[b-hebrew] Contextual Semantic Domains

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Thu Nov 27 21:23:27 EST 2003

Dear Reinier de Blois:

Thank you for your detailed answer. 

I wonder how to define semantic domains? How do we adjust when the semantic domains in one language do not match with those in another language?

To go back to your example, birds (avia) in English are defined by a certain pattern of traits: feathers, warm-blooded, lay eggs, bills. As far as I know, there are no outliers. Bats and flying insects don’t have those traits, therefore they are not birds. Penguins and ostriches do have those traits, therefore they are birds.

Another example are mammals (mammalia) are defined by warm blood, fur (or hair),  give birth to live young, provide milk for their young. Whales, bats, sheep, etc. all have those traits, therefore they are mammals. There are only two outliers, if I remember correctly, both from Australia, the duck billed platypus which lays eggs and has a bill but otherwise is clearly a mammal, and I forgot the other one.

But when we look at Biblical Hebrew, we don’t find these semantic domains. (WP  in Hebrew refers to flying creatures, which includes flying insects and bats, as well as birds. $RC [sheretz] includes non-flying insects, and what else? BHMH includes larger animals such as dinosaurs, cattle and sheep, and what else? And “fish” includes dolphins, whales and other swimming creatures. The reason I asked “and what else?” is because Tanakh doesn’t define those semantic domains, though it mentions them. I know of no other source that defines them.

Outside of animalia, how many of our semantic domains are the same as ancient Hebrew semantic domains? Could we misunderstand Biblical Hebrew by shoehorning Hebrew concepts into English semantic domains? In the examples above, it seems that English semantic domains tend towards form, while the ancient Hebrew ones tend towards function. For example, it is the same action when thieves hide themselves in order to ambush victims, and for refugees to hide themselves from pursuing soldiers. The object in both is not t o be seen when they don’t want to be seen.

How does one recognize when words are used in irony, as euphemisms, satire or other literary effects? Do we risk not having a correct understanding of words if we don’t make allowances for such?

Again, thanks for your response.

Karl W. Randolph.
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