Some Preliminary Results

My biggest fear for my dissertation was to get a year into the project and find that the data does not support my hypothesis at all. Thankfully, it seems like that will not be the case. After some preliminary research, everything seems to be lining up quite nicely.

As you may recall, I am interested in definiteness, information structure, and the particle את in BH. Largely following Christopher Lyons, I have described definiteness as a semantic and pragmatic category that has to do with identifiability. As I detailed here, identifiability can be considered a scalar which Ellen Prince has described with a four-part scale:

evoked > unused > inferrable > new

The identifiability of a referent can be encoded by the use of pronouns, proper nouns, and determiners, which can be arranged into an implicational hierarchy:

pronoun > proper noun > definite NP > indefinite NP

Identifiability especially interacts with grammar in the expression of subjects and objects, and the object marker את is an interesting example. Scholars have long noted that the particle את is used with objects that can be considered definite, but beyond this, its distribution has been perplexing. As I mentioned in the first post cited above, however, את is a very typical example of the phenomenon termed differential object marking. In DOM languages the frequency of marking is generally tied to the parameters of animacy and definiteness. Subjects tend to be high in animacy and definiteness, thus the thinking is that object marking is motivated by the desire to distinguish more subject-like objects.

There seems to be a general correlation of את-marking with the implicational hierarchy listed above. Pronouns are obligatorily marked in BH, and in his dissertation on valency, Michael Malessa found that proper nouns were marked 97% of the time. Further, while definite objects where marked 73% of the time, those with human and animate referents were marked 90% and 83% respectively, thus there was an obvious effect of animacy on marking. Malessa, however, did not explore the impact of identifiability on marking.

In my preliminary study, I began by randomly pulling 650 finite verbs from the corpus of SBH. From these, I whittled down a group of 291 simple mono-transitive clauses (no compound objects). Pulling out the proper nouns, I had the following results:

Identifiability Animacy et no et total %
evoked animate 25 1 26 0.96
evoked inanimate 41 7 49 0.84
unused or inferrable animate 16 3 19 0.84
unused or inferrable inanimate 57 33 91 0.63
Totals: 139 44 185 0.75

The sample size is small at this point, but the results are in-line with what I would expect. Objects that are most topic-worthy, being both animate and evoked, are marked 96% of the time. Objects that are high in animacy but low in identifiability (or vice-versa) are marked about 84% of the time, while objects low in both identifiability and animacy are marked only 63% of the time. Overall, definite noun phrases were marked 75% of the time as objects, similar to Malessa’s finding of 73%.

Now I need to scale up the data and investigate some of the other interesting relationships. I will also be investigating the more complex cases such as di-transitive verbs, compound objects, and the use of את with the subject of passives.


Malessa, Michael. Untersuchungen Zur Verbalen Valenz Im Biblischen Hebräisch. Assen: Van Gorcum, 2006.

Explore posts in the same categories: Definiteness

10 Comments on “Some Preliminary Results”

  1. Jennifer Bekins Says:

    As I said when you told me this on Friday – “Yea!”

  2. Chip Says:

    I look forward to seeing what you come up with for the את use with Niphal verbs.

  3. Carl Says:

    Sounds like you are a man on fire, Pete! Good job and keep going!

  4. David Kummerow Says:

    Hi Peter,

    I just came across the following reference which should appeal to you if you haven’t yet seen it.

    Malchukov, Andrej L. and Peter de Swart. “Differential case marking and actancy variation.” Pages 339-356 in The Oxford handbook of case. Edited by A. Malchukov and A. Spencer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009.

    • Peter Bekins Says:

      Yes, I saw that but the book seems to be too new and I haven’t been able to find it in the library system yet. I read some of it on Google books.


  5. David Kummerow Says:

    Check out this thesis too which interacts with issues of identifiablity:

  6. Phil Sumpter Says:

    Hi Pete,

    thank you so much for this fascinating thread! I hope it’s OK if I pose a few questions, particularly as they relate to whatever semantic implications one can draw from the „determindness“ of a noun.

    My first question is this:

    I recently read in A.B. Ernst’s Kurze Grammatik that a Hebrew noun can never be doubly determined. Thus, יהוה צְבָאוֹת probably a short version of יהוה אלהי הצבאות. Do you agree with this?

    I’m interested because I’m trying to figure out the meaning of the term תֵּבֵל (the World, Landmass, Earth-Disk; particularly in Ps 24:1). Most dictionaries and grammars claim that this word is intrinsically determined, i.e. it is a proper noun (e.g. Waltke/O’Connor; Davidson; P. Meyer). Support for this is that it never takes the article, even when paralleled to a definite noun (like הארץ in Ps 24:1), nor a suffix. It is always conceived of as a fixed whole which cannot be differentiated into smaller units. However, if it is intrinsically determined, then there is one verse which conflicts with Ernst’s axiom above: Prov 8:31. Here we find בְּתֵבֵל אַרְצוֹ, our term in a construct relation with another definite noun. We would thus have double determination. None of the grammars which discuss תֵּבֵל mention this fact. Can it still be a proper noun?

    A further question: what would be the significance of it being a proper noun? Waltke/O’Connor say that תֵּבֵל was originally a common noun (landmass, earth) which then became a proper noun. But what is the semantic (and thus interpretative) significance of this shift? Why does that kind of thing happen and so what?

    One though I came up with is that in becoming a proper noun it is being tagged as being somehow more semantically freighted, i.e. by „uniquely referring“ a more dense and integrated constellation of ideas is being referred to, such as thoughts of cosmology and perhaps soteriology. Could such as development within the discourse of ancient Israel have led this particular term becoming „proper“? Or could it have other reasons? It seems to me that a similar phenomenon might be the proper noun שְׁאוֹל, or for Western Heaven with a capital „H“.

    If this is the case, I find it interesting that in Hebrew there is a proper noun for „earth“ and for „underworld“ but not for heaven!

    My main task is to exegete Ps 24 and thus say what תֵּבֵל contributes to the context. To summarize my main concern and question: Can the status of תֵּבֵל as a „proper noun“ (if that is the case) justifies the assumption that it is semantically freighted(i.e. implies a whole cosmology/soteriology) in a way that it wouldn’t be if it were just a common noun simply refering to „land mass“? (In context תֵּבֵל is paralleled by הארץ, which is determined and also refers to the whole world. You say in a post that such such a „first-mention definite noun phrases“ is like a proper noun. This would be supported by this context. Nevertheless, in Ps 24:1 it would seem that הארץ as similar to a proper noun is still not as semantically freighted (or paricular) as תֵּבֵל as a proper noun).

    • Peter Bekins Says:


      This relates to the issue of ליהוה ולאשרתה. It is usually assumed that a proper noun cannot be in a bound relationship or take a suffix because by definition it already has a unique referent. I don’t really agree. Usually a bare proper name has a unique referent that is known to the hearer; however, there are certainly cases where several referents share the same name, in which case the proper name can be further specified. For instance, there could have been several local deities named אשרה like there were multiple Ishtars. Interestingly, as a term of affection, I used to call my son, “My Henry” when he was younger.

      As for תבל ארצו, I suppose this would suggest the possibility that the author could conceive of another ארץ with another תבל, which is interesting.

      Like most things, you can think of proper-common nouns as a continuum. The move from common toward proper noun can be called “proprification” and just has to do with fixing the referent of a definite description. A proper noun is usually defined as an NP that has the same referent in all possible worlds. This can happen temporarily within a discourse, for instance, if a character is introduced as having a red beard at one point and then the author begins to refer to him as “Red Beard”. If something is unique or particularly prominent in a speech community, the reference can become fixed as well like the use of הנהר for the Euphrates. The difference here is that נהר remains a common noun that can be used to describe other rivers.

      Does תבל as a proper noun imply anything special? This is really the question of what kind of frame תבל invokes when mentioned, similar to what van Wolde discusses when she describes words as “tips of encyclopedic icebergs.” I don’t know if the proper/common noun distinction is as important for this. I suppose perhaps you could ask whether “proprification” (I love using that world) has restricted תבל to a cosmological framework and excluded its more general use as “landmass”.


  7. Phil Sumpter Says:


    thanks for these thoughts, you’ve really helped me here. The whole concept of a continuum of “proprification” (you’re right, a great word!) has helped me think about the kind of parallelism involved in Ps 24:1 and the semantic implications that may have.

    I agree with you that my concern about the world evoked by the term is primarily an issue of “frame semantics.” In this case תבל would evoke cosmology anyway, whether definite or not. It still seems logical/likely to me, however, that given the degree by which the referent is fixed תבל can refer to a tighter knit constellation of ideas than הארץ, even in its position as “first mention.”

    It did occur to me that in English one can “double determine” a noun. Just think of the CNN advert: “This is my South Africa.”

    Going back to the יהוה צבאות example. If יהוה is in a construct relation here (in Amos 9:5 we even have הַצּבאות), would I be right in thinking that this would imply that the author could conceive of another יהוה, a יהוה that is not “of the hosts” (whatever that means)?

    If that were the case, then the implications are interesting. The title could be polemical, i.e. this יהוה is the true one and not another. Or it could just be “theological,” in the sense that יהוה is understood in terms of various attributes.

  8. Phil Sumpter Says:

    A bit like “The Madonna of Loreto.”

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