Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 2

Nearly two months ago I posted the first part of what was to be a 3-part series on basic word order in Hebrew. The end of the term, grading, and other writing projets have kept me from writing the other posts. In fact, now that I have almost fully drafted the article related to this series, it has become clear that the wiser course (for readability) will be to break the remaining posts into five parts. Below I provide the second. The others will follow this quickly.

The Question of ‘Basic Word Order’

Although there are six primary word order types when the three core constituents are considered at the same time—SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OVS, and OSV, Dryer (1997) has argued that only two contrastive sets reflect fundamental properties of languages: VO vs. OV and SV vs. VS. For Hebrew, there is, to my knowledge, no debate about where Hebrew falls within the division VO/OV distinction—it clearly patterns with VO languages. That is, there is a thorough consensus that the Object normally follows the Verb; when the Object precedes the Verb it does so due to literary (e.g., chiasm) or discourse-pragmatic (e.g., Focus fronting) reasons. The other word order distinction, SV vs. VS distinction, is also generally agreed upon in Hebrew studies, though it almost always simply assumed rather than supported with linguistic argument. Beyond the purely typological question of classifying Hebrew among languages of the world, determining whether Hebrew is SV or VS has great explanatory significance. That is, whether a language has SV or VS as its “basic order” (more on this concept below) is critical for explaining the various patterns that are described for a given linguistic text. My contention again and again has been that the VS classification of Hebrew has not been empirically supported in a way acceptable to typologists. This remains the case, the most recent arguments (Moshavi 2010) notwithstanding.

Below and in the following posts I will walk through the typological issues again, using date from the book of Genesis data to illustrate word order variation in Hebrew.


The Typological Classification of Word Order

The study of word order variation is a fascinatingly complex task. While languages vary on a cline of flexibility, from strict to ‘free’, even those that are strict exhibit more than one word order and those that are ‘free’ arguably exhibit limited patterns, although the patterns may be influenced by features other than syntactic roles. Mithun (1992), for instance, has questioned whether some languages can be assigned to a typologically word order category such as SVO or VSO. In particular, for languages with an apparently ‘free word order’, Mithun argues that we should not be looking for a basic word order in terms of the position of subject, verb, and modifiers. Rather, she suggests that in these languages the syntactic role of an item (subject, object, etc.) is less important than its discourse role (e.g. topic-hood, identifiability, ‘newsworthiness’). Thus, the order of the constituents, subject noun phrase, verb, complements, etc., will change in a ‘basic clause’, depending on the information status of the constituents.

Clearly, while describing the full range of word order variation is a challenge in an of itself, setting out to determine a ‘basic word order’ poses significant additional challenges―challenges that have led some to give up on the notion altogether, as many have for ancient Greek (see, for example, Dunn 1988, Davison 1989, Matić 2003). And yet, even if we were to admit that some languages, like ancient Greek, might not have a basic word order that is syntactic in nature (i.e., subject, verb, object) but pragmatic, even this must be argued carefully and empirically.

The typological study of word order has most often been traced back to Joseph Greenberg’s 1963 article, ‘Some Universals of Grammar with Particular Reference to the Order of Meaningful Elements.’ This essay set in motion a rich comparative linguistic method with the goal of discerning morphological and syntactic ‘universals’ (or better, ‘tendencies’) among human languages.

In the first section in Greenberg’s essay he focused on ‘certain basic factors of word order’ and proposed using three criteria to identify the basic word order of any given language (Greenberg 1963:76): 

the use of prepositions versus postpositions;

the relative order of subject, verb, and object in declarative sentences with nominal subject and object;

the position of qualifying adjectives, either preceding or following the modified noun. 

Although these three criteria have been modified as the typological program has matured, they still reflect the fundamental questions involved in determining how a language patterns: does a head (i.e., the constituent being modified) precede or follow its modifier? To answer these questions, four criteria are typically used, in varying degrees: 1) frequency, 2) distribution, 3) clause type, and 4) pragmatics (Siewierska 1988:8-14; Payne 1997:76-77; Bickford 1998:214-16; Dryer 2007:73-78).


The Criterion of Frequency

The ‘frequency’ approach focuses on the word order that is numerically dominant. This is perhaps the most common approach and was adopted early in the typological approach by Greenberg himself: “The so-called normal order, it would seem, is necessarily the most frequent” (1966:67). Certainly this criterion has dominated in Biblical Hebrew studies; it is succintly summarized by Muraoka in his study of emphatic structures in Biblical Hebrew: “[W]e are not interested in discussing the theory that [VS] order is normal because action is the most important piece of information to be conveyed by this sentence type called verbal clause. In other words, by saying that V-S is the normal word-order we do not mean that it is logically or intrinsically so, but simply statistically” (1985:30).

Hawkins, in his monograph on word order, suggests three criteria for determining word order based upon frequency:

For the majority of the word orders in this study in the majority of our languages the basicness issue is not problematic, for the simple reason that only one order occurs. English has this man, never *man this . . . . But for at least some word orders in the majority of languages, variants do exist, and the question then arises as to which order, if any, is the “basic” one. For example, English has both preposed and postposed genitives (the king’s castle/the castle of the king) …. [I]n general I shall follow these three (overlapping) criteria when making a basicness decision:

1. Where one doublet (e.g., NAdj) occurs with greater frequency than the other (AdjN) in attested samples of the relevant language, then, all things being equal, the more frequent doublet is the basic one.

2. Where one doublet (e.g., NAdj) is more frequent within the grammatical system of the language than the other (e.g., the quantity of adjective lexemes that occur postnominally exceeds the number that occur prenominally), then, all things being equal, the grammatically more frequent doublet is the basic one.

3. Where one doublet is grammatically unmarked and the other marked (i.e., a special type of grammatical meaning may be associated with one order of Adj and N, but not the other, over and above their lexical meanings; one word order may not undergo certain general rules that the other does, or may be generated by rules of a more restricted nature; one word order may be the one chosen by exceptional modifiers, whose exceptional status is marked in the lexicon, etc.), then, in all these cases, the unmarked order is the basic one. (1983:12-13)

 By Hawkins’ first and second criteria, Biblical Hebrew appears to be a strong VS language, with a more than 5-to-1 ration of VS to SV clauses in Genesis. And this is where most discussions of basic word order in Biblical Hebrew have stopped (excepting only Jongeling 1991 and Moshavi 2010). However—and this is a critical point, though the frequency criterion may appear to be a straightforward tool for determining the basic order of a variety of grammatical constructions, deep problems with the unqualified application of this criterion have long been noted. I will mention only three of these problems.

First, those who use frequency do not often ask whether frequency is a real component of a language’s grammar. Dryer (1995; 2007) argues that frequency, while useful for determining basic word order, is not part of a language’s grammar but an epiphenomenon related to usage. For Hebrew, this makes one’s view of the wayyiqtol form critically important. If wayyiqtol is simply a Verb, then the frequency of VS order in Hebrew is overwhelming. But if the wayyiqtol form represents the grammaticalization of a complex morpheme cluster, which disallows SV variation (whereas other forms allow VS/SV variation) and has for some reason become the conventional story-telling form, then it becomes clear that the frequency of the wayyiqtol and the necessarily associated VS order is epiphenomenal and not necessarily representative of the grammar of Hebrew.

Indeed—and here is the second problem with the simplistic use of the frequency criterion—Dryer is perhaps too cautious in his assessment of the usefulness of frequency as a criterion for determining basic word order; moreover, he undervalues the criterion of pragmatical neutrality and the issue of markedness in general. As Hawkins’ third point indicates, many languages allow more than one order for some grammatical constructions and so determining which order is basic must recognize the context of use. Because communicative needs result in complex text structures, the clause type that represents the basic word order is often neither frequent nor easy to find (see Siewierska 1988:8).

A third problem with the simplistic use of the frequency citerion is that some languages do not appear to exhibit a clear preference for one order over another (Tomlin 1986:34; Dryer 2007:73-74). In such cases, if other criteria are not invoked, one cannot make a basic word order determination; if this is so, the result is that one must eschew any comment on overall basic word order and limit the syntactic description to word order patterns in various contexts or genre.

So, am I opposed to an appeal to frequency? Not at all. In fact, in subsequent posts I will use it again and again. However, it must, must, must be used in conjunction with the other criteria of distribution (post #3), clause type (post #4), and pragmatics (post #5).

As a final comment, I find it interesting that the pragmatically neutral clause-type criterion is clearly assumed in Hebrew studies. That is, since the primary analysis in each of the major monographs on Biblical Hebrew word order concerns determining the information structure (e.g., Topic, Focus) reasons for non-basic orders, such as constituent-fronting, then they are assuming that the starting point before fronting for Topic or Focus is a non-Topic/non-Focus clause, i.e., a pragmatically neutral clause.

I agree with the logic that an information structure (i.e,. investigatig Topic and Focus, Theme and Rheme, etc.) analysis inherently begins with a pragmatically neutral or unmarked base from which all pragmatically marked orders are derived. But the obvious irony is that these works on Biblical Hebrew assume VS order by virtue of the frequency criterion and then perform the pragmatic analysis. It’s a bit bass-ackwards, if you ask me. The VS vs. SV numbers ought to be sorted through the pragmatics filter before making any ‘basic’ statemen, don’t you think? But perhaps I’m being too logical and obsessive about the scientific method.



Bickfoard, J. Albert. 1998. Tools for Analyzing the World’s Languages: Morphology and Syntax. Dallas: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Davison, M.E. 1989. New Testament Greek Word Order. Literary and Linguistic Computing 4/1: 19-28.

Dryer, Matthew S. 1995. Frequency and pragmatically unmarked word order. Pp. 105-35 in Word Order in Discourse, ed. Pamela Downing and Michael Noonan. Typological Studies in Language 30. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

—–. 1997. On the Six-Way Word Order Typology. Studies in Language21/1: 69-103.

—–. 2007. Word Order. Pp. 61-131 in Language Typology and Syntactic Description, Volume I: Clause Structure, ed. Timothy Shopen. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Dunn, Graham. 1988. Syntactic Word Order in Herodotean Greek. Glotta 66/1/2: 63-79.

Greenberg, Joseph H. 1963. Some Universals of Grammar with Particular Reference to the Order of Meaningful Elements. Pp. 73-113 in Universals of Language, ed. Joseph H. Greenberg. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

—–. 1966. Language Universals: With Special Reference to Feature Hierarchies. The Hague: Mouton.

Hawkins, John A. 1983. Word Order Universals. New York: Academic Press.

• Jongeling, Karel. 1991. On the VSO Character of Hebrew. Pp. 103-11 in Studies in Hebrew and Aramaic Syntax: Presented to Professor J. Hoftijzer on the Occasion of His Sixty-Fifth Birthday, ed. Karel Jongeling, H. L. Murre-van den Berg, and L. Van Rompey. Leiden: Brill.

Matić, Dejan. 2003. Topic, Focus, and Discourse Structure: Ancient Greek Word Order. Studies in Language 27/3: 573-633.

Mithun, Marianne. 1992. Is Basic Word Order Universal? Pp. 15-61 in Pragmatics of Word Order Flexibility, ed. Doris L. Payne. Typological Studies in Language. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

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

Payne, Thomas E. 1997. Describing Morphosyntax: A Guide for Field Linguists. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Siewierska, Anna. 1988. Word Order Rules. Croom Helm Linguistics Series. London: Croom Helm.

Tomlin, Russell S. 1986. Basic Word Order: Functional Principles. Croom Helm Linguistics Series. London: Croom Helm.


One Response to “Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 2”

  1. Word Order Variation Says:

    […] Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 2 … The study of word order variation is a fascinatingly complex task. While languages vary on a cline of flexibility, from strict to ‘free’ even those that are strict exhibit more than one word order and those that are […]

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