As you might be aware, Jonathan has been writing a series about the word order of the biblical Hebrew verbal sentence. The significance of that series and what he is arguing might be lost, however. Therefore, I wanted to write a short entry to let you know why I have become a recent convert to Cook and Holmstedt’s proposal for the re-examination of the standard or “unmarked” word order in biblical Hebrew.

Anyone who learned Hebrew through the standard channels will generally tell you that the normal word order in Hebrew is verb-subject-object (VSO). That is, the verb appears first, then the subject, and then whatever other information (the object, adverbs, etc.). Take, for example, the following quote from the popular introductory grammar The Basics of Biblical Hebrew by Gary Pratico and Miles Van Pelt (133 [§12.14]):

In Hebrew, however, normal word order for a verbal sentence is verb-subject-object as the following example illustrates.

בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
God created the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1).

In this example, the verb is in first position (בָּרָא), the subject in second position (אֱלֹהִים) and the two objects follow the subject (הַשָּׁמַיִם and הָאָרֶץ).

This is wholly incorrect for a few reasons, but you cannot blame these authors for making such a statement when even Gesenius, the most famous of biblical Hebrew grammarians, has the following to say (Kautzsch, 456 [§142f]):

According to what has been remarked above, under a, the natural order of words within the verbal sentence is: Verb—Subject, or Verb—Subject—Object. But as in the noun clause (§141l) so also in the verbal-clause, a variation of the usual order of words frequently occurs when any member of the sentence is to be specifically emphasized by priority of position.

So, why has this topic occupied so much of Jonathan’s thoughts here on the blog of The Hebrew Café? Why does any of this matter for students of biblical Hebrew? And, how can we know for sure that the information on word order presented in these grammars is so incorrect?

Why Jonathan Writes on Word Order

The first reason that Jonathan writes about this issue is because he studied under Dr. John Cook, who has partnered with Dr. Robert Holmstedt in the creation of a new method of teaching biblical Hebrew. Included in this method is a novel perspective on the question of unmarked verb position and how the verb happens to move so frequently in Hebrew sentences as to cause confusion among even the most astute of Hebrew scholars. Studying under one of these paradigm-altering giants in the field affected Jonathan’s perspective on the importance of the question and, consequently, on the topics that he finds fascinating enough to write about in a blog.

The fact that so many grammars present this issue incorrectly (in our view) drives Jonathan to call attention to the word order of the verses covered in our online lessons, trying to sort out what might be happening in the structure of the sentence/verse to influence the way that it’s constructed linguistically. He wants to correctly inform new students with regard to this issue, which is attracting more attention in recent years.

Just as I didn’t recognize the relevance of this topic when it was first raised to me a few months ago, so many people involved in Hebrew instruction do not realize that the traditional grammars relate incorrectly to this question. By bringing it up here in the blog, Jonathan is attempting both to provide information for those who are new to the study of the language and to further discussion on this important topic, calling it to the attention of those who have experience with reading Hebrew but haven’t given much thought to word order.

Why You Should Care

When Jonathan first raised the question of word order in our discussions (and then on the blog), I didn’t see the significance of it. I came to Hebrew intuitively, having acquired the language basically naturally as the product of formal and personal study, free reading, involvement in the Israeli ulpan program, and daily living in Israel for the past decade and a half. I’d been reading the Hebrew Bible for twenty years as a regular habit, yet I never considered the word order beyond what “felt right” to me, which is generally how people come to language without analyzing it.

As students (and teachers) of the language, we all are constantly searching for better ways to learn (and teach) it. In the early stages, the amount of information that needs to be learned in order to get to a place where you can begin to really learn the language can be overwhelming. It has been said that the intermediate stage of learning any language involves unlearning things that you learned in the basic stage. It seems counter-intuitive to give bad information in the beginning. Why not do what we can do give a better picture of how the language works even in the first level? At least, to the best of our ability.

By devoting time to the question of word order, there are lots of benefits that will come to your approach to the language generally.

    • You will be better equipped for analyzing the structure of verses in biblical Hebrew.
    • You will understand what is happening to create subject-verb inversion (inverted word order), which will help you read more fluently—since you can basically feel the word order and expect what should be written next in the sentence.
    • You will be able to compose more natural-sounding Hebrew.

How We Know

The position that Hebrew exhibits the VSO word order comes from a natural reading of the text. The vast majority of sentences in the Bible do indeed take that order. First, the majority of verbs appear as past narrative (vayyiqtol or vav-consecutive) forms, which always appear in the first position of a clause. The concept with which we have to become better acquainted is inversion. There are a lot of linguistic features that cause the subject and the verb to become inverted. One such trigger is the past narrative form of the verb, which skews the statistics. When most of the text is narrative, and the majority of verbs are part of narrative strings, we should not be persuaded by simply looking at how many clauses are verb-subject.

Holmstedt essentially approaches Hebrew from the perspective of generative grammar, with regard to the movement of constituent parts of a clause. In his 2009 article in the Journal of Semitic Studies, he points out the following (p. 124):

When we examine the BH data and ask whether the majority of VS and SV clauses fit a triggered inversion account, the answer is yes. The set of potential triggers in BH includes syntactic members, such as relative words (22), interrogatives (24), causal words (25), as well as semantic members, such as modal operators (whether overt [26] or covert [27]) and negative operators (28).

Basically, if you assume that the natural order of the language is SVO, you can explain the clause structure by inversion. However, if you assume VSO, it is much more difficult to explain those clauses that flaunt the assumption. With this in mind, Holmstedt argued with the force of numbers and statistics on all the verbal sentences in the book of Genesis to demonstrate the strength of his position. This can be accessed in his 2011 article in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures, in which he lays down (not for the first time) his challenge to those who reject the SVO position (p. 29).

In closing, I invite Hebraists to defend the VS analysis of Hebrew against my SV challenge by means of an overt linguistic framework (e.g., linguistic typology) and the clear documentation of data (e.g., footnotes with all the examples listed, preferably with some explanation of sub-categories, as I have done in this study). I cannot make the challenge any clearer: someone, preferably many scholars, must take up the VS analysis and defend it scientifically.

His argument is so well documented in the footnotes and examples that this Hebraist has officially been converted to Holmstedt’s position, and I totally get why Jonathan finds this topic engaging. When I teach Hebrew from now on, I will include a session on word order and how it takes shape in the text of the Bible, and that session will give support to the position that Hebrew is essentially an SVO language with lots of triggers that cause inversion.


References

Holmstedt, Robert D. “The Typological Classification of the Hebrew of Genesis: Subject-Verb or Verb-Subject?” Journal of Hebrew Scriptures 11 (2011). doi:10.5508/jhs.2011.v11.a14.

——. “Word Order and Information Structure in Ruth and Jonah: A Generative-Typological Analysis.” Journal of Semitic Studies 54, no. 1 (2009): 111–39. doi:10.1093/jss/fgn042.

Kautzsch, Emil, ed. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. Translated by Arthur Cowley. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 2006.

Pratico, Gary D., and Miles V. Van Pelt. Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar. Second ed. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007.

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