Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 4 (2002-2003) - Review

Katsuomi Shimasaki,  Focus Structure in Biblical Hebrew. A Study of Word Order and Information Structure (Bethesda, MD.: CDL Press, 2002), Pp. xvi, 314. Hardcover. ISBN 1883053-625. $ 35.

A misfortune with fresh linguistic explorations is that readers can drown in freshly-coined terminology and the proliferation of sub-hypotheses that qualify and complicate.   Here, however, a lucid arrangement coupled with persistent reminders of the trajectory of the author’s argument help the reader to keep coming up for air.  Terms such as “emphasis,” “intensification,” “contrast,” and “focus” may have been promiscuously used by Hebrew grammarians, but these are in no way synonymous to Shimasaki (see p.75).  The book’s title proclaims that “focus” is his focus, by which he means marking an item as a prominent piece of information in a clause.  This prominence, or focus, in Hebrew is identified by placing the focused item in first position and in recognizing how a clause relates to information provided in preceding clauses.  This results in three possible syntactic structures: 1) placing the predicate first (thus commenting on or adding new information to an entity), 2) placing something other than the predicate first (thus identifying an entity), and 3) making an entire clause prominent (for a variety of purposes including the presentation of a new topic or episode, expressing a contrast, etc.). 

Much of this is of course not new, and he repeatedly orients his readers to the ways in which he builds upon and differs from his predecessors.  Indeed, what are exceptions in previous analyses become integrated into a coherent, comprehensive picture (e.g., pp. 201-202).  Sentence structures that others have found unique, and thus problematic, can be integrated successfully into Shimasaki’s system.  His analysis of the notoriously perplexing Deut 6:4, for example, presents an unremarkable syntactic structure of two clauses, both exhibiting the features of the third category noted above where two entire clauses are made prominent, supporting a traditional rendering: “YHWH is our God, YHWH is one” (p.196).  Shimasaki’s data for his generalizations come from a corpus that includes one extended slice of some seven chapters from the Hebrew Bible (Deut 4:44-11:32), in addition to over 800 isolated clauses compiled in earlier grammatical studies. 

Those who pursue poetic analysis, and especially those who appreciate chiasm as a structuring device, will find food for thought here (e.g., p. 195).  Chiasm to his credit does not remain a vaguely defined sign of literary art but is actually a meaningful function of syntax (in particular his third category indicating clause prominence), but there are times when he discovers its presence where others may not readily see it (e.g., Deut 8:9b, p. 275).  Elsewhere, Shimasaki devotes an extended discussion (pp. 90-96) to an analysis of ambiguity resolution as one of many important elements in clause structure.  But much more attention is needed on this subject for at least two reasons: 1) biblical Hebrew tolerates an often frustrating density of ambiguity for modern readers that is simply unresolved for reasons that may conceivably range from high art to poor writing, and 2) passages that Shimasaki discusses are not all cases of ambiguity resolution (e.g., Deut 5:27 [p.94] where the subject of the verb – with YHWH removed - is not ambiguous). 

I am baffled by the repeated elaborations on the presence of pitch in ancient spoken Hebrew and its relevance for the untangling of the written remnants of Hebrew that show no traces of this pitch.  This “working hypothesis” (p. 58), repeated from beginning to end, is never buttressed with evidence that moves the discussion beyond guesswork.  Sometimes pitch is “probably” present (e.g., pp. 135, 154, 171, 193), at other times he “assumes” (e.g., pp. 106, 196) or “infers” (e.g., pp. 107, 112, 182) or “speculates” (e.g., p. 92) upon its presence, and often he simply affirms its presence as something as equally validated as are his arguments for word order (e.g., pp. 136, 183, 194).  When Shimasaki moves from a position of probability to a position of simple affirmation on the same page (e.g., p. 135), he does a disservice to his otherwise well-argued comments on word order: let this drowning swimmer sink without dragging down with him the more able which is quite capable of staying afloat on its own.  This is important, for if even native speakers of languages that employ pitch find themselves often in disagreement before a text in their own language that does not formally provide cues for pitch, it is quite likely that ancient Israelites would have justifiably disagreed about where to place the pitch in many of the written utterances now preserved in the Hebrew Bible.  If varieties of pitch are as predictable from a text as he often in practice assumes (e.g., p. 185), then it is a redundant feature of the language.  If pitch is significant but not redundant, then detecting its presence in a written text is speculative and unhelpful.  A far more defensible approach is to affirm that focus is expressed in Hebrew by word order at the least (with a nod to other devices - such as pitch - that are presently beyond recovery), rather than to insist upon both word order and pitch as equal partners in this semantic play (e.g., pp. 56, 73, 145).

There are irregularities that do not fit comfortably in the theory, such as the behavior of participles and the verb hyh, but these do not compromise Shimasaki’s presentation, for such exceptional phenomena are exceptional in any descriptive grammar.  This work advances the analysis of Hebrew syntax, refining earlier theories and introducing some new features with welcome clarity and stimulating insight.

Samuel A. Meier,
The Ohio State University