Analyzing Prescriptive Grammatical Differences Between the Psalms

Cartoon stack of multicolored books.

Last December I decided to challenge myself to read the entire bible in a year.  Several months into my journey, I felt a huge shift within myself and was able to connect to what I was reading on a much deeper level.  Fast forward a few months to August; the start of my semester taking Dr. Hill’s Linguistics course, where much of the information and subject matter seemed like knowledge from a far away, highly technical land I would never be able to comfortably explain.  However, much to my surprise, the information we were learning in class kept sticking in my head!  Little by little, words such as adverbials, nominals and infinitives, although they seemed like they could come from another language initially, became more familiar each time class met.  As the semester progressed, I even began subconsciously looking for them in my everyday life!  

During this semester, I was able to read through the Psalms and the messages really resonated with me.  Two of my favorites are Psalms 127 and Psalms 138, written by Solomon and David, respectively.  Both Psalms are under 10 verses but are so full of information that it literally took a couple days to really digest and process.  When we were assigned our final project, I was so excited that I decided to incorporate the two and apply what I’ve learned in linguistics to better understanding the writers of the bible.

For my project, I decided to analyze the prescriptive conventions of the linguistic etiquette and the use of modifiers in these two Psalms.  Although both writers were divinely inspired, I noticed the mood each author expressed seemed to depend on the use of modifiers, primarily within the dependent clauses and infinitive verb phrases functioning as adverbials.  By first identifying the predicating verb, I was able to point out the modifiers and how they affected each phrase.

Before we continue, I would like to address and define a few terms to ensure we are all on the same page.  All complete sentences that have a subject and verb and express complete thoughts and are called independent clauses.  If an independent clause does not express a complete thought, however, it becomes a dependent clause.  Now, many parts of a sentence can be described but we will focus only on what we need for this project: adverbials and infinitive verb phrases.  An adverbial is basically just a word or phrase that acts like an adverb.  One of the most sure-fire ways of identifying an adverbial is to ask if it answers when? where? how? and to what extent (like how much or how long)?   Not too bad, huh?  

Just like adverbials, infinitive verb phrases are not as scary as they seem either!  Infinitive verb phrases are base verbs that are preceded by the word ‘to’.  A few examples are “to spell”, “to wish”, and “to type”.  For the purpose of my project, I will solely be looking at infinitive verb phrases that function as adverbials used to describe the predicating verb of a sentence.

After analyzing the two Psalms, I found some very interesting information.  To better explain my findings, I created a table and color coded the parts of speech I focused on.  

A Song of Ascents.
Psalm 127: 1-2
A Psalm of Solomon

1. Unless the Lord builds the house, they labor in vain who build it;“Unless the Lord builds the house,” is a dependent clause acting as an adverbial because it describes how “they” will labor in vain if the Lord does not build the house.  
Additionally, “in vain” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverbial, because it describes how they labor.  
A very interesting side note was the phrase “who build it”.  Although it is a dependent clause, it is very cool (does that make me a nerd?!) because it also functioned as a subject complement to “they.” 
Unless the Lord guards the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.“Unless the Lord guards the city,” is a dependent clause acting as an adverbial because it answers the question, “how?”
“In vain” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverbial because it describes “how” they will stay awake.  
2. It is vain for you to rise up early, to sit up late,“for you” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverbial because it answers the question of how you will wake up.  Too early?  Too late?  Additionally, “to sit up late” is a dependent clause and an adverbial answering to what extent I will be staying up late. 
To eat the bread of sorrows; For He gives His beloved sheep“To eat the bread of sorrows” is an infinitive phrase.  Although it is not considered an adverbial (because it did not answer any of the proving questions).  Interestingly, the repetition of the preposition “to” creates an almost music-sounding pensive, reflective mood.

Yellow-Predicating Verbs
Underlined– Prepositional Phrase
Pink– Adverbs
Blue– Infinitive phrases
Orange-Coordinating Conjunction

Psalm 138:1-2

A Psalm of David.

1. I will praise You with my whole heart;“with my whole heart” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverbial because it explains how I will praise God.  Additionally, the word “whole” is an adjective describing my heart that creates a truly joyful mood of unconditional love.
Before the gods I will sing praises to You.“before the gods” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverbial because it answers where I will sing praises.  This sentence in particular was interesting to me because it is the only sentence that is written in passive voice.  
2. I will worship toward Your holy temple, and praise Your name.“toward Your holy temple” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverbial because it answers where I will be worshipping.  
For Your loving kindness and Your truth;“for Your loving kindness and Your truth” is a prepositional phrase acting as an adverbial because it answers how God magnifies His word in the subsequent dependent clause.  
For You have magnified Your word above all Your name.  Adverbial Dependent Clause because it emphasizes to what extent God has magnified His word and name.  It was interesting to note the word (or a variation of) “You” was used five times.  

Yellow-Predicating Verbs
Underlined– Prepositional Phrase
Pink– Adverbs

After analyzing the two Psalms, I was very interested to see a distinction between the writing styles of two authors.  Psalm 127, written by Solomon, contained a significant amount of infinitive phrases which created a sort of rhythm while reading through it.  The simple repetition of the infinitive phrases emphasized a pleasant, poetic rhythm within the lines.  On the other hand, Psalm 138, written by David, did not contain any infinitive phrases.  Although beautiful, I did notice David’s Psalm was not as melodic as Solomons, and I’m sure that had to do with the lack of infinitive phrases! Additionally, I noticed David’s Psalm contained much more prepositional phrases which kind of created a break in the flow of the sentences.  There were a lot more repetitive words in his work than in Solomons. 

Modifiers in Solomon’s Psalms were found only in independent clauses were used, while David’s Psalms contained modifiers found mostly in prepositional phrases. Although both Psalms were written to God, David’s Psalms were much more direct with his active voice and repetitive use of “you” as opposed to Solomon who utilized a passive voice.  

Prior to embarking on this journey, I’ve always been inclined towards David’s writings.  Something about his faith, courage and determination always inspired me to try and be a better person.  However, after analyzing it through the lens of an amateur linguist, I must say the experience was quite different!  Noticing the prevalence of prepositional phrases deterred from the overall poetic tone of the excerpt, but it helped in emphasizing the characteristics of God, which is the ultimate purpose of the writing.  Solomon included four prepositional phrases, one of which was repeated, but it did not alter the overall meaning of the segment as much as it did David’s.  

Ultimately, this was process was a very positive experience.  Learning to navigate through the English language is definitely not the easiest task in the world, but with great guidance, anything is possible!  After analyzing these two pieces, I did begin to wonder how an analysis might compare if the Psalms were originally written in English, as opposed to Hebrew or Greek.  Hmmm, maybe time to start my next project! 😊 (smiley face emoji)

– Ashley Lucio

Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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