Saturday, 8 August 2009

Semantic fields and SDBH

Biblical exegetes are interested in the meaning of words, and one tool that has been developed in order to help them access that meaning is the concept of "semantic fields." Fronzaroli ("Componential Analysis," 79) defines a semantic field as "a group of words that stand in paradigmatic opposition to one another and share at least one semantic component." The value of identifying which words belong to each other in a such a field is that it can help the exegete understand why a Biblical author chose one word and not another possible word from the same lexical stock (as J. Barr slightly overstates,"it is the choice, rather than the word itself, which signifies" ("The Image of God in the Book of Genesis, 12). By comparing and contrasting a term with the other terms an author may have drawn on, the exegete may begin to understand just what it is about this term that makes it so fitting for its purpose (e.g., according to Barr, צֶלֶם in Gen 1:26 is more neutral than other possible words for "image").

The problem is that delineating which terms belong in a semantic field is a highly intuitive and therefore a subjective business. It is further limited by the fact that 1) we have no living informants to ask and 2) our primary corpus of information, the Bible, only presents us with a partial selection of vocabulary and literature from the period of each text's composition.

Nevertheless, there is much to be gained by studying semantic fields, and so projects such as the exciting Hebrew-English Lexicon of the Old Testament Based on Semantic Domains are to be welcomed. This particular dictionary is still under construction, but amazingly you can access their work to date on line here. Not only can you search a large number of terms according to their lexical and contextual domains, you get a great overview of all the lexical semantic domains they have developed so far. From this table you can see that they have drawn on cognitive theory, which, according to Brenner [Colour Terms], views the semantic field as a hierarchy of primary, secondary and tertiary terms.

I mentioned that there problems of subjectivity in delineating semantic domains, i.e. they are always open to the charge of "ethnocentrism" (as the definition of lexical domain recognises: Categories are not universal but depend on the system of experiences, beliefs, and practices of a particular social or ethnic group). I'm not an expert in such matters, but I've had a look at their proposed divisions, and thought I'd share the following thoughts:
  • Deities and creatures occupy the same level of the hierarchy in the system, both subordinate to Objects. But are all deities apart from Yhwh creatures according to the Biblical world view, and shouldn't, therefore, deities be a subcategory of creatures, alongside animals and people? No doubt one will answer that Israelite religion went through a development, in which foreign deities were assigned a different ontological status at various periods of time, and that this development is discernible in the layers of the Bible itself. This point is historically contentious, but it nevertheless confronts us with the difficulty inherent in attempting to map unified lexical domains across such a diachronically, socio-religiously diverse corpus as the Hebrew of the Bible. Can one map lexical domains for the final form of the Bible, domains which categorize the meaning terms came to/were made to acquire by virtue of their canonical shaping?
  • The subcategory of animals is divided into wild animals, domestic animals, small animals, aquatic animals, birds, swarming creatures. How much does this reflect Israelite thinking, or at least the thinking of a strand of thinking within Israelite history and culture? Interestingly, animals are not divided according to whether they are "clean" or "unclean." Admittedly, these categories do appear in the system, but they come later under the category of attributes, which ultimately stands under the primary term events (= states, processes, actions, and causative actions). But this is to make an interpretation (which may well be right, I have no idea). It seems to say that "uncleanness" is a quality which is attributed to animals, rather than being a feature which fundamentally defines them (like "creeping things" is apparently fundamental). That might make sense, as according to Gen 1, God doesn't create the animals clean or unclean (they first get mentioned in Gen 7:2).
  • Hebrew terms are often given at the lower end of the hierarchy, but not at the upper. The most abstract term I could find is דֶשֶׁא , "plants and vegetation." I'd love to know how the other upper-level categories would be translated. For example, what could one put for the category creature?נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה or בָּשָׂר (Lev 7:21)?
There is another project underway, the ESF Network, "The Semantics of Classical Hebrew," which has produced the online Semantics of Ancient Hebrew Database. This is still very much a work-in-progress, but they do have a few very detailed analyses of a number of lexemes.

I should add that all my information on lexical semantics has been taken from Sue Groom's Linguistic Analysis of Biblcial Hebrew (available on Logos).


yhwhmlk said...

Groom's book is excellent. Have you read any Vanhoozer on speech-act theory?

Phil Sumpter said...

A fair bit. I'm still trying to understand how syntagmatics and paradigmatics relate in word-field studies. It seems to me that speech-act theory would belong to the realm of syntagms, the function words have in sentences which are part of a discourse. Do you have a view on this?

I find the whole field rather complex.

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