The beginning of a long steady look at עִם and אֵת


So, I was thinking about what to post and I figured it might be good for me to share with you some of my research on a little word I studied. So, in the coming posts, I'll be expounding more and more on, actually, these two little lexemes. But for now, I'll say this: The Biblical Hebrew (BH) particles that'll be the topic of many discussions to come are עִם and אֵת. These two lexemes debut quite a bit in the OT, and interestingly, display a sort of complementary implementation (viz. as one is used more and more, the other is used less and less)—but more on this later. Primarily, they can be understood as prepositions, but at some point—at least for עִם—they turned into mere function words, losing their semantic import (viz. this is what grammaticalization theorizers refer to as "bleaching"). For our discussion though, we'll be talking about the semantic potential they packed (or rather, was packed into them). In other words, we're gonna take a close look at what meanings these lexemes were used to relate.

It's important to note that the assessment I'll be sharing with you can be tested, for verification or falsification. That's because in researching the semantic potential (i.e. the full scope of word-meaning) of these two prepositions I used a couple sets of criteria in hopes of making the study replicable, thorough, and less determined by my own intuition. This means you'll be able to "trace my thoughts" and say, "Uh, I don't think so"—or—"Oh, I got ya". Hopefully it'll be more of the latter, but I'm not afraid of the former.

So to get this thing started, I think I'll lay out quite briefly the first set of criteria employed, the purpose of which is to help one identify the "primary sense"; in other words, that sense that is the seed from which all other senses have sprouted—it is the starting point of the culminating semantic network. These points are taken from Tyler and Evans (2003:45–50). (If you have questions on any of these, or want further clarification, please just ask. I'm just trying to keep the actual post short).


Earliest attested meaning: "Given the very stable nature of the conceptualization of spatial relations within a language, one likely candidate for the primary sense is the historically earliest sense" (ibid.: 47). Tyler and Evans (ibid.: 164) clarify what is meant here, remarking this criterion suggests that the proto-scene is "[…] the synchronic sense most closely related to the historically earliest".


Predominance in the semantic network: They "interpret predominance to mean the unique spatial configuration that is involved in the majority of the distinct senses found in the network" (ibid.: 48). By "unique spatial configuration" is meant the specific type of TR-LM relationship at work in a spatial scene. Thus, Tyler and Evans (2003) posit that the most widely used TR-LM configuration in a semantic network will likely be indicative that the primary sense too, utilizes this specific configuration.


Use in composite forms: While some spatial particles can be joined to other lexemes (e.g., מֵעִם = עִם + מִן ) or are commonly paired with particular verbs (e.g., possibly הַלָך עִם), only select senses of the lexeme are employed in such constructions. Provided this, they "suggest that participation in composite forms cannot directly determine which sense is primary, but failure to participate can be taken as suggestive that that particular sense is probably not primary in the network" (ibid.).


Relations to other spatial particles: Given that spatial relations with and within the world can be described by various words, some of these form groups which are used to describe particular spatial dimensions, like proximity (e.g. nearbeside, by, with) or containment (e.g. in, into); such groups of words then naturally describe the opposite of what another camp of lexemes may be used to relate, such as out for containment. The spatial sense encoded by in is then somewhat contingent upon its counterpart out. "The particular sense used in the formation of such a contrast set would thus seem to be a likely candidate as a primary sense" (ibid.: 49).


Grammatical predictions: Provided the fact that distinct senses originally evolved from an earlier sense, one should be able to trace back a lexeme's semantic potential to an original source from which the majority of senses sprouted – a "semantic seed", so to speak (ibid.). For instance, sense-C should be traced to sense-B and finally, sense-A. Even if a direct line of derivation is not discovered from C to A, the identification of deviant routes such as B-c or A-b should ultimately lead one back to the "main trail" on which the originating sense may be found.

Other than just plain interesting, identifying this cornerstone of a network of senses is an important feature to signal out for multiple reasons. For one, it helps us appreciate the development of meaning that's taken place with the way the particular word is used. Anyone—well maybe not anyone—can list off a number of senses they think a word might have, but do stop here only provides us with something like a boring, flat taxonomy of uses. I think we see this a lot in standard BH lexica. Anyways, the moment you introduce the notion of primacy into the conversation you infuse the network with a new dimension. It's almost like a flat picture being imbued with shadows and depth—or if you prefer, those annoying 3-D glasses.

Confession: though I'm a Mac user, I'm not one to drool. I've recently gone to the dark side and appreciate the little green guy.

In the next post we'll talk a bit about grammaticalization, and how this theory helps us organize, developmentally, the senses that we're about to identify. O yeah, and I'll also share with you what the primary sense is for both עִם and אֵת.

Please ask questions if you got any. I think, at the very least, "trajector-landmark configurations" (TR-LM) should be explained...


Tyler, A. and V. Evans. 2003. The semantics of English prepositions: spatial scenes, embodied meaning and cognition. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.