In classical Arabic, declension is very useful to distinguish subject from object, example:

Ysmʕ allah-u => He.listens (V) God(S) (God listens)

Ysmʕ allah-a => He.listens (V) God(O) (He listens to god)

In Hebrew it would be:

Yšmʕ al

How do we know that ‘al’ (pronounced ‘el’) is the subject?

Same for this one:

Ysra al

Is ‘al’ the subject or the object?

  • 2
    I don't feel like correcting all of the many mistakes in the Arabic and Hebrew transcription. To answer briefly: Hebrew lost the Semitic case endings, but has the particle eth to mark the direct object.
    – fdb
    Dec 18 '16 at 19:10
  • More precisely, eth marks definite direct objects. Even then it isn't always used in Biblical Hebrew, though.
    – TKR
    Dec 18 '16 at 19:30
  • 1
    which Hebrew? Ancient or Modern?
    – mobileink
    Dec 18 '16 at 20:21

As a general rule, Hebrew employs what is known as the Definite Direct Object Marker (or DDOM), which is the untranslatable את (et). So long as the object of the verb is a direct object and so long as it is definite, it should be preceded by this particle. Should, but isn't always. In poetry, for example, it is frequently omitted. Otherwise, the object is indicated through word order alone.

The example that you gave of yisrael is a tricky one. Proper nouns tend to become ossified, and often hark back to a time when the language actually was inflected for case. The biblical literature suggests an etymology for this word as being "one who fights with God", but that is not necessarily what it originally meant.

The examples that you brought for Arabic may not be ambiguous in Hebrew, since the particle translated to the English "to" would usually comprise a distinct particle in Hebrew as well. Thus, yishma el = "God listens" (consider the name yishmael and its biblical etymology), while "he listens to God" would require a particle before God's name (confusingly, in this instance, the homophonous el).

As @fdb comments, there are some texts (such as Ecclesiastes 7:5) in which the particle is omitted. In such circumstances, correct identification of the subject and object needs be contextual.

  • This answer is not correct. In Biblical Hebrew the verb šāmaʽ with the meaning “hear, listen to” can be construed either with a direct object, or with the preposition ʼɛl, or with other prepositions. From a purely grammatical point of view יִשְׁמָעֵאל yišmāʽʼel could theoretically mean either “El hears (his prayer)”, or “he listens to El”. It is indeed ambiguous.
    – fdb
    Dec 22 '16 at 0:07
  • With respect, @fdb, I don't think that's true. Certainly it's ambiguous so far as its tense is concerned, but not in terms of the relationship between subject and object. Under no circumstances could "he listens to God" be rendered as ישמע אל.
    – Shimon bM
    Dec 22 '16 at 0:12
  • 1
    E.g. Eccl. 7:5 טֹוב לִשְׁמֹעַ גַּעֲרַת חָכָם מֵאִישׁ שֹׁמֵעַ שִׁיר כְּסִילִים׃; with direct object, not ʼɛl.
    – fdb
    Dec 22 '16 at 0:24
  • 1
    @fdb - I stand corrected!
    – Shimon bM
    Dec 22 '16 at 1:31
  • Just to add this: I have no doubt that in Yišmāʽel, and in virtually all names of this type (verb in 3rd pers. sing. + divine name, a very widespread type across the Semitic languages) the theophoric element is the subject of the verb. My point was merely that this is grammatically not the only possibility.
    – fdb
    Dec 22 '16 at 13:38

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