Saturday, August 23, 2014

My Updated Book Review of Michael W. Palmer's "Levels of Constituent Structure"

Those who have studied an ancient biblical language like Greek or Latin (or Hebrew) know that genuine advancement in language learning is truly attained when one understands Greek (Latin) beyond the word or sentence level. Michael W. Palmer's Levels of Constituent Structure in New Testament Greek (New York: Peter Lang, 1995) emphasizes this point through the analysis of verb and noun phrases contained in New Testament Greek. Levels is part of a series called "Studies in Biblical Greek" edited by Donald A. Carson (the notable author of Exegetical Fallacies). The book is approximately 145 pp. in length and fairly technical: I would recommend this work for advanced students only. In the following paragraphs, the strong aspects and unique contents of Palmer's study will be noted.

Levels provides a succinct and clear review of modern linguistic approaches like rationalism and structuralism along with transformational-generative grammar (associated with Noam Chomsky); then a discussion on general linguistic methodology and syntactic structures in particular ensues. Accordingly, the main part of Palmer's analysis revolves around noun and verb phrases, but he manifests penetrating insight when calling for a reconsideration of attributive and predicative adjectival distinctions along with constituent structural levels as they pertain to noun and verb phrases.

Palmer's monograph is well-written. Its approach seems to be governed by transformational-generative grammar, but the work certainly goes beyond similar presentations offered up in the past. Levels includes a number of tree diagrams. Nonetheless, it helpfully provides a multitude of examples illustrating constituent structure within the NT. He also works with clause-level, phrase-level and word-level constituents. However, Palmer thinks that these kinds of constituents are not sufficient to account for other New Testament Greek structures. Therefore he suggests an intermediate-level constituent between the familiar clause and phrase-level structures.

This intermediate-level constituent is discussed on page 72 of Levels where Luke 2:13 is invoked as an example of the need to use innovative distinctions that Palmer respectively calls N-bar and V-bar. That is, Palmer believes it is possible (even preferable) to designate some constituents as reduced noun and reduced verb phrases (N-bar and V-bar). He appeals to other constructions in Luke such as Luke 14:12 and 20:37 to substantiate this general point.

Palmer's work is valuable for those who want to move beyond studying Greek at the level of words or mere sentences. Consequently, it benefits students who desire to analyze Greek structures at the clause or phrase-level. This work will have little bearing on biblical interpretation; however, it just might change how scholars and students approach New Testament Greek grammar. The effects of Palmer's study will undoubtedly be indirect. He believes that syntactical studies will probably benefit the most from his work, although pragmatics (as a branch of linguistics) will assuredly contribute to an understanding of biblical Greek, ancient rhetoric and deixis (Palmer, page 82).

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