No feminine participle of the verb נָתַן-יִתֵּן attested in the Bible
It is a bit odd that the qal verb נָתַן-יִתֵּן ‘to give; to place; to set’, which occurs 1,923 times in the Hebrew Bible, never once occurs as a feminine participle. The only participle forms attested are the masculine singular נוֹתֵן/נֹתֵן and the masculine plural נוֹתְנִים/נֹתְנִים. Note the following examples:
וְאַתָּ֤ה נֽוֹתֵן־לָהֶ֖ם אֶת־אָכְלָ֣ם בְּעִתּֽוֹ׃
‘And you give them their food at the right time.’
וְכָל־יִשְׂרָאֵל֩ בִּימֵ֨י זְרֻבָּבֶ֜ל וּבִימֵ֣י נְחֶמְיָ֗ה נֹֽתְנִ֛ים מְנָי֛וֹת הַמְשֹׁרְרִ֥ים וְהַשֹּׁעֲרִ֖ים דְּבַר־י֣וֹם בְּיוֹמ֑וֹ
‘And all Israel, in the days of Zerubbabel and Nehemiah, would give the portions of the singers and gatekeepers, as daily portions.’
While we have 105 instances of the masculine singular participle נוֹתֵן/נֹתֵן, there is not a single case of the feminine participle of this verb. So how exactly would one say something like ‘she is giving them food’ in Biblical Hebrew?
Why do we need to know?
For those who only study Biblical Hebrew as a language to be read and translated, this issue, though interesting, is not of utmost importance. Why would we need to determine the morphological shape of an unattested form? It would never be needed to correctly understand or translate a single verse in the Hebrew Bible.
For those of us who study and teach Biblical Hebrew as a living language, however, this is a really crucial question. Because we use the language constantly in the classroom, the feminine participle of נָתַן-יִתֵּן might need to be used many times throughout the year. Therefore, we had better make sure we think through the form thoroughly.
Why not נוֹתֶנֶת?
While one might expect that the feminine participle form of נוֹתֵן would be נוֹתֶנֶת, as is the case in Rabbinic Hebrew and Modern Hebrew, there is one main reason for rejecting such a form.
Historically, the feminine participle of נָתַן-יִתֵּן would have terminated in the sequence *nt: i.e., *nōtent. (Note that the final seghol vowel in participle forms like כּוֹתֶבֶת ‘writing (fs)’ (from *kōtebt) is a helping vowel added much later, probably after the biblical period.1) And everywhere else we find the sequence *nt in the verb נָתַן-יִתֵּן, the *n assimilates to the *t:
- 1CS qaṭal form: *natantī → *natattī → נָתַתִּי ‘I gave’
- 2FS qaṭal form: *natant → *natatt → נָתַתְּ ‘you (fs) gave’
- Infinitive form: from *tent → *tɛtt → תֵּת ‘(to) give’
Therefore, just as the *n assimilates to the *t in the qaṭal form and the infinitive, so too we would expect the final *n of the root to assimilate to the adjacent *t in the feminine participle:
- FS participle form: *nōtent → *nōtett/*nōtɛtt → ?
According to normal sound changes, then, we would expect that the FS participle form of the verb נָתַן-יִתֵּן would have been something like *nōtit(t), *nōtet(t) or *nōtɛt(t) during the biblical period. As such, it would have been represented in the consonantal text as נתת or נותת.
What would the Tiberian vocalisation of FS.PTCP נתת be?
The last remaining question, then, concerns what the reflex of historical *nōtɛt(t) would be in the Tiberian vocalisation tradition, even though it is unattested.
There are three strands of evidence that help answer this question: (i) the vocalisation of III-t verbs, (ii) III-d verbs, and (ii) other III-n verbs in the participle form. The first two of these I have covered in a separate blog post.
Indeed, as I have argued elsewhere, the feminine singular participle form of a III-t verb would have terminated in a pataḥ vowel with underlying final gemination: e.g., כֹּרֵת ‘cutting (ms)’, but כֹּרַת ‘cutting (fs)’ and כֹּרִתּוֹ ‘cutting (fs) it’. Such forms presumably reflect the following historical development: *kōrit-t → *kōret(t) → כֹּרַת. The final change to an /a/ vowel is due to Philippi’s Law,2 the same law behind changes like *bint → בַּת ‘daughter’ but בִּתּוֹ ‘his daughter’. The hard evidence for this is found in the couple attested forms of III-t feminine participles in the piʿʿel/piʿʿal, namely מְשָׁרַ֖ת ‘attending (fs)’ (I Kgs. 1.15) and מְבַעִתֶּֽךָ׃ ‘tormenting you’ (I Sam. 16.15).
Similarly, an argument can also be made that a III-d feminine participle form like יֹלַדְתְּ (Gen. 16.11; Judg. 13.5, 7) is the product of a vocalisation like *yōlet(t) → יֹלַת, which results from assimilation of the /d/ of the root to the /t/ of the feminine ending. This vocalisation was then imposed over an existing consonantal text of ילדת. For more on this, see here.
As far as III-n verbs go, we only have five forms of the feminine singular participle attested in the qal binyan:
II Sam. 4.4
I Kgs. 1.2
‘of service (fs)’
I Kgs. 1.4
‘of service (fs)’
ketiv שכנתי but qere שֹׁכַנְתְּ֙
‘[became his] nurse’
While we do find forms like סֹכֶנֶת and אֹמֶנֶת, we should note that the *nt → *tt assimilation is particular to the verbal lexeme נָתַן-יִתֵּן in the Hebrew Bible. Nevertheless, the ketiv-qere alternation in the form שֹׁכַנְתְּ֙ ‘dwelling (fs)’ (Jer. 51.13) is of particular interest for us. As noted above, a form like יֹלַדְתְּ might reflect the superimposition of a vocalisation based on assimilation (i.e., *yōledt → *yōlett) over a consonantal text without it. Applying the same principles, we might suggest that a form like שֹׁכַנְתְּ֙ reflects the superimposition of a form with assimilation of /n/ to the following /t/ over a consonantal text without it: i.e., *šōkent → šōkett → שֹׁכַת. While such a reconstruction is speculative, it would be consistent with other forms we find attested based around similar assimilations.
As such, we would reasonably have to conclude that the feminine participle form of the verb נָתַן-יִתֵּן would be נֹתַת. As crazy as it feels to write this, such a form appears to be most consistent with the attested evidence from the Tiberian tradition. While analogy could have certainly yielded another form—we will never really know—the form נֹתַת ‘giving (fs)’ seems to be our best option. After all, analogy and paradigmatic pressure did not stop nun assimilation in other parts of the paradigm for this verb.
What do we do with the rabbinic evidence?
If I imagine myself in the shoes of my readers, I think the next question I would be asking is: so when is the first attestation of the form נוֹתֶנֶת that we use in Modern Hebrew?
The form נוֹתֶנֶת for the feminine participle of נוֹתֵן is already attested in the Kaufmann MS of the Mishnah:
‘giving (fs); she must give’
‘that you (fs) give/place’
Now while the Kaufmann manuscript is dated to the 10th or 11th century CE—the vocalisation, of course, is medieval—the fact that the consonantal text has נותנת is highly significant. We may reasonably conclude from it that a form like נוֹתֶנֶת—or perhaps *nōtent without a helping vowel—is at least as old as the text of the Mishnah, which is dated to the late Roman period.
There are two ways of explaining the rabbinic form נוֹתֶנֶת, which doesn’t seem possible as a historical development from *nōten-t based on normal sound changes and nun assimilation patterns (in the verb נָתַן) in Biblical Hebrew:
1. Archaic Dialectal Form
The mishnaic form נוֹתֶנֶת may reflect the continuation of an archaic form that was in existence at biblical times. For some reason, the final nun of the root did not assimilate to the tav, even though it does this elsewhere in the paradigm.3 Alternatively, it could be that paradigmatic pressure of the other forms of the participle (i.e., *nōten, *nōtenīm, *nōtenōt) served to reinforce the need for the nun of the root to be pronounced. There may, in fact, be evidence for this in some of the examples cited above. Even though the forms יֹלַדְתְּ and שֹׁכַנְתְּ were taken as evidence for the vocalisations יֹלַת and שֹׁכַת (with assimilation of dalet and nun to the feminine tav, respectively), the fact that the consonantal text preserves the supposedly assimilated consonant may indicate that both forms existed in different dialects of Hebrew in ancient times: i.e., some dialects had *nōtent and others had *nōtɛt(t). Then again, they may just be conservative or mophological spellings.
2. Later Innovation of the Language
Alternatively, we may regard the mishanic form נוֹתֶנֶת as a later innovation in the language. In this case, it would not derive directly from the historical form *nōten-t but would rather be formed by adding the feminine tav to the base masculine singular form נוֹתֵן at a later stage of the language in analogy to strong forms of the verb. This phenomenon is attested elsewhere in Pre-Modern Hebrew. In a piece of literature known as קטעי מסורה ודקדוק, תוספות לדקדוקי הטעמים dated to the 9th century CE, we find the following sentence:4
Qiṭʿe masora ve-diqduq, tosafot le-diqduqe ha-teʿamim
והיא משרתת את כל האותיות
‘and she attends to all the letters’
The consonantal text משרתת is clearly different from biblical מְשָׁרַת. A form like משרתת could only be formed be re-attaching the feminine ending to the masculine base at a later date. The historical form, given its termination in a geminated *tt, could only ever develop into something like מְשָׁרַת. This suggests that, at least in medieval Hebrew, the phenomenon of re-attaching the feminine ending to the masculine base—as opposed to being a direct reflex of the historical form with assimilation—was possible. For an earlier date, note that the form כורתת (for the feminine participle of כּוֹרֵת) is attested in the Babylonian Talmud (Sanhedrin 22b:3):5
אשה גולם היא ואינה כורתת ברית
‘a woman is material and she does not make a covenant [with anyone other than]…’
This would seem to suggest that the phenomenon of re-attaching the feminine ending to the base participle had already occurred in Rabbinic Hebrew. If this is clearly the case with כורתת, then surely it could also be the case with נותנת. And this all the more so for those users of the language who were not tradents of a reading tradition like the ancestor of Tiberian.
Views of Mishnaic/Rabbinic Hebrew
Ultimately, how one explains the mishnaic form נוֹתֶנֶת largely depends on one’s view of Rabbinic Hebrew. Is it a continuation of a much earlier dialect of Hebrew or does it reflect a later development in the stages of Hebrew? Is it the result of imperfect learning of Hebrew and contact with Aramaic? Is it the result of a combination of these factors? A variety of scholarly views exist on the subject.
Personally, I think the dialect of Hebrew known as Mishnaic Hebrew or Rabbinic Hebrew involves a combination of these factors. In some respects, it likely reflects at least some preserved dialectal features of Hebrew that are unattested elsewhere (or at least not in the Tiberian vocalisation). In other respects, it is a product of continued development of the language and reflects a simplification or generalization of a greater proportion of earlier irregularity. Finally, it is clearly the product, to some degree, of contact with Aramaic (and Greek for that matter).
All of this leads me to believe that a form like נוֹתֶנֶת should probably be seen as reflecting the same phenomenon as כּוֹרֶתֶת or מְשָׁרֶתֶת. They are not inherited forms from the original historical feminine participle from these roots. Rather, they reflect later innovations based on re-attaching the feminine ending to the base form of the participle. This is undeniable at least with respect to the III-t roots.
So do I really need to say הוּא נוֹתֵן but הִיא נוֹתַת in my classroom?
This is the part in the blog post where I start to ask friends and colleagues if I am crazy. After all, I’m suggesting that one of the most common verbs in the language should be reconstructed as having a form that almost nobody knows about! On this point, I must thank Benjamin Suchard for dialoguing with me about these questions prior to my writing this blog post (but any errors present in the blog post are my own).
It is one thing to write a blog or an article in which this idea is tossed around. It is another thing entirely to stand in front of a class and say הִיא נוֹתַת twenty times in a lesson. Before I start doing this myself and before I instruct all my readers who teach Biblical Hebrew communicatively to do so, it is worth having a good think. Pedagogically and philosophically, should we use hypothesized forms of unattested words, even if the data suggest that they are indeed the right forms?
At the end of the day, because we are not 100% certain, this is one area where I don’t think there is a clear right answer. I could see justification for using either the form נוֹתַת or נוֹתֶנֶת. On one hand, נוֹתַת seems to be the most likely outcome of the form based on relatively consistent sound rules and similar attested forms in the Hebrew Bible. On the other hand, it is not impossible that a form like נוֹתֶנֶת could have existed in the ancient period, even though it would constitute the only form in the paradigm in which *nt does not undergo assimilation in this verbal lexeme.
My head says נוֹתַת, but my heart is having a hard time letting go of נוֹתֶנֶת.
Let each instructor choose what seems good in their eyes…
Now, ironically, some colloquial registers of Modern Hebrew actually pronounce the feminine singular בינוני form of נוֹתֵן as נוֹתֵת = notet, probably due to analogy with past-tense forms like נָתַתָּ and נָתַתְּ. By doing this, they inadvertently recycle the form as it probably was during the biblical period! So even though the אקדמיה might correct such low-register speakers, they are more authentic than us all! But this is a story for another day and another blog post.
- Note that the Secunda, dated to the 2nd/3rd c. CE, still has no epenthetic here: e.g., κωελθ || קֹהֶלֶת.
- For more on Philippi’s Law, see Benjamin D. Suchard, The Development of the Biblical Hebrew vowels: Including a Concise Historical Morphology (Leiden: Brill, 2020), 141–167.
- A Secunda example like νεεμαναθ for נֶאֱמֶ֥נֶת ‘faithful’ (Ps. 89.29) may indicate that epenthesis was brought about earlier in such sequences due to the homorganic nature of /n/ and /t/—note that the Secunda does not normally have epenthesis in word-final clusters.
- From here.
- From here.