[b-hebrew] lexicography

Pastor Mark Eddy markeddy at adams.net
Mon Nov 17 00:16:06 EST 2003

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Dave Washburn" <dwashbur at nyx.net>

> The first lesson I learned is that lexemes have one core meaning (unless
> where there are two lexemes with the same pronunciation that have merged,
> like "to" and "two" in English). I found it easiest to learn to use the
> lexemes correctly if I could learn that core definition to recognize how it
> is used, even if it didn't make sense in English.

Interesting.  Let's look at one of my favorite English examples.

Strike can mean:
-to hit (strike the rock with your staff)
-to miss (in baseball)
-to start something (strike up the band)
-to stop something (go on strike)

to name just a few.  Here we have one lexeme with at least two meanings, plus
two more that are polar opposites of the first two.  What exactly is the
"core definition"?

If you look at these examples as a snapshot of how the word is used today, it may appear that there is
little in common. But remember that there is historical development of the language behind the current
usage. I have not studied the history of the word "strike" in English, but I can see how all these usages
could have grown out of a single "original" meaning: "swing at something in order to hit it." When Moses
struck the rock with his staff, he swung the staff in order to hit the rock. When the baseball player
takes a swing at the ball, he intends to hit it. He struck at it, even if he missed it. In baseball when
his strike actually hit the ball, it is called a "hit." So when he only struck at the ball but did not hit
it, his action became known as a strike. Swinging at something (whether you hit it or not) is the core
How is the band started? When the the conductor swings his baton. Before conductors, the ensemble would
begin when the keyboard player struck (hit) the keys with his fingers. Here "strike" doesn't mean begin,
but the literal motions needed to start the music have become associated with the start of the music.
True, most people who use the phrase today would not be aware of its literal meaning, but that does not
refute the idea that there is a core meaning behind the word.

And when workers go "on strike" this does not mean that they "stop" their work. They only interrupt it.
The purpose of the "strike" is to do damage to the managers of the company, to strike back at them (so as
to hit them in their pocketbook). Again, this idiom grows out the the core meaning of "strike": to (try
to) hit something. If they literally struck out at their managers (as happened in some of the violent
strikes of a century ago), they would be thrown in prison. So they developed less physical ways to strike
back at their employer (sitting down at their machines or simply not showing up for work). The term went
along with the change in actions, so if we are to interpret what is meant in context, we will need to know
that context and also the time period in which the word is used. But this does not negate the fact that
there is a core meaning to the word "strike" in its history.

Of course since English is really the combination of a number of languages (the Germanic Anglo-Saxon plus
the romance language old French, plus direct borrowing from Latin and Greek introduced by academics), it
is common for English to have many totally different roots pick up identical pronunciation (and even
spelling) in English. Each of those othere languages had "core meanings" for the words that were brought
into English. This certainly could have happened in the biblical Hebrew. But we would need to have
evidence for this in order to assign a number of "core" meanings to the same Hebrew spelling.

Another quickie from English:
-my car has BAD tires
-those are some BAD shoes, dude

The former carries negative connotation, the latter positive.

"Connotation" is by definition something added to a word beyond its "core" defintion. Even in your example
the second use of "bad" is a deliberate attempt to twist the meaning of the word, rather than a totally
different meaning. Everyone knows that "bad" really means something negative. But some bad boys put their
spin on that label and became its champions, turning it into a sort of jargon for their "in crowd." In the
spoken language I can always tell by the inflection in someone's voice when he is using "bad" in its
twisted sense. So, you still have a core meaning for bad (negative) but then realize that some people use
it in their jargon to mean the opposite of the core meaning.

IMNSHO, there's no such thing as an actual "core definition."  Words mean what
they mean because a society chooses to use them that way.

But let's take a step back and evaluate the world-view that can make such a claim. I know that post-Darwin
social sciences often claim that language is just a man-made phenomenon, and that words in post-modernism
mean whatever a person wants words to mean (the rugged individualist version of what you claim). But was
language historically a purely human invention or convention, in which a few individuals (or a whole
society) chose to use certain sounds to represent certain meanings? As I read the Hebrew Bible I see that
God created Adam with a full-blown ability to use language. Human language did not evolved out of grunts
supposedly made by supposed sub-human ancestors. In Adam's first day of life he was able to give names to
all the animals that he saw. And those names stuck (Gen. 2:19). The names that Adam gave he continued to
use, and Eve used them, and their children used them. Until the tower of Babel incident in Gen. 11 all
human beings used the same words, the same language (v. 1 & 6). So God came down to confuse their
languages, so that they would not understand each other (v. 7 & 9). As a result the people scatterd into
different parts of the earth along language lines (which aparently had something to do with racial lines
as well).

Each of these lines passed down a complete language system, which was learned by succeeding generations.
Each generation seems to have added to, subtracted from, or modified certain portions of the language. But
until the 20th century it seems that nobody thought that we could simply change the meaning of words and
expect others to go along with us in our new understanding. There has always been an attempt to adapt
previously existing terms (even some borrowed from other languages) to explain new phenomena or ideas. If
a child does not know what to call something, he will usually wait for someone else to call it something,
and he learns to call it the same thing. Or, if he is more creative, he may apply a term he already knows
to a new object in his life, based on its resemblance to what he already knows. If nobody corrects him, he
will continue to use his choice of terms, and pass it on to his children. But I don't know any language
that developed simply because some "society" decided to make one up. Societies have always adapted
languages that they received in full-fledged form.

I have known people who originally spoke German, then moved to America and learned English. One family
tried to speak only German at home, to keep the mother-tongue alive. But after being in America for over
50 years, without hearing anyone else speak German for most of that time, English words crept into their
"German." They simply put German word endings on English words, when they didn't remember the real German
word. I could understand this hybrid language fairly well, not because they agreed with me on what their
words should mean, but because I knew what the English words meant and I knew German grammar. I could
almost instantly recognize what they were doing, because I knew the "core meaning" of both the vocabulary
and of the syntax. They took pre-existing languages and merged them.

My American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language has a nice "family tree" of the Indo-European
languages, tracing them all back to once original language. There are similar charts for the Semitic
languages. Eastern Asian languages form another group. I'm not sure how the sub-Saharan African languages
are related, but I have heard from some Bible translators that there are definite relations between tribal
languages as well. It has also been demonstraated that many so-called "primitive" languages are actually
amazingly complex, and the devolution of language has tended to produce less complicated and less precise
forms of language. It would appear that language is a creation of God, that He put into mankind certain
ways of looking at the world and thinking about the world that helps us to use language to communicate
with each other about our observations and thoughts.

So historically and biblically there are good reasons for us to look for "core" meanings to words (and
core grammatical structures). This does not mean that in actually usage words will continue to hold on to
their original "core meaning." We need to recognize where meanings branch off over time. But if one takes
the Bible seriously (which I do) as an historically accurate document, it appears that words did not come
into existence simply because some society chose to use words in a certain way. Words were created in
mankind by God, and then over time various societies have altered the original meanings of words.

In America,
"breakfast" used to mean "a meal taken at a particular time of day."  Now,
thanks in large measure to Village Inn, it means "a particular group of
foods."  And so it goes.  To me, looking for some "core definition" rather
than just examining usage in a given context, makes the task of grasping
Hebrew (or any other language, for that matter) just that much more
difficult.  YMMV.

Even "breakfast" shows evidence of evolution of meaning from basic core meanings of words. Breakfast was
originally the meal that breaks a person's fast during sleep. Certain foods have become associated with
the first meal of the day, and so they have come to be called breakfast foods (breakfast used as an
adjective). But even when someone orders from the "breakfast" menu at 10:00 p.m. at night, he is aware
that this is an anachronism. He is ordering foods more commonly associated with a different time of day.
He may actually be breaking a his own personal fast by eating such foods at that time (maybe he hasn't
eaten all day). In time it is possible that the connection to the core meaning of breakfast may be broken,
but that doesn't preclude us from discoverning where the break occurred. In biblical interpretation, it
would appear that the closer in time a writing is to the creation of the biblical Hebrew language, the
more likely it is to use words in their "core" meaning. The later in history that a writing originated,
the more likely it is to use words in a sense that has been modified from its "core" meaning. Of course,
disagreements about which biblical writings are "late" and which are "early" can lead to different
opinions about what meanings are more "core." But that's another topic entirely.

Willing to have my understanding modified (but pretty sure that what I have written accords with the
Mark Eddy

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list