Intertextuality and Lexical Priming

Recently I was introduced to a linguistic theory called lexical priming in the most recent issue of Biblical and Ancient Greek Linguistics , by Gregory Fewster of McMaster Divinity College. After doing some brief reading of Hoey’s theory of lexical priming I thought it would be helpful to provide short overview of it. I think Fewster has provided a helpful test case of using lexical priming in finding intertextual connections in the New Testament.

Michael Hoey proposed a theory known as lexical priming. Lexical priming is a “psychological phenomenon…that as words are experienced by language users in day to day life, co-occurring words and grammatical and semantic patterns become associated with them…priming is thus the cumulative result of repeated encounters with a particular word.”[1] The association of words primes the use of these words in later contexts. This association of words is called collocation, which according to Hoey, is a “psychological association between words (rather than lemmas) up to four words apart and is evidenced by their occurrence together in corpora more often than is explicable in terms of random distribution.”[2] Priming is a way of explaining how collocation comes about. We can only “account for collocation if we assume that every word is primed for collocational use.”[3] Since priming is a psychological function then it doesn’t necessarily need to be semantically related. Therefore, “every time we use a word, and every time we encounter it anew, the experience either reinforces the priming by confirming an existing association between the word and its co-texts and contexts, or it weakens the priming, if we encounter a word in unfamiliar contexts.”[4] An example Hoey gives is with the words “recent” and “research”. He notes that the word “research” generally is not used in contexts outside of academic or news writing. Therefore “research” is primed in the minds of academic language users to occur with “recent” in such contexts and not others.

Fewster’s Summary of Hoey’s Guidelines for Lexical Priming:[5]

  1. Frequent co-occurence of one lexeme with another
  2. Grammatical patterns a word appears in and the grammatical function
  3. The meanings with which it is associated (semantic association)
  4. The pragmatics it is associated with (pragmatic association)
  5. The genres, styles, domains, and social situations it occurs in, and/or is restricted to
  6. The patterns of cohesion (or absence) it forms in a text (textual collocation)
  7. The textual positioning of the word.

So how does this guide us in interpretation? Understanding collocation and lexical priming from a linguistic perspective will guide and constrain exegetes in determining the intertextual probability of a single word. Fewster provides a helpful analysis, using lexical priming, of the word ματαιὁτης in Ecclesiastes and the possible connections in Ephesians, 4:17, Romans 8:20, and 2 Peter 2:18. His observations were guided and constrained by an understanding of lexical priming, which helps avoid the fallacy of illegitimate totality transfer.[6] I think his analysis provides a helpful framework of moving forward in discerning intertextual connections in Holy Scripture. As interpreters it would be fruitful to interact with more of Hoey’s work in lexical priming and provide more test cases, like Fewster’s, in discerning intertextual connections.

  1. Fewster, Gregory. “Testing the Intertextuality of Ματαιότης in the New Testament.” Journal of Biblical and Ancient Greek Language 1, no. 1 (2012): 39–61, 40–41  ↩

  2. Hoey, Michael. Lexical Priming: A New Theory of Words and Language. Routledge, 2005, 5  ↩

  3. Hoey 8  ↩

  4. Hoey 9  ↩

  5. Fewster 43  ↩

  6. Fewster 42 (FN 8)  ↩