Wednesday, April 9, 2014

I'm back!

It has been a long time since I posted anything new here. In the years since my last post I have taught for three years in the English Department of Nawroz University in Duhok, Kurdish Region, Iraq. I have also finished my dissertation, titled Stanzaic Syntax in the Madrāšê of St. Ephrem. So I am now Dr. Stevenson!

During my time in Kurdistan I gained intermediate facility in Behdini Kurdish. I couldn't spend a lot of time on it, since I was teaching English and writing a dissertation on Syriac, but I did manage to get beyond the initial stage of constant stumbling and bumbling. I may write a post on that later.

Monday, August 3, 2009


Well, my two months of cramming combined with the three preceding years of classes paid off! On July 18 I finished my comprehensive exams, and within a few days after that my professors read them and determined that I knew enough. So I passed! In my mental categorization of things, this exam was the most daunting part of my doctoral program. I am very thankful to have passed it. Now it's on to the more fun part: writing my dissertation.

I am not being facetious when I say the dissertation is more fun. I enjoy writing, particularly about things I am interested in and knowledgeable about. I will be writing about the syntax of the stanzas of madrashe poems of Ephrem of Nisibis, one of the most talented poets the human race has ever produced. Now that's fun!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Studying for comps

Well, it's been a while since I posted anything new. I recently finished a very packed semester. I then had to finish a couple of translation jobs. Since then--for several weeks now--I have been studying like mad for my doctoral comprehensive examinations in Syriac and Coptic, which will come in July. I have lengthy reading lists for each language. Some of each list is primary literature (i.e., literature written in the languages). The rest is secondary literature (i.e., what scholars have written about related to these languages: literature, theology, history, linguistics). Some of it I have already read, some I am familiar with by reputation, and some is just plain new.

I feel pretty overwhelmed but I am forging ahead and making some appreciable progress. Since I started out with two months to prepare for comps, I decided to devote a month to each language. The division will not be razor sharp, but close enough. I decided to take on the Syriac list first.
I certainly have a lot of Syriac-related thoughts roiling in my brain! Everything from the Holy Spirit milking the breasts of God the Father (Odes of Solomon, number 19, a text of the first century A.D.) to the fortunes of East Syriac Christianity in China in the Middle Ages. Next up: the famous school of theology in Nisibis that flourished in the 6th and 7th centuries.

And in a few days I'll be diving into Coptic dialects, early Egyptian monasticism, Gnosticism, Manichaeism and other fun stuff.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Aramaic of the Targums

Someone just e-mailed me to ask about resources for learning the Aramaic of the Targums (ancient Aramaic versions of the Hebrew Scriptures). I spent a while writing up some suggestions, and I thought I would reproduce them here in case anyone else is interested.

The best grammar of the Aramaic of Targums Onqelos and Jonathan that you will find in print is Grammar of Palestinian Jewish Aramaic by William B. Stevenson (no relation to me). I can't say it's great, but it is adequate if you already know Hebrew or Syriac. It was first published in 1924. The Wipf & Stock reprint (to which the link leads) is decent, and it is certainly inexpensive ($12). Professor Douglas Gropp (Westminster Theological Seminary, Dallas) is preparing a teaching grammar for eventual publication by Oxford Press, but I do not know when it will go to print. The last I heard it is waiting for a serious proofreading.

If you are interested in studying Targum Neofiti, there is a scholarly grammar (a revised doctoral dissertation) called simply A Grammar of Targum Neofiti, by David M. Golomb. It is a work designed for specialists and the Aramaic is all transliterated. You can find copies very cheap.

The most complete dictionary of Targumic Aramaic is Dictionary of the Targumim, etc., by Marcus Jastrow. It is another old publication, but still quite serviceable. I have the Hendrickson reprint (to which the link leads). The text shows signs of having been repeatedly photographed and reprinted, but it is generally legible. It at least has the merit of being affordable.

If you want a more modern dictionary of Aramaic that covers much of the vocabulary of the Targums, get A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic by Michael Sokoloff. It is much more expensive and it covers the Talmud rather than the Targums, but much of the vocabulary of the Targums is in the Talmud, so it is quite useful. Dr. Sokoloff's research is thorough and up-to-date. An even more recent dictionary of Targum Onqelos that just came out is A Glossary of Targum Onkelos by Edward M. Cook. The quality is high, but so is the price.

Once you have a grammar and a dictionary, you can study the Targums by the inductive method. You start reading the text and looking up words and grammatical forms that you don't already know. This isn't quite as easy as having a teaching grammar of the language and learning lots of paradigms and syntactic patterns first, but it is an effective method.

As an aid to your study, you may want to use the English translations of individual books of the Targums from Liturgical Press. Here is a link to the translation of Psalms to get you started. There are quite a few volumes in the series, and they are not cheap.

For the actual text of Targums Onqelos and Jonathan, far and away the best editions are published in Spain. At least some of these can conveniently be purchased through Some Targum Neophyti texts are also available at

An older edition is that of Alexander Sperber, but it is expensive and has many errors. However, it may be serviceable for learning purposes. You can also buy individual volumes for much less than the whole 4-volume set.

It just occurred to me to see what Wikipedia had. There are links there to free online editions of Targum Onkelos and a tranlsation! Go to I think the Mechon Mamre texts will be pretty accurate. The translation is from 1862, so it may have some defects from the point of view of scholarship almost 150 years later, but it will at least be a starting point.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Tips for Alphabet Learning

The previous post deals with language learning in general. For some languages, though, you will need to learn a new alphabet as well as the new vocabulary and grammar. Here are some tips I have found useful for learning new alphabets.

First, copy the new alphabet 20-30 times, saying the name or sound of each letter as you do so.

Next, practice writing words using the new letters. Often it is helpful to try writing your name, the names of friends and family members, and miscellenaeous English words, coming as close as you can to representing them with the sounds available in the new language. The point of this exercise is, first, to help fix the shape-sound associations in your head. It will also get you used to forming the new letters. Introductory textbooks of languages with non-Roman alphabets will often have lists of actual words of the language written in its script. Practice copying these, too.

After you have spent a couple of hours doing the above, you will be well on your way toward reading and writing the new alphabet.

Different alphabets present different challenges. If the alphabet is relatively close to Roman (e.g., Greek or Russian), the main challenge will be not to confuse letters of similar or identical shape but very different sound. For example, the English letter "P" is the same shape as the letter for the sound "r" in Greek and Russian. Don't be too frustrated if you find yourself confusing them at first. After a few weeks or months, the new shape-sound associations will be second nature.

Alphabets that are very different from Roman present the problem of a large number of new and different shapes. It will take you longer to learn to distinguish all the letters and associate them with their sounds. For alphabets like this (e.g., Hindi, Arabic, Malayalam), you may find it helpful to make it your goal to learn five new letters a day, rather than the whole batch at once. I still recommend the first step above to begin with (copying the whole alphabet multiple times, etc.). But after that, just expect yourself to learn a few letters each day. This will give you an achievable goal.

Some alphabets, such as Arabic, have groups letters that are made up of the same basic shape with minor variations (in the case of Arabic, varying numbers of dots above or below the same shape). If this is the case, learn the letters in groups. Otherwise, just learn a few letters at a time in the traditional order of the alphabet. A good textbook will divide the alphabet up in a convenient order for learning. It will sometimes spread the alphabet over several lessons, teaching you new words in each lesson that incorporate the letters learned so far. If you have such a book, your task will be made easier.

Above all, persevere! Practice makes perfect, even with complex alphabets. It was months before I finally stopped confusing some of the letters of the Arabic alphabet distinguished only by dots, but I just kept at it and now, years later, I read it without even thinking about it. The secret is to just keep at it.

Tips for Language Learning

Someone recently e-mailed me from my Amazon profile and asked me for some general tips on language learning. I spent a while writing up some useful points, and it occurred to me that it would be helpful to post them here. The particular language the person wanted to learn was Hindi, so this name appears below a few times. However, the tips are useful for the study of any language. Having a specific language name is nicer than just putting "X" or "the language under study" or some such thing.

You need to have a good textbook of some kind. I will assume you have already found something suitable. If not, try searching for "Hindi grammar" on Amazon; this will bring up a number of titles. Check out the reviews to see which one(s) look best. You may find it helpful to have two or three textbooks, as sometimes one covers a particular area better than another. A reference grammar is useful for advanced study, and sometimes for clarifying points that textbooks leave unclear (some textbooks are better than others).

You should get at least one book that is bundled with CD's in which exercises are spoken. It will also be helpful if the recording gives you some drills to learn how to distinguish certain sounds which English speakers find hard to distinguish. In Hindi this might include nasalized vs. non-nasalized vowels, or some of the retroflex consonants.

Work through the book of your choice. You may then find it helpful to go through the same book again to consolidate your knowledge, or you may want to work through a different textbook. This will not only help consolidate your knowledge, but give you a different approach to some points, which may prove useful.

It is also important to listen to Hindi as much as possible. Nowadays you can find audio files of virtually any language on the internet. You may find radio and TV programs, recorded conversations, prose texts, poetry or music. This listening will help you learn to process the spoken language in a natural form, including fast speech, colloquial speech, speech with hesitations and errors... all the sorts of things you normally find in everyday conversation.

Since you have no one around you who speaks Hindi, you can practice speaking it yourself, perhaps even recording yourself. Or if you have a friend, wife or girlfriend who is interested, you can study together and practice conversing together. This is not as ideal as having a native speaker to talk with, but it is definitely better than no conversation partner.

As for memorization, it is a good idea to memorize a certain amount of vocabulary and paradigms. I find it helpful to use index cards. I write the foreign word on one side of the card in its usual alphabet, and the English on the other. On the foreign side, I include, in a lower corner, important inflected forms, if any. For nouns, this includes irregular plurals, possessed forms or case-inflected forms. For verbs, this may include a present stem and a past stem, possible a participle or an infinitive. Find out what the "principal parts" of verbs are and learn them for each verb from the very beginning of your study. This will save you from having to learn a large number of such forms in the lesson where they are introduced. See my blog entry ( for a concise discussion of this issue for Arabic. Actually, if you look around my blog entries, you will find quite a bit of information about language learning from my own experience over more than 30 years.

In addition to learning individual vocabulary items with their respective inflected forms, you need to learn paradigms, that is, verb conjugations and noun declensions (to the extent that Hindi has either). I find it best to use a model verb, which you will find in the first lesson that introduces the full conjugation of a particular tense. If Hindi has multiple conjugations, like Spanish or Latin, make a separate card for each model verb. Put down all the inflected forms as they are shown in the book. I find it best to learn whole words, not just sets of endings. Some highly irregular verbs (commonly, ones meaning "to be," "to go," etc.) will have to be learned separately. Write the inflection on one side of the card, and on the back write something like "present tense of 'go' ".

Write a batch of cards for each lesson. Practice going through them first looking at the Hindi and then checking the English to see if you have it down properly. Then go through them the other way, looking at the English and seeing if you can produce the Hindi. Say the Hindi words out loud as you go each way. This will activate another channel of the brain in the learning process. You may even find it helpful to walk around while memorizing. This gets the whole body involved, even if indirectly.

My correspondent and the group of friends with whom he was studying wondered why I had suggested walking while memorizing. Here is my answer:

Walking is strictly optional. However, if you move around while memorizing vocabulary paradigms, it seems to have two effects

1. It keeps you from dozing off because of the tedium of memorization.

2. It involves more of your whole self in the learning process. The effect is not direct, but indirect. Consider the analogy of smell. A woman might wear a certain kind of perfume on her first date with a man. After that, every time the man smells that perfume, he will think of his first date with that woman. Or there might have been a distinctive smell of some food cooking at the restaurant, and later on, that smell will remind the couple of that experience. Similarly, if you take a firm step each time you recite a form in a paradigm (Amo, Amas, Amat, amAmus, amAtis, Amant...), your subconscious registers the emphatic physical action along with the stress of the word. It provides a subtle means of reinforcement.

If the members of your group want, they can try it and see how they like it. Some may find it helpful, some may not. To each his own. I have been helped by such things, and so have other people I know; that is why I mentioned it.

For learning word order, you may find it helpful to memorize model sentences. Many textbooks have dialogues that they recommend you memorize. Definitely make the effort to do this. It will repay you many times over. It will help you get accustomed to normal modes of expressing yourself in Hindi. You will have to get used to putting the verb at the end of the sentence, to putting the equivalent of English prepositions at the end of words, etc. (bits of Hindi grammar I have just gleaned from the internet).

And of course, if and when you do come across speakers of Hindi, try out what you are learning. Most of them will be quite pleased that you are making the effort and will want to help you learn more.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Learning Arabic

This school year, the last year of classes for my Ph.D. program, I am adding one more language to my inventory: Arabic. The class is a combined grad-undergrad class, so it is moving pretty slowly. Just as well, considering all the work I have to do for my three heavy-duty classes. Although I am no expert on Arabic yet, I have found a couple of useful study tips. Actually, they are useful when studying any language, though the details will vary.

Specifically, when you are learning verbs, learn all the principal parts for each from the very beginning. In Arabic, these are the perfect, the imperfect and the verbal noun. If you don't learn all of these from lesson 1, you will get to lesson 11 and suddenly find that you have to learn a long list of verbal noun forms for all the verbs you have already covered. And if you don't learn the imperfect forms, you'll have all those dumped on you in lesson 12. (These lesson numbers are from Wheeler Thackston's text, but the principle applies regardless of which book you are using.)

When learning nouns, you need to learn the singular and the plural. Some nouns have two plurals: "sound" and "broken." Some have just one or the other. But if you don't learn them from the beginning, you will presently find yourself presented with a long list of plurals to memorize.