Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 1

I have recently finished working through Dr. Adina Moshavi’s 2010 monograph, Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Finite Clause; see here for a table of contents. Below are my thoughts on her book—not a full review but rather an engagement with it. This post will constitute the first part of a 3-part series on Hebrew word order, each of which represents “blogified” components of a article I am writing. Hebrew word order has been an ongoing area of interest for me as long as it has for Moshavi (her book is a revision of her 2000 Yeshiva University PhD thesis).

I take issue with specific, critical parts of Moshavi’s argument. In the three posts of this series I will not interact with her book chapter-by-chapter, section-by-section, and example-by-example, which would be both tedious and a tacit surrender of how the study of word order variation should proceed. (And I don’t like tedium any more than I care to let others establish the parameters and direction of a debate I’m in, and in this case, a debate I overtly joined a decade ago). Instead, I will address Moshavi’s interaction with my previous work on word order in this post (post #1); then in post #2 I will detail what I consider sound methodology and describe what I take to be a balanced typological approach to the issue of basic word order; finally, in post #3 I will build on the previous posts and present an analysis of the data in Genesis, a revision of the analysis I carried out in my 2002 thesis.

It may be helpful to state up front at the beginning that none of these three posts will address the full scope of word order diversity and, in particular, fronting in the biblical texts. Although I am engaged in a long-term project to address this, I will simply say here that there is much in the preceding works on the topic (e.g., Heimerdinger 1999, Shimasaki 2002, Lunn 2006, and Moshavi 2010) with which I agree. While I occasionally gainsay their analyses of specific verses (see, for examples, my reviews of Shimasaki and Lunn), and there are slightly different approaches to defining the term Topic and Focus, etc., there remains some general agreement on the reason for and function of fronted constituents.

Now, to Dr. Moshavi’s book:

Above all, I consider it a major success that the very small minority position—that Hebrew is basically a Subject-Verb (SV) language—has been promoted from D.O.A. status (and an unceremonious burial in a footnote) to meriting serious engagement within the full text of a chapter. Moshavi’s discussion of word order variation in biblical Hebrew is the first even to mention how typologists (and, to lesser extent, generativists) study word order (§2.1) and to attempt a justification of the VS analysis of Hebrew (§2.2). Previous works have simply taken the VS analysis as received wisdom, only paying the barest lip service to the alternative (SV) proposal (i.e., the aforementioned burial-by-footnote).

So, I commend Dr. Moshavi for being the first (in monograph form) to acknowledge that “the classification of BH as a VSO language is not entirely uncontroversial” (p. 7). Again, this is a sign of some success for the few of us who have striven to raise the controversy!  It is the proverbial thin edge of the wedge (I hope). She then provides a very brief orientation to the typological and generative discussion of “basic word order.” I’ll set aside any comment (positive or negative) about her summary of the generative approach, because those who haven’t studied generative grammar formally too often misunderstand and misrepresent it. For the record, I do consider myself a generativist in orientation first and a typologist second.  But don’t think a long discussion of the particulars of generative syntax is necessary for this issue. Suffice it to say, my own argument about the basic word order of BH focuses on the surface order of constituents.

Now that I have put these preliminary issues behind us, I will address Dr. Moshavi’s treatment of basic word order, and specifically the summary of my argument, in her second chapter. In my 2005 and 2009a works (the latter of which I posted in pre-pub form, once it was accepted to JSS, on my UToronto website as early as March 2007) I presented the typological approach to the question of basic word order and then applied the 4 criteria to Hebrew in a layered way, indicating that the 4 criteria are not all equal in importance (the 4 criteria are frequency, distribution, clause type, and pragmatics). Moshavi also presents an overview of the typological approach to basic word order in §2.1. Her discussion is not exactly inaccurate, but entirely too abbreviated and so a bit misleading. (Interestingly, there is no analogue to this section in her 2000 thesis, and I’d like to conclude that this addition was motivated by my own work, but that might be wishful thinking.)

I will present the typological issues more fully in post #2, since this post is about Moshavi’s interaction with my work; thus, here I will simply say that Moshavi does not describe adequately the interplay of the 4 criteria used to determine basic word order. And because she does not engage seriously with the typological study of basic word order, she is free to dismiss my own application of all four criteria as “somewhat precarious” and that basic word order determined as I have done (i.e., following the typologists) “bears little resemblance to the way the language is most frequently used” (15).

In her short counter-argument, Dr. Moshavi builds her case in three questionable ways. First, she summarizes the typological approach to basic word order on pp. 7-10, but then ignores most of it when she evaluates my arguments. Why, then, present the typological approach at all, unless it is simply a rhetorical sop with no serious intent to engage the issue raised by that approach? Second, the structure of her discussion in chapters 5-9 acknowledges that clause-type distinctions (e.g., indicative versus modal, declarative versus interrogative, negative versus non-negative) can be salient for word order analysis. But Moshavi does not acknowledge that cross-linguistically these pairs often exhibit word order differences, as with English, in which declarative clauses are SV (Jim reached the house yesterday) but interrogatives have an inverted VS order with a fronted WH-word (When did Jim reach the house?). To overlook the possibility of similar patterns in Hebrew and the role that such distinctions might play in both the basic word order discussion as well as the assignment of pragmatic marking to the constituents in such clauses seems to me “somewhat precarious”.

Third, the relationship between language “use” and that language’s “grammar” is a complex issue and cannot not be invoked without at least some discussion of the complexities involved. For example, imagine this scenario: an author composes a text made up entirely of interrogative clauses, which reflect an order like English WH-Vfinite-S-Vnonfinite (e.g., “Where do I come from? Where am I going?”). That text then, for some reason, becomes the database for a linguistic analysis of word order in that language (for which the vast majority of other texts exhibit the non-interrogative SV order as both dominant and pragmatically neutral). Since interrogative clauses (and the order exhibited within this clause type) are taken as the dominant pattern (and so would be taken as basic by those who favour the frequency criterion), the description of the language based on the interrogative-heavy text is radically different than other analyses based on different texts. This is a case where “usage” transparently skews the reconstruction of the “grammar.” And that is why one cannot simply use language “use” as an out-of-hand argument for or against some other grammar proposal. (For those interested, in my opinion the most engaging author on the difference between grammar and usage is Frederick Newmeyer; for example, see his 2003 Language article on this topic).

To conclude, on the one hand I am pleased to see the minority SV analysis of basic BH word order become a serious component of the larger word order variation discussion. On the other hand, I am clearly displeased that my typologically-based argument has been summarized and set aside in such a vacuous manner.

But now, enough of the past! In the next two posts I will re-present my argument for classifying BH (or at least the language of Genesis, to add to my other published statements on Ruth, Jonah, and Proverbs) as an SV basic word order language. And for those who are not engaged in word order study, I will also spell out the reason that this is such an important issue for reading Hebrew texts—it’s not just another one of those esoteric debates that have little impact on how the ancient and biblical texts are read and understood!



• Heimerdinger, Jean-Marc. 1999. Topic, Focus and Foreground in Ancient Hebrew Narratives. JSOTSupp 295. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press.

• Holmstedt, Robert D. 2002. The Relative Clause in Biblical Hebrew: A Linguistic Analysis. Dissertation, Hebrew and Semitic Studies, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wisc.

____. 2003. Adjusting Our Focus (review of Katsuomi Shimasaki, Focus Structure in Biblical Hebrew: A Study of Word Order and Information Structure). Hebrew Studies 44:203-15.

____. 2005. Word Order in the Book of Proverbs. Pp. 135-54 in Seeking Out the Wisdom of the Ancients: Essays Offered to Honor Michael V. Fox on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. R. L. Troxel, K. G. Friebel and D. R. Magary. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

____. 2009a. Word Order and Information Structure in Ruth and Jonah: A Generative-Typological Analysis. Journal of Semitic Studies 54 (1):111-39.

____. 2009b. Review of Word-Order Variation in Biblical Hebrew Poetry: Differentiating Pragmatics and Poetics, with Foreword by Jean-Marc Heimerdinger by Nicholas P. Lunn. Journal of Semitic Studies 54 (1):305-07.

• Lunn, Nicholas P. 2006. Word-Order Variation in Biblical Hebrew Poetry: Differentiating Pragmatics and Poetics, with Foreward by Jean-Marc Heimerdinger. Paternoster Biblical Monographs. Bletchley: Paternoster.

• Moshavi, Adina. 2000. The Pragmatics of Word Order in Biblical Hebrew: A Statistical Analysis. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, Yeshiva University, New York.

____. 2010. Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Finite Clause. LSAWS 4. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.

• Newmeyer, Frederick J. 2003. Grammar is Grammar and Usage is Usage. Language 79 (4):682-707.

• Shimasaki, Katsuomi. 2002. Focus Structure in Biblical Hebrew: A Study of Word Order and Information Structure. Bethesda, MD: CDL Press.

4 Responses to “Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 1”

  1. Mike Aubrey Says:

    Robert, if I might ask, could you define what you mean by “generative”? It’s used (frustratingly) for a number of things these days.

    Do you mean (these definitions progressively get broader)
    1) Minimalism
    2) “Mainstream generative grammar” in the Culicover & Jackendoff sense (e.g. in their Simpler Syntax), which would subsume both Minimalism and Principles and Parameters.
    3) an adherence to the goals & priorities of linguistic theory put forward in Chomsky’s Aspects (which would then also subsume Jackendoff and Culicover, LFG, HPSG, etc.)

    Or perhaps some other definition?

    • robertholmstedt Says:


      Excellent question. My straightforward answer: in decreasing priority, #3 then #2 then #1. I will also say, though, that when it comes to the specifics of analyzing phrase structure I am most familiar with the minimalist architecture and so use that but also adhere to it lightly, if that makes sense.

    • Mike Aubrey Says:

      Thanks. That’s highly illuminating–and it also means that you and I are closer theoretically that I had previously thought.

      • robertholmstedt Says:

        That doesn’t surprise me at all. Chomsky is certainly a lightning-rod and so even under the broad generative umbrella, if someone says “I’m analyzing this according to Chomsky’s minimalism,” it sets those who aren’t Chomskyans on edge.

        For my part, I find the enterprise as a whole and the view of language and mind very compelling. But when it comes to specific manifestations, I increasingly try to remain agnostic. I started with GB and found it cumbersome. I liked much of what happened initially with the minimalist programme, but then, after a few fairly calm years during which folks were mostly figuring out what the implications were for phrase structure, the changes picked up speed and I’ve stepped to the outer bubble to wait for another period of calm.

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: