Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 3

The third post in a series on Biblical Hebrew Word Order, introduced here.

In the last post I introduced and discussed the criterion of frequency—the most commonly applied test for basic word order. While there is simply no way to determine basic word order apart from this criterion, I suggested that it must be carefully applied. In particular, I argue that the raw numbers must be further filtered by other criteria, such as distribution, which I will discuss in this post.

The Criterion of Distribution

The first criterion that recognizes the salience of context in the basic word order discussion is the test of distribution. Given two or more alternatives for a syntactic construction, the one that occurs in the greater number of environments is unmarked and, hence, the basic order. Note that this is not the same as statistical dominance, because the issue at hand is not simply ‘occurrence’ but ‘environment’. For instance, in English, manner adverbs like slowly may both precede and follow the verb (He walked slowly and He slowly walked), but as the more highly restricted option, the Adverb-Verb order is the marked choice, thus leaving the Verb-Adverb option the basic order (Dryer 2007:69, 74).

For Hebrew, the test of distribution can be illustrated well by considering the wayyiqtol form. First, if we take the wayyiqtol to include an indicative verb that operates in a past temporal setting and compare it to other indicative verbs that also operate in a past temporal setting, an assymetry is easily observable:

(1) Distribution of Wayyiqtol

a. Verb-Subject (918x 866x [correction]): Gen 22:13 ‎‫‎‫וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו

b. Adjunct-Verb-Subject (34x): Gen 22:4 ‎‫בַּיּוֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁי וַיִּשָּׂא אַבְרָהָם אֶת־עֵינָיו

c. Subject-Verb: Ø

d. Complement-Verb-Subject: Ø

e. Subordinator-Verb: Ø

(2) Distribution of Qatal

a. Verb-Subject (46x): Gen 22:20 ‎‫הִנֵּה יָלְדָה מִלְכָּה גַם־הִוא בָּנִים לְנָחוֹר אָחִיךָ

b. Adjunct-Verb-Subject (57x): Gen 10:25 ‎‫‎‫וּלְעֵבֶר יֻלַּד שְׁנֵי בָנִים

c. Subject-Verb (171x): Gen 4:18 ‎‫וְעִירָד יָלַד אֶת־מְחוּיָאֵל

d. Complement-Verb-Subject (15x): Gen 22:23 ‎‫שְׁמֹנָה אֵלֶּה יָלְדָה מִלְכָּה לְנָחוֹר

e. Subordinator-Verb (e.g., 182x with אְֲשֶׁר): Gen 25:12 ‎‫יִשְׁמָעֵאל בֶּן־אַבְרָהָם אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה הָגָר

(3) Distribution of Yiqtol

a. Verb-Subject (44x): Gen 27:41 ‎‫יִקְרְבוּ יְמֵי אֵבֶל אָבִי

b. Adjunct-Verb-Subject (39x): Gen 2:24 ‎‫עַל־כֵּן יַעֲזָב־אִישׁ אֶת־אָבִיו וְאֶת־אִמּוֹ

c. Subject-Verb (71x): Gen 24:40 ‎‫יְהוָה אֲשֶׁר־הִתְהַלַּכְתִּי לְפָנָיו יִשְׁלַח מַלְאָכוֹ אִתָּךְ

d. Complement-Verb-Subject (9x): Gen 2:23 ‎‫‎‫ לְזֹאת יִקָּרֵא אִשָּׁה

e. Subordinator-Verb (e.g., 39x with אֲשֶׁר): Gen 17:21 ‎‫‎‫יִצְחָק אֲשֶׁר תֵּלֵד לְךָ שָׂרָה‎

The qatal and yiqtol Verbs are found in a wide variety of word order patterns, both preceding (2a, 3a) and following (2c, 3c) the syntactic Subject, allowing Adjuncts (2b, 3b) and Complements (2d, 3d) to be fronted, and existing in main (2a-d, 3a-d) and subordinate (2e, 3e) clauses. In contrast, wayyiqtol clauses exhibit a highly restricted pattern: the Subject always follows the Verb, it cannot be negated, it does not allow the fronting of its Complement, and it does not follow overt subordinators like אֲשֶׁר or כִּי. In fact, the only constituent that can stand in front of the wayyiqtol is a fronted temporal Prepositional Phrase Adjunct, as in (1b), although that even this is allowed may be considered a controversial claim.

Thus, the distributional criterion provides an important filter for the frequency criterion. In this case, distributional asymmetries show the wayyiqtol to be the marked form, which directly implies that its fixed VS order should not simply be taken as the basic order for Biblical Hebrew even though the VS wayyiqtol clause is by far the most common clause type in Hebrew prose. This is not to say that the criterion of distribution has provided an argument for SV or VS order; rather, it provides a strong argument against the inclusion of the wayyiqtol data in determining basic word order.

And once the wayyiqtol is set aside, the SV vs. VS determination is not nearly so clear as tradition suggests.

cue ominous music … and devilish laugh by moi.

5 Responses to “Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 3”

  1. Bob MacDonald Says:

    In case anyone hasn’t mentioned, these are delightful posts. How can I get hold of a functional database of the Biblical text? I have made my own for the pieces of TNK that I have translated, but that was a learning exercise. Thanks for your teaching.

    • robertholmstedt Says:


      I’m delighted that someone has read these and doubly delighted that you’re enjoying it. The rest of the posts will follow this week, a day at a time.

      Logos has the Andersen-Forbes syntactic database of the Hebrew Bible. And I’m heading up the Hebrew syntactic database for Accordance—we’re doing the Hebrew Bible (Gen, Josh, Ps, Ruth and number of minor prophets are released and more books are coming in a month or so), Inscriptions (done, but not yet released), Ben Sira (in progress), and the major Qumran texts (some done, no release until 2012).

      • Ken M. Penner Says:

        I’ve tagged the major Qumran texts for many of the features you consider here. Maybe we can chat at CSBS on the weekend.

      • robertholmstedt Says:


        Definitely. But I will only be around Mon morning. We could chat after our session.


  2. Language codes « A Prophets Journey Says:

    […] Holmstedt. Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 3. 2011-05-16. Accessed […]

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