Chronicles 22:5, for instance, David is thinking aloud (akina nna' lo, rendered by the New English Bible as ''... therefore I must make preparations for it myself'', taking na' = 'therefore'). We are not normally polite to ourselves. Or at Judges 16:28 Samson begs God for one last access of strength to pull down the pillars of the temple, thus killing the Philistines and himself: Adonaj JHWH zakreni na' wchazzqeni na' ak happagham hazze, ''Remember me, O Lord GOD, remember me: give me strength only this once''. Juhás is surely correct to say that in our final extremity we omit politeness. (A drowning man shouts ''Help!'', not ''Please help''.)

A brief concluding chapter sums up Juhás's quarrel with the idea that na' always expresses politeness. The particle cannot always be translated in one consistent way, he believes, and he sees its ''basic meaning'' as linked not with politeness but with ''attentionality'' and perhaps ''emotionality''.


Juhás has been admirably careful and thorough in executing the task he undertook. Anyone wishing to contribute to the na' debate in future could do well to use this book as a starting point. Apart from Juhás's examination of how the particle was rendered in other languages, his detailed tables of occurrences in various parts of the Hebrew Bible, and his coverage of the history of the debate, make the book an excellent basis for studying the issue. More generally, the book holds much interest for any scholar concerned with the problems of translating ancient languages.

Nevertheless, I am sceptical about whether Juhás has given us the final word on na'.

One assumption which, it seems to me, Juhás never adequately justifies is that early Bible translations embodied authoritative insights into the force of na' in the original Hebrew. Unless we accept that, the value of the exercise is questionable. The early translations are much closer in time to the original than are the scholars discussed in Chapter 4. But closeness in time may not be significant; arguably, what matters is whether the translators had access to Hebrew as a living spoken language in which na' continued to function as it did in the Bible. The Vulgate was produced some two centuries after Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language. And if, as Juhás suggests, the usage of na' was limited and altered after the Exile, then Peshitta and even Septuagint were compiled without first-hand experience of the form as it was used in the earlier, more central books.

One might suppose that, even after Hebrew became a learnèd written language only, there could have been traditions about word usage which the early translators were aware of but which later died out, so that modern scholars do not know them. However, when the form in question is a discourse particle whose meaning(s) is/are abstract and tied to the spoken medium (rather than, say, a name for a concrete object), I find that implausible. I cannot imagine how such a tradition could be maintained by people whose own mother tongues did not encode the same abstract sense.

Consider, for instance, what Juhás says in the very last sentence of his book. If we want to identify a close equivalent to na' in a modern European language, a good approximation (he suggests) would be German 'doch' (in its role as discourse particle, not as an interjection contradicting a negative assertion). English has no close equivalent. My German is reasonable and when I hear a German use 'doch' I feel intuitively that I understand what he is doing with the word; but I would be very hard put to express that verbally so as to explain it to a non-German speaker. Yet German is a widely-spoken living language. How could this type of knowledge be maintained over centuries when there was no continuing possibility of checking against native-speaker behaviour?

From this point of view one might think that modern scholarship, which at least draws on wide experience of exotic languages and on sophisticated logical and linguistic analysis, is likely to be better placed than early translators to infer from context what na' meant.

Another problem is that it is difficult to use context to establish the force of an instance of na', if the meaning of the context is itself unclear. For instance, one passage that Juhás cites more than once in order to argue that na' cannot invariably indicate politeness is Exodus 10:11, where Moses and Aaron have been pestering the Pharaoh to let the Israelites emigrate, pretending that this will be a temporary absence because they are required to sacrifice to their God Yahweh in the desert, and the Pharaoh replies Lo' ken l'ku-na' hagg'barim wghib'du et-JHWH, where na' is suffixed to the masc. pl. imperative of h-l-k 'go'. Juhás takes this as an exasperated shout of ''No! Get out of here, [you] men ...''. In that case a politeness marker would indeed be out of place. But every English Bible version I have looked at takes it differently, along the lines ''No, let the men [alone] go ...''. In societies familiar to me there is nothing odd about a man of authority choosing a polite way to decline a subordinate's request. I am not qualified to adjudicate between Juhás and the other learned Hebraists responsible for the English translations, but it does seem to me that the latter interpretation fits better with the following clause ''and serve [again imperative] Yahweh'', and also with what precedes.

Likewise, there are a number of places where Juhás suggests that puzzling translations may be explainable in terms of the translator working from a Hebrew text different from any now extant. That is clearly a possibility, but it further reduces the value of the translations as guides to the meaning of problematic Hebrew forms.

Lastly, I wonder whether some of the senses which Juhás attributes to instances of na' are as incompatible with the 'please' sense as he supposes. At a number of places Juhás argues that instances of the particle seem to express impatience, anger, or sarcasm. These concepts are certainly different from politeness. But then, in English people often say ''Oh, please!'' in an impatient or sarcastic way, and it seems to me that this does not make 'please' an ambiguous English word – it is because of the basic, polite sense of 'please' that it works as an expression of impatience or sarcasm. Is it unreasonably Anglocentric to think that the same could have been true in Hebrew?

The book has been superbly well produced by the publisher. It must have been challenging to print, containing as it does frequent inline quotations in Greek, pointed Hebrew, and Syriac alphabets, and some in Ethiopic and Coptic scripts. Because typographic features such as italics or bold face do not apply to some of these scripts, keywords are picked out in red, which I imagine considerably increased production costs. I did not spot a single misprint, which is rare even for books that pose fewer printing difficulties. I would only remark that the indexing has not been perfectly done; I could not find an explanation of the reference ''Ber 9a'' (p. 37) in the tables of abbreviations, and Thomas Lambdin's name is missing from the author index.


Bogaert, Pierre-Maurice. 2013. ''The Latin Bible''. In James Paget and Joachim Schaper, eds, New Cambridge history of the Bible: from the beginnings to 600. Cambridge University Press.

Brown, Penelope and Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: some universals in language use. Cambridge University Press.

Kroon, Caroline. 1995. Discourse particles in Latin. Brill (Amsterdam).
Geoffrey Sampson graduated in Chinese Studies from Cambridge University, and his academic career was spent partly in Linguistics and partly in Informatics, with intervals in industrial research. After retiring as professor emeritus from Sussex University in 2009, he spent several years as Research Fellow at the University of South Africa. He has published contributions to most areas of Linguistics, as well as to other subjects. His latest book is ''The Delusion of Linguistics'' (2017).