Ancient Hebrew Syntax: Making a Searchable Database

(For a PDF of this post, see here.)

At the 2010 Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Atlanta, there was a special informational session devoted to discussing the new syntactic databases available in the Accordance Bible software. As the primary architect of the syntactic tagging scheme, I gave a paper outlining the issues of principles that I, my collaborator Prof. Martin Abegg (Trinity Western), and the chief programmer Roy Brown (OakTree Software) had to sort out.

(The other three presenters were Prof. John Cook (Asbury Theological Seminary), on the verbal valency issues we faced in the project and how we sort them out, Dr. Brown on the types of syntactic searches that users of Accordance can now perform, and Prof. Abegg on the type of issues in Qumran Hebrew our database can help to solve—and yes, the overall project includes all ancient Hebrew, from epigraphic through Qumran).

As you might guess, there are numerous complexities involved with such a project. They range from issues of audience to theory (not to speak of the programming complexities, since they are beyond my ken). Among other questions, we asked ourselves (repeatedly, in many cases):

  • Who will use this database and what will they expect to see?
  • How much can we draw upon linguistic theory — and which one? — while still making the modules usable for the broadest audience?
  • How much theory-internal structure can we set aside yet not produce a scientifically naive and theoretically flawed database?

Our primary goal for the creation of the database is to produce a usable research tool for the academic community. Determining syntactic relationships, however, not only requires judgment, which is necessarily subjective, but also depends on one’s theory of grammar. To think that such a project can be accomplished “without” a theory would be like saying that exegesis can happen without an explicit methodology or that interpretation can exist in a vacuum, without a hermeneutical theory. It is simply not scientific reality — even if an exegete or interpreter is unaware or ignorant of theories and methodologies, there is always a framework in which analysis occurs (however coherent that framework may or may not be).

And yet, although I have situated my particular research on Hebrew syntax within generative grammar, specifically as it is articulated within the program of Chomskyan minimalism, we knew that to base the database and its underlying tagging scheme on a fully articulated minimalist framework would be wildly inappropriate. Not only would its usability be severely limited, since it is unlikely that most users of the database will subscribe to Chomskyan linguistics, but given the ever-changing nature of linguistic theory, the database would become obsolete before it was finished!

To keep our balance on a very narrow beam, we sought to develop a tagging scheme that reflected what became our motto: “data primary, theory wise.” That is, while I (and others on our team) have read broadly in linguistics, from various types of functionalism and typology to generative grammar, it was important for the project that the usability and accessibility dictated our use of linguistic theory. Three decisions will illustrate our balance beam act.

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One Response to “Ancient Hebrew Syntax: Making a Searchable Database”

  1. Hebrew verb theory . . . ten years gone « Ancient Hebrew Grammar Says:

    […] Marshall. Of course, teaching language and exegesis classes in addition to ongoing work on the Accordance syntax project has given me ample opportunity to see how my theory works out in […]

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