Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 18 (2018) - Review

Holmstedt, Robert D., The Relative Clause in Biblical Hebrew (LSAWS, 10; Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 2016). Pp. xvi + 396. Hardcover. US$64.50. ISBN 9781575064192.

Robert Holmstedt's generative study of ancient Semitic (and especially Biblical Hebrew) relatives represents a significant revision of his 2002 doctoral dissertation (University of Wisconsin-Madison). These revisions reflect Holmstedt's research into Northwest Semitic syntax and pragmatics over the course of the last decade-and-a-half and refocus the primary intended audience of the work towards Hebrew scholars with little formal training in theoretical linguistics. Holmstedt attributes the need for this work to the perceived lack of linguistic precision in the few sustained investigations of this grammatical phenomenon available in the existing literature. In contrast to such studies, he positions his own volume as a theoretically grounded and comprehensive treatment of the various features relevant to the study of Semitic relatives that is usable as a reference for Hebraists.

The monograph is prefaced with an initial typological definition of relative clauses in ch. 1, wherein Holmstedt helpfully locates this structure along the clines of “degree of subordination” and “internal complexity” (pp. 9–16). On his account, relative clauses are characterized in two ways. First, they are adnominal (i.e., “not nominal themselves, but modifying a nominal constituent,” p. 10) and embedded within a matrix clause. Second, they maintain a higher degree of syntactic complexity vis-à-vis adjectives, internal prepositional phrases, and appositives, which, despite modifying nominals, lack internal predication.

Holmstedt begins ch. 2 by briefly considering the challenges inherent to analyses of languages that survive only in written form (pp. 19–36). He then provides an introduction to his method and theory, asserting that, in its most basic form, “this work is grounded in two linguistic frameworks: typology and generative syntax” (p. 36). In order to preserve the consistency of his account, Holmstedt qualifies his use of the former (i.e., linguistic typology) by insisting that he has adopted it to provide formalist rather than functionalist descriptions of cross-linguistic data (see p. 36). However, although Holmstedt's later observational approach broadly adheres to the generative theory he outlines in ch. 2 (e.g., by isolating instances of constituent movement and null constituents), he is curiously ambivalent about the degree to which adherence to this hybridized model has direct material significance for his argument beyond informing his choice of particular terminology. For example, he notes that “[t]here are few aspects of my analysis of the Biblical Hebrew relative clause that would differ in substance if my theoretical position were non-Chomskyan generative or even altogether nongenerative” (pp. 36–37). Such statements are matched by Holmstedt's own unclear choice of linguistic terms throughout his study, with the author arbitrarily oscillating, for instance, between the identification of Noun and Determiner Phrases merely for the sake of “simplicity” despite the distinct phrasal hierarchies (and theoretical positions) that this terminology denotes (compare, e.g., pp. 6 n. 8, 104, 134). On this latter point, note Holmstedt's telling admission that he “often use[s] NP in this work, even when DP is more accurate” (p. 6 n. 8). This suggests that while Holmstedt purports to align his analysis with recent Chomskyan generative approaches (specifically linguistic minimalism), in practice his work lacks the rigorous theoretical sophistication to which he aspires. Chapter 2 ends with a brief orientation to Biblical Hebrew syntax, which includes an exploration of Hebrew constituent order and a generative description of Hebrew phrase structure.

In chapter 3, Holmstedt's analysis begins in earnest with a preliminary survey of the distributional patterns characteristic of Hebrew relative pronouns, markers, complementizers, and resumptive pronouns. In contrast to previous grammatical studies, which have been nearly uniform in describing each Hebrew relative word as a pronoun, Holmstedt contends here that only the semantically marked (i.e., [±animacy]) מ-series relatives demonstrate the necessary declination and restrictions on the subsequent inclusion of resumptive pronouns to be accurately classified as pronouns. Thus, he instead interprets the likewise-declinable ז-series as relative markers, while arguing for a definition of אשׁר ,- ,-ה-, and zero-relatives as “complementizers” that “take clausal constituents and allow them to modify a head in essentially the same fashion as adjectival modification does” (p. 64). The final section of the chapter considers the etymology of אשׁר- and - (pp. 85–101).

In chapter 4, Holmstedt attends to phonologically overt and null relative heads, that is, those constituents, which always appear before the relative clause itself, “about which the predication within the relative makes an assertion” (p. 104). Whereas the former are readily identifiable, Holmstedt offers two diagnostic indicators for Hebraists attempting to distinguish the latter in passages such as Gen 27:45. These indicators are, first, the occasional presence of the element את immediately before a relative word and, second, syntactic agreement between a verb and its head.

Turning to an analysis of relative syntax in chapter 5, Holmstedt provides a discussion of complementizer phrase recursion within relative clauses (modelled using syntax trees). Here, he offers an analysis of Hebrew phrase structure that attempts to account for both the placement of the relative complementizer within a given clause as well as verb raising. Following his initial comments in this regard, Holmstedt devotes the remainder of this chapter to focused treatments of resumption and extraposition. In each instance, he considers both the syntactic patterns thereof as these are attested within the biblical corpus as well as the semantic-pragmatic functions that would have likely motivated a Hebrew author's choice of this linguistic strategy.

Unfortunately, the vast compass of Holmstedt's discussion of relative syntax proves unwieldy, as becomes apparent when one finally arrives at his brief account of relative semantics in chapter 6. Included near the outset of the latter is a syntactic description of restrictive and non-restrictive relatives that would have more naturally cohered with Holmstedt's focus on syntax in chapter 5 and appears immediately out of place in its present location. One is left to wonder, further, why Holmstedt's treatment of the semantic and pragmatic functions of resumption on pp. 175–86 was grouped with his discussion of relative syntax rather than semantics. Indeed, so disjointed is Holmstedt's argumentation in these two chapters that, after surveying the theoretical literature concerning resumption in an early section of ch. 5 but without articulating at this initial point which approach he intends to adopt for his own analysis (pp. 135–40), Holmstedt postpones a discussion of this phenomenon as it occurs in Hebrew until much later in the chapter (pp. 158ff.). Not only does this strategy undermine the reader's ability to track Holmstedt's application of the secondary linguistics literature to Hebrew texts, it also forces Holmstedt to adopt a highly repetitive writing style. On one occasion, he goes so far as to repeat nearly verbatim material presented earlier in his monograph (see pp. 131, 173–4). Additional editing for clarity and a significant reorganization of these chapters' contents would have made chapters 5 and 6 more accessible to Holmstedt's readers and more conducive to Holmstedt's argumentative goals.

In chapter 7, entitled “‘Relative’ Diachrony,” Holmstedt draws data from an expansive corpus that moves from Epigraphic Hebrew through to Mishnaic Hebrew texts. Using these resources, he rounds off his assessment of Hebrew relatives with an examination of whether אשׁר and witnessed diachronic shifts in function over the course of their linguistic usage. Holmstedt here takes the nominalizing function of אשׁר as primary, arguing against attempts to identify a grammaticalization path for this term from relative word to general subordinator.

Chapter 8 functions as a conclusion to the overall study, with Holmstedt offering a general typological account of the “relativization strategies” evidenced within the various members of the Semitic language family. Featured in this section are Akkadian, Canaanite, Aramaic, Ugaritic, Classical Arabic, Epigraphic South Arabian, and Classical Ethiopic corpora. Holmstedt positions his analysis herein as a “second context by which to filter the Hebrew data [regarding the Semitic relative], beyond the typological contextualization” offered in his preceding chapters 3–6 (see p. 248). On his view, the comparative study he pursues in this section causes three features of Semitic relativization to appear with greater clarity: the semantically restrictive nature of Semitic relativization; the conclusion that “resumption for positions farther [sic] left of the N[oun]P[hrase]A[ccessibility]H[ierarchy] was a development of Semitic languages only in the second half of the first millennium B.C.E.”; and the consistent association of the relative word with a “genitive” function amongst Semitic parallels (pp. 283–5).

Supplementing his formal analysis in the preceding pages, Holmstedt includes two appendices that supply readers with, respectively, his translations for those relative clauses he has isolated within the Hebrew Bible (excepting אשׁר and some ה-relatives) as well as sustained discussions of ambiguous instances of Hebrew relativization. Holmstedt's attempt at transparency in data and analysis sets a high standard for academic honesty that other scholars would certainly be wise to emulate.

While much of the research in this book is helpful, the book is not without its flaws. In its typesetting, the monograph suffers from erroneous syntax trees (e.g., p. 148) and confused Hebrew typography (e.g., pp. 112[220b–c], 127[254], 312[Jer 2:6], 366[4]), making some sections difficult to follow. Further, Holmstedt's work lacks a clear conclusion to synthesize his argument and articulate its relation to the minimalist programme's theoretical project of discerning the principles of Universal Grammar, leaving the bulk of these tasks to readers. Together with the critiques levelled above, these deficiencies lead us to the view that, although Holmstedt boldly declares at the outset of his study that “any work performed without some theoretical awareness runs the severe risk of being theoretically anchor-less and therefore probably useless” (p. xii), this work does not fully achieve his goal of demonstrating the value of his linguistic approach for biblical scholars engaging the study of ancient languages. Yet, Hebraists interested in this monograph will nevertheless find the data and examples useful as a point of reference for further study of the relative clause in Biblical Hebrew.

David M. Dalwood, Yale University

Beth M. Stovell, Ambrose University