Cotrozzi, Stefano. Expect the Unexpected: Aspects of Pragmatic Foregrounding in Old Testament Narratives. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 510. New York: T&T Clark, 2010.

I noticed this book on the shelf when browsing the library last week, and was intrigued by the topic as I spent some time a while ago looking at the ideas of foregrounding and backgrounding in relation to certain discourse approaches to the verb in biblical Hebrew. While he discusses these, Cotrozzi is ultimately interested in a slightly different concept of foregrounding.

The theories of Schneider, Niccacci, Talstra, etc are based largely on Weinrich and are really interested in a clause-level phenomenon which they attempt to relate to the tense-form of the main verb. In this approach, a clause is foregrounded if it is considered to encode a happening which is of major importance to the storyline (wayyiqtol clauses in Hebrew narrative), while backgrounded clauses are those which narrate subsidiary events.  Foregrounded clauses have also been described as those events which display temporal succession while backgrounded clauses break the sequence. Lastly, main clauses can be considered foreground, while subordinate clauses are usually background. None of these approaches, however, are without exceptions.

The other concept of foregrounding has to do with the salience or importance of specific information in the narrative, i.e. not just clauses narrating events but larger chunks of discourse or even specific words. Cotrozzi makes a helpful distinction between structural foregrounding, dealing with the relation of a clause to the main storyline as above, and pragmatic foregrounding, which is the concern of the thesis.

Pragmatic foregrounding works on the principle of defamiliarization whereby an author highlights information by deviating from a norm or convention. Cotrozzi introduces schema theory to describe  the way in which we organize information cognitively into generic knowledge structures. An author can then exploit these structures to highlight salient information in a story. For instance, Cotrozzi gives the example of the burning bush:

‏וַיַּ֗רְא וְהִנֵּ֤ה הַסְּנֶה֙ בֹּעֵ֣ר בָּאֵ֔שׁ וְהַסְּנֶ֖ה אֵינֶ֥נּוּ אֻכָּֽל Ex 3:2d

He looked and hey! the bush was burning, but the bush was not consumed!

Here, we would normally expect a bush on fire to burn up. The fact that it does not burn is important for the storyline since it now sets up the expectation of divine encounter. Notice also the use of הנה, the participle בער, and the negative copula אין‭ ‬for this foregrounded clause (as opposed to wayyiqtol).

The final chapters of the book take a bit of a turn to focus on the possible use of yiqtol and qotel as historic presents in biblical Hebrew. In languages that use the historic present, it seems to function pragmatically as an evaluative device giving prominence to events that the narrator considers particularly important. It often occurs at climactic points accompanied by phrases such as suddenly, all at once, etc. Cotrozzi, however, is not confident of such a use in biblical Hebrew, finding that the examples of yiqtol and qotel do not fit the cross-linguistic pattern of use of the historical present.

How, you may ask, does this view of foregrounding as deviation from a norm differ from the traditional and oft-derided “emphasis”? Well, the cognitive linguistic framework does provide more precision in identifying such deviation, but we are still left with some of the same problems of how to determine what is real deviation and what is mere variation. What exactly would an ancient reader would have been expecting? Still, I think Cotrozzi’s work makes some valuable steps in the right direction and the literature review on foregrounding is very helpful.

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One Comment on “Cotrozzi, Stefano. Expect the Unexpected: Aspects of Pragmatic Foregrounding in Old Testament Narratives. Library of Hebrew Bible/Old Testament Studies 510. New York: T&T Clark, 2010.”

  1. Terry L Eves Says:

    Thank you for this brief review. It wasn’t even on my radar. I just ordered the book.


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