Hebrew Word Order

Perhaps one of the most fascinating aspects of Hebrew (to me) is the current discussion–or lack thereof–regarding whether ancient Hebrew is a verb-subject language or a subject-verb language. The dominant opinion held by most scholars is that Hebrew is a verb-subject language. Robert Holmstedt (who, as I mentioned on Friday, is right about this stuff) argues that Hebrew is actually a subject-verb language. To be fair, Holmstedt isn’t the only one, though he does appear to be the most vocal.

I worked extensively with Holmstedt’s research on word order in my MA program at Gordon-Conwell. It demonstrated great explanatory power over any passage I threw at it. That is to say, no matter what passage I tested Holmstedt’s explanation of SV word order against, it always made more sense to understand that passage as exhibiting a basic word order of Subject-Verb than vice-versa. That makes this one of those little esoteric areas of interest that guarantee people will look at me strangely. In fact, to be fair, even biblical studies scholars look at those of us interested in word order theory strangely. We’re an odd bunch.

Over 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 over this issue not being seriously addressed by many scholars. One senior scholar once told me that, although he was excited that I was interested in Hebrew poetry, linguistics and word order, such things weren’t likely to land me a job one day. In fairness, that critique can be leveled against most of ancient near eastern studies. Even so, frustration over the general lack of serious consideration of anything other than a VS explanation of ancient Hebrew is entirely warranted.

For those interested in word order, I highly recommend Holmstedt’s article. For those who think this is all a silly discussion (and if that’s your thought, really, why have you read this far?), keep in mind that this discussion has sizable repercussions for how we understand Hebrew narrative and the ever (un)helpful term “emphasis.”

As an aside–JHS (Journal of Hebrew Scriptures) is one of my favorites. Their open access policy is masterful, and they consistently publish fine articles on a variety of topics touching upon the study of Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible.

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One thought on “Hebrew Word Order

  1. Calvin,

    It is extremely encouraging to know that my arguments about word order are taken seriously by someone other than my own students. Besides Joüon and DeCaen (and John Cook, who is often my co-conspirator), I’m not aware of anyone who has adopted the SV model. All I hear about are those whose response is “interesting … but no thanks.”

    Although I do like to be right (who doesn’t?), it’s really much more important for Hebrew grammar (and, as you indicate, all the areas affected by one’s position, including Bible translation) that others take this issue up with linguistic rigour, even if their conclusions are not mine.

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