Review of Michael Malessa, Untersuchungen zur verbalen Valenz im biblischen Hebrisch
Journal of Hebrew Scriptures - Volume 8 (2008) - Review

Michael Malessa, Untersuchungen zur verbalen Valenz im biblischen Hebrisch (Studia Semitica Neerlandica, 49; Assen: van Gorcum, 2006). Pp. xiv + 250. Cloth €85,00. ISBN 90-232-4240-8.


Michael Malessa’s book represents the published form of his 2003 dissertation under the direction of Prof. T. Muraoka.  This book addresses the problem of varying uses of prepositions in Biblical Hebrew.  Malessa finds solutions in the areas of syntax, semantics, and historical linguistics.

Chapter One lays out Malessa’s linguistic model.  First, he asserts a model of the sentence where the verb is central, and all the complements lie on the same level.  This model is distinct from the most popular syntactic models among linguists, where the subject stands outside the verb phrase, and the complements and adjuncts of the verb stand inside the verb phrase.  Second, Malessa explains valence theory, which includes “quantitative” valence (“number of complements”), “qualitative” valence (“form of the complements”), and “selectional” valence (“semantic characteristics and semantic rolls of the complements”) (pp. 7-8).

In chapter Two Malessa looks at two ways that the direct object (E2) is expressed, that is, with or without the object marker, את ’et.  His data mainly come from among eleven common verbs in the prose corpus of Genesis-2 Kings.  The first experiment shows that nouns that are human, animate, and concrete occur with the marker more often than without it.  These types of nouns commonly correlate with subjects, so the marker occurs in instances where the reader is most likely to interpret the noun as a subject.  In the second experiment, Malessa demonstrates that the marker occurs more often the farther away from the beginning of the sentence the noun appears.  Later biblical books, however, demonstrate a slightly reduced usage of the direct object marker (p. 60).  He concludes that the object marker is used to disambiguate the E2 from the subject.

Chapter Three addresses the alternation of a nominal E2 and an object of a phrase with the preposition ב- b-Aktionsart (mainly referring to situation aspect) and object affectedness frame his discussion (p. 68).  Malessa finds that the nominal direct object corresponds to telic actions, and more fully affected direct objects.  In contrast, a prepositional phrase with ב- b- corresponds to durative actions, and less fully affected objects.

Chapter Four demonstrates how sentential complements can be integrated into the valence of a verb to varying degrees.  Syntactically, a sentential complement is “deeply” integrated if the sentence refers to the E2 and/or if the conjunction is subordinating (such as כי k) (p. 140).  Sense verbs, such as “see” and “hear,” generally demonstrate deep integration of sentential elements (p. 144).

Chapter Five looks at infinitival complements, comparing those preceded by the preposition ל- l- with those with no preposition.  Arguing against Jenni and Burggraaf, who claim that the presence or absence of the preposition in these contexts is semantically motivated,[1] Malessa shows that semantic correlations are not consistent.  Nevertheless, he notes the importance of historical development, for in later Biblical Hebrew the infinitive appears consistently with the preposition.

Chapter Six focuses on the transitivity of speech verbs (verba dicendi) especially the preposition with which the addressee is formally marked.[2]  Malessa explains the distribution of ל- l- and אל ’el with the verb אמר’mr.  Syntactically, ל- l- is most often used when the addressee comes between the verb and the speaker, and אל ’el when the speaker is not mentioned or is mentioned before the verb.  Semantically, the former is used more often with a third person pronoun, and the latter, with proper nouns.  With the verb  דברdbr, an addressee marked with אל ’el implies that the speech act focuses more on the content, but an addressee marked with את ’et emphasizes the action.  With the verbקרא  qr’, the alternation between bare noun phrases and nouns marked with various prepositions depends on the location of the addressee and whether motion is intended.

These all represent important studies that further our knowledge of Biblical Hebrew.  The disconnected nature of the studies in this work, however, and the lack of a decisive conclusion represent its weakest points.  The final observations of Chapter Seven do not offer a clear way forward.  Some phenomena arise from syntax, others from semantics, and still others from language change and idiolect without clear relationships to each other.  While Malessa presents insightful observations on preposition use, a more synthetic model to explain the broad variations would have helped this book.

Nevertheless, Malessa’s approach to transitivity fits well into the current linguistic paradigm.  Hopper and Thompson presented multiple facets of transitivity expressed by the world’s languages, such as action vs. non-action, telic vs. atelic, and high vs. low potential for agency, where the first in each of the oppositions correlates with high transitivity.[3]  Malessa’s results often correlate with Hopper and Thompson’s model, and Malessa refers to the latter a few times.  More explicit analysis in light of this view of transitivity, e.g., in his discussion of affectedness of subject and situation aspect, could strengthen Malessa’s analysis. 

Richard Benton
University of Wisconsin-Madison


[1] Ernst Jenni, “Vollverb und Hilfsverb mit Infinitiv-Ergnzung im Hebrischen,” Zeitschfirft fr Althebristik 11 (1998), 50-67; Maarten Burggraaf, “Een onderzoek naar functie en gebruik van de infinitives constructus voorafgegaan door de prepositie l in het Klassike Hebreeuws” (Ph.D. diss., Leiden, 1989).

[2] Malessa challenges the view of Ernst Jenni expressed in “Einleitung formeller und familirer Rede im Alten Testament durch 'mr 'l- und 'mr l-,” in Vielseitigkeit des Alten Testaments: Festschrift fr Georg Sauer zum 70. Geburtstag, ed. James Alfred Loader and Hans Volker Kieweler, Wiener Alttestamentliche Studien, vol. 1 (Frankfurt a. M.: Peter Lang, 1999), 17-33.

[3] P. Hopper and S. Thompson, “Transitivity in Grammar and Discourse,” Language 56 (1980): 251-300.