The Biblical Hebrew pronoun as a copula

In a previous post I argued that the likely solution for understanding a textual variant in Lev 1:17 was a processing error by a scribe — an error that reflects a different grammatical construction that the one reflected in the (older) text witnessed by the MT of B19a.  The solution critically requires recognizing that ancient Hebrew had begun to develop the use of the pronoun as a non-verbal copula.

In this post I briefly present the evidence for a copular pronoun in ancient Hebrew. Note that most non-critical (non-quotation, non-original idea) secondary sources have been omitted for the sake of space, although all such sources are included in the bibliography at the end. A greatly expanded discussion of this issue of pronoun syntax is forthcoming in an article written with Andrew Jones (Univ. of Toronto), which I will submit for publication in the near future. After it is submitted, I will post a pdf draft on this blog.


The Linguistic Solution to the textual variation in Lev 1:17:

The Pronoun as Copula

The status of the third person pronoun as a third element in verbless clauses has been a much studied issue. In nineteenth and early twentieth century scholarship there were adherents of both the copular and non-copular analyses for examples like (1).

(1) Josh 2.11

‏ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם הוּא אֱלֹהִים

‘Yhwh, your God, pron(is) God’

Many great Hebraists (e.g., Albrecht and Brockelmann) related the function of the pronoun in examples like (1) to the Indo-European copula, reflected in a simple translation like ‘Yhwh, your God, is God’; other equally prominent scholars (e.g., Driver), though, interpreted such examples as a three-part compound sentence, reflected best by either an English ‘as for’ construction (‘As for Yhwh, your God – he is God’) or casus pendens construction (‘Yhwh, your God – he is God’). Proponents of the copular analysis have decreased in recent years and it has become increasingly common to look for some special pragmatic function for the pronoun.

Geller 1991 is a case in point: the argument is that the pronoun in (1) is a necessary part in forming a cleft construction so that the clefted noun may be contrasted with contextual alternatives. Examples that express no discernible contrast are taken to “emphasize the fact of the predication.” As for any copular function of the pronoun (pron), Geller asserts such a function did develop – illustrated in (2)-(4) – but not until after biblical Hebrew.

(2) Qumran Hebrew (see Naudé 2001:101-102; cf. Baasten 1997: 8-13)

אתה הוא יהוה בחרתה באבותינו למקדם

‘you pron(are) Yhwh; you chose our fathers from old’ (4Q393 f3:6)


(3) Rabbinic Hebrew

וְלֹא הַמִּדְרָשׁ הוּא הַעִיקָּר ‏אֶלָּא הַמַּעֲשֶׂה

‘And the central thing pron(is) not the study but the deed’ (Avot 1.17)‏

‏אִם אֲנִי הוּא הַטָּמֵא

‘If I pron(am) the unclean one’ (Naz 8.1)


(4) Modern Israeli Hebrew (modified from Doron 1987: 315)

a) דני הוא מורה באוניברסיטה

‘Dani pron(is) a teacher at the university’

b) דני הוא המורה למתמטיקה

‘Dani pron(is) the math teacher’

c) דני הוא נחמד עד מאוד

‘Dani pron(is) very nice’

d) דני הוא על הגג

‘Dani pron(is) on the roof’

Not all scholars accept even this allowance, that post-biblical Hebrew developed the copular use of the pronoun. In his study of the BH “tripartite nominal clause” Muroaka denies the shift to copular status in any stage of Hebrew, even in modern Israeli:

“I doubt that one can prove the existence of the copula in any Semitic language. The notion undoubtedly originated with Indo-European languages in which a nominal clause without a copula in the present tense is virtually nonexistent. Classical Syriac (in which the tripartite NC is the rule, especially when both S and P are nonpronominal NCs, and the bipartite NC is a rarity) can hardly be said to possess such a copula, as Goldenberg and I argued. Even a heavily Europeanized language such as Modern Hebrew does not appear to us to useהוא as a genuine copula fully comparable to its Indo-European namesake.” (1999:199; see also Joüon-Muraoka 1993/2006: §154i-j)

Muraoka’s objection to a copular analysis of the Hebrew pronoun reflects neither the consensus in comparative Semitics for such constructions nor an awareness of the support from language typology. Rather, he seems to be reacting to earlier nineteenth and early twentieth century copular analyses that relied too heavily on comparison with Indo-European languages (similarly, Goldenberg 2005, 2006). Be that as it may, it is clear that the presence of a ‘verbless’ clause in ancient Hebrew – that is, a clause in which two noun phrases are equated without an overt verbal copula, as in (5), where I have marked the null copula with Ø – is precisely the type of environment in which non-verbal copulas develop in many languages of the world.

(5) Josh 22.34

‏יְהוָה הָאֱלֹהִים

‘Yhwh Ø(is) God’

Hundreds of languages with verbal and non-verbal copulas have been studied in the last thirty years and two patterns relevant to the present discussion have emerged. First, according to Li and Thompson in their seminal 1977 article (since confirmed many times over by additional studies), the copular use of the anaphoric pronoun often develops out of a casus pendens construction. Specifically, the anaphoric pronoun that resumes the fronted subject ceases to have any anaphoric function; it ‘grammaticalizes’, moving from anaphoric device to copular marker. Li and Thompson schematize that pronoun-to-copula developmental pathway like I have in (6).

(6) From Anaphoric Pronoun to Copular Pronoun (modified from Li and Thompson 1977: 420)

[ NP   NP ]      /      [ NPi [Proni NP ]]     ⇒     [ NPi copi NP ]

Subj  Pred              Top   Subj  Pred              Subj      Pred

Verbless Clause     Casus Pendens             Copula Clause

While in some languages the grammaticalization process appears to be complete, that is, the pronoun no longer functions as as anaphor in any environment, such as with shí in Mandarin Chinese, in the others languages the pronoun has retained an anaphoric function in addition to the added copular function. Modern Israeli Hebrew and all varieties of Arabic that use the pronominal copula (Classical Arabic, Palestinian Arabic, Lebanese Arabic, etc.) belong to this latter group. So, too, does Biblical Hebrew. Examples like the two in (7) and (8), both of which exhibit lack of full agreement between the subject and the following pronoun, provide strong evidence that the pronoun has been reanalyzed as a copula.

(7) Anaphoric Pronoun → Copula: 2 Kings 19.15

וַיִּתְפַּלֵּל חִזְקִיָּהוּ לִפְנֵי יְהוָה וַיֹּאמַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל יֹשֵׁב הַכְּרֻבִים אַתָּה־הוּא הָאֱלֹהִים לְבַדְּךָ לְכֹל מַמְלְכוֹת הָאָרֶץ

‘And Hezekiah prayed before Yhwh and said: O Yhwh, God of Israel, sitting (between) the Cherubim – You(2ms) pron.3ms(are) the God(ms), you alone, for all the kingdoms of the earth.’

(8) Anaphoric Pronoun → Copula: Joshua 13.14

‏רַק לְשֵׁבֶט הַלֵּוִי לֹא נָתַן נַחֲלָה אִשֵּׁי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל הוּא נַחֲלָתוֹ

‘Only to the tribe of Levi he did not give an inheritance; the fire-offerings(mp) of Yhwh, the God of Israel, pron.3ms(is/are) its inheritance(fs).’

As with the Qumran and Rabbinic Hebrew examples in (2) and (3, #2), the 3ms pronoun הוּא in (7) does not agree with the 2ms subject pronoun אַתָּה. The 3ms pronoun in (8) neither agrees fully with the preceding 3mp referent or the following 3fs referent.  The lack of full agreement in (7) and (8) suggests that dialects represented by these examples has developed far enough along the copular path that it may use the 3ms pronoun as a ‘default’ non-verbal copula in the ‘present’ tense.

Not only is the development of a copular pronoun in Hebrew supported typologically, it is even more strongly supported by comparative Semitic evidence. Many Semitic languages witness the use of the anaphoric or demonstrative pronouns as non-verbal copulas. And for some languages for which we have adequate data the historical change is observable. For example, Old Aramaic shows no copular use of the pronoun, but it has developed by Imperial Aramaic, for which the examples from Daniel in (12) and Ahiqar in (13) are illustrative.

(12) Daniel 2.38

‏אַנְתְּ־הוּא רֵאשָׁה דִּי דַהֲבָא

‘you pron.3ms(are) the head of gold’

(13) Ahiqar (C1.1.46)

‏אנה הו אחיקר

‘I pron.3ms(am) Ahiqar’

Moreover, the use of the anaphoric pronoun as a copula is nearly ubiquitous in Classical Syriac, as in (14) and above in the Peshitta of Lev 25.33 (6), and remains a feature of modern Aramaic dialects.

(14) John 8.39 Peshitta [RDH: apologies — I cannot get my unicode Syriac font to display correct.]

ʾabun dilan ʾabraham-u

‘our father pron.3ms(is) Abraham’

Similarly, Akkadian does not use the pronoun as a copula in any of the third or second millennia languages as they exist in Mesopotamia, but this form of copula did develop in Western Peripheral Akkadian of the second half of the second millennium (15) and is also used in Neo-Assyrian (16) and Late Babylonian (17).

(15) Western Peripheral Akkadian

šar(lugal) māt(kur) ú-ga-ri-it be-li šu-ut

‘the king of Ugarit pron.3ms(is) my lord’ (RS 20.16:10-11 / Ugaritica 5 118, no. 38)

(16) Neo-Assyrian

ayyāru urḫu ṭābu šū

‘Ayyar pron.3ms(is) a good month’ (ABL 652, 13)

(17) Late Babylonian

N. aḫūʾa šū

‘N. pron.3ms(is) my brother’ (BIN I 9, 14)

And to round out the comparative Semitic picture by moving into the first millennium C.E., both Classical Ethiopic (Geʿez) (18) and Classical Arabic (19) use the independent pronoun – especially the 3ms pronoun – as a non-verbal copula.

(18) Classical Ethiopic

zāti yǝʾǝti šǝrʿatǝya

‘this pron.3fs(is) my pact’ (Gen 17:10)

(19) Classical Arabic

ʾulāʾika humū ʾal-kaʾfirūna

‘those pron.3mp(are) the unbelievers’

Placing the BH data in fuller comparative and typological relief not only provides circumstantial support for the view that the pronoun developed a copular use even in the biblical period, it suggests that Hebrew would have been the odd-language-out not to have done so. I suggest that the pronoun had begun to be reanalyzed in BH, though the process never was completed (so the Qumran and Rabbinic Hebrew data) and in fact is not even complete in modern Israeli Hebrew.



Abdel-Ghafer, Osama. 2003. Copular Constructions in Modern Standard Arabic, Modern Hebrew and English. PhD thesis, University of Kansas.

Azar, Moshe. 1995.  תחביר לשׁון המשׁנה. Jerusalem: The Academy of Hebrew Language/ University of Haifa.

Baasten, Martin F. J. 1997. Nominal Clauses Containing a Personal Pronoun in Qumran Hebrew. Pp. 1-16 in The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Ben Sira: Proceedings of a Symposium held at Leiden University 11-14 December 1995, ed. Takamitsu Muraoka and John F. Elwolde. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 26. Leiden: Brill.

Curnow, Timothy J. 2001. Towards a Cross-Linguistic Typology of Copula Constructions. In Proceedings of the 1999 Conference of the Australian Linguistic Society, ed. John Henderson. als99

Devitt, Dan. 1994. Copula Constructions in Cross-Linguistic and Diachronic Perspective. PhD thesis, State University of New York at Buffalo.

Diessel, Holger. 1999. Demonstratives: Form, Function, and Grammaticalization. Typological Studies in Language 42. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Dillmann, August. 1907. Ethiopic Grammar. Second Edition Enlarged and Improved (1899) by Carl Bezold. Translated by James A. Chrichton. London: Williams.

Eid, Mushira. 1983. The Copula Function of Pronouns. Lingua 59/2-3: 197-207.

Fischer, Wolfdietrich. 2002. A Grammar of Classical Arabic. Translated by Jonathan Henry Rodgers. 3rd rev. ed. Yale Language Series. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Geller, Steven A. 1991. Cleft Sentences with Pleonastic Pronoun: A Syntactic Construction of Biblical Hebrew and Some of its Literary Uses. JANES 20: 15-33.

Goldenberg, Gideon. 2005. Pronouns, Copulars and a Syntactical Revolution in Neo-Semitic. Pp. 239-52 in Studi Afroasiatici: XI Incontro Italiano di Linguistica Camitosemitica / Afro-Asiatic Studies: 11th Italian Meeting of Afro-Asiatic Linguistics, ed. Alessandro Mengozzi. Milan: FrancoAngeli.

—–. 2006 Comments on ‘Three Approaches to the Tripartite Nominal Clause in Syriac’ by Wido van Peursen. Pp. 175-84 in Corpus Linguistics and Textual History: A Computer-Assisted Interdisciplinary Approach to the Peshitta, ed. P. S. F. van Keulen and W. Th van Peursen. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum.

Holmstedt, Robert D., with Andrew R. Jones. n.d. The Pronoun in Tripartite Verbless Clauses in Biblical Hebrew: Resumption for Left-Dislocation or Pronominal Copula? Unpublished ms.

Huehnergard, John. 1986. On Verbless Clauses in Akkadian. ZA 76: 218-49.

Joosten, Jan. 1991. The Syntax of hebǝrākāh ʾaḥat hīʾ lǝkā ʾābī (Gen. 27:38aα). JSS 36/2: 207-21.

—–. 2006 Comments on ‘Three Approaches to the Tripartite Nominal Clause in Syriac’ by Wido van Peursen. Pp. 185-88 in Corpus Linguistics and Textual History: A Computer-Assisted Interdisciplinary Approach to the Peshitta, ed. P. S. F. van Keulen and W. Th van Peursen. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum.

Joüon, Paul, and Takamitsu Muraoka. 1993.  A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. SubBib 27. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute. [Revised, expanded edition: 2006]

Katz, Aya. 1998. Recycled Morphemes and Grammaticalization: The Hebrew Copula and Pronoun. Southwest Journal of Linguistics 17/1: 59-97.

Khan, Geoffrey. 2006. Some Aspects of the Copula in North West Semitic. Pp. 155-76 in Biblical Hebrew in Its Northwest Semitic Setting: Typological and Historical Perspectives, ed. Steven E. Fassberg and Avi Hurvitz. Jerusalem/Winona Lake, IN: Magnes/Eisenbrauns.

Kutscher, Eduard Y. 1982. A History of the Hebrew Language. Jerusalem: The Magnes Press.

Lambdin, Thomas O. 1978. Introduction to Classical Ethiopic (Ge‘ez). HSS 24. Missoula, MT: Scholars Press.

Li, Charles N., and Sandra A. Thompson. 1977. A Mechanism for the Development of Copula Morphemes. Pp. 419-44 in Mechanisms of Syntactic Change, ed. Charles N. Li. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Muraoka, Takamitsu. 1999. The Tripartite Nominal Clause Revisited. Pp. 187-214 in The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Approaches, ed. Cynthia L. Miller. LSAWS 1. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

—–. 2006a. Reflections on an Important Study on the Nominal Clause in Biblical Hebrew. Bibliotheca Orientalis 63/5-6: 447-67.

——. 2006b. A Response to ‘Three Approaches to the Tripartite Nominal Clause in Syriac’ by Wido van Peursen and a Bit More. Pp. 189-96 in Corpus Linguistics and Textual History: A Computer-Assisted Interdisciplinary Approach to the Peshitta, ed. P. S. F. van Keulen and W. Th van Peursen. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum.

Naudé, Jackie A. 2001. The Distribution of Independent Personal Pronouns in Qumran Hebrew. JNSL 27/2: 91-112.

Peursen, W. Th van. 2006. Three Approaches to the Tripartite Nominal Clause in Syriac. Pp. 157-73 in Corpus Linguistics and Textual History: A Computer-Assisted Interdisciplinary Approach to the Peshitta, ed. P. S. F. van Keulen and W. Th van Peursen. Assen, The Netherlands: Van Gorcum.

Pustet, Regina. 2003. Copulas: Universals in the Categorizations of the Lexicon. Oxford Studies in Typology and Linguistic Theory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sappan, Raphael. 1981.  הייחוד התחבירי שׁל לשׁון השׁירה המקראית. Jerusalem: Kiryat-Sefer.

Soden, Wolfram von. 1995. Grundriss der Akkadischen Grammatik. 3rd ed. AnOr 33. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute.

Stassen, Leon. 2005. Zero Copula for Predicate Nominals. Pp. 486-89 in The World Atlas of Language Structures, ed. Martin Haspelmath, et al. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Waltke, Bruce K., and M. O’Connor. 1990. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

Wright, W. 1898. A Grammar of the Arabic Language. Third ed. 2 vols. Cambridge: University Press.

Zewi, Tamar. 1996. The Definition of the Copula and the Role of 3rd Independent Personal Pronouns in Nominal Sentences of Semitic Languages. Folia Linguistica Historica 17/1-2: 41-55.


One Response to “The Biblical Hebrew pronoun as a copula”

  1. February 2011 Biblical Studies Carnival | A Fistful of Farthings Says:

    […] Holmstedt applied textual criticism and linguistic principles to Lev. 1:17 and then presented a solution for the textual variant in that verse. John Cook argued for the relevance of diachronic linguistics in biblical Hebrew to […]

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: