emic and pragmatics

yochanan bitan-buth ButhFam at compuserve.com
Tue Aug 15 17:31:21 EDT 2000

A question was raised about the term 'emic' and incidently about

'Emic' means those forms considered 'significant' by a community. 

It is fairly easily checked with living speech communities and is not
really so difficult with ancient speech communities. 
For example, one may assume that different linguistic forms have different
meanings until proven otherwise. 

(Thus in Greek phonology (phonology means dealing with 'emic' sounds, that
is, with 'phonemes'):  IOTA  and EPSILON-IOTA may be assumed different
phonemes until the 2nd century BCE when writings everywhere start mixing
them up, randomly. They became two graphic representations of the same
phoneme before the Roman Koine.)
('linguistic forms' refer ultimately to the PHONOLOGICAL system or most
basic medium of the language and not the graphic representation. Thus,
stress and intonation in English is emic ("JOHN went to the movies" versus
"John went to the MOVIES") even though not usually written, as are word
tones in many languages and vowels in some old west Semitic languages.)

Pragmatic is somewhat of an elusive term in linguistics. Some linguists
refer to non-semantically-referential, communication processing information
as pragmatics. Some linguists use different terminology and call all
semantic and pragmatic distinctions together "semantics". One must be
careful with the term when comparing statements across analytic linguistic
Pragmatic functions, like 'thematicity', 'focus', 'packaging' and
'ranking', WHEN ENCODED into the morphology of a language, are emic by
definition. Linguists refer to the process by which a language develops new
formal categories as "grammati(ci)zation" and "morphologization". The kind
of function of new emic categories is irrelevant to its/their existence.

For example, (based on a typical Greek style)
Example1-     "He, having gotten into the boat, sailed away." 
is different pragmatically from
Example2-     "He got into the boat and sailed away." 

The first sentence has demoted the 'got-into' clause and produced a lower
prominence ranking for it. 
The distinction between the participle clause and a finite verb clause is
encoded in the language and is therefore 'emic', or significant within than

It would be irrelevant if someone came along and pointed out that in
underlying semantic propositions the two examples are identical.    Both
have the same semantics:
   (event:*'got into',  argument A: 'he',  argument B: 'boat') ^
(event:*'sailed away',  argument A: 'he')
The above language examples 1 and 2 are emically distinct, though only
encoding a pragmatic difference of propositional ranking. 

How does this apply to Hebrew?
Firstly, there are at least four basic finite verbal forms that are
considered 'emic' within the biblical Hebrew system. They are distinctive
at the phonological level (leading one to presume distinction until shown
otherwise), they are not random (as the statistical exhanges showed again
over the last couple of weeks) and are used to encode differing
communicative effect and/or reference. They thus qualify as 'emic', as
significantly different lingustic forms for the language community. 
All fluent users of Biblical Hebrew have unconciously recognized this
through all recorded history, from the statistical patterning in the bible
to expressions in multilingual communities (like with LXX, Qumran Aramaic,
JPA, Latin Vulgate [Jerome spent 30 years in Bethlehem LEARNING Hebrew
pretty well and translating], etc), to much later grammarians' attempts to
describe this. 

The four categories are not an open question, just a simple fact, like a
spherical earth. (Flat-earthists don't like this but astronauts know
otherwise.) On the otherhand, assuming that vayyiqtol equals veyiqtol (i.e.
that both equal 'and' + yiqtol) on the basis of an underdifferentiated
graphic system (no vowels written) is an artificial, non-linguistic
assumption and certainly has the potential to mislead those who would
naively accept it as a basis for analysis. 

[[Please note well: the recognition of the the four emic categories does
not say what they are or what they mean. But it does prevent someone from
assuming that vayyiqtol equals yiqtol and that one etherial 'meaning'
can/should be posited for them. Thus, a theoretical understanding already
leads an investigator away from misleading assumptions. A practical side
reconfirms this when one notices the affinity of vayyiqtols with qatals in
a way inversly distinctive from yiqtols with qatals. That is, the
relationship of vayyiqtol to qatal is almost inverse to the relationship of
yiqtol to qatal. Rolf and Henry can show this statistically for any
interested. (Rolf claims that the statistics are invalid because he used a
temporal gridwork for slicing up and grouping the statistical sets. His
objection is theoretically irrelevant and the statistics stand,
reconfirming the emic status of the four categories.)]] 

Among the four emic categories, vayyiqtol, veqatal, yiqtol and qatal. 
One may state that the main difference between vayyiqtol and qatal is a
pragmatic one. 
Such is a conclusion I put forth as a linguist. Likewise, the difference
between veqatal and yiqtol is primarily pragmatic. In fact, the two
categories vayyiqtol and veqatal can profitably be grouped together as
exhibiting the same pragmatics, while qatal and yiqtol likewise exhibit the
same pragmatics.

As a linguist I see vayyiqtol and qatal as exhibiting similar semantics but
differing pragmatics. Likewise, veqatal and yiqtol exhibit differing
pragmatics. Frankly, I don't have a problem with labelling all four
categories 'pragmatic' but they have deferent degrees of pragmaticity.
There are two groupings of these categories, (vayyiqtol and qatal) versus
(veqatal and yiqtol), that could be labelled with names like definite
versus indefinite and assigned to a quasi-'pragmatic' section of a
grammar'. What that leaves unsaid is that those categories are also tied to
predictive probabilities about referential time relations, referential
aspects and reality-separating moods. That tie-in to 'referential
semantics' would allow those linguists who have a pragmatic/semantic
distinction in their gridwork to say that the four verbal categories are
both pragmatic and semantic categories and that the definite/indefinite
subsets are primarily semantic.

[[It has been the lack of a pragmatic parameter in many grammarians'
worldview that has caused so much confusion among grammarians of BH. The
pragmatic parameters basically provide the motivation for the existence of
the 'thematic verb system'(a.k.a.: vav hahippux system) and the same
parameters have produced such pragmatic chaining systems in languages
around the world. The South Pacific is famous for them and I've personally
run across several in subSaharan Africa. Some of this shows up in European
languages with styles built around participles and finite verbs and around
imperfectives versus perfectives in narrative, including the inevitable
'inexplicable' imperfective being used pragmatically to demote or soften an
otherwise 'whole/simple' event in a story, e.g. when leading into to a more
thematic event or fading out a scene.]]

a word to many. A student has to read more than one linguistic book to
recognize what is solid and what is fuzzy above. Such are the systems for
people who analyze communication codes (languages). 

A word of encouragement: 
a human being does not need to be able to analyze a communication code in
order to learn it and to use it. Using communication codes and learning
them is inherent in the species. That's us, by the way.
In fact, the rabbis claimed that communication through language was
inherent in the image of God, as they homilized on Gn 2.7 "...and breathed
in his face the breath of life and it became in Adam a speaking spirit."

Randall Buth

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