Biblical Hebrew me’uma: an emphatic negative polarity item

Adina Moshavi*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


The indefinite pronoun, usually rendered 'anything', has been identified by several scholars as belonging to a linguistic category known as the negative polarity item (NPI). NPIs are words or phrases that cannot occur in simple episodic affirmative clauses but are grammatical in negative clauses and certain other non-affirmative contexts. This paper presents a detailed analysis of in biblical and contemporaneous extra-biblical texts, in the light of cross-linguistic research on NPIs, with the aim of elucidating its syntactic properties, contextual restrictions, semantic denotation and rhetorical effects. The results of this study demonstrate that belongs to the group of emphatic NPIs, which express a minimal value on a scale and have the rhetorical function of intensification. shown to occur (with only one possible exception) only in known NPI licensing environments, including negative, interrogative and conditional clauses, as well as in a clause with covert negation. In its semantic denotation expresses a minimal value on a contextually determined scale and involves an implicit 'even'. On the rhetorical level has the characteristic intensifying effect of the emphatic NPI, often involving hyperbole. These results have significance for Bible translation, indicating that the standard rendering of with English anything does not adequately convey the intensifying force of the Hebrew indefinite pronoun.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-90
Number of pages24
JournalJournal of Semitic Studies
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1 Apr 2019
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
1 This paper was partially funded by Israel Science Foundation grant 1386/13. Previous versions of this paper were delivered as a paper at the Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature 2013, and as colloquium lectures in the Department of Hebrew Language and Semitic Languages at Bar-Ilan University (2015) and the Department of Hebrew Language and Jewish Languages at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (2015). I am grateful to Hanan Ariel, Yochanan Breuer, Steve Fassberg, Einat Keren and Simcha Kogut, for their responses at the colloquia, and to Randall Garr, Steve Fassberg and Michael Segal for helpful discussions on a variety of topics involved in the paper. I am very grateful to Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal, Randall Garr, Susan Rothstein and Richard Steiner for reading and commenting on a draft of this paper. Any remaining errors are of course my own. The translations in the biblical and extrabiblical citations below are my own, in the case of the biblical citations, based primarily on consultation with NRSV and JPS.

Publisher Copyright:
© The author. Published by Oxford University Press on behalf of the University of Manchester. All rights reserved.

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