the chicken(poetry) or the egg(prose)?

Andre Desnitsky bsruss at
Sun Sep 6 13:50:31 EDT 1998

Peter_Kirk at wrote:
> I am no expert on this, but perhaps I can illuminate the situation
> from another Middle Eastern language, Azerbaijani. 
> Maybe this (perhaps apart from the last point) mirrors the
> development of different styles in Hebrew: first conversational (Can
> we find traces of this in conversational exchanges in BH? Do these use
> wayyiqtol etc. in the same way as formal prose?), then poetry, and
> then the formal prose of narrative and stylised speeches.

A very interesting example indeed. I think that many languages had a
similar development in which prose and poetry develop separately. I don't
think that traces of conversational Hebrew (Ugaritic, Azerbaijani or any
other language) can be found in the earliest pieces of literature. The
very idea of writing a text exactly in the language people speak on the
streets must have seemed striking and absurd until our century. Even in
this conference we don't try to write something like:
"Hmm, guys, I just wanted... You know...Hmm... We are talking about prose
and poetry, but..."

There is another example of the literature that missed poetry for
centuries - I mean the Old Slavonic. Originally it was a kind of
"translational" literature introduced by St.Cyrill & Methodius in nineth
century. The policy of literal translation led to prosaic versions of
poetic texts, so even centuries later when the original Slavonic works
appeared in abundance only prose was written down. Poetry , i.e. folk
songs, remained oral. Of course this makes no parallel to Hebrew that was
not a "translational" language (though it was influenced by some more
ancient traditions). I think that Azerbaijani must be a better model.

Andre S. Desnitsky, Ph.D.
(Oriental Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences;
Bible Society in Russia)
bsruss at

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