Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar/124. The Various Uses of the Plural-form

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§124. The Various Uses of the Plural-form.[1]

a 1. The plural is by no means used in Hebrew solely to express a number of individuals or separate objects, but may also denote them collectively. This use of the plural expresses either (a) a combination of various external constituent parts (plurals of local extension), or (b) a more or less intensive focusing of the characteristics inherent in the idea of the stem (abstract plurals, usually rendered in English by forms in -hood, -ness, -ship). A variety of the plurals described under (b), in which the secondary idea of intensity or of an internal multiplication of the idea of the stem may be clearly seen, is (c) the pluralis excellentiae or pluralis maiestatis.

b Examples of (a): Plurals of local extension to denote localities in general, but especially level surfaces (the surface-plural), since in them the idea of a whole composed of innumerable separate parts or points is most evident, as שָׁמַ֫יִם (§ 88 d) heaven (cf. also מְרוֹמִים heights of heaven, Is 3316, Jb 1619; elsewhere מָרוֹם); מַ֫יִם water; יַמִּים (the broad surface of the sea) poetically for יָם sea; פָנִים (prop. the side turned towards any one, then) surface in general, usually face; אֲחוֹרִים the back, Ex 2612, 3323, &c., צַוָּארִים neck nape of the neck[2]; also מְרַֽאֲשׁוֹת the place at the head, מַרְגְּלוֹת place at the feet; עֲבָרִים place on the other side (of a river); מַֽעֲמַקִּים depth, מֶרְחַקִּים (also מֶרְחָק) distance, מִשְׁכָּבִים bed, Gn 494 (unless, with Dillmann, it is to be explained in the sense of double bed, i.e. torus), מִשְׁכָּנִים ψ 465, and מִשְׁכָּנוֹת 433, 842, 1325, dwelling (perhaps also אֹֽהָלִים encampment, in passages like 1 S 410). The last four belong, however, to poetic style, and are better reckoned amongst the plurals of amplification treated under df. So perhaps יְצֻעִים bed (ψ 637, Jb 1713; but Gn 494, ψ 1323, &c., in the singular); probably, however, יְצֻעִים (prop. strata) refers to a number of coverings or pillows.

The plural of extension is used to denote a lengthened period of time in עֽוֹלָמִים eternity (everlasting ages).

c Rem. The plural of extension includes also a few examples which were formerly explained as simply poetic plurals, e.g. Jb 171 קְבָרִים לִי graves are (ready) for me, i.e. the place where there are many of them (as it were the graveyard) is my portion, Jb 2132, 2 Ch 1614; cf. 2 K 2220.

d Of (b): the tolerably numerous abstract plurals, mostly of a particular form (qeṭûlîm, qiṭṭûlîm, &c.), may be divided into two classes. They sum up either the conditions or qualities inherent in the idea of the stem, or else the various single acts of which an action is composed. Cf. for the first class, בְּחוּרִים and בְּחוּרוֹת youth, זְקֻנִים old age, נְעוּרִים youth; בְּתוּלִים maidenhood, כְּלוּלוֹת bridal state; מְגוּרִים condition of a sojourner, בְּשָׂרִים fleshliness (only in Pr 1430), חַיִּים life (the abstract idea of the qualities of a living being); שִׁכּוּלִים childlessness, סַנְוֵרִים blindness, עִוְעִים perverseness.

e There are also a number of plurals, found almost exclusively in poetry (sometimes along with the singular), which are evidently intended to intensify[3] the idea of the stem (plural of amplification), as אוֹנִים might, Is 4026; אֱמוּנִים (as well as אֱמוּנָה) and אֱמוּנוֹת faithfulness; אַשְׁרֵי (according to § 93 l, only in the construct state plural or with suffixes = the happiness of), happy; כּֽוֹשָׁרוֹת (complete) prosperity, ψ 687; בִּינוֹת Is 2711 and תְּבוּנוֹת Is 4014, &c. (keen) understanding; עֵצוֹת (true) counsel, Dt 3228; דֵּעִים Jb 3716 and דֵּעוֹת 1 S 23 (thorough) knowledge; בַּטֻּחוֹת Jb 126 and מִבְטַחִים Is 3218 (full) confidence; בְּרָכוֹת (abundant) blessing, ψ 217; גְּבוּרוֹת (exceptional) strength, Jb 414; הַוּוֹת ψ 510 (very) wickedness; חֲמוּדוֹת Dn 923 (greatly) beloved; חֵמוֹת ψ 7611, &c.(fierce) wrath; חֲרָפוֹת Dn 122 (utter) contempt; יְשֻׁעוֹת (real) help, Is 2618, &c.; מַרְאֹת Gn 462 (an important) vision; מֵֽישָׁרִים uprightness; תַּהְפֻּכוֹת perversity; נְקָמוֹת (complete) vengeance, Ju 1136, &c.; חֲשֵׁכִים and מַֽחֲשַׁכִּים (thick) darkness; מִסְתָּרִים a (close) hiding-place; נְגִידִים nobility; שְׁמָנִים Is 281 fatness; צַחְצָחוֹת (complete) aridity; מַמְתַּקִּים sweetness; מַֽחֲמַדִּים preciousness; שַֽׁעֲשֻׁעִים delight; עֲדָנִים and תַּֽעֲנֻגִים pleasure; רַֽחֲמִים compassion; מְנוּחֹת ψ 232 rest, refreshment; מְהוּמֹת Am 39 tumult. Probably also יְדִידֹת (heartfelt) love, ψ 451; מְרֹרוֹת (extreme) bitterness, Jb 1326; מִרְמוֹת (base) deceit, ψ 3813; צְדָקוֹת (true) righteousness, Is 3315, &c.; שְׁמָחוֹת (the highest) joy, ψ 1611. On the other hand, חָכְמוֹת wisdom (Pr 120, &c.) can hardly be a plural (=the essence of wisdom, or wisdom personified), but is a singular (see § 86 l).

A further extension of this plural of amplification occurs according to P. Haupt’s very probable suggestion (SBOT. Proverbs, p. 40, line 50, &c.) in יְאֹרִים the great river (of the Nile, generally יְאֹר) Is 718, 196 (though with the predicate in the plural), Ez 3012, ψ 7844, but in Is 3725, Ez 293 the usual explanation, arms or channels of the Nile, can hardly be avoided; also in נְהָרוֹת ψ 242 of the ocean, which encircles the earth, 137:1 of the great river, i.e. the Euphrates, but in Is 181 נַֽהֲרֵי כוּשׁ is evidently a numerical plural.—In Pr 1613 מְלָכִים (acc. to P. Haupt=the great king) is very doubtful. In נְשִׂיאֵי Ez 191 the second yôdh is evidently due to dittography, since ישְׂרָאֵל follows.

f The summing up of the several parts of an action is expressed in חֲנֻמִים embalming, כִּפֻּרִים atonement, מִלֻּאִים (prop. filling, sc. of the hand) ordination to the priesthood, שִׁלֻּחִים dismissal, שִׁלֻּמִים retribution, פִּתֻּחִים engraving (of a seal, &c.); אֳהָבִים fornication, זְנוּנִים whoredom, נִֽאֻפִים adultery; נִֽחֻמִים (prop. no doubt, warm compassion) consolation, תַּֽחֲנוּנים supplication, נְדֻדִים Jb 74 (restless) tossing to and fro, פְּלָאִים wonder La 19, עֹלֵלוֹת gleaning; perhaps also נְגִינִוֹת ψ 41, 61, &c., if it means the playing on stringed instruments, and שַׁלְמֹנִים Is 123 bribery, unless it be a plural of number.[4]

g Of (c): the pluralis excellentiae or maiestatis, as has been remarked above, is properly a variety of the abstract plural, since it sums up the several characteristics[5] belonging to the idea, besides possessing the secondary sense of an intensification of the original idea. It is thus closely related to the plurals of amplification, treated under [[Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar/e#|]], which are mostly found in poetry. So especially אֱלֹהִים Godhead, God (to be distinguished from the numerical plural gods, Ex 1212, &c.). The supposition that אֱלֹהִים is to be regarded as merely a remnant of earlier polytheistic views (i.e. as originally only a numerical plural) is at least highly improbable, and, moreover, would not explain the analogous plurals (see below). That the language has entirely rejected the idea of numerical plurality in אֱלֹהִים (whenever it denotes one God), is proved especially by its being almost invariably joined with a singular attribute (cf. § 132 h), e.g. אֱלֹהִים צַדִּיק ψ 710, &c. Hence אֱלֹהִים may have been used originally not only as a numerical but also as an abstract plural (corresponding to the Latin numen, and our Godhead), and, like other abstracts of the same kind, have been transferred to a concrete single god (even of the heathen).

h To the same class (and probably formed on the analogy of אֱלֹהִים) belong the plurals קְדשִׁים the Most Holy (only of Yahweh), Ho 121, Pr 910, 303 (cf. אֱלֹהִים קְדשִׁים Jos 2419, and the Aram. עֶלְיוֹנִין the Most High, Dn 718, 22, 25); and probably תְּרָפִים (usually taken in the sense of penates) the image of a god, used especially for obtaining oracles. Certainly in 1 S 1913, 16 only one image is intended; in most other places a single image may be intended[6]; in Zc 102 alone is it most naturally taken as a numerical plural. In Ec 57 גְּבֹהִים supremus (of God) is doubtful; according to others it is a numerical plural, superiores.

i Further, אֲדֹנִים, as well as the singular אָדוֹן, (lordship) lord, e.g. אֲדֹנִים קָשֶׁה a cruel lord, Is 194; אֲדֹנֵי הָאָ֫רֶץ the lord of the land, Gn 4230, cf. Gn 3219; so especially with the suffixes of the 2nd and 3rd persons אֲדֹנֶ֫יךָ, אֲדֹנַ֫יִךְ ψ 4512, אֲדֹנָיו, &c., also אֲדֹנֵ֫ינוּ (except 1 S 1616); but in 1st sing. always אֲדֹנִי.[7] So also בְּעָלִים (with suffixes) lord, master (of slaves, cattle, or inanimate things; but in the sense of maritus, always in the singular), e.g. בְּעָלָיו Ex 2129, Is 13, &c.[8]

k On the other hand, we must regard as doubtful a number of participles in the plural, which, being used as attributes of God, resemble plurales excellentiae; thus, עשָֹׁי my Maker, Jb 3510; עשַֹׁ֫יִךְ Is 545; עשָֹׁיו ψ 1492; עשֶֹׁיהָ Is 2211; נֽוֹטֵיהֶם stretching them out, Is 425; for all these forms may also be explained as singular, according to § 93 ss.[9]נֹֽגְשָׂיו Is 312 might also be regarded as another instance, unless it be a numerical plural, their oppressors; moreover, מְרִימָיו him who lifteth it up, Is 1015 (but read probably מְרִימוֹ); שֹֽׁלְחָיו him who sendeth him, Pr 1026, 2221 (so Baer, but Ginsburg שֹֽׁלְחֶ֫ךָ), 25:13 (in parallelism with אֲדֹנָיו). These latter plurals, however (including מרימיו), may probably be more simply explained as indicating an indefinite individual, cf. o below.—For שֹֽׁמְרֶ֫יךָ ψ 1215 (textus receptus) and בּֽוֹרְאֶ֫יךָ Ec 121 (textus receptus) the singular should be read, with Baer. l Rem. 1. (a) Coherent substances, &c., are mostly regarded as single, and are, accordingly, almost always represented by nouns in the singular, cf. אָבָק fine dust, אֵ֫פֶר ashes, בַּד linen, בְּדִיל lead, זָהָב gold, כֶּ֫סֶף silver, נְח֫שֶׁת brass, חָלָב milk, יַ֫יִן wine, עָפָר dust, the ground, עֵץ wood. Plurals are, however, formed from some of these words expressing materials in order to denote separate portions taken from the whole in manufacture (plurals of the result) or parts otherwise detached from it; thus, בַּדִּים linen garments; כְּסָפִים silver pieces, Gn 4225, 35; נְחֻשְׁתַּ֫יִם (dual) fetters of brass; עֵצִים ligna (timber for building or sticks for burning); also in a wider sense, בְּדִילִים particles of alloy to be separated by smelting, Is 125; עֲפָרוֹת fragments of earth, Pr 826, cf. Jb 286 עַפְרֹת זָהָב dust of gold.

m (b) To the class of plurals of the result belong also a few names of natural products, when represented in an artificial condition; thus, חִטִּים wheat in grain (threshed wheat), as distinguished from חִטָּה wheat (used collectively) in the ear; cf. the same distinction between כֻּסְּמִים and כֻּסֶּ֫מֶת spelt; עֲדָשִׁים and עֲדָשָׁה (the singular preserved only in the Mishna) lentils; שְׂעֹרִים and שְׂעֹרָה barley; also פִּשְׁתִּים linen, פֵּ֫שֶׁת (to be inferred from פִּשְׁתִּי) flax.

n (c) Finally, the distinction between דָּם blood and דָּמִים requires to be specially noticed. The singular is always used when the blood is regarded as an organic unity, hence also of menstrual blood, and the blood of sacrifices (collected in the basin and then sprinkled), and in Nu 2324 of the blood gushing from wounds. On the other hand, דָּמִים as a sort of plural of the result and at the same time of local extension, denotes blood which is shed, when it appears as blood-stains (Is 115) or as blood-marks (so evidently in Is 94). But since blood-stains or blood-marks, as a rule, suggest blood shed in murder (although דָּמִים also denotes the blood which flows at child-birth or in circumcision), דָּמִים acquired (even in very early passages) simply the sense of a bloody deed, and especially of bloodguiltiness, Ex 221 f., &c.

o In some few cases the plural is used to denote an indefinite singular; certainly so in Dt 175 אֶל־שְׁעָרֶ֫יךָ unto one of thy gates; Zc 99 בֶּן־אֲתֹנוֹת (cf. Ct 29); Ex 2122 יְלָדֶ֫יהָ (where evidently only one child is thought of, certainly though in connexion with a contingency which may be repeated); cf. also Ec 410 (if one of them fall).—So probably also Gn 84, 1 S 1743, Dn 21, Neh 38, 62; but not Gn 1929, since the same document (Gn 1312) makes Lot dwell in the cities of the Jordan valley; in Gn 217 בָּנִים denotes the class with which the action is concerned. In Ju 127 instead of the unusual בְּעָרֵי גִלְעָד in the cities of Gilead (formerly explained here as in one of the cities of Gilead) we should most probably read, with Moore (SBOT. Judges, p. 52), בְּעִירוֹ בְּמִצְפֵּה גִלְעָד in his city, in Mizpeh (in) Gilead.

o 2. When a substantive is followed by a genitive, and the compound idea thus formed is to be expressed in the plural, this is done—

(a) Most naturally by using the plural of the nomen regens, e.g. גִּבּוֹרֵי חַ֫יִל mighty men of valour (prop. heroes of strength), 1 Ch 72, 9; so also in compounds, e.g. בְּנֵי יְמִינִי 1 S 227, as the plur. of בֶּן־יְמִינִי Benjamite; but also

q (b) By using the plural of both nouns,[10] e.g. גִּבּוֹרֵי חֲיָלִים 1 Ch 75; וּבְבָֽתֵּי כְלָאִים and in prison houses, Is 4222; cf. Ex 341, &c., שְׁנֵיֽ־לֻחֹת אֲבָנִים two tables of stone (but Ex 3118 לֻחֹת אֶ֫בֶן); Nu 1332, Dt 128, Jos 52, 64, 2 K 1414, 2523, Is 519, Jer 4116, Ezr 33, &c. עַמֵּי הָֽאֲרָצוֹת the people of the country; 2 Ch 2614; so perhaps בְּנֵי אֵלִים sons of God, ψ 291, 897 (according to others sons of gods); or finally even

r (c) By using the plural of the nomen rectum;[11] e.g. בֵּית אָבוֹת Ex 614, Nu 12, 4 ff., &c., as plur. of בֵּית אָב father’s house, family; בֵּית הַבָּמוֹת the houses of the high places, 2 K 1729 (also בָּֽתֵּי הַבָּמוֹת 23:19); בֵּית עֲצַבֵּיהֶם the houses of their idols, 1 S 319, Ez 4624; cf. also Ju 725 the head of Oreb and Zeeb, i.e. the heads, &c.

s Rem. When a substantive (in a distributive sense) with a suffix refers back to a plural, the singular form of the substantive suffices, since the idea of plurality is already adequately expressed by the suffix, e.g. פִּימוֹ os (for ora) eorum, ψ 1710; יְמִינָם their right hand, ψ 1448 [so in the English RV.], for hands.

  1. Cf. Dietrich, ‘Über Begriff und Form des hebr. Plurals,’ in the Abhandl. zur hebr. Grammatik, Leipzig, 1846, p. 2 ff.
  2. Cf. the same use of the plural in τὰ στέρνα, τὰ νῶτα, τὰ τράχηλα, praecordia, cervices, fauces; on plurals of extension in general, cf. the prepositions of place and time in the plur. form, § 103 n. סְפָרִים is not a case in point, in the sense of letter (properly a sheet folded into several pages; elsewhere also סֵ֫פֶר) 1 K 218 ff., 2 K 101, 1914 (Is 3714; referred to afterwards by the singular suffix); Is 391, Jer 2925, 3214 (after being folded, previously סֵ֫פֶר).
  3. Cf. A. Ember, ‘The pluralis intensivus in Hebrew,’ AJSL. 1905, p. 195 ff.
  4. Mayer Lambert in REJ. xxiv. 106 ff., enumerates no less than ninety-five words ending in îm, which in his opinion are to be regarded as pluralia tantum.
  5. The Jewish grammarians call such plurals רִבּוּי הַכֹּחוֹת plur. virium or virtutum; later grammarians call them plur. excellentiae, magnitudinis, or plur. maiestaticus. This last name may have been suggested by the we used by kings when speaking of themselves (cf. already 1 Macc. 1019, 1131); and the plural used by God in Gn 126, 117, Is 68 has been incorrectly explained in this way. It is, however, either communicative (including the attendant angels; so at all events in Is 68, cf. also Gn 322), or according to others, an indication of the fullness of power and might implied in אֱלֹהִים (see Dillmann on Gn 126); but it is best explained as a plural of self-deliberation. The use of the plural as a form of respectful address is quite foreign to Hebrew.
  6. Even in Gn 3134, notwithstanding the plural suffix in וַתְּשִׂמֵם and עֲלֵיהֶם, since the construction of these abstracts as numerical plurals is one of the peculiarities of the E-document of the Hexateuch; cf. Gn 2013, 357, and § 145 i.
  7. On אֲדֹנָי (for אֲדֹנִי) as a name of God, cf. § 135 q.
  8. Euting, Reise in Arabien, p. 61, mentions the interesting fact that the subjects of the Emir of Ḥâyel commonly speak of their ruler as šiyûkh, a plur. majestatis= the great sheikh.
  9. בֹּֽעֲלַ֫יִךְ, which in Is 545 is in parallelism with עשַֹׁ֫יִךְ, must then be explained as merely formed on analogy.
  10. Cf. König, Lehrgebäude, ii. 438 f., according to whom the plural of the principal word exercises an influence on the determining genitive.
  11. Cf. Brockelmann, Grundriss, i. 482.