[b-greek] Re: Hypotaxis & Parataxis

From: Philip Graber (omc01091@mail.wvnet.edu)
Date: Thu Oct 12 2000 - 16:39:44 EDT


When you say, "Hypotaxis & Parataxis can be viewed as two means to the same
end," and that they have an "identical functional result," you have to
define what end and what functional result you have in mind. If they were
functionally the same in every respect, the contrast between them would
undoubtedly disappear.

Significant work exists in systemic functional linguistics (SFG) for several
languages that is relevant to your query. One of the significant
differences between spoken and written modes of language is that spoken
language tends to have greater grammatical complexity but less lexical
density (vice versa for written language). [This statement needs a lot of
unpacking. For one thing, "spoken" and "written" are understood in SFG to
be endpoints on a continuum, not a binary distinction, and maybe not one
continuum, but as many as there are dimensions to mode. For example, an
extemporaneous, casual letter quickly dashed off is probably more "spoken"
in mode than a formal academic address delivered orally. Another way to say
this is that the distinction between spoken or written mode is not the same
as between oral or graphic medium. Pardon me for rambling.]

Hypotaxis is associated with grammatical complexity, whereas parataxis is
associated with lexical density. By grammatical complexity I mean the
complex structures that are evident when one tries to diagram constructions
with many relative clauses and other subordinate clauses strung together in
grammatical relationship to an independent clause. By lexical density I
mean the number of lexical items ("content words" as opposed to "function
words") per clause. Spoken mode of discourse tends to use clauses that are
not lexically dense but are strung together in grammatically complex
dependency structures. This probably has to do with ease of processing
(both at the production end and at the comprehension end). Written mode
tends to use clauses that are related to one another paratactically but are
internally complex, sometimes with embedded clauses, but more often with
nominalized verbs, prepositional phrases and other grammatical means of
packing a lot of lexical content into one clause. The reasons for this are
complex, but it is possible to do because written mode usually means
preparation and editing and on the reading end, one can dwell on a passage
and not feel compelled to move on. [Note that even in oral academic
discourse, as well as political debates, language in an oral medium is often
carefully thought out through much practice or familiarity with technical

In my dissertation, I use as an example of the contrast Hebrews 1:3-4 and
Philemon 10-14. Even though the former is itself a relative clause, it is
all one clause, and thus very lexically dense. Philemon 10-14, on the other
hand, has a similar number of lexical items, but they are distributed across
eight ranking clauses, six of which are paratactically related to the
clauses that precede them. Sorry I don't have time to type them out to
illustrate. These are extreme examples, but illustrate what is more
generally true, that Philemon is closer to the "spoken" end of the mode
continuum and Hebrews is closer to the "written" end (in fact, pretty close
to that end, I'd say).

What is said using parataxis can be "translated" into language using
hypotaxis and vice versa. But paratactic, lexically dense text "translated"
into hypotactic, lexically less dense text results in a much longer text.
"Translating" spoken text into written text, on the other hand, is a kind of

That's my read on it. Sorry for the long note.

Philip Graber
Ronceverte, West Virginia, USA

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