Have you heard someone say, “It’s just a matter of semantics, isn’t?” or “We are just talking semantics, aren’t we?” Yes, it is a matter of semantics, and why yes, it is all a matter of semantics. But whether just is a fitting adverb to use – well this is something we need to think about, this is semantics, and by golly semantics can cost a lot.
I say semantics can cost a lot because you might not have realised that in the years after the 2001 attack on the New York twin towers, legal experts and insurance companies held a legal debate about the semantics of a particular word “event.” You see, one side was arguing that event encompassed both planes crashing into the Towers, whereas the other side was arguing that “Event” meant a singular plane crashing into one building–hence, two events. The difference in semantics was 3.5 billion dollars. So, yes, semantics matter and yes, it is all a matter of semantics (Pinker 2007).
In recent years, linguistic scholars and cognitive scientists have provided a wealth of research on semantics. As it goes, however, the field of biblical studies normally tracks behind cutting edge linguistic research—some say by 25 years but in this case we might could even say 100 years. Which is really quite odd actually, when you think about how our time as scholars of ancient texts is likely 90% spent on language … oops, “texts” if you will. For some us, it doesn’t cost us 3.5 billion dollars, but rather a fraction of it–unless you are lucky and have your shiny PhD Diploma hanging on your office wall for the cost of the frame.
In the of world Hebrew Lexicography, there does not exist one lexicon that is written based on the insights of cutting edge semantic analysis. It is for this reason, when I present a paper that is fundamentally about a semantic issue—ahem, textual issue, sorry, semantics matter—I spend perhaps about five minutes discussing frame semantics. What is frame semantics?
A leading figure in frame semantic research, Charles Fillmore contrasts frame semantics with the antiquated semantic methodologies of the past by saying,
Semantic theories founded on the notion of cognitive frames or knowledge schemata, by contrast, approach the description of lexical meaning in a quite different way [than tradition lexicography]. In such theories, a word’s meaning can be understood only with reference to a structured background of experience, beliefs, or practices, constituting a kind of conceptual prerequisite for understanding the meaning. Speakers can be said to know the meaning of the word only by first understanding the background frames that motivate the concept that the word encodes. Within such an approach, words or word senses are not related to each other directly, word to word, but only by way of their links to common background frames and indications of the manner in which their meanings highlight particular elements of such frames.(Fillmore and Atkins 1992)
This seems rather intuitive, and that’s the point. Cognitive linguists are seeking to understand how the mind decodes and encodes meaning, and how human experience plays a factor in our semantic expectations, as it were. We need to unpack this in much greater detail to see the beauty of it. But for now, I want to pose a question. To set up the question, I will provide some Hebrew lines from the Community Rule.
ולוא לצעוד בכול אחד
מכול דברי אל בקציהם ולוא לקדם עתיהם ולוא להתאחר
מכול מועדיהם ולוא לסור מחוקי אמתו ללכת ימין ושמאול
I will leave the text untranslated at the moment. The reason for this is because I want to think about the reasoning processes of Wernberg-Møller. Regarding the word, צ.ע.ד, he states,
The Text here uses the verb ṣ‘d [צעד] which cannot mean ‘transgress.’ Yalon explains לצעוד by לעבור and refers for this interpretation an ancient hymn in which occurs the phrase lhzhr pn tkw hṣw‘d, which is an allusion to the warning in Tamid vi 3: “Take heed that thou begin not in front of thee lest thou be burnt” (the words are directed to the priest officiating at bringing of incense on to the altar: hwy zhyr shl’ ttḥyl lpnyk shl’ tkwh). According to Yalon hṣw‘d of the hymn must be taken as alluding to the one who transgresses (the warning). This interpretation, however, is very doubtful. The verb ṣ‘d [צעד] (Arab. ‘to ascend’) is used in classical Hebrew of the particular gait employed in religious processions, cf. 2Sam vi 13, and assumed later the simple meaning ‘to walk,’ see Prov. vii 8; Ecclus. ix 13, but we have no evidence that the word ever assumed the meaning ‘to transgress.’ (Wernberg-Møller 1957)
What do you think of his semantic reasoning? Do you think the ancient tradent who penned this would say, “It’s just a matter of semantics?”
- Fillmore, Charles J., and Beryl T. Atkins. 1992. “Toward a Frame-Based Lexicon: The Semantics of RISK and Its Neighbors.” In Frames, Fields, and Contrasts: New Essays in Semanitc and Lexical Organization, edited by Andrienne Lehrer, 75–102. New York: Routledge.
- Pinker, Steven. 2007. The Stuff of Thought. New York: Penguin.
- Wernberg-Møller, Preben C. 1957. The Manual of Discipline. Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah 1. Leiden: Brill. https://doi-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/10.1163/9789004350007.