Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Word recurrence as an analytical tool in the psalms

A friend studying Hebrew at The University of London showed me an article a few months ago by Jean Magné, Répétitions de mots et exegèse dans quelques psaumes et le pater (ISSN 0006-0887).  I saw immediately that his idea could be generalized once the data were in a database. So using my existing data for the psalms, I have developed a method of creating such tables.

Query 1 reads the recurring words for a section of text. Query 2 performs a cross-tab basing its selection on the number of entries in query 1. I have limited the cross-tab to 30 columns. In practice, 20 is too much unless you have a wide screen or a magnifying glass.  The result is part of where I have been headed over the last five years but it allows a simpler and more rapid presentation than a diagram.

Magné builds (for me) on the suggestion in Rabbi Jonathan Magonet's book A Rabbi reads the psalms. He tells us to read with a coloured pencil in hand to observe the words that repeat. This is impossible unless you read Hebrew, without a concordant translation. Yes one can see Lowth's parallels but they are conceptual repetition rather than word recurrence. And one can follow a system of prosody but this is different again from the observation of word recurrence.  These three techniques characterize the psalms. I find word recurrence the most objective of the three. (Note on the right panel on how to colour using your browser.)

Word recurrence is the deliberate repetition of sounds in a recognizable pattern in a poem. Examples: (1) John Hobbins posted recently on psalm 145. At the time his post sent me off to see what was there in a recurrence pattern. The immediately obvious structure is the repetition of כל - all, every. This creates a vertical line in the structural table (column 7 at the link). The poet has written this acrostic accolade with a word beginning with כ (kaf). John's post shows how the words ending with כ are equally prominent - this being the second person singular ending for verbs - in English this makes a 'you' sound (imagine explaining English to a non English speaker for a second). English loses all the cacophonous impact of the 56 kafs in the psalm.  But you can see it - even if you can't hear it.

(2) Another easy example is Psalm 114 here.  The pattern in this case is a pair of parallel lines.  The more interesting examples occur when the word recurrence is in a chiastic form. Here a set of words occurs in order 1 2 3, and their recurrences occur in the reverse order order 3 2 1. These will show up in the Magné type tables as an arrow head. The effect is to create a set of 'circles' in the text, often surrounding a key concept, central to the text, literally. These also go by the name of ring, or concentric structures. (3) Striking examples are psalm 51 - three interlocking circles of depth 4 (the four verbs blot out - wash- purify - know), 2 (heart - spirit), 1 (then - + maybe offer).  Each circle has a word related to righteous at the centre.

(4) And Psalm 22 has 3 concentric circles of animals in the first section, and five concentric circles around worship in the next section. (5) Psalm 137 shows clearly the backbone of remember amongst the three differing voices. See Rabbi Magonet's comments as reported here at the Psalms Conference last year.

Psalm 119 has some secrets to reveal to the diligent. Here is the recurrence structure for part 1 aleph alone. I interleaved several tables into it here for the time being, 16 verses at a time. The tables seem to indicate some measure of the coherence between the 11 pairs of letters in sequence.

Root123456789Vs
אשׁר אשׁרי
all joy for
1
דרךדרך
the way
1
הלךההלכים
who walk
1
אשׁר אשׁרי
all joy for
2
כל בכל
with a whole
2
לא לא
not
3
דרךבדרכיו
in his ways
3
הלךהלכו
they walk
3
צוה צויתה
commanded
4
שׁמר לשׁמר
to keep
4
מאד מאד
in full
4
דרךדרכי
my ways
5
שׁמר לשׁמר
to keep
5
חק חקיך
your statutes
5
לא לא
not
6
כל כל
all
6
צוה מצותיך
your commandments
6
חק חקיך
your statutes
8
שׁמר אשׁמר
I will keep
8
מאד מאד
full
8