[b-hebrew] Contextual Semantic Domains

furuli at online.no furuli at online.no
Mon Nov 24 17:33:29 EST 2003

Dear David,

It is good to hear that you have benefited from this thread. I do not 
think I am the right person to answer your questions below,  because 
I have no experience in the practical work of making a Hebrew 
dictionary or a lexicon.  I think one needs to have such an 
experience in order to see the real advantages and and problems with 
a particular organization of words in a lexical work.  I approach 
lexical semantics from the angle of the user of words, from a 
translator's point of view: What is meaning? Where is meaning found? 
How can meaning be conveyed from one language to another? And: What 
is the fundamental unit of translation? Is it the word (1) or is it 
a bigger unit?  I also approach words from the point of view of the 
grammarian: Do each grammatical form signal one concept in the minds 
of native speakers? And most important for me, because it is the very 
foundation of the thesis I am writing: Which parts of the verbal 
system of Classical Hebrew represent "semantic meaning" (are 
uncancellable) and which represent "conversational pragmatic 
implicature" (are dependent on the context, thus being cancellable)?

  Having some expertise in connection with the questions above does 
not give me an expertise in the art of making a good wordbook or 
lexicon, but this fact that expertise in one side of a discipline 
does not automatically lead to expertise in another side, illuminates 
one side of the choosing of a particular organization of words in a 
lexicon: Who are the target group for this wordbook or lexicon? What 
are the needs of this target group? Is the purpose of the users just 
to get a core-sense of the words, or do they want a thorough 
analysis? Because the purpose of the lexicons and wordbooks are 
different, it is difficult to make a comparison of their qualities 
and put one above another. They all serve useful purposes, and for a 
thorough study of a word, different kinds of lexicons should be used. 
I view both NIDOTTE and TDOT to be good lexical works which give much 
fine information.

One of the best lexical works for general use in any Semitic 
language, in my opinion. is "Comparative Dictionary of Ge'ez" by Wolf 
Leslau (1987). Here we find both Latin letters and Ethiopic 
syllables, we find English glosses, different forms of the words, and 
Semitic cognates. We find both a Ge'ez-English part and an 
English-Ge'ez part, and there is a list of Ethiopic roots that are 
found in other Semitic languages. This would be a good pattern for a 
Hebrew Dictionary for general use as well.

Whereas all Hebrew lexical works have certain advantages, I see two dangers:

1) Readers are led to believe that they get the lexical meaning of 
words, whereas this meaning is only found in the minds of native 
speakers (I have discussed this before).

2) Theological views are smuggled into the lexical work and are 
presented as lexical information (cf. J. Barr (1975). "The Semantics 
of Biblical Language", Oxford: Oxford University Press.)

I will use a hapax as an example, namely, ) i++YM.  The word is 
believed to be related to the Akkadian word etemmu, whose usual 
reference is "the spirit of a dead person," but it can also refer to 
"a necromancer". In the new Koehler/Baumgartner we find just one 
entry, "spirit of a dead person", but in the old one we find 
"charmers" as well. Thus the new edition forces a theological 
viewpoint on the reader while the old one lets the reader decide. 
"The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew" which I often find very useful, 
have just one gloss, namely "ghost," thus leaving no choice for the 
reader. The place where I find a balanced and interesting discussion 
is in "Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament (1981), R. L. Harris 
et. al. In other cases this last mentioned work may contain theology 
while others do not. My point, therefore, is that a perfect lexical 
work does not exist, and we will never create one.  So we should 
teach our students the dangers of lexical works, and even more 
important, we should teach them that they should not expect to find 
the *lexical meaning* of words there.

(1) ("word" is a rather vague term but it fits this context.)

Best regards

Rolf Furuli

University of Oslo

>I found your message fascinating, helpful, and relevant, having just read
>the chapter by Harold P. Scamlin called "The Study of Semantics in General
>Linguistics" in Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew ed. W. R. Bodine. He talks
>about referential meaning as the meaning that cannot be known by non
>mother-tongue speakers. It is precisely the examples given by a good lexicon
>that help such people (and some mother-tongue speakers too) find these
>meanings. His other terms are 'emotive' meanings (connotations) and
>'grammatical' meanings. He also talks about unmarked meanings, which are
>often used as glosses in dictionaries, vs. marked meanings, which can only
>be known by hearing or reading the context.
>Do you have any specific comments on the existing Hebrew dictionaries,
>including NIDOTTE and TDOT? If lexical items have to be organised somehow,
>traditionally alphabetically by root or form, or more recently by semantic
>domain, how would you suggest organising them? Cognitive linguistics would
>add another dimension - the 'frame' - to semantic domain. How helpful is
>David Gray

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