If Not, Or Else, and Maybe in Akkadian and Perhaps in Hebrew

Eran Cohen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The particle ulašūma (‘or else’) in Old Babylonian Akkadian is analyzed from a functional and syntactic point of view. In addition to its known functions as a pro-polar protasis (‘if not, otherwise, or else’) and as a disjunctive particle (‘or’), it is also concluded to function as a conditional exponent. As such it is shown to belong with other expressions of epistemic modality (modal and conditional particles). Its most plausible diachronic source is determined, based on comparative as well as Akkadian material, to have been a non-verbal circumstantial expression *u lā šū (‘it (is) not’) ultimately meaning ‘it not being the case. . .’. In the second part of the paper, a cognate origin (*ū lā hī ‘it not being the case’) is proposed for the Biblical Hebrew epistemic particle ?ūlay (‘maybe/if’). Two possible paths are discussed—one is internal development and the other a result of language contact. Each path is considered, paying meticulous attention to the respective sets of difficulties. The difference in the synchronic function and meaning between the Akkadian and Hebrew particles is bridged based on the syntactic and functional analysis of the Old Babylonian particle, which shows it to be an epistemic particle.

Original languageAmerican English
Pages (from-to)151-169
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of the American Oriental Society
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2021

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