[b-hebrew] Relevance Theory & Hebrew Semantics

Peterson, Trevor M 06PETERSON 06PETERSON at cua.edu
Mon Aug 16 13:21:24 EDT 2004

Although RT seems to presuppose a spoken-language situation, I think the same thing is generally true of anything in or around modern linguistic methodology. The question then becomes, how well can we apply such ideas to written texts or other media? I'm not sure that the medium is so much the issue here as the communicative setting. Take the b-hebrew forum as an example. I suspect that RT works reasonably well as applied to our discussions. Granted, there are elements of communication that are difficult to convey in writing, but the give-and-take of regular communication is still there. We can think of it on a continuum with face-to-face communication, telephone conversation, and conversation by relay, teletype, instant messaging, etc. On the other hand, the scenario is somewhat different when we come to a formal, recorded presentation, whether that presentation is recorded in writing, on an audio CD, a DVD, etc. What fundamentally changes is the give-and-take. It may be that if someone publishes an article in a peer-reviewed journal someone else will publish a response six months or a year later, and they can go back and forth like that, but generally speaking, when you write an article or book or what have you, you aren't expecting a dialog. So you present yourself differently, and the reader also acts differently, and that's where I think we might find some of these dialog-based theories running aground. As a reader of an ancient text, where there is no chance whatsoever that I will be able to communicate with the human author, I'm left to muddle along the best I can. I might read with the assumption that the author was following certain conventions of communication, and a theory like RT might help me process the implications, but I think you're right that there could be problems.

Trevor Peterson

-----Original Message-----
From: b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org on behalf of C. Stirling Bartholomew
Sent: Mon 8/16/2004 12:19 PM
To: hebrew
Subject: [b-hebrew] Relevance Theory & Hebrew Semantics
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 Bartholomew 

*b-greek archives July & August, A.Nyland/I.Larsen exchange. 

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