Polak, Frank, “Style is More than the Person: Sociolinguistics, Literary Culture and the Distinction between Written and Oral Narrative,” Pages 38-103 in Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology. Edited by Ian Young. London: T&T Clark, 2003.

In this paper, Polak applies studies on the differences between spoken and written language to compare the early narratives, such as the patriarchal narratives in Genesis and the Saul-David cycle, to the later narratives in Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther. In general, the latter narratives prefer “intricate sentence constructions, long noun groups, and subordinated clauses,” reflecting features of written language, while the former tend toward “short, simple clauses in parataxis,” reflecting spoken language. Polak terms the first style “complex-nominal” and the second “rhythmic-verbal”. 

For instance, the speech of the wise woman from Tekoa in 2 Sam 14:5b-7a is characterized by a sequence of short independent clauses. These clauses largely have only a single argument (defined as either an explicit subject, object, modifier, etc) and there are very few multi-word noun phrases. Since this women is characterized as wise and she is addressing a king, Polak suggests that her speech is representative of fine spoken language (ie, the short clauses are not the result of a lack of competency on her part. 

In contrast, Dt 9:8-11 gives an example of the “complex-nominal” style. Here only four clauses contain a single argument. There are many dependent and subordinate clauses, as well as lengthy multi-word noun groups including כָל־הַדְּבָרִ֡ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּר֩ יְהוָ֨ה עִמָּכֶ֥ם בָּהָ֛ר מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵ֖שׁ בְּי֥וֹם הַקָּהָֽל (v 10) where the noun phrase כָל־הַדְּבָרִ֡ים is expanded by a complex relative clause which itself includes three adverbial phrases.    

This contrast between spoken and written language follows the cross-linguistic analysis which has found that written discourse generally prefers long noun groups, two or more arguments including a high frequency of prepositional phrases and modifiers, subordination including participial phrases and indirect discourse, and complex subordination. This suggests that texts in this  “complex-nominal” style are at home in a professional scribal culture, much like what is known from the Persian period. On the other hand, those in the “rhythmic-verbal” style have their roots in oral narrative.

Explore posts in the same categories: Language Contact, Polak, Frank

2 Comments on “Polak, Frank, “Style is More than the Person: Sociolinguistics, Literary Culture and the Distinction between Written and Oral Narrative,” Pages 38-103 in Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology. Edited by Ian Young. London: T&T Clark, 2003.”

  1. Andrew C Says:

    This sounds fairly similar to his paper published in the 2006 issue of Hebrew Studies, at least in terms of his clause analysis, noting that oral discourse tends to avoid subordination, etc., whereas written discourse does utilize more complex clausal structures. Have you read the HS article? If so, do the two articles more or less argue the same thesis?

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    I haven’t read the Hebrew Studies paper, but at the beginning of this one he did mention that it is part of a larger research program, so I assume he is working with the same basic premise. I would be interested to see what he has added in the new paper.


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