Using DBL’s Semantic Domains

When you are studying a word, it’s often a good idea to look at synonyms and antonyms for that word as well. For example, if you were studying the English word run, you might also want to consider how words like sprint, jog, or even gallop overlap in meaning with run, and to what extent they are different. You may also want to consider how run and its synonyms are transformed into other parts of speech: What can the word jogger tell us about the meaning of run that runny cannot?

Finding words that are related to one another in meaning is also useful for studying the Bible, or else resources like Girdlestone’s Synonyms of the Old Testament or Trench’s Synonyms of the New Testament wouldn’t exist — not to mention Louw and Nida’s Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament based on Semantic Domains. The Louw-Nida dictionary is particularly interesting, since it arranges all the words of the Greek New Testament by means of a hierarchical taxonomy, where each entry rests within a “domain” of meaning alongside any other words that have some degree of semantic overlap.

That’s all fine and good if you’re only studying the Greek of the New Testament. But what about the Old Testament?


Jim Swanson’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages can be used as a sort of poor-man’s Louw-Nida for the Hebrew OT. How so? Because each entry is arranged by Louw-Nida domain.

Swanson’s DBL leans toward the “usage in context determines word meaning” end of the lexicographical spectrum, which means that each word is considered to have many shades of meaning depending on the various contexts in which it occurs. Thus, where the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon divides a word like דַּק into two senses, one glossed thin, and one glossed fine, DBL divides it into five: 1) gaunt, 2) stunted, 3) powdered, 4) flake-like, and 5) gentle.
Each of these five shades of meaning is assigned a Louw-Nida domain number by Swanson — that’s how he distinguishes one usage from another. Here’s where things start to get really interesting.

Let’s say you’re studying a word like חָזוּת, which means “revelation” (among other things) according to DBL. In order to find other words that are in the same area of meaning, we simply need to a) observe which Louw-Nida domain is assigned to this usage by DBL, and b) search DBL for other words in that same domain.

A DBL Entry

As you can see from the screenshot above, DBL sorts the “revelation” sense of חָזוּת into the LN range 33.459-33.462. To search DBL for that exact range, we need to open the Basic Search dialog, so choose Search | Basic Search… from the main menu. Then enter LouwNida = "33.459-33.462" into the Search box. Make sure that DBL is chosen in the In drop-down list. Your search should look like this:

(It’s worth noting that by using the name = "value" syntax, we’re specifically searching for references to the Louw-Nida datatype (reference scheme), and not for the plain text “33.459-33.462″. You can do the same with Bible references: Bible = "Jn 3:16" will find references to (exactly) John 3:16 no matter how they are spelled. Bible in "Jn 3:16", on the other hand, will find any references that intersect with John 3:16, no matter how they are spelled.)

You should find the following words: חָזוֹן (revelation, masc.), חָזוּת (revelation, fem.), חִזָּיוֹן (revelation, vision), מַחֲזֶה (revelation), נָאַם (declare as a prophet), נָבָא (prophesy), נְבוּאָה (prophecy).

How these words are related (or not) is left as an exercise for the reader, but from here it wouldn’t be difficult to create a word list (File | New… | Word List) that could be used to constrain a graphical search query …

Update: I said above that “Jim Swanson’s Dictionary of Biblical Languages can be used as a sort of poor-man’s Louw-Nida for the Hebrew OT.” Jim comments, saying that he wouldn’t call DBL a poor-man’s lexicon, and that it has been praised for its semantic domain coverage. I absolutely agree. By “poor-man’s Louw-Nida,” I was addressing relative affordability, not the relative quality of the lexicon. For some reason, I thought that LN cost more than DBL, but as it turns out, you can have either book for $39.95, and both come in Scholar’s Library — so they’re both affordable! Shows you what I know.

I was also thinking of breadth of coverage and ease of use. I’m probably going to offend Louw and Nida now, but DBL gives you a little bit more bang for the buck. Here’s what I mean: I for one, use DBL far more often than I use Louw-Nida, for the simple fact that I study Hebrew far more often than Greek. As far as I know, DBL is the only lexicon to apply semantic categories to a Hebrew lexicon. Furthermore, even for Greek, entries in the Louw-Nida lexicon are arranged first by semantic domain and then alphabetically by Greek headword, whereas the DBL Greek lexicon is arranged in the more familiar alphabetic arrangement by headword, with all the semantic domains for each word listed there.

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4 Responses to “Using DBL’s Semantic Domains”

  1. Michael Hollinger September 7, 2005 at 8:39 am #

    Eli, These are awesome posts! I have a lot of references that I know are made easier by having them in Libronix format, but I don’t always know what they do. For those of us who are newer to the these tools, introductions to these resources are priceless. Thanks!

  2. Richard L September 7, 2005 at 10:11 am #

    Very useful, thanks. Semantic domain searching is something I try to do a lot, but don’t often know how best to accomplish within Libronix.

  3. Mario Porras September 19, 2005 at 1:25 pm #

    this would be hepful for spanish readers
    May I translate it?

  4. Jim Swanson October 27, 2005 at 9:12 pm #

    I am not sure I would call DBL Hebrew a poor-man’s lexicon. It has been given ratings in “semantics” as “good” by people knowledgeable in the field.