Recycling . . . its not just about the environment!

Perhaps it is the combined effect of information explosion beginning the end of last century combined with the unending pressure to publish or perish, but too often scholars find themselves covering the same old ground that has already been well-covered by past scholars. It is not simply that we are engaged in the same sorts of debates (Indeed, my work on the verb admittedly focuses on one of the most longstanding debates in Hebrew grammar!), it is that we too quickly forget the ideas that earlier scholars have advanced—usually unsuccessfully, which explains their forgotten state. Unfortunately, the rapid digitization of these old resources makes such absent-minded recycling even more egregious.

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Posted in Hebrew Semantics, Hebrew Syntax, Historical linguistics, Linguistics (theory or typology), Verbal System, Word Order. Comments Off on Recycling . . . its not just about the environment!

Genesis 1.1, again

Professor Kenneth Turner of Bryan College emailed me recently about another subtle feature in the grammar of Gen 1.1, given in (1).

(1) Gen 1:1

בְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית בָּרָ֣א אֱלֹהִ֑ים אֵ֥ת הַשָּׁמַ֖יִם וְאֵ֥ת הָאָֽרֶץ׃

He and his students have been working through the various issues, and reading my VT article and some older posts I made here and here, and they came up with a fascinating question: does the disjunctive accent on ראשׁית (which is a טפחא) provide any support for taking the word as the free or bound form?

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Valency: the intersection of syntax and semantics

Valency seems to be an up-and-coming area in Biblical Hebrew linguistics. I was more or less thrown into the issue through my involvement with the Accordance syntax project (see here and here): as someone who was already obsessed by the verbal system, it made sense to task me with overseeing the valency analysis for the project. This task has mainly entailed addressing the necessity of deciding between verbal complements and adjuncts in the database tagging, which in turn has led to a developing valency dictionary that will contribute to Hebrew lexicography by supplementing the current lexica with a specific focus on verbal valency.
But as I said, it seems that this is a burgeoning field. I had the pleasure of being invited to a workshop on the Bible and computing in Leiden this past February and discovered a number of other scholars who were working on valency and the Biblical Hebrew verb. Out of that meeting emerged a session at last month’s SBL annual meeting (somewhat off the beaten path of sessions, but kindly hosted by the International Syriac Language Project program unit) in which I, Janet Dyk, Nicholai Winther-Nielsen, and A. Dean Forbes each delivered a paper addressing the issue of valency in Biblical Hebrew. In turn, out of these meetings came an invitation that Janet present on valency at next year’s SBL meetings in the Bible Translation unit. In the meantime, the four papers from this year’s fruitful meeting will be appearing in the upcoming volume of Gorgias’ series Perspectives on Linguistics and Ancient Languages (see here).

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It has been just over a year since our last post. Though we have not blogged, we have been busy. Below I highlight some of the things we’ve done. Links to a couple new articles are posted at the bottom.

In addition to teaching quite a bit and working on a number of encyclopedia entries, our textbook, a joint Baylor Hebrew Bible Handbook (on Qoheleth), a Baylor volume of his own (on the Biblical Aramaic portions of Ezra and Daniel), John achieved tenure at his institution and also published his book on the Biblical Hebrew verb (see the new link on the left sidebar).

Besides developing a couple new courses, writing a number of encyclopedia articles, working on the joint Baylor volume with John as well as another Baylor volume (on Esther) with a doctoral student in my department, I have two articles coming out in JBL and JSS (both of which took me a number of years to finish off). And I am trying to balance my work on the Accordance Hebrew syntax project with my desire to finish revising what used to be my thesis on the relative clause (I say “used to be” because the amount of newly added material makes it a different work altogether).

So, it has been a busy year for us. Sadly, little of that translated into blogging. But I will make a post based on my SBL presentation on Biblical Hebrew pedagogy in the next day or so and John will post on verbal valency in the next few weeks. For now, below are links to some of the works we’ve published (or finished and are in press) in the last year.

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Genesis 1.1 and Topic-fronting before a Wayyiqtol

Robert Holmstedt and John Cook

In a previous post, I (RDH) partially based my analysis of the syntax of Gen 1.1 within the larger structure of Gen 1.1-3 on the existence of examples where a wayyiqtol clause has a Topic-fronted Prepositional Phrase that is located before the wayyiqtol, such as Gen 22.4 (1).

(1) Gen 22:4 בַּיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁלִישִׁ֗י וַיִּשָּׂ֨א אַבְרָהָ֧ם אֶת־עֵינָ֛יו וַיַּ֥רְא אֶת־הַמָּק֖וֹם מֵרָחֹֽק׃
‘On the third day, Abraham raised his eyes and saw the place from afar.’

In this post, we follow that description of Gen 1.1-3 with additional supporting data and analysis.

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Genesis 1.1-3, Hebrew Grammar, and Translation

*(revised after the clarification given in the initial comment)*


Genesis 1.1 is one of the most discussed verses in the Hebrew Bible. It is the first verse of the first book, initiates the Hebrews’ grand cosmology, and … contains an apparent grammatical crux. Phooey! You would think that one could get further than one word into the Hebrew Bible without a grammatical problem.

In fact, there is no problem, only a long-term misunderstanding of Hebrew grammar. In a 2008 article appearing in Vetus Testamentum (which revised a sub-section taken from my 2002 thesis), I argued for an analysis of the first verse that is grounded both in my long-term research on the Hebrew relative clause and comparative Semitic grammar. You can find the article linked here.

But recently I was criticized (on a blog), for failing to explain how my analysis of 1.1 fit into an interpretation of 1.1-3. So, although my argument for Gen 1.1 stands ably on its own, I will take the opportunity presented by the recent criticism to summarize my argument for 1.1 and provide my analysis of vv. 1-3.

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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?

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!

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Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 5

In this series (see post #1, #2, #3, #4), I have argued that the study of Biblical Hebrew word order has lacked methodological rigor. In this, the penultimate post, I introduce the last criterion by which the word order data must be filtered.

I have been a bit slower putting up this post since I wanted to check and re-check my data, questioning my judgments as I went in order to produce the best possible results. My eyeballs now hurt more than ever. But, I still hope to finish off the last section by the end of the weekend. From my two or so readers, I covet input.

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Basic Word Order in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal Clause, Part 4

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

In the last two posts I introduced and discussed the criteria of frequency and distribution. In this post I will add the criterion of clause type as yet another important filter for the raw word order data.

The Criterion of Clause Type

The second criterion used to filter raw frequency results concerns ‘clause type’. This criterion is predicated on the observation that languages often exhibit different word order patterns in different clause types; in such cases, not all clause types present the language’s basic word order. Consider English interrogative clauses, such as When did Noah leave? This clause type in English has the inflected Verb, did, before the Subject, in contrast to the declarative counterpart, Noah left yesterday. On this basis, we would exclude interrogative clauses as a source for basic word order in English. Moreover, although interrogatives are typically a minority clause type in English texts and so their exclusion would not normally affect the frequency results, we can imagine a text that consists predominantly of questions, resulting in a highly skewed frequency-based analysis for English word order.

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