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.  

“The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism” by Adele Berlin

This post is a review/summary/reflection on my reading of The Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism for my coursework. 

In the Dynamics of Biblical Parallelism, Adele Berlin attempts to show how parallelism function dynamically, namely how aspects of it are part of a broader system of linguistic usage. Drawing from the linguistic framework of Roman Jakobson and expanding beyond Lowth, Berlin first addresses parallelism in terms of both biblical studies and linguistic studies. In doing so, she makes a strong argument for the idea that parallelism is a constitutive device in poetry. So, while parallelism is present in nearly all literature, it is a dominant and constructive device in biblical poetry. Simply put, she argues that the degree to which parallelism is present in a given text is how one distinguishes between “prose” and “poetry.”

Although this was only the first chapter, two questions arose in my mind. First, while poetry is nonlinear and prose is linear, how might one understand seemingly linear poetry, such as Psalm 82? Though it is more of a comment than question, my second question regards an example. Regarding the parallelism in Judges, she notes: “These two actions presumably involved the use of two difference hands, since the alternative would be to have Yael juggling both the peg and the hammer in one hand – a patently ridiculous, if not impossible, feat” (15). My question: would somebody please make a cartoon of Yael juggling a peg and hammer in one hand, while she stands above Sisera?

In order to clarify her use of the linguistic prism for parallelism, she reviews how scholars have looked towards the linguistics for a methodological prism of viewing poetry. As she illustrates, though, there is no unified standard for determining what is parallel because scholars focus on different structural levels to mark the “threshold at which point two lines are deemed parallel” (19). Regarding the work by Terence Collins, her primary criticism is that both semantic structuring and grammatical structuring are equally involved in parallelism. As for Stephen Geller (Parallelism in Early Biblical Poetry), he was aware of both semantic and grammatical parallelism. According to Berlin, Edward Greenstein’s “How Does Parallelism Mean” is the most thorough and dependent on grammatical parallelism. For, Greenstein considers all parallelism to be grammatical parallelism, regardless of sematic content. Berlin contends, though, that “just because similarity in structure promotes semantic relationship does not mean that difference in structure prevents it.” (23). In other words, she broadens Greenstein’s limitation of grammatical parallelism by allowing semantic parallelism to play a role as well. Even with this criticism, Berlin notes that Greenstein “took grammar about as far as it could go in terms of parallelism” (25) [1].

Next, Berlin discusses the presentation of parallelism by M. O’Conner in Hebrew Verse Structure. He claims that scholars have difficultly defining parallelism because they failed “to perceive.. the multiaspect and multilevel nature of parallelism; that is parallelism may involve semantics , grammar, and/or other linguistic features, and it may occur on the level of the word, line, couplet, or over a greater textual span” (25). In other words, scholars have typically made too narrow of a definition for parallelism as it relates to linguistics. Citing Roman Jakobson, whose linguistic framework is foundational for Berlin’s present work, “Pervasive parallelism inevitably activates all the levels of language – the distinctive features, inherent and prosodic, the morphological and syntactic categories and forms, the lexical units and their semantic classes in both their convergences and divergences acquire an autonomous poetic value” (26).

In order to clarify her languages, Berlin, subsequently, deems aspect as things related to phonology, morphology, etc., whereas level relates to the textual structure. It is, essentially, this perspective from which she operates: a presentation of “an overarching, integrated, and linguistically based description of biblical parallelism” (29).

Chapter III offers a thorough analysis of the various types of parallelism with regard to the grammatical aspect of parallel lines. This she subdivides into two types of parallelism: syntactic parallelism (“syntactic equivalence of one line with another line”) and morphological parallelism (“morphologic equivalence or contrast of individual constitutents of the lines”) (31). For clarity, the Berlin’s presentation will be summarized as a list with various sub-sections. After the summary list, relevant points will be discussed.

  • Morphological Parallelism
    • Morphological Pairs from Different Word Classes
      • Noun // Pronoun, Noun/Pronoun // Relative Clause, Prepositional Phrase // Adverb, Substantive // Verb
    • Morphologic Pairs from the Same Word Class
      • Contrast in Tense, Contrast in Conjugation (with a variety of nuances), Contrast in Person, Contrast in Gender, Contrast in Number, Contrast in Definiteness, Misc. Contrast
  • Syntactic Parallelism
    • Nominal // Verbal
    • Positive // Negative
    • Subject // Object
    • Contrast in Grammatical Mood

In describing the many ways a line may be grammatically parallel, she offers clear sight of how pervasive grammatical parallelism is dominant in the construction of biblical poetry. Naturally, such grammatical structures ultimately impact the meaning of the text.

For the most part, I appreciated the divisions presented by Berlin. For, they make extremely clear the particular types of grammatical parallelism. Likewise, thorough examples for each points also illustrate how, in many cases, different aspects of grammatical parallelism, whether syntactic or morphological, function together in order to construct the text on the basis of grammatical parallelism.

Concerning her analyses, I have one comments. Regarding her discussion of Contrast in Tense, there is missing consideration: how does the w-retentive play into the contrast of tense? One of her examples is Psalm 29:10, wherein line 1 contains a SC (suffix conjugation) and line 2 contains a waw-retentive + PC. These are morphologically distinct. Yet, she simply categorizes these as the paralleling of qtl and yqtl verbs. Perhaps, though, it is more specifically a paralleling of qtl and wyqtl verbs, namely a waw-retentive verb. This is important because the qtl and wyqtl arguably function in the same way. Yet, in the same category, she places Psalm 26:4, in which line 1 contains a negative particle + PC and line 2 contains a negative particle + SC. So, here the verbs contrast morphologically and functionally. Whether or not this distinction is significant (i.e. morphologically, but not functionally, contrasting verbs vs. morphologically and functionally contrasting verbs), I do not know. It is, though, worth considering.

Chapter IV focuses on the lexical and semantic aspects of parallelism. So, whereas Kugel replaced the tripartite division of parallelism types with an single, diverse, overarching semantic concept (‘A, and what’s more, B’), Berlin focuses on providing a complete description of how such parallelisms play out within a linguistic framework. To do so, she divides between the lexical aspect (word-level phenomenon) and semantic aspect (line-level phenomenon).  Rather than explaining the lexical aspect simply as word pairs which can be generated by anybody, she refines the notion of ‘word pairs’ by drawing from some observations in two psycholinguistic studies about word association.

  • First, in the studies, players with more time provided statistically unusual associations; players with little to no time typically provided more statistically common associations. Players between “more time” and “no time” typically provided the most statistically common word pairs.
  • Second, the word itself may be an association.
  • Third, words elicit different associations depending on factors like general population responses, connotations, etc.
  • Finally, reciprocity is a variable. So, land may be associated with sea, and sea with land; yet, while frigid may be associated with coldcold is not typically associated with frigid.

Regarding these rules, Berlin re-arranges them in terms of categories suggested by one of the psycholinguists.

  • Paradigmatic Rules
    • Minimal Contrast Rule
      • Common words tend to be associated with their “opposite.” (i.e. father-mother; brother-sister; black-white).
    • Marking Rule
      • Words tend to return to their base form, rather than to an expanded form (i.e. dogs is associated with dogs; however, dog is not associated with dogs)
        • On this point, Berlin notes that she has no idea of this actually bears out in Biblical Hebrew. Likewise, Clark, the psycholinguist, notes that this is not always consistent.
    • Feature Deletion and Addition Rule
      • The addition rule specifies the group of something (i.e. apple-fruit; father-man), whereas the deletion rule specifies something within the group (i.e. fruit-apple; man-father).
        • Berlin suggest this is present in Hebrew verbs, such as word association between a qal and hiphil verbal form.
  • Syntagmatic Rules
    • Selection Feature Realization Rule
      • A word can limit its associations (i.e. young may be associated with boy; however, it may not be associated with book).
    • Idiom Completion Rule
      • A rule similar to the selection feature realization rule (i.e. apple-pie, needle-thread, etc.); in other words, these word associations are simply idioms, not simply our association of an apple with a pie.

Following after these, Berlin specifies types of syntagmatic pairing in Hebrew. Notably, she agrees with the basic categories provided by O’Conner in Hebrew Verbal System; however, she disagrees with some of the examples which he provides.

  • Syntagmatic Pairing in Hebrew
    • Conventionalized Coordinates
      • Related to the idiom completion rule, this association relates two terms belonging “to an idiom or conventional expression” (76) (i.e. orphan – widow; loyalty – truth; etc.). Though not synonyms, they functions as a type of syntagmatic pair in order to express a broader idiomatic idea. So, orphan – widow expresses the idiomatic idea of one who is defenseless within society.
    • Binomination
      • Two things refers to one thing via a two-part name (i.e. Balak – King of Moab).
    • Normal Syntagmatic Combinations
      • “… a manifestation of The Selectional Feature Realization Rule” (77). So, while throne and sit are not necessarily idioms for something, it is normal discourse to sit on a throne (i.e. write – book).
        • Regarding the example of throne and sit from Is. 16:5, one may also view this as a type of conventionalized coordination. For, while the terms are not necessarily related, one may argue that they express the broader idiomatic idea of kingship or rulership. This, though, supports Berlin’s original claim, namely that a wide-variety of constructive elements are at play in constructing parallelism. Therefore, it is not problematic that throne – sit may be described as both as normal syntagmatic combination and conventionalized coordinates.

Having established the lexical-aspect via word pair association theory in psycholinguistics, she proceeds to develop the relationship between the lexical-aspect and semantic-aspect. To do show, she illustrates how different levels of parallelism operate from a variety of examples. So, in her example of Psalm 15:1, ‘hl and yshkn are a lexical pair (a normal syntagmatic combination); yet, they are not semantically the same. yshkn and ygwr, though, are semantically and grammatical equivalents. In other words, there are multiple layers of parallelism. One must be attentive in order to distinguish between such layers. Subsequently, she illustrates how the lexical, grammatical, and semantic patterns are distinguishable within various texts via three primary patters: aabbabababba.

To wrap up the chapter, she focuses on the Semantic Aspect. Defining it as “the relationship between the meaning of one line and its parallel line,” she breaks it into two parts: disambiguation and ambiguity; and parallelism as metaphor. As she notes though, distinguishing between the various levels is often times ambiguous within BH poetry.

Chapter V focuses on the aspect of phonological parallelism. In particular, she focuses on sound pairs. Prior to providing examples, she offers some preliminary limitations and definitions of ‘sound pairs’ in biblical Hebrew. First, she defines it “as the repetition in parallel words or lines of the same or similar consonants in any order within close proximity” (104). The definition is subsequently tempered: because biblical Hebrew originally only had consonants, and Hebrew is a consonantal language, sound pairs are only based on the consonants. Similarly, in order to “reduce the effect of rand repetition and… the subjectivity involved with the perception of sound correspondence,” three more limitations are added (105): two sets of consonants must be involved, they must be in close proximity, and they must have similar phonemes, allophones, or articulation.

After offering a few examples, she explains what they mean in terms a parallelism. Although I wish more linguistic studies were available to detail and clarify this point, she offers a good, simply thought. Sounds pairs add to the perception of parallelism. In other words, they serve to reinforce the parallelism of two lines, even if said lines already contain Grammatical, Lexical, and Semantic parallels.

Although she present solid evidence for the value of sound pairs in biblical poetry, along with some limitations, a more developed organization of sounds pairs and more developed limitations for what constitutes sounds pairs would have been valuable. At the end of the chapter, she highlights the chance of subjectivity in locating sounds pairs. More restrictions as to what defines “sound pairs” may have helped by offering clear boundaries.

In the final chapter (VI), Berlin highlights the purpose of her works. By distinguishing four aspects of language (grammatical, lexical, semantic, and phonological, one can see the various elements at play in biblical parallelism; however, such as usually occur simultaneously. In other words, she summarizes how she has shown “the enormous linguistic complexity of parallelism” (129), which avoids reduction into small, restrictive categories.

Next, she lays out an four important tentative principles relating to the perceptibility interestingness of parallelism. For, one of the biggest criticisms of Jakobson was that perception is subjective. Therefore, to claim parallelism in literature is, somewhat, subjective. Having laid out a thorough and well-argued layout of the various aspects of biblical poetry and parallelism, she offers these fours principles, for which she is careful to note are tentative and may increase perception of parallelism:

  1. Proximity of parallel lines (i.e. lines with the pattern abab are harder to perceive, in terms of parallelism, than lines with the patter aabb.)
  2. Similarity of surface structure (i.e. lines with a similar surface structure are easier to perceive as parallel lines.
  3. Number of linguistic equivalences (i.e. the more presence of grammatical, lexical, semantic, and phonological equivalences, the easier it is to perceive parallelism.
  4. Expectation of Parallelism (i.e. if the surround context is constructed on parallelism, and one line seems not to be parallel, the surround context suggests it should be understood as a parallel line to some degree).

Finally, she briefly discusses the effect of parallelism; however, because Berlin has demonstrated the parallelism is a complex linguistic phenomenon, the effect of parallelism is context dependent. It does so by patterning the language in a constructive manner. In her own words, “by means of these linguistic equivalences and contrasts, parallelism calls attention to itself and to the message which it bear. Parallelism embodies the poetic function, and the poetic function heightens the focus on the message” (141).

[1] At this point in time, F.W. Dobbs-Allsopp (On Biblical Poetry, 2015) is the most recent treatment. Unfortunately, I’ve not had the time to work through his book.