I’m hoping for some correction and/or confirmation on how biblical Hebrew represents names that are also common nouns. The following is my understanding, but this is what I’ve read and pieced together as an interested layperson.
I’ve heard that Deborah, for instance, is also the common word for bee. The same word shows up in different places, and only by context can one tell the difference. A swarm of Deborahs sounds dubious, as does a bee giving orders to General Barak. For this word, the context of all fourteen instances in the First Testament suffices to tease apart common noun and name. The grammar itself does not.
Some names are more distinct from common nouns, such as Eve. While this name seems related to the Hebrew word for living, it isn’t the same word. So in that case, one can tell the proper noun and common noun apart without appealing to context.
But the name Adam is more like Deborah than Eve. It is, again, the common word for something else, not a word uniquely found as a name. As a common word, 'adam means humanity or any human. As a name, it can be the name of a city (Joshua 3:16), the name of humanity (Genesis 5:2), or the name of an individual who has some sons and dies at 930.
As far as I know, there’s no way from grammar alone to tease apart 'adam as a word for humanity from 'adam as a name. Here are two verses that show this grammatical similarity (I’ll use the ESV since its way of translating pronouns helps to show the problem):
Thus all the days that 'adam lived were 930 years, and he died. (Genesis 5:5)
Then the Lord said, “My spirit shall not abide in 'adam forever, for he is flesh; his days shall be 120 years.” (Genesis 6:3)
The definite article (in this case, ha’adam) might seem like a useful distinction, but it doesn’t get as far as one might hope. The article isn’t used with names, but this just means the places where the article occurs aren’t names (such as, for instance, the occurrences of 'adam in most of the Eden account). It doesn’t tell us which of the occurrences without the article are names. Pronouns and conjugation also don’t help. The word 'adam is singular and masculine even when used as a collective noun referring to all humanity. The rare times that a plural masculine pronoun points back to 'adam (such as Genesis 1:26-27) might make it clear that these particular uses aren’t names, but doesn’t help with the majority of uses with the masculine singular.
To summarize, the word 'adam can’t be a name when prefixed with the definite article and typically isn’t a name even without it. The word is grammatically singular even when it refers to many people and grammatically masculine even when it includes women or refers to a generic person. Even when the word is singular, masculine, lacking the definite article and taking pronouns like “he” and “his,” it may still refer to all humanity! That’s what we find in a verse like Genesis 6:3.
The only way to tell? Make a judgement based on context. And then, of course, judgements differ.
For those with some knowledge of Hebrew, is this accurate? Any mistakes, minor or major? I’d really like to make sure I’m getting this right.