[b-hebrew] Relevance Theory & Hebrew Semantics

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Mon Aug 16 13:16:03 EDT 2004

On 16/08/2004 17:19, C. Stirling Bartholomew wrote:

>About two weeks ago there was an exchange of views* between a Greek classics
>professor and a senior translation consultant, both very knowledgeable
>people, which came down to a war of methodologies between traditional
>philology (19th century) and cognitive linguistics (late 20th century).
>In response to this question I obtained several books on Relevance Theory
>and Pragmatics and was reading them when this question of the golden calf
>(Ex. 32)  came up. I tried to approach the question with the Grice's
>co-operative principle in mind as well maximizing the significance of the
>contextual semantic domain of the verb CWR (Ex. 32:4).
>While working on this some questions about the applicability of Relevance
>Theory (RT) to ancient texts crossed my mind. First, RT appears to be about
>spoken language not texts. Second,  RT works from a set of axioms, e.g.,
>Grice's co-operative principle, which seem to me rather utopian when applied
>to ancient texts. 
>What do I mean by utopian? RT seems to presume that discourse segments are
>semantically highly cohesive. Without out this assumption the whole approach
>seems to fall apart. Furthermore, reconstructing the contextual semantic
>domain of the verb CWR (Ex. 32:4) is a serious project.
>My question: What use can be made of Relevance Theory with ancient texts
>where the context (external) is difficult to reconstruct with any certainty?
Clay, I wonder if there are many people on this list who are familiar 
with Relevance Theory, but I am one who is, mostly in connection with 
its applicability to translation. In fact you might like to see the 
draft paper Holy Communicative? available from my website, which 
discusses among other things RT and translation. In some circles I am 
seen as an opponent of RT. But I accept RT as a description of how 
language works. My objections are to how some have extended RT 
descriptions of different types of translation into a prescription that 
only one of the types is valid for the Bible.

RT is not just about spoken language. Maybe this was the original 
application, but its principles have been extended and applied to 
written texts. Principles like Grice's certainly apply in principle, 
because the texts were written for certain audiences and there was an 
assumption that these audiences would understand them; but maybe it is 
utopian to expect to be able to reconstruct those shared assumptions in 
the case of a BH text (although not in the case of every ancient text - 
I am currently working on 1 Corinthians, which is part of an ongoing 
exchange of views which can be partially reconstructed with profound 
implications on interpretation).

I just looked at the relevant b-greek archives. I'm not sure you 
described the disagreement fairly. The Greek professor was appealing not 
so much to 19th century rules as to actual usage in Koine texts. This 
usage is part of the context, and so any RT insights about the meaning 
must be dependent on this usage. Unfortunately with Hebrew we don't have 
the same wealth of contemporary texts to enlighten us about actual usage.

To come back to b-hebrew, part of the problem with the Golden Calf story 
is a lack of agreement about the correct context of this story. David 
Rohl would find its context among people who have just left 13th dynasty 
Egypt. Others would put it later in Egyptian history, up to the 19th 
dynasty. George Somsel suggests a context in the divided kingdom era. No 
doubt there are others who would make the context post-exilic or even 
Hellenistic. Maybe more than one of these is true e.g. an original story 
from the Middle Bronze Age has been retold by Iron Age redactors. How do 
we proceed? We cannot safely argue, as we can when looking at the New 
Testament, from the context to the interpretation. Rather we are forced 
to find an interpretation and then see what context we can fit it into. 
Or we can hypothesise a context and see if we can come up with a 
plausible interpretation in that context. The problem is that our 
knowledge of the language and of the contexts in different eras is 
rarely sufficient for us to be able to rule anything out. So I guess the 
best we can say might be something like "If the Golden Calf story is set 
in such-and-such a period, the calf was probably made in such-and-such a 

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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