An Introduction to Linguistics for Students of Biblical Hebrew

This page is slowly under construction and revision, but I have left it public in case anyone has comments or questions. If so please e-mail me at: pbekins(at)fuse(dot)net.

1. Introduction. Linguistics is the discipline that studies language and languages. Language is fascinating because each speaker and listener has the potential for creating and understanding an unlimited number of utterances, but within a constrained system of grammar. For the native speaker this system is generally tacit. We pick it up by experience and do not have to think about grammar explicitly to form or comprehend a sentence.

It is often when we attempt to learn a second language, however, that we become aware of our own tacit grammar. Most students of the Bible are introduced to the formal study of language when learning biblical Greek and Hebrew. However, few of us have the time to study Linguistics in detail. Rather, we tend to pick up terms and ideas here and there. The result is often an unsophisticated and inconsistent approach which can potentially do more harm than good. Careful linguistic analysis can indeed offers a control for good exegesis, but too often the scientific sounding terminology is used as legitimation for bad exegesis.It is my goal here to give some introductory background to the basic disciplines of Linguistics for students of Greek and Hebrew and to provide bibliography for more advanced study.

2. An Overview of Linguistics. Generally Linguistics is divided into several sub-disciplines such as Phonetics, Phonology, Morphology, Syntax, Semantics, and Pragmatics. The discipline of Historical Linguistics is also pertinent for those studying ancient languages. Traditionally, Phonology, Morphology, and Syntax have been analyzed language at the sentence and clause levels. The cross-discipline Discourse Analysis (sometimes called Text-linguistics when applied to written texts) has arisen to analyze linguistic structures beyond the sentence level.

2.1 Phonetics and Phonology. Phonetics studies phones, the individual sound units used for speech, while Phonology studies how those sounds are patterned in any given language. There is a large, but finite, set of sounds used in speech from which a human language draws a subset. This subset is called the phonetic inventory of the language. While there seem to be some “universal” principles, individual languages also have their own rules for how these phones can be ordered to form valid combinations.

Morphology and Syntax

Semantics and Pragmatics

Historical Linguistics

Discourse Analysis

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