Sociolinguistics: A Key to the Typology and the Social Background of Biblical Hebrew

Article excerpt

The methods of sociolinguistics enable us to view the large-scale variation in Biblical Hebrew in the light of the interaction between language and society, and thus to relate linguistic phenomena to a certain socio-cultural and sociopolitical context. One of the important aspects of sociolinguistic analysis is the cross-linguistic and cross-cultural variation between oral and written language (Chafe, Halliday). Thus we attempt the sociolinguistic characterization of three strata of biblical narrative: (1) corpus A--Achaemenid period (Late Biblical Hebrew, including the final stages of the Babylonian period); (2) corpus B--late Judean monarchy (seventh, early sixth century, including the inception of the Babylonian period); (3) corpus C--texts that are not explicitly related to periods A or B.

An example for the relationship between linguistic features and the sociopolitical situation is provided by the Aramaic borrowings in corpus A (Ezra, Nehemiah, Chronicles, and Esther). These borrowings pertain to a large extent to the scribal/administrative register, and thus represent the provincial chancery, where Aramaic was the official language. The imprint of the scribal chancery likewise comes to the fore in the literary style of this corpus. Like the Aramaic contracts and epistolography of the Achaemenid period, these texts stand out by the frequency of long noun groups, elaborate sentence structures and often highly complex hypotaxis. This characterization is confirmed by syntactic-stylistic analysis of a series of passages describing (1) public festivities/festive meals; (2) anointment and public honor; and (3) battles. In spite of the large variety in topic, rhetorical structure, and expressivity, the style of all passages is to a large extent characterized by the same features. These passages embody the elaborate, writerly style, also exemplified by prophetic discourse of the period (Haggai and Zachariah). The writerly style also dominates corpus B, representing the Judean royal chancery (e.g., Deuteronomy, Joshua and Kings, Jeremiah History, and such epigraphic texts as the Siloam inscription, and the documents from Lachish and Arad).

A totally different style presents itself in many segments of corpus C (e.g., most narratives in the Abraham and Jacob cycles, large segments in the Samuel-Saul-David narratives, and the Elijah-Elisha cycles). Most narratives in these cycles are characterized by a marked preference for short clauses, and a clear disinclination to long noun groups and hypotaxis. These features are cross-culturally characteristic of spontaneous spoken discourse (Chafe, Halliday), and thus indicate a substrate of oral narrative. This characterization is confirmed by a comparative analysis of passages in corpus C concerning (1) public festivities/festive meals; (2) anointment and public honor; and (3) battles. Highly significant differences exist between the figures for this set of passages and those for the corresponding set from corpus A.

From a cultural point of view, writing is a marginal activity in the texts of corpus C, unlike corpora A and B. In corpus C the memorialization typically is oral and ceremonial rather than documentary. Composition of literary texts is referred to as "speaking." Accordingly, we conclude that these tales were written or put into writing in a time of restricted literacy and a predominantly oral literature, in a society in which literary expertise was that of oral poetry and narrative. Hence the tales in this corpus represent Israelite society before the rise of the royal bureaucracy. Comparison with the Mesha inscription indicates a period from late tenth or early ninth until early eighth century B.C.E.


The characterization and periodization of Biblical Hebrew demand a societal and cultural perspective. (1) Language is the principal means of communication between the individual and his social environment and a major tool for conveying sociocultural information. …