Dual in Old Church Slavonic—and in modern Hebrew

Jan 28, 2015 by

two blind menUnlike (modern) Russian and English, Old Church Slavonic (OCS) had not a two-way but a three-way grammatical number distinction: singular, dual, and plural. The dual was used for ‘two’, whereas the plural was used for ‘three or more’. The productive use of the dual in OCS is particularly noticeable in Matthew 20: 30-34, a text telling a story of Jesus giving sight to two blind men that he chanced upon as he traveled from Jericho. Importantly, the original Greek passage from which the OCS text has been translated used only plural forms since by that time the earlier dual forms had completely disappeared in Greek. This leads us to conclude that the dual forms in the OCS text are a “native” linguistic feature rather than an imitation of the Greek original. The productive nature of the OCS dual is also evident from the following two observations, which also differentiate the OCS dual from the use of dual in other languages, such as modern Hebrew.

First, the dual in OCS is used for any entities, not only for “natural pairs”, such as oči ‘eyes’, or in archaic phrases. In this passage, the dual is used consistently in reference to the two blind men, dъva slěpьca. In contrast, in Hebrew the use of the dual, marked by the suffix -ayim, is limited to only three classes of nouns: (1) nouns denoting body parts forming “natural pairs”, such as eynayim ‘eyes’, yadayim ‘hands, arms’, and šaddayim ‘(female) breasts’; (2) pluralia tantum nouns, such as misparayim ‘scissors’, mixnasayim ‘trousers’, and miškafayim ‘eye glasses’; and (3) nouns denoting temporal intervals, as in yomayim ‘two days’, xodšayim ‘two months’, šnatayim ‘two years’. Note, however, that strictly speaking only in the last case does the morphological dual function as a semantic dual, i.e. to denote two and only two entities. With body part nouns, the morphological dual is used to denote not only two but also three or more entities, as in harbe yadayim ‘many hands’. With pluralia tantum nouns, the morphological dual denotes one object, typically one that has two symmetrical parts; in order to express any number larger than one, the noun zugot ‘pairs’ must be used. Neither of these two classes of nouns has a three-way distinction between singular, dual, and plural morphological forms: body part nouns have only singular and dual (yad/yadayim ‘hand/hands’), whereas pluralia tantum nouns have only the dual morphological form. (Note that mispar/misparim means ‘number/numbers’.) Only temporal interval nouns have a three-way morphological number distinction: e.g. xodeš/xodšayim/xodašim ‘month/two months/months’.

Second, in contrast to Hebrew, where the dual is morphologically distinct only with nouns, but not with adjectives, verbs, etc., in OCS the dual number is relevant for the declension and conjugation paradigms of all inflecting categories: nouns (slěpьca ‘blind.men’, oči ‘eyes’), pronouns (ny ‘us’, vama ‘to you’), adjectives (dъva ‘two’), participles (sědęšta ‘sitting’, glagoljǫšta ‘saying’), and verbs (xošteta ‘(you two) want’, prosьrěste ‘gained the power of sight’). Below is the entire passage from Matthew 20: 30-34 (in Cyrillic), with all the dual forms boldfaced.

и сє дъва слѣпьса сѣдѧшта при пѫти слъішавъша јако иисѹсъ мимо ходитъ възъпистє глагол҄ѭшта помилѹи нъі господи съінѹ давъідовъ | народъ жє запрѣти има да ѹмльчитє | она жє пачє въпьјаашєтє глагол҄ѭшта помилѹи нъі господи съінѹ давъідовъ | и ставъ иисѹсъ възгласи ја и рєчє чьто хоштєта да сътвор҄ѭ вама | глаголастє ємѹ господи да отврьзєтє сѧ наю очи | милосрьдовавъ жє иисѹсъ прикоснѫ сѧ очью има и абьє прозьрѣстє и по н҄ємь идєтє |

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