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To Hurt It Can’t Hurt

‘B’seder, le’hazik zeh lo yazik,” a visitor to my house said the other day when I offered him an aspirin for the headache he’d complained of. In Hebrew, his remark was perfectly normal. Translated literally into English, however, it would sound rather strange, to wit: “All right, to hurt it can’t hurt.”

In more ordinary English, one would say, “It certainly won’t hurt.” In Israeli Hebrew, on the other hand, you can apply such a construction to almost any verb, e.g., “La’lekhet ani elekh” (“I’ll certainly go”; literally, “To go I’ll go”), or “Le’haskim ani askim (“I certainly agree”; literally, “To agree, I’ll agree”). Where does this odd usage come from?

The Yiddish speakers among you will know the answer immediately. The same construction exists in Yiddish, where it is far more prevalent. Indeed, one can form the exact same sentences with it. “It certainly won’t hurt” — Shadn shadt es nit”; “I’ll certainly go” — “Forn vel ikh forn.”

Yiddish grammarian Yudl Mark called this construction “the tautological infinitive” (a tautology is a redundant proposition, as in a statement such as, “The puppy was a small dog”) and gives several examples of it in his “Grammatik fun der Yiddisher Klal-shprakh.” These show how it can be used as an intensifier in a variety of tenses and aspects — for example, “Trogn trog ikh gor mayn altn mantl” (“I wear my old coat a lot”); “Oyfhern hot di gvire shoyn nit oyfgehert tsu lakhn”(“The lady just wouldn’t stop laughing”); “Di katz shpilt zikh mit der moyz, ober oplozn lozt zi zi nit op” (“The cat plays with the mouse, but she never lets it get away”).

That the tautological infinitive should show up in Hebrew is not surprising. Yiddish, after all, was the native language of the majority of the Jews in Palestine at the time of the late 19th-and early 20th-century spoken Hebrew revival, and its influence on Hebrew speech was enormous.

And yet, where does the tautological infinitive in Yiddish come from? You won’t find it in German or in Slavic languages. Did Yiddish invent it on its own?

I was wondering about this after the departure of my visitor with the headache (nicely cleared up, you’ll be glad to hear, by the aspirin), when the answer suddenly struck me. No, Yiddish did not invent the tautological infinitive. It lent it to Modern Hebrew — and borrowed it from ancient Hebrew.

To be sure, in ancient Hebrew it’s not called the tautological infinitive. Modern grammarians refer to it as “the infinitive absolute,” and it can be found all over the Bible. Here are some examples from the King James translation:

Genesis, 2:17: “But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it; for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die [mot tamut].”

Judges, 4:9: “And she [Deborah] said [to Barak]: I will surely go [halokh elekh] with thee.”

Jeremiah, 36:29: “The king of Babylon shall certainly come [bo yavo] and destroy this land.”

In each of these cases, the word translated as “surely” or “certainly” is a verbal form — known in Hebrew as ha-makor ha-nismakh, “the construct infinitive” — that is coupled with a future tense of the same verb. In the phrase, “Thou shalt surely die,” for instance, tamut means “You will die” and mot is the construct infinitive, a literal translation of the combination of the two, being, “To die [or “Dying”] thou shalt die.”

Although widespread in the Bible, the infinitive absolute disappeared from post-biblical Hebrew and never occurs there. How, then, did it get into Yiddish? Almost certainly from the literal Yiddish translations of the Bible that were used to teach beginning pupils in the heders of Eastern Europe. In such versions, for instance, the verse about Deborah from the Book of Judges would have been translated, “Un zi hot gezogt tsu im: geyn gey ikh mit dir” — and generations of heder students exposed to such phrases would have gradually introduced them into colloquial Yiddish.

But the ending of this story has, as we have seen, a curious twist. Although the architects of Modern Hebrew deliberately revived certain biblical usages, the infinitive absolute was not one of them; no Israeli would ever say halokh elekh for “I’ll certainly go.” Yet without realizing that they were doing it, Yiddish-influenced Hebrew speakers reintroduced the infinitive absolute through the vernacular back door, as it were, so that Israelis will occasionally phrase “I’ll certainly go” as “La’lekhet ani elekh,” using the ordinary rather than the construct infinitive. Although it’s an amusingly odd case of a solemn-sounding Hebrew archaism returning as a breezy Hebrew colloquialism by way of a detour through Yiddish, it’s also a typical illustration of the symbiotic relation between the two languages, which never ceased to affect and be affected by each other.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to [email protected].


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