Sunday, March 02, 2014

Sapir-Whorf and Biblical Languages

If you're not familiar with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, now is the time to get acquainted. Actually you should feel sorry that Sapir and Whorf got laden with a view that is arguably not attributable to them at all. In essence, the SW-hypothesis states that language "shapes" (weak version) or "determines and limits" the scope of thought and cognition among speakers of that language.I would say that the majority of linguistic researchers are willing to accept a weak or very-weak version of SW-hypothesis, but virtually no one embraces a strong version, except for those outside the mainsteam of linguitics.

Which is why it's disappointing when you run across stronger version of Sapir-Whorf in grammars of Biblical Languages. Here below are some quotes from a recent introductory Hebrew grammar:

"This helps confirm that the ancient Hebrew mind thought primarily in terms of area rather than time. Similarly, the ancient Hebrew mind sees a verb as describing an action in spatial terms, rather than temporal terms."

"timing is purely a by-product of the spatial plane."


The problem is situated in the idea that "the ancient Hebrew mind" is bounded by its language. On the one hand I find the approach in this grammar very helpful. It rejects earlier tense-bound analyses of Hebrew verbs, as well as showing the problems in a purely aspectual approach. And it is true to say that a lot of temporal terms seem to derive from spatial terms. You see that in other languages as well. But it is another step to claim that Hebrew sees things spatially and that temporality is almost incidental. Talking about "the ancient Hebrew mind" further reinforces the idea that "thinking in Hebrew operates in different categories to English" to the point of non-relativity.

This isn't the first time I've come across this. You encounter it in some approaches to Greek as well. It's problematic because we don't believe the SW hypothesis, and we shouldn't encourage it in biblical studies because it is alienating the text in a way that isn't true. The text is plenty alien already! Let's not make it more so.

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