[b-hebrew] Relevance Theory & Hebrew Semantics

Eduard C Hanganu eddhanganu at hotmail.com
Wed Aug 18 22:40:38 EDT 2004

Dear Peter:

You state:

"But I would have severe problems with any hypothesis that the Hebrew Bible 
contains (except perhaps very rarely e.g. Isaiah 28:10,13) deliberately 
nonsensical passages."

Indeed, the fact that sometimes we do not see cohesion in a discourse 
fragment doesn't mean that the fragment lacks it. A simple possibility is 
that we lack the necessary background for the decoding of the meaning of the 
passage, or that we did not include a sufficiently large context in our 
search to rezolve the "puzzle." To even hypothesize that the Bible would 
contain "nonsensical passages" would also mean to deny its Divine origin, to 
affirm that God did not intend to communicate with us when he prompted the 
Biblical writers to express His mind in written form.

You mention Isaiah 28:10,13 as an example of a "deliberately nonsensical 
passage." How did you  reach such a conclusion? In most English translations 
this passage makes rather good sense, the way I understand it. What is your 
reading of this text?

I mentioned before the common confusion between the "sense" of a word ( a 
lexical concept, or its definition which is context independent) and the 
word's "meaning" ( which is context dependent to such a degree that 
sometimes no dictionary "sense" can be applied to the specific word in the 
specific context. When we talk about "hapax" words the matter becomes 
evident, because the only way we can understand the meaning of the such 
words for which we do not have any established use is to allow the context 
to define their use. Such circumstances could explain why some discourse 
fragments do not "make sense" to us: we may be bound by certain "established 
senses" of some words to such a degree that the application of those 
"senses" to the passage produces a  nonsensical "jumble" and not a message. 
We need then to return to the discourse fragment bias free and allow the 
text to define the meaning of the words in that specific context until the 
meaning of the passage becomes clear.


From: Peter Kirk <peterkirk at qaya.org>
To: "C. Stirling Bartholomew" <jacksonpollock at earthlink.net>
CC: b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] Relevance Theory & Hebrew Semantics
Date: Wed, 18 Aug 2004 14:08:30 +0100

On 18/08/2004 02:51, C. Stirling Bartholomew wrote:

>When I talk about a break down in semantic cohesion I am referring to a
>situation where the **lexical** semantic values assigned to the low level
>constituents in a discourse segment do not work together coherently. The
>text analyst is tempted in a situation like this to look at alternatives to
>these assignments in order to resolve the problem and in some cases we end
>up with a forced fit; a reading where dubious semantic values are used with
>less than adequate justification because the analyst is compelled to find a
>semanticly cohesive text.
>I see this happening all the time.

And surely this is a perfectly correct method. If we assume that a discourse 
unit is intended to make sense (i.e. it is not a random collection of words, 
or the result of textual corruption, or a deliberately constructed example 
of your "Highly cohesive discourse segments which didn't make any sense at 
all"), we must assume that words which have ranges of meaning, multiple 
senses etc are used with senses that fit the context in the discourse, even 
if these are in fact very rare senses of those words. I accept that some 
interpreters do give forced interpretations, perhaps because in fact there 
is textual corruption etc, or because they are unaware of (or for other 
reasons unwilling to accept) alternative interpretations which do make sense 
in the context. And in a language like Hebrew many common words may have 
rare senses of which we now have no clear surviving evidence, and as a 
result we are left guessing in some passages. But, let me repeat, just 
because we cannot now reconstruct the semantic cohesion of some passages, 
that doesn't mean there wasn't any.

>Discourse cohesion is something that can be attained somewhat independent 
>semantic content. You can have a cohesive discourse segment as defined by
>Halliday and Hasan which has no coherent meaning. ...

Yes, such nonsense texts can be constructed. But I would have severe 
problems with any hypothesis that the Hebrew Bible contains (except perhaps 
very rarely e.g. Isaiah 28:10,13) deliberately nonsensical passages.

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

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