Abarim Publications' online Biblical Hebrew Dictionary
אוה אי אין
There are four separate roots אוה ('wh), two of which produce words that are spelled אי ('i). One of these roots yields the word או ('aw), meaning desire, which is spelled the same as an unrelated conjunction או ('o), which conveys an alternative or exception. The identical particle אי ('i) describes negation, and so does the possibly related substantive אין ('ayin). Then there are two more words that are identical to the two previously mentioned: אי ('i). Then there is the similarly spelled interrogative adverb אי ('ay), which spawns a small array of inquisitive particles.
The root אוה ('wh I) isn't used in the Bible, but an Arabic equivalent means (according to BDB Theological Dictionary) (1) to betake oneself to a place for dwelling; and (2) to be tenderly inclined. This root's sole Biblical derivative is the masculine noun אי ('i) meaning coast or region (according to BDB: a place whither one betakes oneself for resting, etcetera, originally from a mariner's standpoint).
The verb אוה ('wh II) means to desire (or to wish or covet, etc.). This verb is not by itself negative; the emotions it rides can be either good or bad. The criterion is whether that which one desires is available to this person, meaning it's not already someone else's and it's not illegal to want to have. Often this verb occurs without an object, but when they're mentioned they can be fruit (Micah 7:1), food and drink (Deuteronomy 14:26), rule (2 Samuel 3:21), a dwelling place (Psalm 132:13), the beauty of a princess (Psalm 45:11), but the soul of the wicked desires evil (Proverbs 21:10). The Ten Commandments prohibit coveting of all kinds of items; in Exodus 20:17 the verb חמד (hamad) is used but in Deuteronomy the verb חמד (hamad) only covers the wife. Coveting the rest is prohibited by means of our verb אוה ('wh).
This verb yields four derivatives, which all mean desire: the masculine nouns או ('aw) and מאוי (ma'away), and the feminine nouns אוה ('awwa) and תאוה (ta'awa).
The verb אוה ('wh III) means to sign or make a sign, mark or describe with a mark, etc. Its obvious derivation is the noun אות ('ot), meaning sign or mark. This word is the Bible's common word for any sign or token (stars - Genesis 1:14; Cain's mark - Genesis 4:15; Noah's rainbow - Genesis 9:12; etc.). Another mark-making verb is נקב (naqab I), which also means to curse.
The unused root אוה ('wh IV) has probably to do with the verb אחח ('hh II), an onomatopoeic verb meaning to howl. Its two derivatives denote two animals that were probably known for the howling or crying sounds they made: אי ('i), meaning jackal (note that this word is exactly the same as the word 'i meaning coast or region, mentioned earlier), and איה (ayya), meaning hawk or falcon. This noun occurs in Leviticus 11:14 (where it is mentioned among the detestable birds), Deuteronomy 14:13 and Job 28:7 (where the falcon's eye-sight is indirectly praised).
Spelled identical to the word או ('aw) but pronounced slightly different, is the conjunction או ('o). It occurs about 300 times in the Bible, and, in the words of HAW Theological Wordbook: "introduces an alternative situation or an exception to a general principle".
Our particle often shows up with the meaning of 'or' in such evergreen juxtapositions as 'left or right' (Genesis 24:49), 'bad or good' (Genesis 24:50), 'silver or gold' (Genesis 44:8), 'sons or daughters' (Exodus 21:4), 'man or woman' (Exodus 21:28), 'ox or donkey' (Exodus 21:33), and so on. Sometimes it assumes an air of unspecified proposition: 'perhaps' (Genesis 24:55), 'a day or two' (Exodus 21:21), 'whether ... or ...' (Exodus 21:31). And sometimes it is directly suggestive: 'if' or 'in case of' (Leviticus 4:23, 4:28, etcetera).
Formally this conjunction או ('o) has nothing to do with the previous roots, but to the Hebrew mind, their two meanings are not that far apart. The particle לו (lu), for instance, denotes potentiality (if such then so) and desire.
There are four separate but identical words אי ('i), and one that's spelled the same but pronounced slightly different:
- The masculine noun אי ('i), meaning coast or region, from the root אוה ('wh I) mentioned above.
- The masculine noun אי ('i), meaning jackal, from the root אוה ('wh II) mentioned above.
- The interjection אי ('i), which expresses regret: alas! This word is used only in Ecclesiastes 4:10 and 10:16.
- The adverb אי ('i), a particle of negation. In the Bible's narrative this word is used only in Job 22:30, but it appears to also be part of the names Ichabod and Jezebel.
Then there is אי ('ay), which is an interrogative adverb, meaning where? It's usually deployed in rhetorical questions (Micah 7:10, Malachi 2:17). It combines with other adverbs to form the following particles of inquisition:
- איה ('ayyeh), meaning where?
- איך ('ek), meaning how?
- איכה ('eka), meaning how? or where?
- איכו ('eko), meaning where?
- איככה ('ekaka), meaning how?
- אין ('ayin), meaning where? This word shouldn't be confused with the noun עין ('ayin), meaning eye or fountain.
- אן ('an), meaning where?
- איפה ('epoh), meaning where?
Spelled identical to the adverb meaning 'where' and possibly to do with the particle of negation אי ('i), the substantive אין ('ayin) expresses negation (Exodus 5:10), absence (Genesis 2:5) and nothingness (Isaiah 40:23). It occurs more than 600 times in the Bible.
In the sense of it expressing absence, this word is obviously not far removed from the identical adverb meaning where. Both occur frequently in combination with the prefix מ (me), meaning from, and the resulting term מאין may either ask 'from where' (that is: where is this now not; where is this now absent) or state 'because of the absence of'.