Chomsky's Separation of Syntax and Semantics
Washburn, David L., Hebrew Studies Journal
From the time that Noam Chomsky began to popularize his transformational approach to grammar, he and those who followed him insisted on a strict separation between syntactic questions and those involving semantics. (2) Chomsky argued that the two are essentially separate realms and should be examined separately. Syntax involves structure of sentences, whereas semantics involves meaning. (3)
Current approaches to Hebrew grammar do not separate the two. In this paper I would like to explore what sorts of conclusions we may reach in Hebrew if we do separate them. As will be shown, keeping syntax separate from semantics can have far-reaching consequences for Hebrew grammar, especially our understanding of the verbal system.
This paper will focus on a single feature of that verbal system: the socalled imperfect with waw-consecutive (WP). (4) Specifically, it will show that, while current classifications of the WP may often be correct in a semantic sense or within certain semantic/pragmatic contexts, they do not take a truly syntactic approach. When we isolate the syntactic force of the WP, we discover that it carries the force of a simple declarative sentence, and this force provides a unifying factor for what appear at first to be divergent, sometimes mutually exclusive usages.
No attempt will be made to describe transformational generative grammar (TG) in detail. This paper will begin with certain assumptions based on TG, including the following:
1) Syntax is autonomous from other components of a speaker's mental grammar;
2) Syntax begins with a basic set of phrase structure rules and proceeds to a transformational component mat performs certain movement operations on the output of the phrase structure rules;
3) A speaker's mental grammar includes a deep level and a surface level (this is greatly oversimplified, but the details need not concern us at this point);
4) Phrase structures based on the subcategorization frames of individual words are a function of the speaker's mental lexicon, not of the syntactic component proper. (5)
Hebrew grammars generally assume the prevailing view that the tenses in Hebrew express various aspects, or types of action. But in order to maintain such a view, we must give each "aspect" a rather broad definition. For example, the second-year grammar by Waltke and O'Connor calls the WP "perfective" and "subordinate." "Perfective" suggests completed action viewed as a whole, that is, a perfective statement would say "It happened," viewing the overall event from start to finish, whether that event is the twenty year reign of a king or the blink of an eye. The problem is, in order to maintain this view, they must include subcategories such as "persistent perfective" and "indefinite perfective," (6) which are nebulous at best. Sometimes it is difficult to see how an example fits the idea "perfective" at all; for example, Josh 5:9 reads "So that place has been called [WP] Gilgal to this very day" (emphasis mine). A surface reading of this suggests that the force of the verb carries over into the statement "to this very day," which seems to rule out a perfective force. (7)
Both Hopper and Rafferty show, using several languages, that aspect is at its heart a semantic/pragmatic, not a syntactic, phenomenon. (8) Joiion essentially admits this: "Certains verbes ont par eux-memes l'aspect instantane" ou l'aspect duratif.... Certains verbes peuvent avoir l'un ou l'autre aspect selon les nuances du sens et selon les circonstances." (9) That is, their aspect is based on the semantics of the word in question and on the surrounding context, not on the syntactic form of the verb.
This question is crucial for exegesis, as well as for discourse study. The WP is the single most prevalent construction in the Hebrew Bible. If we misunderstand it, such a mistake will throw off all of our study and lead us into a wilderness of our own creation. This is where Chomsky's separation comes into play.
No view currently presented separates syntax and semantics, and this failure affects our understanding of Hebrew grammar in several areas. For example, Jouon detailed several categories of usage of the WP, but all are conditioned on the semantics of the verbs involved. (10) Givon went so far as to use the semantics of a relative clause to try to explain a feature of the suffixed form. (11)
Nor is this problem limited to biblical Hebrew expositors: Lloyd Anderson sought to explain the aspect feature of some uses of the English perfect, but all his examples are contingent on the semantic range of the verbs used, and not necessarily on the perfect construction. That is, each of the verbs in the situation in which it is found appears to be marked to use the perfect form in that situation. This has no bearing at all on the "meaning" of the perfect itself, and amounts to overlapping categories in an unproductive way. (12)
Chomsky showed, from Syntactic Structures onward, that the two fields must be kept separate. Since then he and his colleagues have softened this stance somewhat, allowing for "semantically conditioned" selectional restrictions in the lexicon. For example, he suggests that "the structures of formal grammar are generated independently, and ... these structures are associated with semantic interpretations by principles and rules of a broader semiotic theory." (13) It is safe to say, however, that modern generative grammar research has shown that the two disciplines must be kept essentially distinct. (14)
This separation has the potential to redefine the way we understand Hebrew grammar. For example, the appeal to such notions as "persistent perfective" and other confusing terms seems necessary to explain the occurrence of a WP form of a stative verb. A generative approach says, first see how the sentence is built and what the rules are that condition its structure, then search out the semantics of it based on the results of that investigation. Thus, current approaches amount to putting the cart before the horse. (15)
For example, Niccacci makes a distinction between uses of suffixed forms in narrative (these are "antecedent" or "circumstantial") and in discourse (these are the main stream of information). (16) But the reasons for this distinction are semantic; it is based on the fact that certain features that seem to stand out in discourse seem to be circumstantial in narrative. His analysis may, in fact, be correct, but we cannot make such a distinction at the syntactic level. We must appeal to the semantics of the clauses involved and what they are saying in relation to each other's semantic content. Niccacci in effect admits this: "Each case has to be judged on its own merits from literary criteria and the meaning of the text." (17) This is semantics, as he agrees later: "I do not think there are morphological or syntactical criteria for determining which of the five functions indicated in the previous paragraph the WAW-x-QATAL construction can at times take on. The only criterion is semantic: context and meaning." (18) Again, he may be correct in this semantic judgment, but such an approach takes us into the realm of semantic forces of individual verbs and ultimately can tell us little or nothing about the syntax of the WP in a more generalized sense.
This does not mean that semantic questions are unimportant. If we are to understand the Scriptures, we must determine both what the words mean and how they are put together to form propositions. But the separation does mean mat there is a definite order to our inquiry: when we encounter [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]. for example, we will begin by examining the structure of the sentence and those around it; we will not begin by saying "Perfective aspect is difficult to reconcile with a verb that describes an indefinitely-long process such as seeing, therefore the force of the verb must be such-and-such." (19) We must seek a truly syntactic description of the phenomena we encounter before we step into the world of semantics. (20)…
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Publication information: Article title: Chomsky's Separation of Syntax and Semantics. Contributors: Washburn, David L. - Author. Journal title: Hebrew Studies Journal. Volume: 35. Publication date: Annual 1994. Page number: 27+. © 2008 National Association of Professors of Hebrew. COPYRIGHT 1994 Gale Group.
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