Basic Word Order in Biblical Hebrew, update

Back in April and May I wrote a 6-part series on basic word order in the Biblical Hebrew finite verbal clause (see: #1#2#3#4#5, #6). I am now pleased to announce that the full article, with the full lists of examples and fuller interaction with secondary literature, has appeared in The Journal of Hebrew Scriptures (an excellent journal that has an exceptionally timely turn-around from submission to online publication).

The direct link to the PDF article is here.

In brief, I argue that Biblical Hebrew can and should be classified as a Subject-Verb language from a cross-lingusitic typological perspective. Moreover, I challenge those who hold the traditional Verb-Subject analysis to defend their position with linguistic arguments. Recently I heard the issue of BH word order characterized as follows: “Everyone believes that Hebrew is VS except for this one fellow Holmstedt.”  This is depressing but not surprising. Though no one has actually argued the VS position from a linguistic perspective (of any sort), the tradition holds for those unwilling to have what they were taught in introductory Hebrew turned on its head.

It is the essence of scholarship to question previous positions using newer analytical frameworks. To remain stubbornly attached to the 18th-century views of Gesenius, as brilliant as he was, is the type of attitude that so often makes Biblical Hebrew studies an embarrassment to those of us who do interdisciplinary scholarship. “I’ll keep thinking Hebrew is VS because … that’s what I was taught” or “… that’s what it seems to me when I read texts” are not acceptable scholarly responses. It is incumbent upon those who think my SV argument is wrong to make the argument using the tools of modern linguistics. Tradition is not an argument (at least not in scholarship).

In my previous word order studies I took a softer rhetorical approach, hoping to woo both senior and junior scholars by the linguistic and aesthetic appeal of my analysis. No more soft wooing. I am coming to the realization that I am probably not going to get through to those who stubbornly hold to the VS position despite sound linguistic arguments to the contrary. So now I am waiting for scholars who are willing to engage linguistics as it is currently formulated. Whoever you are, I invite you to embrace my analysis, contribute to its perfection, or dismantle it. Regardless what you do, if you make a good linguistic argument, I will applaud you. Indeed, I look forward to it!

I have thrown down the gauntlet. Will someone accept the challenge?

9 Responses to “Basic Word Order in Biblical Hebrew, update”

  1. DjR Says:

    Perhaps you should have quoted St Cyprian at the beginning of your article: “consuetudo sine veritate vetustas erroris est” (“A custom without truth is but error grown old”) (Letter 73, ad Pompeium, § 9).

    Or maybe a re-phrasing of m.Hag 1:8, “The rules concerning classical Hebrew word order are as mountains hanging by a hair for the evidence for them is scanty and the advocates many.”

    (Off to grab the PDF!)

    David Reimer

  2. Robert C. Kashow Says:

    I appreciate this — I don’t know how familiar are with Webster over here at DTS (a Heb Union grad), but we’re always looking at the verbal system in his classes (whether that be Hebrew or Ugartic). He’s of the opposing view, but certainly does not hold the dismissive attitude alluded to above. That’s just annoying and thwarts any potential for progress.

    Of topic: do you have no fears of someone stealing your work when you post original work online? Do you have any protection here? If so I’m curious. I’ve generally refrained from posting any original thoughts in the blogosphere — but if there is a way to ensure one’s ideas will not be stolen, thoughts from the cyber community could only help sharpen things.

    • robertholmstedt Says:

      About posting online—not really. We have copyrighted the posts on the site, of course. And we both do work that is distinct enough that we’re not too worried about someone wanting or being able to claim our ideas for their own.

      I’m glad to hear about your context at DTS. That’s encouraging.

      • Jeremy Hutton Says:

        Just an addendum to the issue of posting online (and usually, the fear could extend to presenting publicly at a conference as well): if memory serves correctly, copyright is implicit in pretty much anything that you have displayed publicly, even if you have neglected to put the little © on it. The blog here has date-stamped entries and could be used as evidence in court if it ever went that far. Besides that, I realized long ago that the members of the serious academic community are usually way too busy with their own work to try to catch up with all the research I’ve done on a topic and then beat me to the publication punch.

      • robertholmstedt Says:


        Thank you for the input. I’ve learned something new.
        And I quite agree on your last statement, too.

  3. Hebrew Word Order | Random Bloggings Says:

    […] at Ancient Hebrew Grammar, Holmstedt recently posted on this topic, linking to a PDF of his new article in JHS. I feel Holmstedt’s frustration […]

  4. Biblical Studies Carnival September 2011 Episode II: The Biblioblogs Strike Back | Exploring Our Matrix Says:

    […] Robert Holmsted blogged about basic word order in Biblical Hebrew. Contrast that with Steve Runge’s post on contrast. Hear some Hebrew here. […]

  5. Mark from the Hebrew Language Says:

    Congratulations on the publication of your article series. Online Journals do offer the advantage of having quicker turnaround, it’s the nature of being on a medium that is changing constantly. I love this line, “It is the essence of scholarship to question previous positions using newer analytical frameworks.” This is the true scholarship that should be embraced across all fields. I have a few projects I’m working on where I manipulate grammatical data with new a framework and I’m amazed at the new things that I see. They practically discover themselves when a new method is implemented.

    As for worrying about people stealing online articles. It’s always a concern, but you have to publish things in order to become more popular, and people steal what’s popular, but hopefully once you’re more popular people will realize where it came from. It’s like climbing a ladder but if you stop mid-way you just run the risk of having your stuff stolen with no benefits.

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