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Emotive Force and the Sense of Form (Balaam’s Ass)

Grammatical form may have an emotive force, as is the case with gender in those languages where gender distinctions are an obligatory category of grammatical structure. This is not to confuse biological sex with gender. In German, for instance, a maiden (das Mädchen) is neuter, and in Russian a male servant (sluga) is desinentially (inflectionally) feminine while being of masculine gender (a female servant is called prisluga––also of feminine gender).

In those cases where feminine and non-feminine are opposed in the designation of biological sex, the non-feminine––alias masculine––is the unmarked (generic) member of the opposition because it applies to both sexes, whereas the feminine is marked, being applicable exclusively to the female of the species. Thus in Russian, the unmarked word for ‘donkey’ is osël (осёл), whereas the word for ‘she-ass’ is formed by adding a suffix {-ica} to the deriving base {osl-}, resulting in oslítsa (ослица). This sort of play of derivational morphology can be accompanied by emotive force, as in the English compound jackass, which is marked with respect to the simplex ass. Interestingly enough, the Russian pejorative counterpart of jackass is the masculine noun osël (not the feminine oslítsa).

This is all by way of introducing a well-known Bible story known as Balaam’s Ass that appears in Numbers 22:

21 And Balaam rose up in the morning, and saddled his ass, and went with the princes of Moab. 22 And God’s anger was kindled because he went; and the angel of the LORD placed himself in the way for an adversary against him.–Now he was riding upon his ass, and his two servants were with him.– 23 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and the ass turned aside out of the way, and went into the field; and Balaam smote the ass, to turn her into the way. 24 Then the angel of the LORD stood in a hollow way between the vineyards, a fence being on this side, and a fence on that side. 25 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she thrust herself unto the wall, and crushed Balaam’s foot against the wall; and he smote her again. 26 And the angel of the LORD went further, and stood in a narrow place, where was no way to turn either to the right hand or to the left. 27 And the ass saw the angel of the LORD, and she lay down under Balaam; and Balaam’s anger was kindled, and he smote the ass with his staff. 28 And the LORD opened the mouth of the ass, and she said unto Balaam: ‘What have I done unto thee, that thou hast smitten me these three times?’ 29 And Balaam said unto the ass: ‘Because thou hast mocked me; I would there were a sword in my hand, for now I had killed thee.’ 30 And the ass said unto Balaam: ‘Am not I thine ass, upon which thou hast ridden all thy life long unto this day? was I ever wont to do so unto thee?’ And he said: ‘Nay.’ 31 Then the LORD opened the eyes of Balaam, and he saw the angel of the LORD standing in the way, with his sword drawn in his hand; and he bowed his head, and fell on his face. 32 And the angel of the LORD said unto him: ‘Wherefore hast thou smitten thine ass these three times? behold, I am come forth for an adversary, because thy way is contrary unto me; 33 and the ass saw me, and turned aside before me these three times; unless she had turned aside from me, surely now I had even slain thee, and saved her alive.’

Now, the Hebrew original uses an archaic word of feminine gender athon (הָאָת֜וֹן) ‘female donkey’, which is reproduced in the Vulgate (L asina [fem.] rather than asinus [masc.]), and not the newer masculine hamor (חֲמוֹר) ‘male donkey’. The upshot of the feminine gender to designate the animal for the emotive force of the word in the Biblical narrative is stylistically crucial. All the poignancy of the animal’s suffering is tied up with its biological sex as conveyed by its grammatical gender. Therefore, those translations which use donkey or ass instead of she-ass are necessarily scanting the emotional core of this marvelous story.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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