OBSERVATIONS ON THE ASSYRIAN VERB BASU
AS COMPARED WITH THE HEBREW VERB היה,
HAYA, ''HE WAS."'1

By Professor William Wright, LL.D.

Read 3rd March, 1874.

[Extracted from Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, vol. 3, (1874), pp. 104-9.]

 

Without professing any special knowledge of Assyrian and Babylonian, I must confess that it appears to me that one of the first conditions of a successful study of these languages is a thorough mastery of the other Semitic tongues. The labours of Rawlinson, Hincks, Norris, Oppert, Smith, and other scholars, have laid the basis of a correct understanding of the Assyrian cuneiform. We are certain that the language with which we have to deal is Semitic; we are acquainted with the outlines of its grammar; we know the meaning of a considerable proportion of its ordinary vocabulary. But the details of the grammar have yet, it seems to me, to be thoroughly worked out; and the meaning and derivation of many a word in the published texts are still doubtful or wholly unknown.

It is with regret, therefore, that I observe that some of our recent students of Assyrian seem to be but imperfectly acquainted with the cognate languages; and hence the results of their work are open to criticism on the part of those who are more familiar with Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic.

By way of illustration I shall briefly examine part of an elaborate article published in a recent number of the Transactions of this Society (vol. i, part 2, p. 281), in which the author treats of the Assyrian word basu, and identifies it [p.105] etymologically with the Hebrew היה, haya, or, in an older form, הוה, hawa. This identification is effected in the following manner.

  1. The initial ה, h is dispensed with, on the ground that it is lost in Syriac, where the word is said to be written [Syriac], and to be pronounced vo or wo (p. 285).

  2. The medial ו, v or w, of the form הוה is assumed to be interchangeable with ב, b, because, according to Fuerst (notoriously the least competent and least trustworthy of recent Hebrew lexicographers, and from whose errors those of the author are evidently in part derived), the fundamental signification lies in an alleged Talmudic verb הבא "to breathe" (pp. 285, 287).2

  3. The final ה, h of הוה or היה is said (p. 287) to be "retained, as if it were inscribed with mappik, although it is not so inscribed." Consequently, it " is not a substitute for another letter," viz., ו or י, "but is an original element of the stem"; and is therefore (p. 288) capable of being represented by the s of basu.

To these assertions I must express my dissent. The first statement , that the initial h of the verb [Syriac] is lost in Syriac, is inaccurate. It is only in modern Syriac that the initial h altogether disappears. In ancient Syriac this elision takes place only in certain cases, where the verb, as an auxiliary, has almost become one with the word to which it is annexed. The Syrian spoke [Syriac]; ithau wo (for ithauhi wo); [Syriac] koyem wo (for koem hawo) and [Syriac], shari wo (for sharri hawo), but he also spoke [Syriac] lo haiwo (for hawoihi); [p.106] [Syriac] hawo den; [Syriac], hawoth lewoth aro; [Syriac] am Yeshu hawait; and not wo den, lo woi, woth, wait. The first radical has not, therefore, even in Syriac, "been mute for perhaps two thousand years" (p. 286); and as we know of no such elision in Hebrew or in Biblical Aramaic, we shall not be justified in assuming, with the writer of the article in question, that the first syllable of the Hebrew root הוה may be non-existent in Assyrian" (p. 286).

The second statement that the medial ו, v or w, of הוה is interchangeable with ב b, is equally unestablished by the examples adduced. הוה and היה, "he was," are, in my opinion, not identical היה "he lived," as maintained on pp. 284, 285. The so-called "cognate words" (הבא, etc.), enumerated on p. 285, have in reality nothing to do with one another, unless it be on the dubious principle that any given consonant may be exchanged for any other. הוה, with its cognates, has been well handled by Gesenius, in the Thesaurus and in the Handworterbuch (5th edit., by Dietrich, p, 227). The substantive verb has, in most cases, developed its abstract signification out of a concrete one.

The Arabic [Arabic], kana, Ethiopic [Ethiopic]: kona, Phoenician כנ, kon, is properly "erectus stetit" (Hebrew rad. כון), then "exstitit, evenit, factus est, fuit" (compare Spanish estar = Latin stare, whilst ser, more anciently seer, is sedere). The Ethiopic [Ethiopic]: hallawa, is not improbably to be compared with the Arabic [Arabic] hala, for hawala, "to turn, shift, be changed" (compare verto and versor, Syriac [Syriac] and [Syriac]). And similarly the Hebrew and Aramaic הוה, היה; הבא; [Syriac] originally "cccidit" (Arabic [Arabic], hawa, "decidit"), then "accidit, evenit'' (compare Arabic [Arabic], waka'a, "to fall, happen"), "factus est, fuit."

As to היה Arabic [Arabic] hayia (Hebrew חי), Ethiopic [Ethiopic], h'aywa, Aramaic ח־א, hayo, its [p.107] fundamental signification is that of "drawing oneself together, drawing oneself up, shrinking, contracting," as opposed to that of "stretching" or "extending oneself," which implies death (Arabic [Arabic], "extendit," [Ethiopic] mota, Hebrew מית, Syriac [Syriac], "mortuus est"). See Gesenins's Handworterbuch, 5tli edit., pp. 272, 273; F. Bottcher, Proben alttestamentlichen Schrifterkliirnng, p. 83, foll.: Fleischer in the Berichte d. Konigl. Suchs. Gesellschaft d. Wissenschaften, philologisch-hist. Classe, for 1863, p. 175. The medial v or w has been preserved in the Hebrew substantive היה, and in the Arabic transitive verb [Arabic], hawa, "to draw together, collect, contain."

The verb היה, "he was," is, as rightly observed by the author, a לה verb, "but," he adds (p. 287), "it is not conjugated like ordinary לה verbs, for the ה is retained, as if it were inscribed with mappik, although it is not so inscribed." This statement is, I much regret to say, incorrect, if not indeed the reverse of fact. In היה the final ה is treated as in every other לה verb, and therefore cannot be "an original element of the stem." It is a pity that this misleading term "לה verbs" (to which the author's error is no doubt partly traceable) remains in use. לה verbs are, strictly speaking, such as have mappik in the final letter, like גנה גבה; whereas those commonly called לה  are in reality either לו; or לי. The Ethiopic has preserved the final consonant intact, as in [Ethiopic]: halaya, "to play on an instrument, to sing," [Ethiopic] satya, "to drink," [Ethiopic]: warawa, "to throw," [Ethiopic]: haywa, "to live"; whereas the Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic have contracted the trisyllabic form into a dissyllable. If the third radical is w, the Arabic grammarians write the word with alif, as [Arabic] bada (for badawa), [Arabic], ghaza (for ghazaioa); but if the third radical is y, they write it with yd, though the pronunciation is the same as in the former case, e.g. [Arabic] jara (for jaraya). rama (for ramaya). The Hebrews, however, Write in "all [p.108] cases ה, merely as a vowel-letter to indicate the sound a, as  gala for galaya, galawa (Arabic [Arabic], jala), שבה shabad, fur shabaya (Arabic [Arabic] saad).3 The Aramaean uses א for the same purpose, as [Arabic] shebha for shabaya, [Arabic] hayo for hayiwa (Arabic [Arabic] hayiya, Ethiopic [Ethiopic]; haywa).

In this way the three propositions, on which rests the identification of the Assyrian basu with the Hebrew haya, have been, I think, proved erroneous. I may be allowed to add that, even if the final h of היה had really been an integral part of the root, it would not have availed anything. Grammarians are agreed that su and si are the Assyrian equivalents of  הוא, [Ethiopic], and היא, [Ethiopic], and that safal is the usual representative of the Hebrew hif'il.4 But be it observed that the s is in these cases initial. It by no means follows that an Assyrian medial or final s could become5 h in Hebrew in the middle or at the end of a word. The fact that the Sanskrit sarva, "all," is identical with the Bactrian haurva, does not justify us in assuming that a Sanskrit s may be represented in every position by a Bactrian h.

[p.109]

Having taken so much pains to overturn the hypothesis of a fellow philologist, it is but fair that I should try to set up another in its place; and I may therefore be allowed, in conclusion, to point out what, I think, is the probable origin of the word basu. Though used as a verb, and exhibiting, according to Assyrian scholars, the inflections ibsu or ibsi, ibassi, usabsi, the word has a most unusual form; nor does any other Semitic language possess a verb basa with any approximate shade of meaning. I believe therefore that Schrader has hit upon the correct explanation, when he says (Zeitschrift d. D.M. G., Bd. xxvi, p. 304, note) that basu was not originally a verb, but a preposition with a pronominal suffix, ba-su, corresponding exactly to the Ethiopic ; bo. This bo (for ba-hu) signifies both "he is," "there is," and "he has," and may be construed with an accusative (see Dillmann's Grammatik d. Athiopischen Sprache, 167, 1, b, 176, h, 192, 1, b, and his Lexicon, col. 481). Its negative is [Ethiopic]: al-bo, in which [Ethiopic] = Hebrew אל, " not " (see Dillmann's Lexicon, col. 717).


NOTES

1 See Transactions of the Society of Biblical Archaeology, vol. i, part 2, pp. 281-288.

2 Not being deeply read in the Talmud, I cannot say for certain whether this verb is one of Feurst's inventions, or not. It appears, amid much attendant nonsense, in his Chaldaische Grammatik, 171; in his Concordance, p. 294; and in his Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon, art. הוה; but without any references to prove its use. I find no such verb in Buxtorf's Lex. Chal. Talmud, et Rabb., 1639; nor in the reprint by Fischer, 1866-72; nor in Levy's Chaldaisches Worterbuch, 1867; nor in a fine manuscript of the 'Arch in the University Library of Cambridge.

3 The same use of final ה as a mere vowel-letter, to indicate the sound , appears in the so-called ה locale, that is to say the old accusative singular, ending in a; e.g. ימה, "seaward, westward," "into the house of Joseph."

4 This phenomenon is not confined to Assyrian. One dialect of the ancient Himyaritic exhibits the pronominal suffix of the third person masculine in the form שו or ש, plural שם, whilst the other has הו, plural המו; and in the former we see the saf'al conjugation, whilst the latter has the haf'al. The pronominal form with initial s has partially survived even to the present day in Mahri, in which we find, according to Von Maltzan (in the Zeitschrift d. D.M.G., Bd. XXV, p. 200), the third person masculine singular he, plural hem, (halu); feminine singular se, plural sen; the corresponding suffixed forms being, for the masculine, he, hem, and for the feminine, es, senn.

5 I say "become," because I think that in the cases cited the s-form is really the older. Assyrian su, Himyaritic שו, ש, precede Hebrew הוא; Aramaic [Aramaic], certain cases [Aramaic]; and just so the original saktala appears as Assyrian salclal, Himyaritic saktal, Hebrew hiklil (for haktal) Ethiopic and Arabic aktala, Aramaic aktel (as well as skaklel).