What Can I Say? Implications and Communicative Functions of Rhetorical “WH” Questions in Classical Biblical Hebrew Prose

in Vetus Testamentum
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The rhetorical question is a sentence whose meaning is that of a question, but which is used to indirectly express an assertion. This paper examines content (“WH”) rhetorical questions in classical biblical prose, classifying them according to implications and communicative goals. Rhetorical questions have one of three types of implications: negative, specific, and extreme scalar implications. The content rhetorical question is found to be a versatile conversational device in the Bible, serving a variety of distinct communicative functions which operate on multiple levels. It is directly or indirectly connected to persuasion in most of its uses. The rhetorical question is in essence an intensifier, deriving its force on the higher-level of function from the implication of obviousness. In some cases, however, the choice of a persuasive form of communication rather than a more direct strategy has the effect of mitigation on the superordinate function level.

Vetus Testamentum

A Quarterly Published by the International Organization for the Study of the Old Testament




E. N. Pope, “Questions and Answers in English,” pp. 59-60.


Ilie, What Else Can I Tell You, p. 38.


J. F. van Rensburg, “Wise Men Saying Things by Asking Questions: The Function of the Interrogative in Job 3 to 14,” OTE 4 (1991), p. 246; A. Warren-Rothlin, “Politeness Strategies in Biblical Hebrew and West African Languages,” Journal of Translation 3 (2007), p. 66. Hyman, “Questions and the Book of Ruth,” HS 24 (1983), pp. 22-23, states that “critical/corrective” questions can be mitigating. Di Giulio “Mitigating Devices,” 56 views rhetorical questions used for self-abasement (see note 9, above) as mitigators. It has been claimed that English rhetorical questions can also be used for mitigation as well as for strengthening; see Ilie, What Else Can I Tell You, pp. 10, 54-55.


See Fraser, “Conversational Mitigation,” p. 346; Brown and Levinson, Politeness, p. 128.


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