Plural Verbs

When we think of plural verbs, (I’m using the awkward expression on purpose), we tend to think of them in terms of multiple actors, “they seize” as opposed to “he seizes,” for example. But there is another way to think of plural verbs. Think of them as indicating repetitive or iterative actions, “to repetitively seize.” In English, we generally use an adverb to express this kind of notion. But Akkadian, with a rather small set of adverbs, uses a quite different way to express ideas like iteration or repetition. It uses special forms of the verb, forms with an infixed –tan-. Take a look at a couple of forms on abātu, “to seize” as an example. Iabbat means “he seizes.” But itanabbat means “he repetitively seizes” or the like.
Now, all this is not so abnormal. But when one looks at the way Akkadian scribes often wrote the iterative itanabbat, “he repetitively seizes,” it becomes abnormally interesting. Rather than spelling out the words using syllabic signs, Akkadian often uses logograms. Scribes used two methods to indicate the iterative with logograms. In one method, scribes simply doubled the logogram. To stay with our example, DIB (Sumerian DAB) was the common logogram for abātu in most forms. But scribes often wrote the iterative forms of abātu DIB.DIB. The other way was to use the plural determinative, in the case of itanabbat DIB.MEŠ. Occasional they did it both ways for good measure, DIB.DIB.MEŠ. The MEŠ sign is exactly the same sign scribes used to indicate plural nouns, DINGIR.MEŠ, “gods,” as opposed to DINGIR, “god.” And sometimes they indicated a noun in the plural by repeating the logogram for the noun. Voilà, now you see why I called forms like itanabbat, when written DIB.MEŠ or DIB.DIB, plural verbs. All of this goes back to Sumerian orthography and grammar. Duplicated (or reduplicated, if you prefer) signs in Sumerian verbs often indicate a plurality of number. This even happens occasionally in Akkadian. But this is not always the case. I will leave it to others to argue about aspect vs. tense in the case of “reduplication” in certain Sumerian verbs. I simply note here that, whatever it might mean, duplication of signs in certain specific verbs does not always represent plurality of number.
By the way, Egyptian uses a similar, but as far as I can tell, not exactly identical, device to denote repetitive or continuous action in verbs.
Now for a wild speculative question: Does the doubling of a logogram that resolves into an iterative form in Akkadian relate in any way to the double verb phenomenon one occasionally runs into in Biblical Hebrew? Let’s look at what I think is the first example in the Hebrew Bible, Genesis 2:17, מות תמות, mot tamut. Grammatically this is a construct infinitive followed by a cognate finite verb. Translators generally render the expression as an emphatic, “You will surely die.” But might it mean something more like “You will be permanently dead.” Would an iterative or repetitive understanding work other places; “I will always go with you (Judges 4:9)” or “The King of Babylon will repeatedly come and destroy the land (Jeremiah, 36:29)” to pick but two examples? My translations show that I think it would works there also. I need to check out the other cases to see if there are any obvious exceptions.
Of course, I don’t think that Hebrew usage came directly from Akkadian (or Sumerian or even Egyptian for that matter) orthographic conventions. But it may have come for a general notion of plurality of actions and that notion may go back to Akkadian or Sumerian usage.
Important caveats: I haven’t checked out any secondary sources on this wild idea and, like much that I speculate about here, the idea might be deeply flawed from several differing points of view. Not the least is that Hebrew doesn’t seem to repeat cognate finite verbs in the same form. But then, neither does Akkadian. Also, aside from a extremely cursory survey, I haven’t really looked in detail the ways other Semitic languages express iteration. And then there’s those strange and rare Hebrew stems like, pe‘al’al, for example, that seem to have an iterative feel. Note the duplication.

4 thoughts on “Plural Verbs”

  1. As you say abnormally interesting, though as I read your post I was thinking more of the doubled consonants of the stem forms rather than theמות תמות, mot tamut type… haven’t had time (travelling) to look closer… what about the fact that the preformative is in the middle… (i.e. not מותתמות, tamutmut?

  2. Tim,
    The doubled constants in a few Hebrew stems may be a closer analogy to the Akkadian usage of doubled logograms than the construct infinitive followed by a cognate finite verb. While you thought of them from the beginning, they didn’t occur to me until I was nearly done with the post. Perhaps I should have made more of them. That doesn’t keep me from still wondering about the construct infinitive constructions. There is enough wiggle room in my thought process to allow for the “preformative” being in the middle or there being two differing cognate forms one after the other. But then, there’s always a lot of wiggle room in my thought process!

  3. For “plural verbs”, I would strongly recommend examining Proto-Indo-European for added grammatical insight. Reduplication has been reconstructed in PIE based on much evidence found in its daughter languages and the doubling of the verb root is later used for both iterative/presentive actions (eg. *di-deh₃-ti ‘he gives’) and perfective ones (eg. *bʰe-bʰor-e ‘he has carried’).
    ‘Pluralization of action’, as it were, is very common. I would even go so far as to call it a universal tendency in world languages to treat actions as ‘plural’ in some way when the actions in question are repetitious, immediate, habitual and/or intense. Don’t be afraid. What you say makes perfect semantic sense when you think about it more.

  4. Translators generally render the expression as an emphatic, “You will surely die.”
    Your suggestion certainly is wild and speculative, but it’s hardly worse than the current mainstream hypothesis that the construction is emphatic. (1) There is no evidence to point toward emphasis; and (2) frequently the emphatic reading is awkward or even barely possible. For example, in Genesis 3:4 we usually find “…you will not surely die” (presumably, “you will surely not die”), but the emphasis there seems forced.
    I think this is still a construction that we don’t fully understand.

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