Order in the Chaos: A Historical Discourse Analysis of Language Usage in
Early Modern Hebrew Responsa in Ashkenaz
(ISF Grant No. 2176/21 PIs Dr. Ohad Cohen & Dr. Bracha Nir)

The overarching goal of the proposed project is to shed new light on the understudied field of Early Modern Hebrew (EMH) as a significant, functional component in the multi-glottic reality of the erudite Jewish elite in the first half of the 17th century. We aim to bring to the forefront of current research the issue of language use in the so-called “linguistic jungle” of a period that is nested between the middle-ages and pre-enlightenment. To achieve this goal, we will rely on the combined methodologies of structural linguistics, historical discourse analysis, and usage-based linguistics. By conducting a rigorous corpus-based investigation of the distributions of linguistic devices and of the pragmatic and communicative functions they serve, we will explore the relationships between various grammatical systems and written discourse structure and function in primary Hebrew textual sources.

In contrast to other historical strata -- Biblical, Mishnaic, Talmudic, and Modern Hebrew -- the Hebrew of the Early Modern period is yet to be systematically studied. We approach this lacuna by focusing on EMH as it was used by three leading Ashkenazic rabbinical writers in the context of a particular genre of Jewish judicial discourse, the Responsa (documented in the Bar-Ilan University Responsa project). This corpus has been acknowledged as a significant resource that reflects culture and society as a multifaceted context. In the proposed study we aim to identify and describe the particular linguistic devices used by these authority figures. Our preliminary results indicate that such writers were in fact highly proficient language users both at the macro (discourse structure and function) and micro (lexicon, morphology, syntax) levels, wielding the historical components of Hebrew in order to effectively serve the communicative functions of different texts.

Applying established methods from corpus linguistics (including computerized text-linguistics) as well as functional analyses of discourse structure and content will allow us to conduct a substantive synchronic analysis of a language stratum that to date has been perceived as mostly structureless and chaotic, and received little attention from Hebraists and linguists alike. As such, our interdisciplinary investigation aims not only to open new horizons towards the understanding of how language was used in the Early Modern period in Ashkenaz, but also to set the stage for a future fuller account of the grammar of EMH and consequently of the historical puzzle of the Hebrew language.