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The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Approaches
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The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Approaches


Eisenbrauns 1999

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Thirty years after seminal studies by Francis I. Andersen and Jacob Hoftijzer, members of the 1996 SBL section on Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew gathered to reconsider the topic of the verbless clause in Hebrew. The results are published here, demonstrating the gains made in the interim and providing direction for future research.

Wilfred G. E. Watson writing in the Journal of Semitic Studies (Spring 2002) provides the following overview of The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew:

"The overall topics discussed are whether the verbless clause exists in Hebrew, the definition of nominal clauses and the linked topics of the copula and the status of the verb haya ('to be'). Also considered are such matters as ellipsis and whether the participle is verbal or nominal. In the main, the contributions deal with prose, but poetry is also discussed either overtly but very briefly (especially pp. 293 and 58, 105-6), or in passing (e.g., pp. 47-49, 135, 302, n.7). Indexes of topics, authors and biblical texts are supplied and there are almost no mistakes: 'ellipse' for 'ellipsis' (p. 135) and 'corpuses' for 'corpora' (p. 273). Here the contributions are listed under the main headings of the three sections.

"Basic Issues: 'Pivotal Issues in Analyzing the Verbless Clause', by the editor (pp. 3-17), provides a summary of the whole book by identifying the problems discussed. Principal among these, given the title of the collection, is the terminology to be adopted. Verbal clauses contain a verb, of course, and verbless clauses do not. Or so it would seem. However, while some scholars (e.g., A. Niccacci) consider clauses which contain a non-initial verb to be nominal (following the Arab grammarians), others restrict this definition to clauses without any verb at all (e.g., Gross). In fact, 'Is There Really a Compound Nominal Clause in Biblical Hebrew?', by Walter Gross (pp. 19-49) tackles this very problem. He concludes that the category of compound nominal clause, i.e., one which opens with a noun and continues with a finite verb, should be eliminated from Hebrew studies 'because it contributes nothing toward our understanding of the structure and function of Hebrew sentences' (p. 49). The conclusion reached in 'Are Nominal Clauses a Distinct Clausal Type?', same range of complement types as sentences that appear with the verb haya when it functions as a copula' (p 75).

"Syntactic Approaches: 'Word Order in the Verbless Clause: A Generative-Functional Approach', by Randall Buth (pp. 79-108), concludes that the 'underlying order in nominal clauses is Subject-Predicate', hence '[R]eading becomes a simple matter of interpreting pragmatically positioned material against the context' (p. 107). Also included are several references to intonation (esp. pp. 83, n. 10 and p 84, and n. 12, though evidently this is a matter for conjecture in Hebrew), and some suggestions for future research (pp. 106-7). In 'A Unified Analysis of Verbal and Verbless Clauses within Government-Binding Theory', by Vincent DeCaen (pp. 109-31), the theory is explained in (relatively) simple terms (pp. 115-23) and then applied to Hebrew. "Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Features in Identifying Subject and Predicate in Nominal Clauses', by Janet W. Dyk and Eep Talstra (pp. 133-85), has the aim of composing 'programs capable of parsing verbless clauses' (p. 184) and is rather more discursive, describing the parameters adopted and the parsing procedures used. A helpful summary is also provided (pp. 184-85). 'The Tripartite Nominal Clause Revisited', by Takamitsu Muraoka (pp. 185-213), first describes clauses of this type which comprise a third-person independent pronoun, a noun phrase and another phrase which may be nominal, adverbial or prepositional. These are then listed according to pattern and discussed in terms of the pronoun as copula, topicalization, prominence, casus pendens, congruence, occurrence and the function of the demonstrative pronoun ze. No summary is provided. 'Types and Functions of the Nominal Sentence', by Alviero Niccacci (pp. 215-48), is an attempt to demonstrate that the label 'verbless clause' is inadequate. He defines the nominal sentence in the following terms: 'Grammatically, only a sentence without a finite verb form (including a form of the verb haya) is nominal, but syntactically a sentence with a finite verb form in second position is also nominal because the verb plays the role of a noun' (p. 243, emphasis added).

"Semantic and Pragmatic Approaches: 'Relative Definiteness and the Verbless Clause', by Kirk E. Lowery (p. 251-72), involves discourse analysis, for which 'a database of a morphologic and syntactic description of the Hebrew Bible' (p. 252) is required and coding techniques to provide syntactic tags for verbless clauses. Hence '[t]he goal of this study is to arrive at an algorithmic way of determining the S[ubject] and P[redicate] of verbless clauses' (p. 262) for the book of Judges. 'Macrosyntactic Functions of Nominal Clauses Referring to Participants', by Lenart J. de Regt (pp. 273-96), shows that the description of such functions as given in W. Schneider, Grammatik des biblischen Hebraisch (Munich 1985) pp. 161-63 is correct. He concludes that these clauses 'occur especially for the purpose of introducing minor participants and beginning direct speech', but if providing background information, 'stand outside the chronological chain of events' (p. 296) and their function depends on how early they appear in a paragraph. 'Thematic Continuity and the Conditioning of the Word Order in Verbless Clauses', by E. J. Revell (pp. 297-319), deals with choice of clause in context and with the declarative clauses in Judges, Samuel and Kings. He concludes that 'word order is to a large extent conditioned by the desirability . . . of giving the prominence afforded by first position to the constituent representing the topic of the clause and also to the constituent that has the higher referentiality and therefore is best suited to maintaining thematic continuity' (p. 316). Finally, 'The Verbless Clause and Its Textual Function', by Ellen van Wolde (pp. 321-36), 'is based on the linguistic concepts of markedness/unmarkedness and grounding/saliency' (p. 321) and provides a heuristic model of this type of clause in biblical Hebrew in the form of a table (pp. 333-34).

"As the contributors are well aware, it is a continual challenge to keep up with progress in modern linguistics. We are grateful to them, then, in providing us with the results of their research, as applied to classical Hebrew."


  • Cynthia L. Miller, "Pivotal Issues in Analyzing the Verbless Clause"
  • Walter Gross, "Is There Really a Compound Nominal Clause in Biblical Hebrew"
  • Cameron Sinclair, "Are Nominal Clauses a Distinct Clausal Type?"
  • Randall Buth, "Word Order in the Verbless Clause: A Generative-Functional Approach"
  • Vincent DeCaen, "A Unified Analysis of Verbal and Verbless Clauses within Government-Binding Theory"
  • J. W. Dyk and E. Talstra, "Paradigmatic and Syntagmatic Features in Identifying Subject and Predicate in Nominal Clauses"
  • Takamitsu Muraoka, "The Tripartite Nominal Clause Revisited"
  • Alviero Niccacci, "Types and Functions of the Nominal Sentence"
  • Kirk E. Lowery, "Relative Definiteness and the Verbless Clause"
  • Lenart J. de Regt, "Macrosyntactic Functions of Nominal Clauses Referring to Participants"
  • E. J. Revell, "Thematic Continuity and the Conditioning of Word Order in Verbless Clauses"

Praise for the Print Edition

This volume deserves a place on the shelf of every Biblical Hebrew scholar.

—C. H. J. van der Merwe, University of Stellenbosch, Journal of Northwest Semitic Languages

This volume inaugurates a new series, Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic (LSAWS), focusing on linguistic approaches to the problems of ancient West Semitic, from the earliest texts to the rise of Islam. The articles are divided into three sections: section I: Basic Issues, section 2: Syntactic Approaches, and section 3: Semantic and Pragmatic Approaches. Miller's article succinctly outlines the problem of the verbal clause in Biblical Hebrew and discusses some of the most important secondary treatments during the final decades of the twentieth century (for example, Francis I. Andersen's The Hebrew Verbless Clause in the Pentateuch, JBLMS 14 [New York, 1970] and J. Hoftijzer's "The Nominal Clause Reconsidered," VT 23 [1973]: 446-510). She also defines certain fundamental linguistic terms, sometimes in conjunction with reference to positions argued by contributors to the volume. This volume is certainly an engaging one, with methodological and linguistic sophistication, and vigorous debate regarding the form and function of verbless clauses. The subject index of this volume is superb, and it also includes an index of biblical texts and modern authors. Finally, the quality of the articles and the absence of errors (typographical) in this volume clearly demonstrate Miller's editorial abilities and her judgment as a scholar. This volume is a valuable contribution to previous studies of Hebrew syntax and is an appropriate inaugural volume for this auspicious series.

—Christopher A. Rollston, Journal of NE Studies, April 2002

Product Details

  • Title: The Verbless Clause in Biblical Hebrew: Linguistic Approaches
  • Editor: Cynthia L. Miller
  • Series: Linguistic Studies in Ancient West Semitic (LSAWS)
  • Publisher: Eisenbrauns
  • Publication Date: 1999
  • Pages: 368

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