Postponement and Defamiliarization in Biblical Hebrew Verse

Everybody has an ancient poetry itch. Here is your chance to scratch it.

Anybody in San Diego next November: I will be presenting my paper, “Constituent Postponement and Defamiliarization in Biblical Hebrew Verse,” in the Biblical Hebrew Poetry section at 2014 Annual Meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature


Here is the extract:

This paper investigates the peculiar varieties of word order commonly exhibited in the verbal clauses of Biblical Hebrew (BH) verse. The corpus of BH verse which makes up the sample set under investigation includes to Genesis 49, Exodus 15, Numbers 23-24, Deuteronomy 32 and 33, Judges 5, 2 Samuel 1, Isaiah 40-48, Habakkuk 3, Zephaniah 1-3, Zechariah 9, Psalms 1-25, 78, 106, and 107.  This corpus provides a body of verse that includes all or a large part of the corpora used in the three recent and significant analyses of BH verse:  O’Connor (1980), Rosenbaum (1997), and Lunn (2010). The corpus is designed to reflect a variety of biblical texts which represent diverse periods, genres, and subjects. Occurrences of constituent postponement were culled from this sample corpus, analyzed, categorized, and evaluated.  Eligible lines of verse were analyzed for particular postponement constructions, including verbal postponement (V-postponement), subject postponement (S-postponement), and object postponement (O-postponement).  Lines including verbal clauses with a lexical subject, lexical object, and/or prepositional, were eligible for V-postponement.  Likewise, lines with verbal clauses including a subject and object and/or a prepositional phrase (with a lexical noun), were eligible for S-postponement. Lines with verbal clause lines including an object and prepositional phrase (with a lexical noun) were eligible for O-postponement. The analysis of this corpus shows that postponement is not, by any measure, a norm in the poetry of the Bible.  While the presence of postponement is not overwhelming, it does show that 1 in 6 lines of verse exhibit a word order pattern that would be highly irregular in BH prose, and this finding supports the proposal that clauses BH verse evince a relaxed syntactic constriction in the area of word order. The prevalence of constituent postponement in BH verse can be understood as a form of “defamiliarization,” a concept described by Victor Shklovsky of the Russian Formalist school.  In this case, defamiliarization represents a modification of the normal and predictable process of numerical regulation of verse, and as such it works with and in contrast to the regulating features exhibited in verse.  To put it another way, the relaxation of syntactic constraints occurs as a natural part of the defamiliarizing tendency of verse, and it plays a complementary role to what O’Connor calls the increased syntactic constriction that is exhibited in the number of syntactic elements allowed in a line of BH verse. Therefore, constituent postponement should be understood as a function of defamiliarization common in BH verse that is triggered by and in concert with the other tropes that are common to the genre.  In this study, the credibility of the linguistic dating of the BH is assumed, though the recent wave of criticism directed toward historical linguistic study of BH is recognized.

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