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Jan 6 / Steve Runge

Who cares about redundancy?

Life is complex and busy, right? Who needs more distractions? Who wants to read stuff that is unimportant, that doesn’t tell me anything new? If I already know something, why should I tolerate a writer who has the gall and disrespectful arrogance to make me read something that is redundant? Are you tracking with me here, can you feel the rage?????

I read a note in the NET version yesterday in Deut 9:25. Here is what it said:

The Hebrew text includes “when I prostrated myself.” Since this is redundant, it has been left untranslated.1

I love these guys and the valuable notes that they provide. However, it begs the question of whether redundant information is of any value. The answer can be somewhat complex, so I will attempt to simplify it for you. If the redundant information is coming from a middle schooler that is not your offspring, it’s okay to tune it out. If it is from document that is held up in a number of faith-communities as sacred, then I would give it a little attention.

Here’s the deal. Rarely will languages have one special device that only ever accomplishes one single task. Languages tend to be very efficient, doubling (or more) up on what something accomplishes in order to help you. Really, it is a help. The main problem is that we are typically only looking for one thing to be accomplished–semantic clarity. Our expectation first and foremost is that someone is telling me something because they didn’t think that I knew it. This is all well and good. This also explains the boredom or indignation that we sometimes feel when we hear or read something “old” that is not, well, new. This is especially the case if you are under30, my dear children. You ain’t got no time to slow down and enjoy the ride!

What about all of this “redundant” information, especially what we find in the Hebrew Bible. I will focus on one example for today. Class, today’s focus will be on relative clauses that modify the word “land” in Deuteronomy. Hang with me here, this is some cool stuff to impress your friends with!

Once some entity is introduced, in our case the “promised land” of Canaan that the Israelites are about to acquire, there is no further semantic need to refer to it using some extended expression like “the land that the Lord your God is giving you for an inheritance to possess” (Deut 25:19). So why do it? Does Moses, the writer, the incompetent Deuteronomistic editor (who was too stupid or afraid to delete redundancies) think that we are so dull that we can’t remember which “land” he is referring to? Does he think we are dolts? NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

This is where our “principle-o-the-day” comes in: If something is not needed for semantic reasons, then it must be doing something else. It’s like “if God closes a door, look for a window” only different. Personally, if God closes a door, I think it is better to wait than to break out, but I digress.

In the case of these 53 relative clauses modifying “land”, most of them are not semantically required. Curious what they might be doing? A couple observations are in order.

  • They are rarely repeated with the exact wording in successive order, they get changed up
  • The relative clauses are not restrictive (i.e. narrowing down which “land”), but add thematic information to the context
  • The redundant information relates to the broader theme under discussion in the context

So while some might attribute the changes in wording to “stylistic variation” or redaction, it seems pretty significant that the wording correlates to the local theme. It’s almost like the writer/editor wasn’t stupid after all, like he meant to do it. Weird, huh. You might even say it was inspired, even profitable for teaching and stuff like that.

I did a quick syntax search using Logos 4 and was quite easily able to find some nice examples of what I am talking about. Read through the PDF and take a look at the changes. If you have the time, read the broader context and look for correlations between the “extra, ought-to-be-deleted, I-already-knew-that” information and the local theme. You just might find some evidence of intentionality, maybe even a new thing to look for when you are reading.

Being a doctor (the kind who doesn’t really help people, like with medicine and stuff), I have heard it is important to theorize new things. That, and come up with new terminology to frustrate emeritus faculty members, but we won’t go there. I have done just such theorizing, trying to describe the process we go through as we process redundant information. There is essentially a fork in the road when one moves beyond the semantic function.  If the info is not needed for semantic reasons, then it will either accomplish thematic functions like that discussed above, or it will accomplish one of several forward-pointing or “cataphoric” functions.

If you want to learn more about this, again to impress your friends with cool language factoids, here is some suggested reading.

For thematic highlighting functions, see my JNSL article.

For the forward-pointing functions, I have two offerings. One paper was presented to the Biblical Greek Language and Linguistics section of SBL this year. It has a few things to say about whether Greek actually grammaticalizes tense in the indicative or not.

The other paper was presented in the Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew section at SBL. This is the first time I have made it available. All of the Hebrew cited comes with a translation highlighting the intended thing, so don’t be afraid to try reading it.

Happy New Year. I enjoyed my rest and am ready to get back to blogging again.

Ain’t grammar wonderful?

  1. Biblical Studies Press, The NET Bible First Edition (Biblical Studies Press, 2006). []

2 Comments

  1. Gary Simmons / Jan 11 2010

    Awesome-tastic!

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