[b-hebrew] lexicography

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Mon Nov 17 14:53:27 EST 2003


A core definition of a term is as a term is used by a people. Just because your great-grandparents may have used a term with a certain core definition, does not mean that you use the same term with the exact same core definition. That core definition can change. An example is in the U.S. Constitution, the Second Amendment: when it was written “militia” meant all healthy males between 15–45 and “well regulated” meant trained with regular practice (making all modern U.S. gun control laws unconstitutional, hence illegal). Both terms are used differently today. This shift does not contradict the “core definition” concept.

In looking at the word “strike”, a quick, surface look at its meaning appears to be all over the map. But when one looks at its historical development, the connections between all these modern, divergent meanings becomes apparent. I reproduced only a very small portion that was in a Webster’s New World Dictionary from 1964. Don’t forget to watch out for compound lexemes, such as “strike at”, “strike up”, “strike off”, “strike out” and others: the very fact that they are compound lexemes show that they are adding meaning that is not included in the simple lexeme “strike”. (If we were speaking German, compound lexemes are often given separate entries in dictionaries, precisely because they are adding meaning not included in simple lexemes.)

Concerning the term “bad”, it has a meaning that is considered standard, and a non-standard one. We may be observing a process whereby a new definition replaces an old, but that has not occured yet and may never do so. As of yet, the non-standard meaning is recognized as argot, that originated with a particular ethnic group though no longer confined to it (hence the term “racist” doesn’t fit) and from my experience in America is still used by only a minority of the people, though the majority know about that use and recognize it.

Most lexemes don’t have the sort of ambiguity as in the above two examples.

Getting back to Biblical Hebrew, I can’t think of a single term that evinces the type of historical development as in the “strike” example above. However, because lexemes change meaning, a lexicon of Biblical Hebrew should confine itself to Biblical Hebrew only. That is not always possible, as Mishnaic Hebrew may define a hapax legomai term in Tanakh, but it must be used with caution as the definition may have changed. That caution should be even greater with cognate languages. Where an unknown lexeme is recognizably from the same root as known lexemes, its form along with its context can usually render a workable definition, though not always. Hence, recognizing core definitions is very useful to recognizing what was meant where we no longer have native speakers to interview.

I don’t understand why you are arguing so strenuously against the concept of core definitions when I have found it very useful, both for the study of modern languages as well as for the study of Biblical Hebrew.

Karl W. Randolph.

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