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What Is Lexicography?

Lexicographers use context and related (cognate) languages to determine the meaning of words in ancient texts like the Bible.

Entry for almah in the Hebrew language dictionary Lexicon in Veteris Testamenti libros by Ludwig Kohler and Walter Baumgartner. Published 1948-1953 by Brill.

Lexicography (from the Greek for “word” and “writing”) is the study of what words mean. Since the Bible was written over two thousand years ago, the meaning of its vocabulary is not always certain. Some words are rare or obscure; others have changed their meaning over time. Scholars are constantly on the lookout for places where previous understandings of particular words might be mistaken. Since it is impossible to consult native speakers of an ancient language like biblical Hebrew, scholars rely on the context in which a word appears, other related (cognate) languages, later stages of Hebrew, and traditions of interpretation.

A famous example is the Hebrew word ’almah in Isa 7:14. The ancient Greek translation rendered it as parthenos, which usually means “virgin,” as it is cited in Matt 1:22-23. However, many scholars think that the Hebrew word actually referred to a stage of life (that is, “young woman”) rather than a lack of sexual experience. In fact, many words that came to mean “virgin” originally indicated a woman’s age: the Latin word virgo, from which we get the English term “virgin”; the German Jungfrau; the Greek parthenos; and the Hebrew betulah. (The latter is used for a widow in Joel 1:8, and its Ugaritic cognate is used of the sexually active goddess Anat, suggesting that in fact the word does not refer to a virgin.)

The best tools for determining a word’s meaning are its context and related languages. An example is the root n-b-kh in Isa 56:10

His watchmen are blind, all of them; they know nothing.

All of them are dumb dogs; they cannot n-b-kh (author’s translation).

Following the biblical penchant for poetic parallelism, the second line echoes the idea expressed in the first, suggesting that n-b-kh refers to dogs’ ability to vocalize. Although the root n-b-kh is a hapax legomenon (a word that appears nowhere else in the Bible), that meaning is confirmed by the fact that the same root occurs in many other Semitic languages, including postbiblical (rabbinic) Hebrew, Akkadian, Mandaic, Arabic, Syriac, and Ethiopic, in all of which it means “to bark.”

 Related languages can also clarify peculiar uses of common Hebrew words. For example, verbal forms of the root ’nh occur over a hundred times in the Bible, where they typically mean “to answer.” But that does not always make sense, as in Exod 15:21 (“and Miriam ’nh”), 1Sam 18:7 (“and the women ’nh”), and Ezra 3:11 (“and they ’nh to the Lord with praise and thanks”), all of which introduce songs rather than responses. However, in Arabic that root can mean “to sing,” exactly as one would expect in these biblical passages and in 1Sam 21:11 and 1Sam 29:5. Thus, lexicographers conclude that biblical Hebrew had several homonyms ’nh, which were spelled the same but had different meanings because they derived from separate roots, much like the English word “corn,” which can mean a kind of grain or a hardening of the skin.

Lexicographical methods sometimes create uncertainty, as in 2Kgs 4:42, which tells of a man who brought “twenty loaves of barley and fresh grain betsiqlono.” Since b- is a Hebrew prefix meaning “in” and the suffix -o means “his,” ancient translators thought that the word referred to a garment or container (that is, “in his tsiqlon”). However, the Ugaritic tablets, which were discovered in 1929 and have no vowels, use the word b-ts-q-l for (part of) a plant. Since -on is a common Hebrew noun suffix, many scholars have concluded that the biblical word means “on its stalk” rather than something for carrying grain.

Even words that seem straightforward can be misunderstood. For example, Hebrew Bibles spell the word traditionally translated “shadow of death” in Ps 23:4 as tsalmavet, which looks like a compound form of the words for shadow (tsal) and death (mavet). But biblical Hebrew does not form compound words in the way that English (for example, “sunflower”) and other familiar languages (for example German, as with the above-mentioned Jungfrau) do. The discovery of Akkadian, the language of ancient Assyria and Babylonia, resolved that peculiarity in the late nineteenth century. The Akkadian word tsalmu means “darkness.” Since Hebrew often forms abstract nouns by adding the suffix –ut (which is spelled with the last two consonants of the word mavet), the original word was probably tsalmut, meaning “deep darkness.” However, later generations, who lived before Hebrew was written with vowels, apparently lost track of the original meaning and assumed that it was a compound, which they pronounced accordingly. The Masoretes, who invented Hebrew vowel symbols in the Middle Ages, then followed that pronunciation.

Lexicographical tools sometimes point the way to alternative possibilities. A dramatic example involves the common Hebrew word ’ahavah, which means “love.” That certainly seems appropriate for its use in the Song of Songs, which is filled with love poetry. According to chapter 3, King Solomon’s palanquin was made from Lebanese wood, with “posts of silver, its back of gold, its seat of purple, [and] its interior inlaid with ’ahavah” (Song 3:9-10). However, an Arabic word from that root can mean “leather,” which would certainly fit the reference to the materials out of which the posts, back, and seat were made. (That meaning may also be intended in Hos 11:4.)

Biblical lexicography, which has been practiced since antiquity, helps clarify obscure passages, but it can also raise questions about ones that seem straightforward. Studying lexicography is a rewarding reminder of the challenges involved in trying to recover the Bible’s original meaning. Translators must, therefore, choose what they judge to be the most likely possibility.

  • Frederick E. Greenspahn

    Frederick E. Greenspahn is the Gimelstob Eminent Scholar of Judaic Studies at Florida Atlantic University and the author of Hapax Legomena in Biblical Hebrew (Scholars Press, 1984), When Brothers Dwell Together: The Preeminence of Younger Siblings in the Hebrew Bible (Oxford University Press, 1994), and An Introduction to Aramaic (Society of Biblical Literature, 1999, 2003, and 2007).