Indexical Reference in Discourse

One of the most fascinating aspects of the study of Hebrew is the discussion of the reference in the framework structure of direct discourse against the direct discourse itself. For example, let us ask a particular question. What does the word “I” mean? Well, many people would say it is a pronoun that one uses to refer to yourself. However, is that the case? What happens if I say a sentence like, “John said, ‘I feel tired today.'” Now, in that sentence, does the I refer to myself? No.

The difference is that, in the case mentioned above, there is a narrative frame to the discourse which will effect the meaning of the word “I.” Hence we have:

Direct discourse frame: “John said,

Direct discourse: ‘I feel tired.'”

Here, the “I” is going to refer back to the subject of the direct discourse framework, namely, John. The point of this demonstration is that the subject of the discourse framework and the subject of the direct discourse will be cross referential.

There are other things that are cross referential that will change in meaning depending on its discourse context. For example, the dative will always be cross referential to any second person pronoun within the direct discourse. Consider the following:

Framework: John said to me,

Direct Discourse:You are tired today.'”

Here, because of the shift in discourse, you have the word “you” being self-referential, given that the dative suffix is cross referential to the subject when it is in the second person, and agrees in number with the dative noun in the framework.

Even the meaning of verb tenses can be effected by discourse. For example, what if I said, “John said, ‘We will defeat Hitler’s regime.'” Notice how I am relying a story about something that may have happened to before the end of World War II, but the future tense is used, and it is still referring to an event that happened in the past! It is all because the time referent is from the point of the speaker, and not from the person introducing the direct discourse. As you can see, discourse is extremely important to meaning.

Now, consider this text in Exodus 24:3c:

dx’a, lAq ~[‘h’-lK’ ![;Y:w:

hf,[]n: hw”hy> rB,DI-rv,a] ~yrIb’D>h;-lK’ Wrm.aYOw:

Notice how we have the singular verb ![;Y:w: in the first line, and the plural verb Wrm.aYOw: in the second line. Why the shift from singular to plural?

From what I have just said, this is easy to explain. The Hebrew term ~[‘h’ is a collective noun, and collective nouns can indeed take a singular verb. However, notice that the verb in the second line  is introducing the direct discourse. Now, what is the subject of that statement in direct discourse? It is the 1cp verb form hf,[]n:. This is significant, because this plural verb form is going to be crossreferenced by the subject of the framework introducing the direct discourse, namely, the subject of the verb Wrm.aYOw:. However, in that case, you would have a singular verb in the subject of the framework crossreferencing the plural verb in the direct discourse, which would create all kinds of disharmony.

It appears to me that, in order to avoid this disharomony, Moses used the plural Wrm.aYOw: at the beginning of the second line. Hence, although ![;Y:w: and Wrm.aYOw: are verbs with a different number, they still are referring to the same thing, because of the fact that Wrm.aYOw: is introducing direct discourse.

The shifts in discourse are important to keep in mind when you are doing an exegesis of any text Also, understanding the cross referential nature of the framework and the direct discourse itself helps you to understand what is going on in the text. In fact, one of my classmates brought this little problem of why you have a shift in number in this text in Hebrew Grammar class. If you are not thinking about shifts in discourse, then it will seem odd that Moses would use a singular verb followed by a plural verb, rather then just simply keeping with the collective singular.

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