Is Linguistics worth it? For word order help, yes! (Pt 1)


Sparked by a question earlier, the following post is Part 1 of 3 that considers the exegetical implications that a knowledge of linguistics (and particularly discourse analysis) can bring to the interpretive table. It's primarily a summary of Levinsohn's (2006) helpful article Whether you realize it or not, the word order of a given sentence goes a long way in telling you certain things that the speaker or writer thinks in his head about what he's saying, and what he wants to say to you. In the past exegetes have traditionally paid attention to variations in word order as a signal that whatever is placed up front has been "fronted" for the sake of emphasis. It's kinda like the spotlight affect: if you want to stress that something is really important, put it center stage where all can see.


However, there's a lot more to it than that, and Levinsohn would tell us that we really sell ourselves short when we just think that everything that is fronted is being emphasized. So before we go any further and talk about the effects of word order variation, let's get two things straight.

  1. For there to be a change in word order implies that there is a default order from which a change may be made. And Koine Greek happens to be a verb-first language, with everything else typically trailing after. Now Levinsohn says that Jan Firbas (1964) was a pioneer in identifying a particular order to how these non-verbal constituents rang out in the rest of the proposition. This default (unmarked) pattern has come to be known as the Principle of Natural Information Flow, in which established information comes before non-established (newer) information, and normally ends up looking like this (cf. Levinsohn 2012:53).

    verb :: pronominals :: subject nominal :: other arguments :: adjuncts

  2. For languages like Koine Greek and Ancient Hebrew, which are verb first languages (i.e. V-S/O), Simon Dik (1989:363) has come up with a template that helps one better understand the different functions of changes in word order, before the verb. Basically, there are two slots or positions that can be occupied by a word or phrase (i.e. a constituent) before a verb—the occupancy of which means that it is in a marked position.

P1 :: P2 :: V :: X  P1 is for constituents that are activated as topics P2 is for constituents that are marked as being focal

With this said, let's take a look at a couple verses and see how such knowledge effects our interpretation of certain utterances.

Ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ἄμπελος ἡ ἀληθινή, καὶ ὁ πατήρ μου ὁ γεωργός ἐστιν (John 15:1a)

I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.

Here we have a case where both "I" (ἐγώ) and "my father" (ὁ πατήρ μου) have been fronted. Now I can imagine a preacher with a couple years of Greek under his belt explain to a congregation that because these two entities are placed before the verb at the beginning of the sentence that Jesus is stressing the fact that it is he who is the true vine and no one else, that it is his father that is the vinedresser and no one else. And maybe he got this from a commentary!

The sad part is—and let this be a cautionary tale to all my readers—that because the preacher referenced the Greek language, the congregation is probably giving him some mad props and thinking that somehow he figured something out the typical lay could not—while the truth is simply that this line of interpretation just isn't the case. Even though it could make sense doesn't make it an accurate route of exegesis.

In all actuality, the redundant first person pronoun "I" has been fronted to activate Jesus as the topic of the initial proposition; and then, "my father" is fronted to signal a topic shift in which God is then activated as the topic of the following proposition. So, Jesus makes a comment about himself, and then to be clear, fronts his father who is the topic of the following comment. This same manuever happens just a couple verses later in 5.

ἐγώ εἰμι ἡ ἄμπελος, ὑμεῖς τὰ κλήματα... (John 15.5)

I am the vine, you are the branches... 

Once again the first person singular pronoun ἐγώ is fronted to activate Jesus as the topic of the proposition, and since the following proposition deals with a different topic, "you" is fronted to signal this shift.

While these examples pertain to cases where fronting establishes a topic, a couple verses up, in John 14.17b we see a clear case where two prepositional phrases are fronted in two different utterances in order to indicate something other than topic activation.

ὑμεῖς γινώσκετε αὐτό, ὅτι παρʼ ὑμῖν μένει καὶ ἐν ὑμῖν ἔσται. (John 14.17b)

You know him, because remains with you, and he will be in you

In both cases the fronting of the constituents signal that it this part of the proposition that is focal, and primarily the prepositions, which both relate a particular and distinct description of the disciples' newly transformed connection to Jesus through the Spirit. (We're able to say that it is mostly the prepositions that are in focus here because their objects are already highly established information, viz. the disciples or "you").

So rather than simply noting that "with" and "in" are fronted here, and suggesting that this position stresses or emphasizes the proximal relationship between the Spirit and the disciples, through the lens of discourse analysis, we are able to affirm that the the nearness of the Spirit was the most unexpected, non-established piece of information in these two statements. For this reason they were fronted, to mark them as focal. (If you go back to our first example of John 15.1a, you'll see that "vinedresser" is also fronted in the P2 slot, while "my father" occupies the P1 position).

In summary, we've seen how discourse analysis can help us to better understand the pragmatic effects from changes in word order, particularly fronting. And we mainly saw that the traditional explanation that any and all types of fronting are to mark out some word as emphatic simply doesn't due justice to the discourse mechanisms utilized in languages like Greek. For instance, we saw how some constituents might be fronted to promote an entity as the topic of an utterance (P1), while other times it may be to signal a constituent as the focus of a proposition (P2).

Next week we'll look at how the Greek article plays a role some exegetical decisions.


Levinsohn, S. 2012. Self-Instruction Materials on Narrative Discourse Analysis. (Online at