Reviews of

Radical Frame Semantics and Biblical Hebrew: Exploring Lexical Semantics

In Brill, Cognitive Semantics, HB/OT, Kurtis Peters, Linguistics, Stephen SHEAD on June 25, 2013 at 2:27 pm

2013.06.12 | Stephen Shead. Radical Frame Semantics and Biblical Hebrew: Exploring Lexical Semantics. Biblical Interpretation Series 108. Leiden; Boston: Brill, 2011. Pp. xxvii + 378. ISBN: 978-90-04-18839-6.

Review by Kurtis Peters, University of Edinburgh.

Many thanks to Brill for kindly providing us with a review copy.

In recent years, there has been a slow but steady movement toward adapting modern linguistic theory to the study of biblical languages, particularly within lexical semantics – the study of word meaning. Shead’s Radical Frame Semantics represents yet another step forward in this general trend, and a strong one at that.

In this volume, Shead has clearly grasped the task at hand – to articulate a responsible method for handling the meaning of words in an ancient language – and has demonstrated convincingly that there is much to be gained from applying such a method.

The book is divided into three clearly defined parts. Part one consists primarily of an overview and evaluation of various lexical semantic theories, both those that have been used extensively by biblical scholars and those which have not often made the pages of biblical publications. It comes as no surprise to see a nod here toward structuralist semantics and its inheritors, especially where it applies to sense relations (hyponymy, meronymy, synonymy, etc.) and lexical field theories. These methods, Shead suggests, unfortunately have fallen from linguistic grace in the past few decades and cognitive approaches have risen to take their place. These new approaches see no clear break, contra structuralist tendencies, between semantics and pragmatics, or between the language system itself and the world of the language users. Instead, there is a graded spectrum. This has led some to find ways of incorporating ‘encyclopaedic knowledge’ into the analysis of word meanings. More to the point, cognitive approaches are concerned primarily with the cognition of the language user, and the mental concepts that lie behind words. These concepts, in turn, access ‘frames’ or ‘domains’ – clusters of knowledge into which the concepts tap. For example, behind the word ‘radius’ lies a concept [RADIUS], which in turn can only be understood against a backdrop of the domain [CIRCLE]. Without understanding the properties of a circle, one could not understand what a radius is, much less what the word ‘radius’ might be doing in a sentence. This is the kind of perspective that typifies Frame Semantics, a popular cognitive semantic method, pioneered by Charles Fillmore. Another related method often goes by the name ‘Construction Grammar’ and offers a continuum between lexicon and grammar, suggesting that there ought not to be a definitive break between them (as with semantics and pragmatics). Idioms help to illustrate this continuum, such as ‘The X-er, the Y-er; e.g., ‘The more, the merrier’ (p.72). The idiom itself has semantic content, that is, it means something as a construction beyond simply what X and Y mean individually. However, a lexicon cannot adequately contain such information. Therefore, there is a shading of grammar into lexicon.

Shead, by the end of Part One, has now demonstrated that traditional approaches to lexical semantics are not sufficient for the task of determining meaning. Instead, semanticists must take account both of the conceptual nature of meaning, and of the continuum between lexicon and grammar. As the reader nears the end of Part One, questions begin to arise as to how to use such theories in the study of Biblical Hebrew – the subject of Part Two.

Part Two, then, naturally outlines why Shead has chosen his specific method – an adaptation of Frame Semantics and Radical Construction Grammar. This is the shortest of the three parts, but it is nevertheless the methodological crux of the entire volume. He argues that the example of FrameNet, an online database of English frames put together by Charles Fillmore et al., is convincing in many ways, but requires a small amount of modification, particularly in how it structures the concept and frame relations. He also sees a need for paying greater attention to syntactic realities, and so dedicates himself to the task of adopting the principles of construction grammar to Biblical Hebrew.

Part Three, then, is where Shead puts his theory into practice and demonstrates the effectiveness of rigorous linguistic method. He argues that the obstacles posed by an ancient language are not insurmountable and that a frame-based analysis is a viable and attractive option for overcoming those difficulties. He has chosen, as a test case, to concern himself with concepts and corresponding Hebrew verbs related to searching and exploration, primarily חקר, בקשׁ, and דרשׁ. He seeks to discover how these and other verbs participate in exploration-type concepts, how they related to one another, and what kinds of constructions they prefer. One of the more interesting angles he takes is based upon the various frame elements required by concepts such as [EXPLORE] and [SEARCH]: The former tends to take an area or region as its landmark (usually the direct object in this case), that is, to ‘explore a room,’ but does not require there to be a sought item; the latter concept also tends to take an area or region as its landmark, but additionally suggests the inclusion of a sought entity – ‘search the room for the keys’ (p.202). Looking at concepts this way, and applying that to the lexemes involved, provides an insightful new viewpoint for evaluating words and their concepts in Biblical Hebrew. Shead goes on to demonstrate the effectiveness of this perspective not only by implementing his method on these verbs, but also by comparing his results to those found for the corresponding lexemes in the available lexica (BDB, HALOT, DCH, etc.). The case is well-made that a cognitive, frame-based approach offers much that older approaches cannot.

Shead’s contribution to biblical studies, therefore, is obvious. For too long, biblical scholarship has been satisfied to employ outdated linguistic methods in studying biblical texts. Granted, linguistics is a daunting field and is much more frequently concerned with modern spoken languages than with ancient ones. However, Shead shows that biblical scholars nevertheless have a responsibility to use accurate and up-to-date methods in their research. To do less would be irresponsible.

Therefore, Shead stands in the gap. He understands cognitive approaches to semantics well, and he offers his insights to other biblical scholars, encouraging them to pay closer attention to advances within linguistics. Helpfully, Shead does not neglect the older approaches, nor does he dismiss them out of hand. Often, current cognitive linguistic literature does not pay attention to older, non-cognitive approaches. Shead, however, knows that his audience is most familiar with these methods, and so his overview of structuralism etc. provides that familiar starting point for his readers, only then to walk them toward these newer approaches that he is espousing. It is graciously and effectively done. It is also helpful that his writing style is sharp and well-written and that the structure of the book is very clear, with each section leading straightforwardly into the next.

Perhaps the strongest criticism to make is that Shead’s hope to be accessible may not have been entirely successful. It is, no doubt, a daunting task to introduce the average biblical scholar to the world of cognitive linguistics. Shead has certainly done so as well as any have done so far, but it is still unlikely that a biblical scholar unfamiliar with cognitive linguistics could pick up Radical Frame Semantics and Biblical Hebrew without being overwhelmed by its complexity. There are quite a few moving pieces involved, not only in Shead’s own method, but also in his overview of so many other linguistic methods. It is quite a lot to keep straight in one’s mind. Perhaps some of the less pertinent technical explanations could have been simplified or omitted without damaging the argument of the book.

All that to say, if the most substantial criticism of the book is that it does not take an extremely complicated topic (cognitive linguistics) and simplify it enough for the biblical scholar off the street to understand it easily, then Shead has done something right. His subject fills a significant gap in current knowledge, and he demonstrates strongly the payoff of heightened attention to linguistic theory. His book deserves to be used as a launching pad for further application of cognitive semantics to biblical studies.

Kurtis Peters
University of Edinburgh
kurtis_peters [ at ]


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