Peripheral Linguistic Connotations

  • Prof. Yonatan Grossman


By Rav Dr. Yonatan Grossman



Lecture #04:

Peripheral Linguistic Connotations



In the previous lecture, we dealt with some of the connotations of certain words, namely, the emotional reaction that they inspire or the semantic domain to which they belong.  At this point, let us move on to the central focus of the discussion of peripheral meaning - the linguistic meanings beyond the regular, clear definition of the word or the sentence.


The Relationship of a Word to its Meanings


I will begin this analysis with a question central to the relationship between a word and its meaning: how does one impart ancillary meanings to a word in the mind of the reader? This is a broad question, which both linguistic researchers and theoreticians have dissected a great deal in the past few years. In the context of my analysis, I would like to discuss this issue briefly and to mention very concisely the position of the Swiss-French linguist Ferdinand de Saussure (d. 1913). Although it is not universally adopted, this theory gives us an opening to discuss the function of language in general, and literary language specifically. According to de Saussure, every single word is a type of "signifier" which broadcasts to the reader the meaning that is "signified." The signifier is the graphic or aural dimension of the word, but the signified is the meaning or connotation of it. For example, the reader who encounters the word "table" immediately thinks of the material object that one recognizes as a table, and this meaning is imparted to the graphic representation one observes visually. Of course, the meaning does not naturally occur in the word itself; rather, the meaning exists beyond it, and the word is only a clue that broadcasts to the reader the meaning that is found beyond the literal level. At the end of the day, the reader is the one who gives the concrete meaning to the word as it is integrated in its specific place in the text.[1]


This point may seem obvious, but in fact, it allows us to see the interplay which exists between words and the meanings to which they allude.[2]  It may be, for example, that one word can broadcast to the reader two parallel meanings, and it may also be that a word integrated into a sentence can be interpreted by the reader in a way which is not in complete agreement with the intention of the speaker or the author.


For example, the meanings of "when my girlfriend told me to go," "to go for a walk," and "going and getting lost" are clear to every reader, as in each sentence the verb "to go" changes in light of its context. In the first case, the implication is that the girlfriend is breaking up with the speaker; in the second case, the speaker is moving from one place to another; in the third, the speaker is becoming progressively more disoriented and dislocated. That being the case, we must ask how a reader will interpret the verb "to go" in "Evening Song," written by Natan Zach:[3]    


In the evening

When my girlfriend told me to


I went down to the street to go for a walk

And I was going and getting lost

Getting lost and going

Going and going and getting lost


The implication of "told me to/ Go" is that the girlfriend is breaking up with the speaker. In the next line, the speaker goes down to the street "to go for a walk."  Does this mean that he interprets his girlfriend's directive as a break-up line, or does he think that this girlfriend is merely telling him to get some exercise?  (Beyond this, is the reader convinced that the girlfriend wants to break up, regardless of the speaker's understanding?)  Furthermore, what about "going and getting lost"?  It is a bit difficult to tell: does "going" in this case indicates that an action is progressive, or does it refer to a physical act of moving from one place to another without finding the desired destination? There is no need to say that the reader is "going and getting lost/ Getting lost and going," since the reader cannot figure out what "going" means at each point in the poem.  In fact, this appears to be the deeper theme of the poem: the multiplicity of meanings for each word creates a difficulty in verbal communication, and this in turn emphasizes the inability to understand fully the meaning which the speaker tries to impart to the words and which the listener or reader draws from the very same words.


As we shall see presently, stories in Tanakh may also sometimes use multiple meanings intentionally; indeed, sometimes there is intentional ambiguity in the narrative based on the limits of verbal communication.  In the context of this analysis, I would stress that the intent is not only to utilize words with double meanings that put the reader in a situation where it is unclear which definition of the word is meant (as in Natan Zach's poem).  Sometimes, the denotative meaning is clear, but the use of a given word with other meanings (linguistic or associative) raises in the reader's subconscious the other meaning. Although it is not realized in the text, these other meanings can serve a purpose in the reading process. 


Similarly, C. N. Bialik, in his poem "Hi Yosheva La-Challon," plays on the name of his lover, Rachel, and the word "rakhil" (gossip). Although the name "Rachel" may be innocent and hold no special meaning, when it is mentioned in proximity to "rakhil," the reader is compelled to view the contrast between the faithfulness of the speaker and the faithlessness of the gossips — the speaker's view of Rachel as pure and the view of the slanderers, who cast aspersions on her virtue.[4]  


Ancillary Meanings: Levels of Realization


Naturally, whenever we talk about additional meanings alongside the simple dictionary definition of a given word, one must differentiate between different levels of realization of that peripheral meaning:[5]


1.      Dual Meaning: This arises from polysemous words (words with more than one meaning) or sentences that can be understood in more than one way, without a way to decide which one is correct.  Sometimes, the story utilizes the two ways of reading intentionally, so that the reader is compelled to read the sentence with both understandings in mind. 

2.      Reflected Meaning: As we saw earlier, sometimes it is clear what the essential definition of a word which is being used in the narrative is, but an additional meaning is added to it — alluded to only — below the surface.  In a situation such as this, a responsible translator must ignore the reflected meaning and bring to the readers the essential meaning only.

3.      Associative Meaning: Since one may talk about the hypothetical "intended reader" to whom the story is directed, one must take into account the associative space of this reader. Sometimes, these associations rest on Scriptural connotations, and sometimes even on the reader's unfettered imagination, but if the reader is accustomed to the Scriptural vernacular, these imaginings have value as well. 

4.      Temporary (Unrequited) Meaning: The meaning of a term within a narrative is not set and stable. In the lexicon of deconstruction, the meaning of a term is dynamic. In other words, the reader may understand the language in one way at one stage of the reading, and at a later stage, the reader may turn around and give a new meaning to that term.  This is intimately connected to the peripheral meanings that a linguistic expression has, so that at different points in the reading, the reader is able to employ different meanings for that linguistic term.


Due to the great significance of this issue in assimilating the hidden meanings in the verse, and for the sake of convenience, I will split this topic up over a number of independent lectures. In this lecture, I will focus on the first model mentioned, that of polysemy, in which a word can be interpreted in more than one logical way.  I will address the other types of ancillary linguistic definitions in the coming lectures.


Intentional Polysemy


The basic problem confronting the reader is deciding whether the double meaning is intentional. One could claim that every point of disagreement between the commentators represents two different possibilities of reading for that linguistic expression, which give us intentional polysemy — but this is a reductio ad absurdum argument, even if it is developed in the deconstructionist approach (or in the view called "reader-reaction criticism"). Take, for example, the fact that Rashi and the Ramban argue as to the understanding of the initial verse of the Torah (Bereshit 1:1). Is there enough in this dispute to decide that the Torah really intended both possible readings, or perhaps one of the explanations is correct and another one is in error?  It may be that in order to give credence to the argument that in a certain place two possible readings are realized intentionally, one must pay attention as to whether Scripture encourages these two possible readings or if these readings emerge from the reader's indecision.  In a place in which Tanakh itself seems to support two parallel readings, we may say that we have true intentional polysemy, since the dual meaning serves a purpose in shaping the narrative and adds to its theme.


Tanakh's methods for directing the reader are many and sundry, and we cannot delve into all of them in this context. I will mention some examples only to demonstrate how these double meanings are used in narratives in Tanakh and how it alludes to hidden readings.


Shimi's Curse or God's Curse?


In the course of Avshalom's rebellion, David is forced to flee from Jerusalem.  When he reaches Bachurim, "a man from the family of the House of Shaul, whose name was Shimi ben Gera" comes out and curses David (II Shmuel 16:7-8):


Get out, get out, man of blood, worthless man.  God has brought back upon you all the blood of the House of Shaul, in whose stead you reign, for God has put the kingship in the hand of Avshalom your son, while you are in a bad state — because you are a man of blood.


In light of this curse, David's nephew Avishai suggests killing Shimi, but David rejects this idea. David justifies his refusal, saying, "Perhaps God will see my humiliation, and God will bring back to me good instead of his curse this very day" (16:12).


Whom is David referring to when he speaks of "his curse"?  Whose curse is alluded to here? At first glance, it appears that Shimi is intended, as he is the one who is cursing David.[6] Accordingly, David’s words are formulated as clear opposition to the curse of Shimi: "God has brought back upon you all the blood of the House of Shaul" against David’s hope: "God will bring back to me good instead of his curse."[7] However, according to the grammatical structure of the verse, it appears that God is the one who is cursing David, as He is the immediate antecedent, the explicit subject of the previous clause ("God will bring back to me good").  Shimi, on the other hand, is not mentioned at all in this verse.  Furthermore, it appears that David is trying to inject God into his words, and he therefore repeats God's name in two consecutive clauses: "God will see my humiliation, and God will bring back to me good."  Since the grammatical structure is stressed in David's prayer, the reader tends to associate this subject as well with the curse mentioned soon afterwards with the ambiguous pronoun "his."[8]  Accordingly, David prays that God will reward him for his forbearance in place of the curse which God has laid upon him. 


This reading is quite surprising at first glance, because God does not "curse" David per se.[9]  However, practically, David alludes to this meaning through his words to Avishai.  David stresses that despite the fact that Shimi is actually pronouncing the curse, David sees the curse as emanating from God:


And the king said, "What have I to do with you, you sons of Tzeruya?  So let him curse, because God has said to him, “Curse David;” who then shall say: “Why have you done so?"

And David said to Avishai and to all his servants, "Behold, my son, who came forth of my body, seeks my life; how much more this Benjamite now?  Let him alone, and let him curse; for God told him."


From these verses, it is clear that David sees Shimi's curse as God's curse and Shimi as an emissary of Divine Providence to explicate his punishment as his son rebels.[10]  Naturally, the grammatical ambivalence concerning the question of whom David relates to as his curser with the words "instead of his curse this very day" dovetails with the main message that David is trying to communicate to Avishai and the rest of his servants. Shimi indeed curses David because of the rivalry between the Benjamites and David; however the ultimate causality lies with God, and Shimi's curse constitutes an element of an overarching divine process.


Pragmatically, this grammatical ambiguity dovetails with another double meaning subsumed in the words of David.  Consider the issue alluded to in verse 10: "So let him curse, because God has said to him: 'Curse David;' who then shall say: 'Why have you done so?'"  Once again, the reader encounters an ambiguous pronoun: does "you" refer back to Shimi the curser, or does it refer to God, who "said to" Shimi to curse David?[11] Here are two equally legitimate readings, and in light of the polysemy which we saw above, it may be that that the reader's ambivalence is not circumstantial. The narrative encourages the reader to adopt the two readings simultaneously. We cannot question the act of Shimi ("'Why have you done so?'") specifically because this is the hidden act of God!


In this example, the two possible literary meanings for one verbal expression take a role in shaping the reader's impression of "dual causality" (a human-national cause and a divine cause). The story of Avshalom is one of the remarkable narratives in Tanakh in which this basic concept is expressed.[12]  Indeed, polysemy — in particular, the type which relies on obscure grammatical structure that allows us to see two characters as responsible for one given action — is utilized in additional narratives in which Scripture seeks to allude to dual causality. We will suffice ourselves with one additional example.


"He has not Withdrawn His Kindness" — God or Boaz?


After Rut spends an entire day collecting sheaves, she returns home and reports to her mother-in-law Naomi that her sizable bounty of sheaves come from the field of Boaz. Naomi responds: "Blessed be he to God, that he has not withdrawn his kindness with the living and with the dead!" (Rut 2:20). The ambiguity in this verse is connected to the subject referred to in the phrase "that he has not withdrawn his kindness." How should one translate "that" (asher) in this case?  It may refer to Boaz, in which case it is a subordinating conjunction: Boaz should be blessed because he has not withdrawn his kindness. Alternatively, it may be a relative pronoun: Boaz should be blessed by God, Who has not withdrawn His kindness. 


Indeed, commentators and critics have argued about this.  R. Avraham ibn Ezra's words indicate that he sees Boaz as the one who has not withdrawn his kindness: "To symbolize that he showed kindness at first with Avimelekh and with his sons, because he was a judge." (The Malbim and many others echo this.) This is based on the Talmudic tradition (Bava Batra 91a) identifying Boaz with the judge Ivtzan of Beit Lechem (Shoftim 12:8-10).  In fact, this explanation can be supported by a similar verse in the megilla in which Naomi praises Rut for the kindness that Rut and Orpa did with the living and with the dead (1:8): "May God show kindness to you, as you have shown to the dead and to me."  It appears logical that just as Naomi praises Rut in the first instance for her act of kindness, so too here Naomi is praising a human being (Boaz) and not God.  Accordingly, Boaz and Rut share a powerful bond because they both show kindness to Naomi and her deceased loved ones.[13]

However, in opposition to this reading, it is appropriate to turn to another verse that is also clearly linked to our verse.  After Avraham's servant reveals that he has met a daughter of Avraham's family, he says:


Blessed be God, Lord of my master Abraham, Who has not withdrawn the kindness and truth that He shows to my master.  Here I am, still on the road, and God has led me to the house of my master's brethren! (Bereishit 24:27)



The linguistic link is prominent and seems to be intentional, [14] and since the words of Avraham's servant identify the one who shows kindness as God and not a human being, one can identify, in the words of Naomi, the one who shows kindness as God and not Boaz.[15]


The ambiguity in terms of the subject of this sentence has intrigued many critics. Some support one opinion and some support the other, [16]and there are even those who have put a question mark on this topic, as they claim that it is impossible to decide the matter.[17]


It appears that the confusion of the commentators here reflects an aim of the narrator to confuse his readers.  The words of Naomi seem to be aimed and directed toward Boaz, to praise him for the unique kindness he has demonstrated to Rut, and concurrently, these words are relating to God and praising Him for the kindness He has shown to the family.[18]  "That he has not withdrawn" refers simultaneously both to God and to Boaz, in that God "has not withdrawn His kindness" and has showered good on Naomi and Rut through the person of Boaz.  In this sense, the allusion to the story of Avraham's servant and Rivka receives its full meaning: there too the servant thanks the God of his master for his encounter with Rivka, but this divine act of kindness could not have been realized without the human act of kindness of Rivka, giving water to the servant and his camels. 


The use of this polysemy in narratives in Tanakh is varied and exceeds the grammatical template which we have used to demonstrate the phenomenon.  Despite this, in my humble opinion, it is difficult to present this model as very frequent in Tanakh.  Even if we do find the intentional use of double meanings in Scripture, it is difficult to see in this a literary tool without which one could not interpret the intent of the narrative and its meaning.  The same cannot be said of our next topic, another type of peripheral meaning, what we have termed the "reflected meaning."  This is a common literary tool which cannot be ignored. I will dedicate the next lecture to this topic.


(Translated by Yoseif Bloch)

[1] This separation between the graphic or aural dimension of a word and the dimensions of its meaning is the basis of de Saussure's argument about the arbitrariness of the signifier and the signified. He maintains that one could choose any sound to denote a certain meaning; in fact, the meaning itself is arbitrary to a certain extent because language is relative. For example, one's understanding of "hot" is influenced by the meanings of high temperature and great popularity. 

[2] Indeed, the view of de Saussure belongs to the school of the structuralism in literary analysis, and it is has heavily influenced deconstruction (mainly in relation to everything which is connected to the "game of signs," i.e., the persistent and utter meaninglessness of the words themselves and the changing of meaning based on the proximity of adjacent words and the structure of language).

[3] Published in Hebrew in Shirim Shonim (Ha-Kibbutz Ha-meuchad, 5734), p. 9.

[4] C. N. Bialik, Ha-Shirim, ed. A. Holtzman (5764), p. 404.Incidentally, this poem was first published in the Ha-Olam weekly in 1910, but it appears to be based on a Yiddish folk song.  Naturally, the play on words that I suggested exists only in Hebrew, with the aural similarity between "Rachel" and "rakhil," and it is not maintained in any other language. 

[5] One who wants to delve into this distinction and its ramifications may read my paper on this topic, available at the Bar-Ilan University library: "Kefel Mashma'ut Be-Sippur Ha-Mikra'i U-Terumato Le-Itzuv Ha-Sippur" (mainly in the conclusion). The examples we will discuss are taking from that essay.  A similar distinction may be found in Leech's Semantics (pp. 26-27), which I cited in the previous lecture. 

[6] Indeed, this is how most of the commentators explain this; see, for example, the Malbim's comments there. Anderson even goes so far as putting Shimi's name into his translation: "The Lord will requite me with good for (Shimi's) curse this day;" A. A. Anderson, 2 Samuel, (WBC: Waco, TX, 1989), p. 200.

[7] S. Bar-Efrat, Shmuel Bet, Mikra Le-Yisrael (Tel Aviv, 5756), p. 17. It may be that David contrasts in this expression two attitudes towards the monarchy: his own when Shaul was still king and the current approach of the Benjamites to David. Shaul describes David, after the latter spares the former, in glowing terms (I Shmuel 24:19): "When a man finds his enemy, does he let him get away unharmed? May God pay you good instead of what you have done for me this very day." David employs a similar phrase: "And God will bring back to me good instead of his curse this very day."

[8] In English, pronouns which refer to God are usually capitalized, but there is no analogue to this in Hebrew, so a translator cannot know whether "his curse" should in fact be "His curse."

[9] Still, we do not find God cursing a person explicitly in Tanakh (although we do find the negation of this idea as early as in Bereshit 8:21).

[10] Frank Polak, Ha-Sippur Ba-Mikra (Jerusalem, 5759), p. 297, puts it this way: "The curses aimed at David are represented as stated according to Divine decree."

[11] See Y. Kil's ambivalence on this matter in Shmuel Bet, Da'at Mikra (Jerusalem, 5741); Bar-Efrat, Shmuel Bet, p. 174

[12] In my humble opinion, this story contains other polysemous terms, the aim of which is to assimilate the message of dual causality for events. Those interested in this should read, "The Design of the 'Dual Causality' Principle in the Narrative of Absalom's Rebellion," Biblica 88 (2007), pp. 558-566.

[13] N. Glueck, Chesed in the Bible, trans. A. Gottschalk (Cincinnati, 1967), pp. 40-42, brings the following verse: "Blessed be you to God, my daughter, your latter kindness is greater than your former" (Rut 3:10).  According to him, there is yet another verse, II Shmuel 2:5, which proves that men do chesed, not God: "David sent messengers to the men of Yavesh Gilad and he said to them: 'Blessed be you to God, that you have done this kindness with your lord, with Shaul, and you have buried him.'"

[14] Many have pointed out this relationship, even if they have argued regarding its meaning.  See, for example, M. Weinfeld, "Megillat Rut — Takhlitah Ve-Reka Chibbura," Turei Yeshurun 1 (5726), pp. 10-15; G. C. Cohen, Iyunim Be-Chamesh Megillot (Jerusalem, 5766), pp. 122-126; F. Meltzer, Rut, Da'at Mikra (Jerusalem, 5733), pp. 13-14; Y. Zakovitch, Rut, Mikra Le-Yisrael (Jerusalem-Tel Aviv, 5750), pp. 28-29.

[15] E. F. Campbell, Ruth, AB (New York, 1975), p. 106.

[16] H. Y. Hamiel, Mayenei Mikra: Megillat Rut (Jerusalem 5747), p. 192, on the one hand, adds God explicitly to his explanation of the verse; but on the other hand, he writes in note 116 there: "It may be that the intent is for Boaz, and so too below 3:10; one may explain that Na'ami speaks of the kindnesses of Boaz, but attributes it God, since Boaz is only acting out of God's will and as His hidden emissary."  This explanation is close to the explanation that we will present shortly.  B. Porten, "Structure, Style, and Theme of the Scroll of Ruth," Association for Jewish Studies Newsletter 17 (1976), p. 15, argues that "has not withdrawn his kindness" is wordplay on the name Boaz, as both are spelled with the letters bet, ayin and zayin. However, this wordplay is still valid if God is the subject of the sentence, although it is more poignant if Boaz (bet-ayin-zayin) is one who did not "withdraw (ayin-zayin-bet) his kindness."

[17] R. L. Hubbard, The Book of Ruth, NICOT (Michigan, 1988), p. 186

[18] Bernstein raises this possibility; see M. J. Bernstein, "Two Multivalent Readings in the Ruth Narrative", JSOT 50 (1991), pp.16, n. 1. However, he adds: "There is little doubt that these ambiguities were intended by the author."