The Language of Politeness in Ancient Hebrew Letters

By Thomas, Benjamin | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

The Language of Politeness in Ancient Hebrew Letters


Thomas, Benjamin, Hebrew Studies Journal


To date, one contemplating the relationship of sociolinguistics to extrabiblical Hebrew encounters a paucity of recent ideas on the matter. This void is understandable because we possess so few Hebrew inscriptions. Furthermore, we cannot avail ourselves of native speakers so as to inquire how they perceive the social implications of their speech. Nevertheless, one cannot fail to realize the potential of studying Hebrew inscriptions to develop and test sociolinguistic theories. This paper is one such attempt to remedy the silence on the subject by discussing the phenomenon of linguistic politeness as observed in early Hebrew epistolary texts.

Since the majority of coherent inscriptions are made up of letters, it is by taking into account this specific mode of epistolary correspondence that one has the advantage to gain new insight into the language of politeness as construed in ancient Hebrew. Posed as a question, one may ask, "How do letters comprise unique incarnations of politeness behavior?" Letters, in comparison to literary documents, are more immediately bound to the circumstances and events of their social milieu. The sender of a letter may be reporting the nature of events which occurred only days ago (or even less than a day ago as in the case of some of the Lachish Letters). Therefore, inasmuch as we are able to interpret them adequately, letters are direct vistas into society, unmediated by the alloying voices and hands of past literary tradents. However large the textual corpus of the Hebrew Bible may be, situating its use of language within its immediate social environs is impeded by the reality that it has been passed down to us through tradition.

Furthermore, the sociolinguistic value of letters is observed in their deliberative quality. That is to say, a sender must exercise a high degree of intentionality in writing and sending a letter. This is especially true in the ancient world, where several individuals (e.g., counselors, scribes, messengers, even audiences) could play a role in the construction and delivery of a message. In this respect, letters are distinct from spoken conversation which is, to a certain degree, less deliberate, even spontaneous. Though detecting intentionality in spoken language remains difficult for most researchers who have developed linguistic theories of politeness, the payback of analyzing letters is that they provide a methodological control for analysis. Here, one may truly speak of "politeness strategies." (1)

Since letters provide a direct vista into their immediate cultural environs, the culture in which the document is assembled has import for the language of politeness and vice-versa, the language of politeness for the culture. One may stress that the language of politeness serves to maintain the principles of the culture while simultaneously redefining (even manipulating) what may be regarded as appropriate to that culture. In recent literature, discussions of politeness attempt to discern whether a given culture is characterized by individualism or by collectivism. However one categorizes a society on an individual-collective scale affects how one may speak of politeness. As will be seen, the results of this study support the notion that Israelite culture was at least a moderately collective society, that is, that adherence to the customs of the larger group(s) (heteronomy) was valued over individualistic creative expression (autonomy).(2) "Moderns demand autonomy. In the Old Testament this demand is confronted with the equally insistent demands of traditional society, where the goals of a 'permeable' individual are characteristically subordinated to those of the group." (3)

Our analysis will take the following course: an argument will be made claiming that the central linguistic device for upholding social institutions (i.e., what was socially appropriate or polite) in the context of ancient Israelite letter writing was the praescriptio. …

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