Asyndeton as unmarked connective

In his Discourse Grammar of the Greek New Testament, I’m thrilled that Steven Runge begins chapter 2 on “Connecting Propositions” with a discussion of asyndeton as the unmarked (default) connective. Asyndeton basically means that no connective is used to link consecutive propositions in a discourse. I believe that exegetes may often find huge benefits in recognizing asyndeton as the unmarked connective, especially if they ask why no other connective was used. This is a great example of the payload of the concept that Runge introduces in chapter one that “choice implies meaning” (pp. 5ff). Since the author had the choice to use various connectives, what is the specific meaning of this connective? And this is no less true with asyndeton when no connective appears.

However, I think Runge is still riding the fence a bit and perpetuating a misconception about asyndeton that contradicts the linguistic theory of markedness that he has already summarized. He’s right on when he says this:

The use of asyndeton indicates that the writer chose not to make a relation explicit. The relation must be gleaned from the context (p. 22).

And he’s also right to suggest that “asyndeton can be used at points of discontinuity” or “in contexts of close connection, such as moving from generic to specific” (pp. 22-23). But that is the extent of what Runge says about asyndeton used to express continuity. Nothing else. On the other hand, the weight of his discussion promotes the idea that asyndeton does NOT mean what other connectives mean:

Levinsohn summarizes the use of asyndeton in non-narrative by stating that since explicit connectives are used to indicate clause relationships such as strengthening, developmental, associative, or inferential, “the use of asyndeton tends to imply ‘not strengthening, not developmental, not associative, not inferential, etc.‘ ” (p. 23, citing Levinsohn, Discourse Features of New Testament Greek, 2nd ed., p. 119).

But that is only one side of a much more carefully nuanced description by Levinsohn:

Strictly speaking, the absence of any conjunction between sentences of a Greek text should imply only that the author offered no processing constraint on how the following material was to be related to its context… In practice, however, New Testament authors tend to use a conjunction whenever the relationship with the context concerned is strengthening (γὰρ), developmental (δὲ), associative or additive (καὶ), or inferential-cum-resumptive (ὅτι), etc. Consequently, asyndeton tends to imply “not strengthening, not developmental, not associative, not inferential, etc.” This is why asyndeton is often the norm when the relation of the following material to the context is not logical or chronological. [At this point, Levinsohn includes a footnote in which he suggests asyndeton as the norm for orientation, restatement, and associative (comment and parenthetical) relationships.]

Asyndeton is found in two very different contexts in non-narrative text:

  • when there is a close connection between the information concerned (i.e., the information belongs together in the same unit)
  • when there is no direct connection between the information concerned (i.e., the information belongs to different units).  (Levinsohn, p. 118)

At this point, Levinsohn includes a footnote in which he suggests that one may recognize when no direct connection between juxtaposed information is intended by the presence of vocatives and orienters (complement-taking predicates). I don’t agree with Levinsohn on this point. These devices may be included precisely to draw attention to the next development in the argument whether or not it relates to the previous passage. On this point, Iver Larsen argues that a vocative is

a rhetorical device, not a structural device, and it functions to establish a closer relationship with the hearers.” (“Boundary features in the Greek New Testament,” Notes on Translation, vol. 5, 1991:51)

The default assumption in any communication is that consecutive units do relate. I don’t believe that just because an author may typically use particular connectives to explicitly convey specific relationships that the use of asyndeton in other places means that those relationships are not implied. It may simply be the difference of whether those relationships are explicitly indicated with a conjunction or implicitly included with asyndeton. Sometimes making the relationship explicit says too much, or skews the argument, or betrays the persuasive power of the author too soon and ruins the chances for successful and convincing communication.

Thus, asyndeton is best understood as the unmarked form that may implicitly include a broad range of semantic relationships. But the way that Runge presents asyndeton, with the weight of its supposed significance falling on discontinuity, contradicts what he has already summarized about markedness:

The default option is considered ‘unmarked’ for the qualities found in the other members of the set. The quality may or may not be present.  The choice to use a marked form represents the choice to explicitly signal the presence of a quality that would only have been implicit if the default were used (pp. 11-12).

Whether the relation is explicit or implicit is very different from saying that the unmarked use of asyndeton implies that those logical relations are not present at all. ‘Unmarked’ means that a feature is not explicitly included. It does not follow, however, that a feature is explicitly excluded.

In my recent thesis addressing discourse concerns in the Letter of James, I have discussed the extensive use of asyndeton in that letter. Scholarship in James has too often erred in assuming that asyndeton implies discontinuity. That idea follows the outdated approach to James made popular by Dibelius in the early 20th century that the letter is composed of a string of unrelated sayings and shorter discourses. Yet, it is very enlightening to interpret the possible functions of asyndeton in the same letter if we follow the default assumption of coherence (as humanity universally does with almost any communication).

Here is the description of asyndeton that I have proposed in discussing the Letter of James. It follows the theory of markedness more closely…

Although the interpretation of explicit conjunctions is often a matter of inferring implied semantic information, the prevalence of asyndeton (the lack of conjunctions), means that coherence and text organization must be determined even more frequently on the basis of implied logical relationships. With 80 instances of asyndeton after 1.1, other bases must be recognized for grouping many units together, including implied semantic relationships. This is also true for larger spans. Investigating the possible logical relationships where asyndeton shows up at higher discourse levels is often neglected. It is difficult since the possibilities for coherence are multiplied with larger spans of text. The major difficulty with analyzing asyndeton is that it may represent either of opposite ends on a scale of cohesion. The two units may be so closely related that no conjunction divides the thought. Or, the units may be so distinct that no conjunction is necessary. If asyndeton is considered to reflect continuity, the extent of each unit being related and the implied logical relation are also unspecified. These determinations must be made from other contextual clues. If anything, asyndeton may indicate the author’s desire to not emphasize any specific relationship. Asyndeton is often found between spans that have some kind of continuity and discontinuity, and for that reason, an explicit conjunction may have communicated too much. (Pehrson, “Mitigation and Intensification of Persuasive Discourse in a Koine Greek Letter: Coherent Macrostructure in the Letter of James,” pp. 58-59)

I see now that what I have described above is somewhat close to what Levinsohn describes for asyndeton. We both recognize the possibility of asyndeton being able to reflect either continuity or discontinuity. However, I am much more ready to find continuity (even if it is a more loose or broadly defined continuity) where Levinsohn may see a change in major or minor topics (cf. Levinsohn, p. 119).

Levinsohn also suggests that asyndeton and other connectives are used differently by different New Testament authors:

The ways in which καὶ and δὲ are used in John’s Gospel do not correspond exactly with how they are employed in the Synoptic Gospels and Acts. This is because two other forms of linkage are employed in John’s Gospel in contexts in which καὶ and δὲ would have occurred had the material been written in the style of the Synoptics. One of them is asyndeton (the absence of a conjunction), which is John’s default means of conjoining sentences (Poythress 1984:331), instead of καὶ. John’s other common marker of linkage is ὅτι; he uses it as a low-level development marker in certain contexts in which the Synoptics and Acts use δὲ. (Levinsohn, pp. 81-82)

Such variance of usage between different authors is a good argument that supports the idea that “choice implies meaning.” Yet with asyndeton, we must not take this too far and conclude that asyndeton cannot mean what other connectors mean. Rather than being a question of either-or, it is probably more of a scalar notion. Asyndeton may imply the same relationship as other connectives, but it does not express it explicitly. There may be a difference of degree for the particular relation, or asyndeton may be an intentional move in the rhetoric to even momentarily hide the relationship. Good argumentation is not always immediately clear. Asyndeton may allow the movement of the argument to be realized only after more of the story is heard, and then with the benefit of gaining a better hearing.

So, I disagree with Runge somewhat in the details. As he says in the preface,

The reader still bears the responsibility of synthesizing and interpreting the analysis and can choose to reject a claim just as one might with most any other scholarly resource. (p. xix)

But I’m still loving this book. Runge is a good conversation partner. And it’s good to go back to Levinsohn and other discourse studies while reading him.


3 Responses to “Asyndeton as unmarked connective”

  1. [ad hoc] Christianity , Archive » Episode #6: Blogosphere roundup, Feb 9, 2011 Says:

    […] (or Matrix)Ken Schenck (Quadrilateral Thoughts): Heaping Coals of Fire (Rom. 12:20)Agapeseis: Asyndeton as unmarked connectiveKeith Reich (Know Thyself): The TrinityEric Reitan (The Piety That Lies Between): Petitionary […]

  2. srunge Says:

    I think your criticism of my overview is valid; I purposely avoided the amount of nuanced detail which Levinsohn provides because few scholars I’ve met have ever successfully finished reading his book! Your comments are especially valid in James due to the inordinate frequency of asyndeton compared to Paul’s writings. I did an analysis of James this last year in prep for my ISBL paper and arrived at very similar conclusions regarding thematic continuity and asyndeton. I argued the same in my vocatives paper, noting where James uses forms of address just before a significant claim. Nevertheless, at some level this is still a transition in the discourse, but not a high-level one. In this sense it is still found at a boundary, albeit a lower-level one.

    This is why I have advocated evaluating “boundary features” through the processing hierarchy described in the historical present chapter. Using a vocative, normally associated with higher-level transitions (e.g. James 3:10b), in a lower-level transition, brings about certain pragmatic effects: cataphoric highlighting. In that since Larsen’s claim of a rhetorical device points in a more helpful direction, but does provide guidance for synthesizing the varied usage.

    There are practical constraints on what can be accomplished in a single volume. My hope was that my book would serve as a prequel to Levinsohn’s so that more folks would both read and understand his work. It has received far too little attention, and my aim was to correct that. Sorry for not providing the kind of detail you were looking for.

    • bzephyr Says:

      Hi Steve, thank you so much for your response here. I am thrilled with the quality of your introductory book. It goes so much deeper than many introductory volumes. And in such a neglected area of study! So thank you, thank you, thank you! I just referred someone to your book today.
      Yes, I see that my comments about asyndeton may be especially influenced by my study of James and its more frequent use there.
      Can I please get a copy of your ISBL paper? I can also send you my 2010 thesis on the discourse of James, if you’d like.

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