“The Semantic Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew (henceforth SDBH) project is carried out under the auspices of the United Bible Societies. It was launched in the year 2000. Its aim is to build a new dictionary of biblical Hebrew that is based on semantic domains, comparable to Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, which was first published in 1989.” So says their About page; I’m not familiar with the Louw-Nida work, but the definitions here are broken down by semantic categories, so that the first sense of אָב /av/ is given as “(a) Kinship = direct male progenitor; ► who normally provides protection, care, instruction, and discipline; ≈ is usually regarded with respect and associated with wisdom, security, and comfort – father,” with what other dictionaries would give as the definition coming last. If anyone is familiar with this sort of dictionary, I’d appreciate hearing how you use it; it’s certainly interesting to glance through. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)


  1. marie-lucie says

    This unusual type of dictionary is being developed for Bible translators who wish to go back to the Hebrew text. I just looked at the site casually, and the main difference with regular dictionaries seems to be that instead of first giving one or more translations of the word (eg /av/ : ‘father’) as do bilingual dictionaries, it defines, that is it describes the meaning(s) of the word in more general terms, and breaks down those definitions according to the semantic domain(s) to which the word belongs and also the contexts in which it appears. In this way it is more like a regular monolingual dictionary. The suggested translation or common equivalent of the word in a modern language comes last, after the reader has been able to determine which of the explanations best fits the text in which the word appears (and might therefore cause the use of a different word than the usual translation). Also, the dictionary does not separate nouns, verbs, adjectives, etc which are the same or derived from each other into individual entries, since a given concept cannot or should not always be translated by the same part of speech. The advantage of this type of organization is that all the uses and shades of meaning of the word are explained before a translation is suggested, since a straight translation of a word can lead the reader to think that the words in the two languages are equivalent, and that is often far from being the case, especially given the structural difference between English/French/Spanish/Portuguese (the current versions of the dictionary) and Biblical Hebrew, not to mention the vastly different cultural contexts. In this way, the translator gets a thorough explanation of the various meanings of the word in different contexts, without being swayed by the meanings and connotations of the commonly given equivalent in the language into which the text is being translated (or especially the intermediate language, such as English, between the original Hebrew and the target language).
    I think that this type of dictionary would be very useful, not only for (re)translations of the Bible into well-known languages which have many versions of it, but especially for its translations into lesser-known languages, without the interference of an existing English, etc version to start from, as is common practice (the editor seems to have had much experience in Africa).

  2. Yes, I believe that is where Nida was coming from.

  3. English/French/Spanish/Portuguese (the current versions of the dictionary)
    So far as I can tell, marie-lucie, there is only an “English version” of the dictionary. The French, Spanish and Portuguese bits are just window-dressing for the site. The “intermediate language” and the “target language” are both English.
    I have a standard American Bible concordance (still in storage, alas) which, as far as I can remember, is not unlike the SDBH, except that the authors do not use the expression “semantic domain”. Hat asks how one might use this work. My answer would be: to learn the (chronologically circumscribed) language in question. I’m going to look at Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon at the first opportunity. What great stuff.
    I remember a Hat blog last year in which several commenters were whining about linguists motivated by their Christian faith. Invidious poppycock !

  4. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly, this dictionary is a work in progress, and I guess the versions in other languages are planned for a future date. The description of the project makes it clear that most contributors will be volunteers.
    The “intermediate language” and the “target language” are both English.
    I mean that a missionary or local clergy in South America or Africa or whatever, who wants to translate into a local language (the target language) could use the appropriate version of the dictionary to better understand the meaning and connotations of the original words, in order to produce a translation which is not based only on an English text such as the KJV or updated version, or similar Spanish, etc version (the intermediate language).

  5. Yes, I thought you meant that, marie-lucie. The trouble is, the SDBH as found on the site contains only two languages: Biblical Hebrew and English. Therefore any immediate use to which the SDBH is put can only be for one of those two languages. There is no third, fourth etc. language in sight.
    It seems to me that the SDBH can, primarily, only improve one’s knowledge of Biblical Hebrew, and one’s knowledge of English as a native speaker of English. In no special way can it promote more accurate translations to a different, say African, language. If the translator is not already in full command of that African target language, the SDBH cannot help him along that road – since the SDBH is in Hebrew and English only.
    The SDBH may help a translator better understand what up in the Old Testament, but will not help him to express it in any other languages than those which he already commands. I take the SDBH to be more about content (“semantic domains”) than form (“language”).
    The English in the SDBH is surely just as much an “intermediate language” as the English of the KJV ? The goal of the SDBH is surely to improve one’s understanding of Hebrew and English – which is what I meant by calling English the “target language” here.

  6. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly, I understand your point, but the philosophy behind the SDBH is based on the work of Eugene Nida who was not concerned so much about Hebrew to English translation as on training people who would translate religious texts into a variety of “exotic” languages which they themselves would have learned, and in which basic translation of words without a knowledge of the connotations surrounding them could lead to gross misunderstandings. These people needed training both in structural linguistic analysis (so they were prepared for differences in pronunciation and grammar) and in semantics.
    As an example, the Bible describes a patriarchal social structure where originally pastoral nomads eventually became settled as agriculturists. In this society, “father” means both the biological progenitor and the older male having considerable authority on both his offspring and their mothers. But missionaries might be faced with quite different social structures where the biological and social roles of fathers may be quite different, the mere fact of a man’s genetic contribution to his offspring not conferring to him a particular authority over them (the authoritarian role often devolving to the mother’s brother(s)). In such societies, a word which simply means “(biological) father” has very different connotations than the Hebrew or English word, and may or may not be suitable as a translation for /av/ or “father” in a context dealing with social and therefore religious power.

  7. My thanks to both of you—I understand the idea much better now.

  8. Resident tragophiles will appreciate one of Nida’s examples, how ἀφορίζει τὰ πρόβατα ἀπὸ τῶν ἐρίφων shouldn’t be reversed for sub-Saharan Africans who have opposite preferences from Jewish shepherds, but does need a note of explanation for them. Likewise in God’s Word in Man’s Tongue, he points out that in Kpelle there are three possibilities for τὰ πρόβατα … ἀκολουθοῦσιν μοι, distinguishing ‘follow at a great distance’, ‘stalk’, and the correct ‘follow the leader’.

  9. To add to what M-L says, it could also work the other way — sometimes translators will find that the target language has a neat equivalent for a Hebrew word which has no good equivalent in English.
    A historical non-Biblical example comes from Juvaini’s Persian history of the Mongols. Juvaini used Persian kinship terminology to translate Mongol kinship terminology and did a bad job of it because it was a poor match, whereas if he had used Arabic kinship terminology he could have done a much better job. (Juvaini did know Arabic well, but he was a native speaker of Persian.)

  10. the correct ‘follow the leader’
    In a similar spirit, “avant-garde” might be more accurately rendered as “cannon-fodder”.

  11. marie-lucie says

    JE: it could also work the other way — sometimes translators will find that the target language has a neat equivalent for a Hebrew word which has no good equivalent in English.
    Absolutely! This can be true for both grammar and vocabulary.

  12. This could revolutionize lexicography. I would like a copy to review for my readership at

  13. the main difference with regular dictionaries seems to be that instead of first giving one or more translations of the word (eg /av/ : ‘father’) as do bilingual dictionaries, it defines, that is it describes the meaning(s) of the word in more general terms, and breaks down those definitions according to the semantic domain(s) to which the word belongs and also the contexts in which it appears.
    Holladay’s lexicon breaks down each word by the meaning in each biblical verse where it appears. For example the entry for av אָב : —I.(physical) father Gn2:24 = grandfather 28:13, ancestor of tribe, nation 10:21 pl = forefathers Gn 15:15; metaph. begetter (of rain) Jb 38:28….
    Q-bible does something similar to SDBH, but you can pull up biblical passages, search individual words within a passage, and see information from several sources.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Meaning, definition and translation of a word are not the same: “father, grandfather, ancestor, forefather, begetter” are all possible translations of the Hebrew word /av/, they are not meanings, they are English words which have meaning. Each of the meanings of the English words (and of the Hebrew word) can be explicited by a definition which gives the specific meanings, connotations and contexts of use in general terms, without limiting itself to “translating” (= giving an equivalent term) into a specific language, here English.
    As I understand it, the SDBH does not replace existing Hebrew-to-English dictionaries, it complements them, and in addition it has a wider purpose as I tried to explain above.

  15. By coincidence I am reading this in Abu Dhabi: Abu in the city/emirate’s name is frequently translated “father”, since “father” is the primary meaning of “abu” in Arabic, which leads to the claim that the name of the city means “father of the gazelle”. But “abu” is much better glossed here as “spring/fount/(water)source”, another, sub-meaning of “abu”, since the city was founded after hunters pursuing a dhabi, a type of gazelle, were led to a previously unknown spring of fresh water, which the local sheikh Al Nahyan
    then named “spring/(water)source of the gazelle” – “Abu Dhabi”.

  16. marie-lucie says

    Very nice exemple, Zythophile.

  17. Abu Dhabi: Abu in the city/emirate’s name is frequently translated “father”
    Jordanian Arabic place names for springs usually use عين, transliterated ayn or ain, pronounced like “eye” with an n at the end. There’s Ain el Basha, ‘Ain ez Zara, Ain Janna, Ain Musa (where Moses is said to have struck the stone with his staff to create a spring), and many others, including Ras al-Ain, where the new Amman city hall is built. According to Wehr, ain means eye as well as spring (which is also the common word I use for eye). North of the capital, there is also an area called Birkatain, used for religious purposes since Greek decapolis days, which is the location of two springs; the name is supposed to mean “double spring”. The -tain ending in Arabic is for dual–Arabic has singular, dual and plural.
    There is another use for “abu” as well. A person’s polite name consists of “abu” (father) or “um” (mother) in front of the name of their oldest child. So if the first child was a daughter named Yasmin, they would be known as Abu Yasmin and Um Yasmin, at least until the oldest son was born (so although the father is supposed to name the children as a sign of accepting paternity, the name of the first child–especially male child–is chosen after consulting together, since after a fashion they are also naming themselves).
    But using abu and um in front of a name can also be used indicate the person likes something very much. For example, Yasser Arafat was known as “abu shiffa” (father of lips) for his habit of non-stop kissing when he met someone. (A normal greeting is a kiss on either cheek, three max for special circumstances). I was known as “um shai” mother of tea, since I preferred (boiled) tea over the local water.

  18. How can I get this Semantic Dictionary that I can really study the content?

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