[b-hebrew] Re: Relevance Theory & Hebrew Semantics

Eduard C Hanganu eddhanganu at hotmail.com
Mon Aug 16 23:06:43 EDT 2004

Dear Clay:

I consider Sperber and Wilson’s (1986) Relevance Theory on a level with 
Whorf ‘s (1940) Hypothesis. While Whorf claimed that “language is a guide to 
‘social reality’and that societies lived ‘at the mercy of their languages,’ 
Sperber and Wilson look at context as a psychological construct based on an 
individual’s worldview and define relevance as the individual’s 
psychological relevance of a proposition to a context. Context is therefore 
user dependent, subjective and not objective, again dependent on a person's 
worldview and psychological makeup.

Fortunately, pragmatics is much more than Sperber and Wilson perceive to be. 
  I believe one cannot place their theory in the right perspective before 
reading Levinson’s (1995)“Pragmatics” and at least a book on Discourse 
Analysis like the one written by Brown and Yule (1993).

For an understanding of the relationship between text and context I also 
highly recommend Halliday and Hasan’s ( 1990) book entitled “Language, 
context and text: aspects of language in a social-semiotic perspective.” 
These are only a sample of books that can help make sense of the 
relationship between text, context and discourse fragment where the meaning 
of the semantic unit is encoded.

Personally I cannot see how Sperber and Wilson’s Relevance Theory could have 
a significant relevance (forgive the pun) in Biblical text analysis. As you 
mentioned, Sperber and Wilson define their relevance maxims in relation to 
utterances, not text. They may help, also, of course, in the understanding 
of text, but could not be determinative in the clarification of discourse 
meaning. I believe the main ‘tools’ in the discovery of the intended meaning 
of the Biblical writer begins with a good knowledge of the morphology and 
syntax of the text and continues with the understanding of the way meaning 
is encoded into text at the interface of the syntax and semantics of the 
text in relation to the co-text and context.

You mentioned something about the difficulty of  “reconstructing the 
contextual semantic domain of the verb CWR (Ex 32:4).” This sounds confusing 
to me. The notion of ‘semantic domain’ of a word is a lexical issue related 
to a word’s “sense” (which is context independent) and not a word’s 
“meaning”(which is context dependent). Establishing the “sense” of a word 
and its “semantic domain” would be no help in the establishment of the 
meaning of a word in a specific context. James Barr (1961) warned Biblical 
scholars in his book “The Semantics of Biblical Languages” that the effort 
to establish the meaning of a Biblical word through word studies was a 
serious fallacy and could lead to grave distortions of the message of the 

Recent application of linguistics in Biblical exegesis indicates that 
meaning resides in discourse and not in the etymology or morphology of a 
word or even in the syntax of a sentence but in the semantic unit of the 
discourse fragment. I believe we need to focus our efforts in this area when 
we look for the intended meaning of the authors of the books of the Bible.



From: "C. Stirling Bartholomew" <jacksonpollock at earthlink.net>
To: hebrew <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Subject: [b-hebrew] Relevance Theory & Hebrew Semantics
Date: Mon, 16 Aug 2004 09:19:00 -0700

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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