Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 6

The end is here—the end of this series, that is. I’m no end-of-days prophet, just a Hebrew linguist. (For the other parts of the series, see: #1#2#3#4, #5.)

This is the last post in my 6-part series on basic word order in Biblical Hebrew. My posts have focused on a good linguistic methodology for determining basic word order and the data have been taken only from the book of Genesis. My posts (and the article that they have come from) are simply the beginning. This sort of analysis should be applied to every biblical book (I’m getting there!).

Although at the end of the last post I indicated I would provide ‘my story’ of how to account of the word order variation in Hebrew, typologically and diachronically, I decided that adding this component did not fit the methodological focus of the series. I will add a future post that summarizes my own views on Hebrew word order. Indeed, since I’m giving a paper in the Fall in Germany on this issue, I’ll probably want to use this blog as a sounding board.

As for this series, I welcome any methodological challenges, whether you see holes in my argument or have an alternative model drawn from general linguistics. Comment about it. Post it on your blog and let me know. There has never been (as far I can see) an extended, linguistically informed discussion of word order issues in ancient Hebrew and it’s high time we begin!

 On the VSO Language Type and Biblical Hebrew

According to Carnie and Guilfoyle, in their preface to a volume dedicated to Verb-initial (VSO and VOS) languages, these languages “make up about 10% of the world’s languages” (2000:3). Yet, the Verb-initial group has generated a good deal of linguistic literature (mostly non-generative until the collected articles in Carnie and Guilfoyle 2000 and the follow-up studies in Carnie, Harley, and Dooley 2005). Even in Greenberg’ s 1963 study he isolates the VSO type as a primary class by centering many of his universals around features of VSO languages: for example, Greenberg’s Universal 3 states that “Languages with dominant VSO order are always prepositional” (78) and Universal 6 states that “All languages with dominant VSO order have SVO as an alternative or as the only alternative basic order” (79). In fact, throughout Greenberg’s forty-five Universals, the only one that occurs in VSO but not in SVO is Universal 9, which concerns the position of question particles: initial particles occur in prepositional languages and final particles occur in postpositional languages. Greenberg’s corpus of thirty languages included no SVO type that used initial particles. This, though, simply points to the inadequacy of Greenberg’s small corpus, which typological studies have since tried to rectify. Carnie and Guilfoyle list nine features—listed in (13)—as previously noted correlates of VSO order, which as a group distinguish VSO from SVO and SOV languages.

(13) VSO correlates

a. head initiality

b. prepositional

c. post-nominal adjectives

d. preverbal tense, mood/aspect, question, and negation particles

e. inflected prepositions

f. left-conjunct agreement

g. Lack of a verb “have”

h. copular constructions without verbs

i. “verbal noun” infinitives

Biblical Hebrew certainly contains most of these features: it is primarily head-initial (a) and prepositional (b), adjectives follow the nouns they modify (c), question and negation function words precede the Verb (d), it lacks a “have” verb, and the “verbless” clause (h) is common. Hebrew does often use “verbal nouns” (i), but not always (finite verbs are allowed in the same contexts) and not quite in the way that this feature is discussed Myhill 1985 (the source of this correlation). And while there are some apparent examples of left-conjunct agreement in Biblical Hebrew (Doron 2000), I have argued that these examples are not properly left-conjunct agreement and thus do not reflect this VSO correlate (Holmstedt 2009).

Although the list in (13) appears impressive, one of the goals of the articles collected in Carnie and Guilfoyle 2000, which became a challenge to those who contributed to Carnie, Harley, and Dooley 2005, was to determine whether these features (or any others) accurately reflect common properties of all VSO languages. The conclusion that the editors drew, after the arguments and data in all sixteen articles on a wide variety of languages were presented, was that no distinctive, universal properties of Verb-initial languages have yet been identified (2005:2).

One property of some Verb-initial languages that has been discussed, even for Biblical Hebrew, is a diachronic shift to SVO. Aldridge (2010) traces just such a shift in Seediq, a VOS Atayalic language spoken in Taiwan. She argues that the basic mechanism for the VOS-to-SVO shift in Seediq is the reanalysis of a fronted Topic Subject to a non-fronted (argument-position) Subject. Similarly, Givón (1977) argues that Biblical Hebrew experienced a VS-to-SV shift from what he calls “early” (Genesis, Joshua, Judges) to “late” (Esther, Lamentations, Qoheleth, and Song of Songs) Hebrew.

Syntactic shifts like that in Seediq and, as argued by Givón, in Biblical Hebrew must be analyzed within a change-and-diffusion framework of language change (see Hale 2007 for an introduction; see Holmstedt forthcoming b for an application of this approach to Biblical Hebrew). Briefly, this means that changes occur due to the imperfect transmission of linguistic structures during the first-language acquisition process. The changes that survive by diffusions spread to others through acquisition or adult feature adoption and thus become part of the language’s record that is used to describe its grammar. Languages that witness a VS-to-SV shift via the reanalysis of a fronted Subject to a non-fronted Subject may also be influenced by another feature of the acquisition process: Verb-initial (VSO, VOS) languages may be more difficult to acquire than the Subject-initial (SVO, SOV) languages (Grüning 2002). If so, then it may be that first language learners in VSO contexts are hardwired for a predisposition to analyze a fronted Subjects as the normal Subject position.

Whatever continued research on the nature of Verb-initial languages determines—whether or not they share a set of features pointing to a common derivation, any VS language that experiences a diachronic shift to SV will almost certainly continue to exhibit Verb-initial features (other than the basic position of the Subject). If Biblical Hebrew, then, has experience a VS-to-SV shift, as Givón (1977) argues, both the VS and SV stages of the language will exhibit Verb-initial features.

Why is the typological classification of Biblical Hebrew word order important? Aside from simple accuracy in a description of the language’s syntax, the implications for assessing the pragmatic structure of ‘simple’ SV and VS clauses—and thus being able to interpret such clauses in a contextually sensitive way—is at stake. If Biblical Hebrew is a VS language (and SV is not a free alternative order), then all SV clauses must reflect the fronting of the Subject for clear reason, such as Topic or Focus-marking. On the flip side, if SV is the basic order, then 1) not all SV clauses need reflect a pragmatic role for the Subject, and 2) unless VS is a free alternative, then the few simple VS clauses that exist must either reflect Focus-marking on the Verb or some other reason motivating the Verb-fronting.

Well, that’s all folks. For the task of setting the study of biblical Hebrew word order on sound linguistic footing, I hope this series has been provocative and perhaps inspiring.


Aldridge, Edith. 2010. Directionality in Word Order Change in Austronesian Languages. Pp. 169-80 in Continuity and Change in Grammar, ed. A. Breitbarth, et al. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Carnie, Andrew, and Eithne Guilfoyle, eds. 2000. The Syntax of Verb Initial Languages. Oxford Studies in Comparative Syntax. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Carnie, Andrew, Heidi Harley, and Sheila Ann Dooley, eds. 2005. Verb First: On the Syntax of Verb-Initial Languages 73. Linguistik Aktuell / Linguistics Today. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Doron, Edit. 2000. VSO and Left-Conjunct Agreement: Biblical Hebrew vs. Modern Hebrew. Pp. 75-95 in The Syntax of Verb-Initial Language, ed. Andrew Carnie and Eithne Guilfoyle. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Givón, Talmy. 1977. The Drift from VSO to SVO in Biblical Hebrew: the Pragmatics of Tense-Aspect. Pp. 184-254 in Mechanisms of Syntactic Change, ed. Charles N. Li. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Grüning, André. 2002. Why Verb-Initial Languages are Not So Frequent. Paper presented at the International Summer School in Cognitive Science. Sofia, Bulgaria, May 31.

Hale, Mark. 2007. Historical Linguistics: Theory and Method. Blackwell Textbooks in Linguistics 21. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Holmstedt, Robert D. 2009. So-Called ‘First-Conjunct Agreement’ in Biblical Hebrew. Pp. 105-29 in Afroasiatic Studies in Memory of Robert Hetzron: Proceedings of the 35th Annual Meeting of the North American Conference on Afroasiatic Linguistics (NACAL 35), ed. Charles Häberl. Newcastle on Tyne, UK: Cambridge Scholars.

Myhill, John. 1985. Pragmatic and Categorial Correlates of VS Word Order. Lingua 66: 177-200.

4 Responses to “Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 6”

  1. Andrew McClurg Says:

    I have enjoyed this set of posts. One question: if Hebrew changed over time from a VS to an SV language, is the wayyiqtol form then possibly a “frozen” feature that hearkens back to an older way of expressing past? And are other factors possibly at work, such as the loss of an original grammatical signal that led to the doubling of the yodh? Thank you, Andy McClurg.

    • robertholmstedt Says:


      Thank you for the note. Good question. There is no doubt that the wayyiqtol represents the fusion of multiple elements. Whether it became a frozen form in the way (I think) you’re suggesting is debatable, though. Although it is tempting to take the wayyiqtol as a complex form that grammaticalized into a simple Verb, if this had happened we should see more pre-verbal constituents (other than the fronted temporal clauses I list in example (1b) in post 3). That is, if the wayyiqtol had become a “V” (rather than w+Ø+V) in the grammar (not just the speaker’s perception, which is a different issue altogether — I mention this because it is a view that has been presented to me before) then it should see the same syntactic distribution as the other verbs. Now, I’m not sure that fully addressed your question. I addressed the “frozen” issue; w.r.t. the issue of the wayyiqtol expressing the past — that is precisely the view I take anyway (following John Cook’s work on the verbal system). Finally, the Ø in the w+Ø+V sequence I wrote above represents my view that the wayyiqtol does indeed include the remnant of some sort of particle that probably originally signalled narrative sequentiality (even though the wayyiqtol is occasionally used in the BH for non-sequential clauses). That particle has been fully assimilated and we have no access to its original form, etymology, etc. But syntactically it makes sense, since the presence of the particle would trigger the raising of the verb; once the w+particle+verb has fused, the syntactic variation in these clauses was severely constrained (e.g., it was no longer possible to raise the Subject (for Topic or Focus) above the complex wayyiqtol.

      I hope I given some sort of answer to your question.

      • Andrew McClurg Says:


        Your reply was very helpful. In the meantime I have read John Cook’s article “The Pragmatics of Verbal Semantics” which was very interesting, and will allow me to shape my questions more intelligently. Having literally been buried in text criticism for a few years, I am renewing my interest in Hebrew linguistics, and your website is great.

  2. Kathleen Moree Stey Says:

    Hello, I am an Australian Grammy visiting family in Virginia, USA for the summer. I learned Biblical Hebrew 22 years ago and since then, I have only used test books. Research demonstrates that learning a language helps to keep the brain sharp and can prevent decline. I really enjoyed learning Hebrew and I did very well at it but life became too busy to keep up and now I have forgotten so much. As I was searching to find resources to help me to pick it up again, I stumbled across this page. “2. Biblical Hebrew: An Illustrated Introduction” This was of great interest to me and I would like to know how to access the previous 5 parts of the series.
    I also followed this link: “Biblical Hebrew: An Illustrated Introduction Update: July 2012 We are very happy to report that our textbook will be published with Baker Books under the title Beginning Biblical Hebrew: A Grammar and Illustrated Reader.
    For an introduction to this work, with sample pages, see here (and follow the first link to the initial announcement) ” only to find that the link to Hebrew Textbooks: Update was removed 13 days ago. Is it going to be released to new comers like me?
    I am so grateful to have found this site and that you are offering your expertize without charge. God Bless you for this.
    Love and best wishes

    John A. Cook and Robert D. Holmstedt

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