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Whence אֶת between partners' names?

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The word אֶת /et/ is used with the following meanings:

  • In Biblical Hebrew, it means "with". In modern Hebrew it survives, but only with a complement-of-the-preposition pronoun suffix: "with me", "with you", etc.
  • In Biblical and modern Hebrew (and points in between), it's the direct-object preposition (no translation in English).
  • Afaict newly in modern Hebrew, it's used between partners' names in business names, like משה את דוד (given names) or כהן את לוי (surnames).

My question is about the latter sense: in particular, about its etymology. Does it come from the Biblical "with" sense, from Latin/Romance et ("and"), or from where?

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In fact, the homonyms "את"—one of which shows the form ʾitt- with suffixes and is the preposition "with", the other being the sign of the definite direct object in classical Hebrew, and having the form ʾot- with suffixes—are etymologically two different words.

As OP suggests, it is the former which is the lexeme used in Modern Hebrew in phrases like כהן את לוי. According to Mikhal Oren1 this "fossil" in Modern Hebrew is an example of the "comitative case", "which denotes the company in which an action is performed, or with whom or what an object or person is found." Oren suggests it may well have been influenced by the Latin et, again as noted in the question:

The uninflected form את ʾet, however, has fallen out of use, probably to avoid confusion with the homonymous accusative marker (an exception, likely brought about by the resemblance to Latin et, is the use of את ʾet in linking the names of business associates, as in כהן את לוי kohen ʾet levi ‘Cohen & Levi’).

So it appears to be the case that OP has already got as far as professional linguists are prepared to go with this question: (1) this usage is a relic of the classical Hebrew preposition את (and not the "definite direct object" homonym); but (2) influence of Latin et remains a possibility.

  1. Mikhal Oren, “Comitative: Modern Hebrew”, in: Encyclopedia of Hebrew Language and Linguistics, Edited by: Geoffrey Khan. Consulted online on 05 August 2020 http://dx.doi.org/10.1163/2212-4241_ehll_EHLL_COM_00000639

1 comment

Thank you so much. ‭msh210‭ about 2 months ago

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