Monday, December 05, 2005

parshat Toledot: More thoughts on Anochi Esav Bechorecha

Continuing my thoughts from this post about possible motivations for the midrash on Anochi Esav Bechorecha, which takes it as two statements - "It is I; Esav is your firstborn":

Hebrew is a pro-drop language - that is, "a language in which pronouns can be deleted when pragmatically inferrable." In general, languages with rich inflections are pro-drop languages. Since the verb carries along all the information about person, gender, and number, the pronoun becomes redundant.

As one example, from the story of Lot in Sedom {Bereishit 19:2}:

ב וַיֹּאמֶר הִנֶּה נָּא-אֲדֹנַי, סוּרוּ נָא אֶל-בֵּית עַבְדְּכֶם וְלִינוּ וְרַחֲצוּ רַגְלֵיכֶם, וְהִשְׁכַּמְתֶּם, וַהֲלַכְתֶּם לְדַרְכְּכֶם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֹּא, כִּי בָרְחוֹב נָלִין.
2 and he said: 'Behold now, my lords, turn aside, I pray you, into your servant's house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your way.' And they said: 'Nay; but we will abide in the broad place all night.'

Compare the Hebrew, which is pro-drop, with the English, which is not.
וַיֹּאמֶר / and he said

we do not say vayo(`)mer hu`.

וְהִשְׁכַּמְתֶּם / and ye shall rise up early

we do not say ve`atem hishkamtem.
Because the verb carries this information, we can drop the pronoun, even though it is present on the level of D-structure as "little pro."

The pronoun can occur in Hebrew even where it is strictly unnecessary. When it does, it serves to mark a special stress or emphasis. Thus, in Shir HaShirim 5:5:

ה קַמְתִּי אֲנִי, לִפְתֹּחַ לְדוֹדִי; וְיָדַי נָטְפוּ-מוֹר, וְאֶצְבְּעֹתַי מוֹר עֹבֵר, עַל, כַּפּוֹת הַמַּנְעוּל.
5 I rose up to open to my beloved; and my hands dropped with myrrh, and my fingers with flowing myrrh, upon the handles of the bar.

The word אֲנִי is unnecessary, in that we could have simply had קַמְתִּי, and the pronoun is there to give special emphasis. As Hakham writes, she is stressing that she, the lazy one mentioned above who did not bother to get out of bed - she now gets up. And the same in the next verse, which begins פָּתַחְתִּי אֲנִי.

This is true for Hebrew, just as it is true for other pro-drop languages, such as Italian.

However, Hebrew is not strictly pro-drop. In the present tense, it is not pro-drop. This is because the present tense lacks rich inflection and so the pronoun is not redundant. (One might say that there is no present tense in Hebrew, just the noun form, which acts as a neutral tense, and this can account for the lack of rich inflection.) Thus, in parshat Toledot, when Yaakov responds to his father {Bereishit 27:19}:

יט וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ--עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי--בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ.
19 And Jacob said unto his father: 'I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou badest me. Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.'

the statement אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ is in present tense, and so אָנֹכִי is required. One might substitute hu`, or if not for other coreferencing problems, `atah, `atem, hem, `anachnu, etc.

The pronoun אָנֹכִי is required here and cannot be dropped off. Otherwise, it would mean that Esav is your firstborn, with Esav as the subject and is your firstborn as the predicate.

However, while this is true in general - that is, when the statement stands alone, the pronoun is required - when we consider it from the prespective of the field of pragmatics (=natural language understanding, and how context influences meanings), we see that we could, in certain contexts, abandon the pronoun. Consider English, which is not a pro-drop language:

Who are you?
Esav, your firstborn. (= I am Esav, your firstborn)

The same is true in Hebrew. Because of context, the word אָנֹכִי is not required. Thus, in theory, it might come to serve an added function.

The midrash then takes the unnecessary pronoun as an entity in and of itself, and the remainder of the statement likewise.

More thoughts later.

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