Reflection on “Grammatical Parallelism and its Russian Facet” by Roman Jakobson (1966)

For those who were with biblical poetry, Roman Jakobson is an incredibly important scholar. For, his understanding of parallelism shaped and formed the framework by which Adele Berlin (The Dynamics of Biblical Paralellism) treated Biblical poetry in her own book. One quote from the article stands above the rest:

Pervasive parallelism inevitably activates all the levels of language – the distinctive features, inherent and prosodic, the morphologic and syntactic categories and forms, the lexical unites and their semantic classes in both their convergences and divergences acquire an autonomous poetic value. This focus upon phonological, grammatical, and semantic structures in their multiform interplay does not remain confined to the limits of parallel lines but expands throughout their distribution within the entire context; therefore the grammar of parallelistic pieces becomes particularly significant.

It is these categories in particular which Berlin breaks down within biblical poetry. In the next few years, though, I do look forward to a dissertation being written within NELC at the University of Chicago. It may help to clarify much of what others, Jakobson, and Berlin argued, albeit with more clarity.

One things, though, stood out to me within this article: oral traditions. Essentially, a 19th century scholar recorded a many Russian folklore traditions and poems. Although many of these records had some variation, it was noted that many of these traditions were extremely similar. Scholars argued that these similarities were due to the usage of parallelism and its dominant role in oral traditions.  Such things are present throughout many modern cultures.

Additionally, they often times drew from parallelism as defined by Lowth. Down the road, it was argued that poetic and prose traditions in the Hebrew Bible reflect an oral culture preceding it. It is this point which I want to address. Without a doubt, the oral traditions of the Hebrew Bible are possible; however, comparison of 19th century oral traditions, such as a Turkish one which goes back to the 16th century, with those of the Hebrew Bible is methodologically flawed. The method is problematic because 2000 to 2300 years separate modern traditions and ancient traditions.

So, while it is possible to prove that modern folklore traditions tend to employ grammatical parallelism, it is harder to claim such a thing for the Hebrew Bible, as did Albright and many other scholars. That said, one must produce evidence and develop a method in order to bridge the gap between modern folklore traditions and ancient traditions, particularly with regard to the relationship between oral traditions and grammatical parallelism.

Cf. U. Gabbay / Dead Sea Discoveries 19 (2012) 267–312 (esp. p. 279), wherein here notes that Mesopotamian scholars had a sense they were the recipients of an oral tradition that allowed them to offer the best commentary on canonical texts.  

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