A Linguistic Approach to Ellipsis in Biblical Poetry (Or, What to Do When Exegesis of What Is There Depends on What Isn’t) -- By: Cynthia L. Miller

Journal: Bulletin for Biblical Research
Volume: BBR 13:2 (NA 2003)
Article: A Linguistic Approach to Ellipsis in Biblical Poetry (Or, What to Do When Exegesis of What Is There Depends on What Isn’t)
Author: Cynthia L. Miller


A Linguistic Approach to Ellipsis in Biblical Poetry (Or, What to Do When Exegesis of What Is There Depends on What Isn’t)

Cynthia L. Miller

University Of Wisconsin-Madison

Biblical Hebrew poetry frequently exhibits ellipsis (or gapping) of the verb, but the precise patterns of ellipsis have not been identified previously. A linguistic approach to ellipsis involves identifying universal features of ellipsis, as well as those features that are specific to Biblical Hebrew. Understanding the shapes of elliptical constructions in Biblical Hebrew provides a powerful exegetical tool for evaluating alternative readings (and hence exegetical understandings) of difficult verses (e.g., Ps 49:4 and Prov., 13:1).

Key Words: poetry, parallelism, gapping, ellipsis, Hebrew syntax, Ps 49:4, Prov 13:1

1.0. Introduction

Ellipsis has been called a “basic stylistic resource of Hebrew verse.”1 Indeed, ellipsis of the verb has been considered by some to be the crucial feature that distinguishes Hebrew poetry from Hebrew prose.2

Author’s note: This paper was presented to the Institute for Biblical Research in November, 2001 and to the Hebrew Discourse Workshop in November, 2002. My thanks to John Cook, Dennis Pardee, John Kessler, and Michael Patrick O’Connor for their comments and suggestions on an earlier draft. This research is drawn from a volume in progress on ellipsis in Biblical Hebrew. The research is supported in part by a fellowship from the Memorial Jewish Foundation and by Ettinger Family Foundation research funds donated to the Department of Hebrew and Semitic Studies, University of Wisconsin— Madison.

But ellipsis by its very nature is elusive, since in talking about ellipsis, we are talking about words that simply are not there.

From a linguistic point of view, ellipsis involves constructions in which a grammatically required element is omitted by the speaker, thus creating a structural hole or gap.3 By this definition, ellipsis produces utterances which are grammatically incomplete in their surface structure. Less technically, the term “elliptical” is sometimes used to describe utterances which are contextually incomplete and require the hearer to supply contextual information.4 This second use of ellipsis is not in vi...

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