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.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Patristic Greek: Not a cakewalk!

Well, here I am, fresh from my crash course in Classical Greek. One of my main motivations for taking the course was that I wanted to be able to read patristic writers. So now I am trying. It is doable, but only with some assistance.

I have started with Theodoret of Cyrus (also commonly spelled "Cyrrhus"). This is in large part because the Catholic University Press has recently published two volumes containing Theodoret's The Questions on the Octateuch (Amazon: vol. 1, vol. 2). There is a critical edition of the Greek text on the left-hand page and an English translation on the right-hand page. The English of these volumes was translated by the late Robert C. Hill. It is a very good literary but meaning-oriented translation, which means that I have to look carefully to determine the correspondences between the English form and the Greek, when I refer to the English.

Occasionally I can follow the Greek without the English, but it is sufficiently stylistically complex that I often have to look at the English. The good news is that I can follow the grammar of the Greek, something I don't think I could have done before my latest courses. However, I can see that it will be a while before I can readily follow it without at least occasional reference to a translation. This is about where I am with Syriac and Coptic, as well. In both cases, the key is to read, read, read!

Aside from linguistic issues, it is interesting to see what questions were being dealt with by the early Church Fathers. Theodoret was born in Antioch (Syria) about A.D. 393. He was a native speaker of Syriac, but he likely grew up fully bilingual in Greek. That was the sort of city Antioch was. He only wrote in Greek. These volumes on the Octateuch are not heavy-duty in their theology. Rather, they address questions that were asked by average Christians at the time. The questions are on a level similar those addressed in modern study Bibles, although some of them are a bit different from what modern readers might think to ask. Here are the first few:
  • Why did the author [Moses] not first set down the true doctrine of God before relating the creation of the universe?
  • Why did he not mention the creation of the angels?
  • Did the angels come into being before heaven and earth, or were they made along with them?
  • Yet, some commentators claim that the angels preëxisted heaven and earth, for "if there were no angels," they ask, "how was the God of the universe praised in song?"
The next question is along the lines of what we would call "the Bible and modern science":
  • If the earth was in existence, how did it come to be, since the historian says, "The earth was in existence"?
"The historian" is a reference to Moses. Theodoret displayed all the tact and diplomacy I am inclined to show when faced with questions of a similar sort:

This is a silly, foolish question. He who said, "In the beginning God made heaven and earth," did not say that the earth was eternal, but that it received its existence after, or along with, heaven. Furthermore, the historian did not simply say, "The earth was in existence," but connected it with what follows: "The earth was invisible and formless." That is, though made by the God of the universe, it was invisible, because still covered by the water, and formless, because not yet arrayed with growth or sprouting meadows, groves and crops.

The question and answer arise from the wording of the Septuagint (Greek) translation of the Old Testament, which was (and still is) the one universally used by the Greek-speaking Church. The people who were asking the question were pulling a phrase out of context, and Theodoret said they had to read it in the context of the rest of the sentence. It seems such a simple point, but people have continued to employ similarly silly approaches to Bible reading up to this very day. So the lessons of Theodoret continue to be quite useful to us.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Done with Greek courses for the summer

Here I am, three weeks after finishing the intensive Greek course. Now I have had a three-week reading course. We mostly read Attic Greek, such as Plato and adapted Herodotus (who wrote in the Ionic dialect).

Toward the end we read some un-adapted Herodotus. His syntax is sometimes a bit tricky to follow. Reading his Ionic dialect is of particular interest to students of New Testament Greek because, as I have learned this summer, NT Greek (and Koine in general) was largely derived from Ionic, though with some Attic influence.

Well, now I have some translation work (Portuguese, Spanish, English) to occupy my time before the new school year starts. Arabic will be my new language this coming year. I have been reading the textbook. This language will definitely challenge my schedule, particularly considering that I will be taking three other courses as well!

Monday, June 30, 2008

Panting with relief at the end of the big book

I like learning languages fast, but I must admit, even my avidity was put to the test during the last few weeks of my intensive Classical Greek course. I was severely sleep-deprived. I took the final this past Saturday morning. Whew! I then took the rest of the weekend off from Greek. I even went so far as to read a novel! Usually I just listen to such things on CD while I am doing exercises or chores, but my mind needed such a sustained break that I actually lay on my bed and read for hours! It was just what I needed. Then I read some non-Greek academic material, and somewhere along the way I did some e-mail correspondence.

This morning it was back to the Greek races, but now it feels more like jogging than sprinting. We are reading passages from Aesop and Herodotus. This is much less wearing than the endless memorization of paradigms and syntactic patterns. I have even learned the best way to get around on the water: follow the example of Arion and ride on the back of a dolphin!

Monday, June 9, 2008

Classical Greek the fast way

I have just passed the halfway point in my intensive summer introduction to Classical Greek. We go through the whole thick textbook (Greek: An Intensive Introduction, by Hardy Hansen and Gerald M. Quinn) in six weeks! The book is 588 pages plus a long appendix that serves as a reference grammar. Each class day is equivalent to a week in a normal semester.

Even though I have a good knowledge of New Testament Greek, by the fourth day of class we were getting into new territory for me: the optative mood. I knew what it was in general terms, but in the NT its use is limited to little more than a few frozen expressions. I am also being required to produce a large variety of forms: the active, middle and passive voices in the indicative, middle, passive and infinitive moods, in the present, imperfect, future, aorist, perfect and pluperfect "tenses," plus participles in many combinations of the above. We have also been through all three declensions of nouns.

Today we had our second test, after three weeks of class. It is the midterm exam in this short course, equivalent to the final for the first semester of the regular course. I had to do a lot of review to make sure I was reasonably ready for this test. What I and some other students are finding is that we have a lot of verb suffixes floating around in our heads, but it can be difficult to associate them with the right labels, especially in isolation, as they appear on some sections of the test. I think I did well on the test, but tomorrow will tell. Our instructor, a very capable graduate teaching assistant, has the fun of grading all the tests before class tomorrow. Reminds me of my days as a TA for introductory grammatical analysis back in the fall of 1983, and for introductory Spanish in 1990-91.

Anyway, now that we have reached the halfway point, we still have contract verbs, -mi verbs, imperatives, deponents and other pieces of fun to cover before the end of course. After this, I will be taking a three-hour course of readings in Classical Greek. Once I am done with all this, I should be able to read the Greek patristic writers who so strongly influenced Syriac writers for several centuries. With only a knowledge of NT Greek, this would have been extremely difficult indeed, since the Church Fathers modeled their style on the sophisticated variety of Classical Greek, not the rather simplified variety found in most of the NT.

I prefer this fast introduction to a language to the slow, very dull speed of normal semesters. If we were trying to learn to speak it, of course, we would have to go more slowly. But since our goal is just to read it, we don't have to spend time learning to deploy grammar and vocabulary in coherent speech, or learning to understand it when spoken by fluent speakers.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Reviewing books you haven't read

As a general rule, one should read or use a book before writing a review of it. In the case of works of literature, you just read them through. In the case of reference books, you use them for a while (few people indeed read dictionaries cover to cover).

This sounds so obvious as to hardly need saying, but I state it to draw a contrast with what I mention in the title: reviewing books you haven't read. For the most part this is a no-no, but sometimes it is perfectly legitimate. This is so in the case of certain reference books. It is specifically the case when an author or other reviewers (e.g., on Amazon) provide sufficient information on the method followed in a reference work that you can judge the method to be invalid. Sometimes it is the case when certain untrue claims about the merit of a work are made or implied.

An example will follow, but you might well ask: Why even write reviews of works you haven't seen? Why not just ignore them? My motivation to write something in these cases is a sense of duty to the general public who are not in a position to make even the most rudimentary evaluation of the merits of certain works because they have no knowledge of the relevant field. I will now give an example from my Amazon reviews to show you what I mean.

The Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible, by Jeff A. Benner: The only information I have about this work is what reviewers have mentioned, what is shown in sample pages on the Amazon site, and what the author says about the book and his own qualifications on his own website. I have never seen a printed copy of the book, and quite frankly I don't care if I ever see one. From the small amount of information just cited, it is obvious that the author employs a completely illegitimate method. Ipso facto, he cannot come up with legitimate results.

Specifically, Benner prints Biblical Hebrew words in Proto-Canaanite script. He does this so that he will have letters which look more like pictures, rather than like the Ancient or Modern Hebrew alphabets. He then assigns certain very elastic semantic values to each picture and attempts to explain the meaning of Hebrew roots by reference to the meanings of the pictures.

To someone like me with long experience dealing with many languages, the flaws in this method are so many and so egregious as to be criminal. I wrote my review as a warning to people interested in Biblical Hebrew who might stumble across this book but be unable to evaluate the merits of its approach because they do not have an extensive linguistic background. I do not have a particular desire to shame the author, although this is an almost unavoidable side-effect of pointing out the flaws in his methodology. In fact, I state in my review that if he got some good graduate education in Hebrew, he could turn his considerable zeal to the production of useful works.

For the record, I will spell out here in more detail the flaws which I have already published in my review:

1. Hebrew was a spoken language before it was ever written. Thus, the letters used to write it could have no effect on the meanings of roots or words.

2. Biblical Hebrew is one of many Semitic languages. The successively larger groups to which it belongs are: Canaanite, Northwest Semitic, Central Semitic, West Semitic, Semitic, Afro-Asiatic. There are about 375 languages in the Afro-Asiatic phylum. If there were any inherent semantic value associated with certain phonemes (note: this means sounds, not written letters!), the natural presumption would be that such an association would be found at this level. Even if we grant that the association did not exist at the Afro-Asiatic level but miraculously sprang up at the Semitic level, the meaning associations would have to be with Proto-Semitic phonemes, not with the whittled-down inventory of Hebrew. How might Benner account for the merger of meanings associated with certain phonemes as these phonemes merged with one another? How about the other Semitic languages, in which different mergers took place? Did the meanings of their roots undergo different shakings and quakings as a result of these different patterns of phonological development? What about Arabic, which has a larger inventory of phonemes than Hebrew? Is Arabic a "more expressive" language than Hebrew? If so (and Benner's logic would seem to require that this question be asked), why would God have chosen a less expressive language for this stage of his revelation, when a more expressive one was available?

Of course, this whole line of questions is quite silly, since any linguist knows that aside from a few bits of sounds symbolism, there are no inherent associations between individual phonemes and semantic concepts. And alphabetic graphemes, which are merely reflections of phonemes at a certain point in linguistic evolution, have even less claim to semantic associations than do phonemes. So Benner's whole scheme of analysis doesn't even make it out the starting gate.

3. The way in which Benner tries to arrive at the "meaning" of roots by examination of the graphemes that comprise them is merely after-the-fact hocus-pocus. He "knows" what meaning he is ultimately aiming at, so he forces the general meanings of the relevant letters into the Procrustean bed of what he believes to be the specific meaning of the root. Naturally, this gives rise to some rather far-fetched analyses of meaning. Thus, on p. 54, we are told, "The God of the Hebrews was seen as the older ox that is yoked to his people in a covenant relationship." This astonishing assertion is derived, through some very convoluted paths, from the fact that the Proto-Canaanite symbol for a glottal stop is an ox head, and the symbol for a voiced lateral continuant (= our letter "l") is a picture of an ox goad, which Benner chooses to call a "shepherd staff." See the page displayed on Amazon if you really want the details of Benner's reasoning.

4. Benner assumes that ancient Semites were incapable of thinking in abstract terms. Thus, the Proto-Canaanite symbol for a voiceless glottal fricative (= our letter "h") is a man with raised hands, derived from the initial sound of the root hll 'to praise'. However, Benner informs us on the first page of his introduction (also viewable on Amazon): "Abstract concepts such as 'praise' have no foundation in the concrete and are a product of ancient Greek philosophy." Thus, he concludes that this symbol "is a man with his arms raised 'looking' at something spectacular." The cultural ignorance (even prejudice?) displayed here is breathtaking. Are we seriously expected to believe that Semitic peoples were incapable of conceiving of the idea of praise before Alexander the Great and his armies came marching through, bringing the gift of Greek thought with them?

Now that you have read in some detail my reasons for strongly criticizing Benner's approach, even based on very limited data, I hope you can see why I felt compelled to write something to warn potential readers of the deep methodological flaws that underlie it. Most people who type "Hebrew" into Amazon's search window will know little or nothing of what I have just explained. I felt the call to do the public the service of letting them know the quality of material they could expect to find in the book. I certainly don't do this sort of thing for every book with erroneous claims sold by Amazon (I would never have enough time). But Amazon brought this book up on its "recommended for you" list so I took a look at it. Ugh... no more such recommendations--PLEASE!

Learning alphabets

Long, long time ago... I can still remember when...

I learned my first non-Roman writing systems! It started when I was in third grade. That school year was split between Minot, North Dakota and Wichita Falls, Texas. Normally we moved during the summer, but that year we moved during the school year.

I don't remember for sure which school this started at, but I think it was in Wichita Falls. My elementary school library had one book with the Greek alphabet and another with the Russian alphabet. It also had a book with a number of Chinese characters. In all these books, the characters were printed in a very large size, perfect for young readers. I checked these all out repeatedly, and again and again I traced all the letters and characters on reams of notebook paper. I did this because I thought it was fun, but after a while, by the time I started fourth grade, I found that I could actually read the Greek and Russian alphabets! And I could reproduce some (two or three dozen?) of Chinese characters. It was just all that copying that drilled it in, even without any conscious effort on my part to memorize the symbols.

To be sure, I didn't yet know about Greek accents and breathing marks, and I had no idea what the "hard" and "soft" signs in the Russian alphabet meant, but at least I could read the letters that represented phonemes.

My standard procedure now--and the one I recommend to anyone learning a new alphabet--is to copy the whole thing 20 or 30 times in a row. Then start trying to write words and names, anything you like, spelling out the English sounds as best you can in the new alphabet. You will gain a basic control of the characters in a couple of hours this way, at least if it is one of the simpler alphabets like Greek, Russian or Hebrew. Much longer and more difficult alphabets, such as Thai or Devanagari, will take longer, but the basic method is still good. Enjoy!

Sunday, April 13, 2008

What on earth is ergative?

A couple of times now I have mentioned "ergative" or "ergativity." Some of you know what this is, while others may not. It has to do with how languages divide up the duty of representing three categories: subject of an intransive verb, subject of a transitive verb, object of a transitive verb.

Theoretically there are four possibities, but in actuality two are usually found in natural languages. The shorthand names for them are accusative and ergative. Here is how they work:

Accusative languages:

transitive subject
intransitive subject
transitive object

Ergative languages:

transitive subject
intransitive subject
transitive object

In each system the roles with the same color are marked the same way. The role marked with a different color is marked differently. If, like me, you are a native speaker of an accusative language, the ergative system looks quite bizarre. However, as you can see from the way I have listed them, it is just a matter of how they divide up grammatical space. Neither is inherently more logical than the other. Each gets the job done.

In each case, the system is named for the role that is marked differently. Since in English the direct object is the role distinguished, the system is give the name "accusative," after the traditional name of the case for direct objects in Latin, Greek, etc. The ergative role is the distinctly marked role in the ergative system. The term comes from a Greek root meaning "work" and was coined in the 1970's by linguists working on such languages.

Ergative languages are quite common. All Mayan languages are ergative, as are Basque, Eskimo, many Australian aboriginal languages, and even a few Indo-European languages such as Gujerati (spoken in India). In most ergative languages there is a "split," that is, in certain constructions ergative case marking is used, while in others accusative or non-distinguished case marking is used. Sometimes the trigger is a particular verb tense or aspect, other times it is subordination. The latter is the case in Tektiteko, the language about which I wrote my Masters thesis. In this language, ergative marking is the norm, but when a clause is subordinated (e.g., "when I went...", "so that I can..."), all three cases are marked the same way, with ergative prefixes. This may sound confusing, but in the context of a real life situation, there is rarely any ambiguity.

Cherokee: If you thought Mayan languages were hard...

I have a little Cherokee blood, 1/128 of the total, going back to a great-great-great-great-great-grandmother whose English name is all that is known to me: Susannah "Sookie" Coleman. She was married in 1732, if memory serves (thanks to my Aunt Pat, assiduous genealogist, for this information). I have known this for a long time, and consequently, Cherokee has from time to time been a language of interest to me. However, it wasn't until just four or five years ago that I got beyond occasional perusal of a glossary that my Aunt Mary gave me some years ago.

I finally got a real dictionary of Cherokee, one complete with grammatical tables and listings of the principal parts of verbs. I have also managed to collect a number of linguistic articles on the language. As I was saying, a few years ago I became more seriously interested in the language. I worked and learned the entire syllabary devised by Sequoyah. While perfectly adequate for native speakers, it does not reflect all details of pronunciation, so a translateration with tone, vowel length and other phonetic details is necessary to learn correct pronunciation.

The dictionary I have referred to above is the Cherokee-English Dictionary by Durbin Feeling, edited by William Pulte, published by the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma in 1975 and conveniently available in an affordable reprint.

After the body of the dictionary there is a 120 page outline of verb and noun inflection, and some notes on syntax. I had thought Mayan verb inflection was a bit involved, but I hadn't seen anything yet! Cherokee verb inflection is extremely complex. Mayan languages have distinct sets of ergative and absolutive prefixes, which are used in sequence on transitive verbs to mark subject and object respectively. However, Cherokee has two sets of prefixes, called A and B. Each set has an intransitive variant, which only marks the subject, and a transtive variant, which has subject and object marked in fused forms.

The persons marked are first singular, first dual inclusive, first dual exclusive, first plural inclusive, first plural exclusive, second singular, second dual, second plural, third singular and third plural (though set A does not distinguish number at all in the third person). When you get to transitive verbs, there are specific prefixes for each logically possible combination of subject and object in all these persons. And in the transitive prefixes, third person singular and plural objects come in two varieties: animate and inanimate. To make things even more fun, each of these many prefixes has one variant when it comes before a consonant and another when it comes before a vowel. Three Set A third person prefixes have variants in the singular. This means that for intransitive verbs there are 19 Set A prefixes and 20 Set B prefixes, for a total of 39. There are 150 Set A transitive prefixes and a similar number for Set B, though only 32 of these last are different from their Set A counterparts, which brings the total to a mere 182.

All the above is quite apart from the 11 tense and locative prefixes that precede pronominal prefixes, the reflexive prefix that comes between pronominal prefixes and the verb stem, the 31 non-final tense/aspect/mode/case/conjunctive suffixes and the 19 final tense/mode/conjunctive suffixes. All of these have complex co-occurrence restrictions (i.e., rules about how many of each can occur and in what combinations).

Then there are the 20 person prefixes used in passive constructions, plus the passives formed by replacing Set A pronominal prefixes with Set B ones and inverting the order of the subject and direct object in the clause.

Then, there are a number of verbs that have different stems, depending on what kind of subject they have (if intransitive) or what kind of direct object they take (if transitive). The categories are: animate, liquid, long and rigid, flexible, non-long and inflexible. Sometimes these forms are clearly related, other times they are not (like "go" and "went" in English").

How do you know which set of prefixes to pick? Well, it depends on the individual verb and on which of the five principal parts is being used: present progressive, non-progressive remote past, present habitual, imperative or infinitive. The choice is not predictable by any simple rule. All the forms have to simply be memorized.

How does this degree of complexity compare with other languages? Here is a little list with my informal classification of difficulty of verb morphology for various languages about which I have some knowledge. I will use the famous 1 through 10 scale, with 1 being the simplest (no inflection) and 10 being the most complex.

Chinese 1
English 2
German, Syriac, Hebrew 3
Spanish, Coptic 4
Latin, Greek, Russian, Arabic 5
Sipakapense 6
Tektiteko 7
Cherokee 10 (12? 20?)

While Cherokee fascinates me, it is obvious that it would take several years of serious study to come anywhere close to mastering it. So for this lifetime, I think I will have to content myself with a superficial knowledge of it. Even so, long may it live! Maybe in my next incarnation... ;-)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Tectitec: My First Mayan Language

May 31, 1984. I flew into Guatemala City for the first time in my life. A new country, a new language family. I was 23, a bit too full of self-confidence, but raring to go.

I knew that I would be investigating some Mayan language for my Masters thesis, but I didn't know which one and I knew virtually nothing about Mayan languages. In fact, when I arrived in Guatemala, the only two facts I knew about Mayan languages were:

1. They had a glottalized "b".
2. They were ergative (whatever that meant).

Well, I was soon to learn a lot more. I had been training to do linguistic investigation in the field for almost three years. I was dying to actually get a chance! I arrived in Guatemala as a graduate student in linguistics at the University of Texas at Arlington, and also as a member of the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the "field division," so to speak, of Wycliffe Bible Translators.

I was looking forward to a career as a linguistic consultant, helping others do the groundwork necessary to produce high quality translations of the Bible in various minority languages around the world. My long-term goal was to work in the area then known as Irian Jaya, a province of Indonesia, on the western half of the island shared by the country of Papua New Guinea. However, because of my knowledge of Spanish, the assignments committee of SIL had decided to recommend that I do research for a thesis in a Latin American country, as there were many needs for consultant work there. Through a series of twists and turns, Guatemala wound up being the country where I went. It's truly amazing what kind of effect on one's life a seemingly fortuitous choice like this can have.

Within a few days of arriving in Guatemala, I met Ed Beach, who was working hard to translate the New Testament into the Tectitec language (these days the official spelling is Tektiteko). Ed was eager to find a linguist to do a detailed analysis of the grammar for him. I was looking for a project just like this to do for my thesis. A match made in heaven!

Within a few days, I was headed for the remote town of Tectitán with Ed, his wife Elenore and their three small children. Tectitán was on the extreme western edge of Guatemala, bordering on Mexico. In those days it was a long, difficult trip, much of it over rough, narrow, twisting dirt roads (now the road is paved the whole way!). Even though I had had a course in field methods and another in anthropology, and Ed told me a number of useful pieces of cultural information before and during the trip, I still found myself undergoing severe culture shock. I was also under considerable stress at being separated from the first girl I had ever been serious about: Anne Munz. We had met in field training camp just before I went to Guatemala. At the end, though we had decided we were seriously interested in each other, I had my two years in Guatemala planned and she had her support-raising time back in New England planned. There was no practical alternative for either of us at the moment. I'll spare you the details, but we survived, and we will soon celebrate 23 years of marriage!

But back to Tectitec. I was severely stressed, but also very excited finally, at long last, after so much longing, hoping and praying, to actually be doing what I had been dreaming of doing since I was a senior in high school! I remember sitting there in Ed's office that first morning, taking my first look at the texts he had transcribed and glossed as best he could. How did all those morphemes and words fit together? This was what I had prepared for and what I was eager to do: figure out a new language!

I worked with native speakers, transcribed a text from a recording, tried to learn to speak at least some Tectitec, but above all, I tried to write a careful, coherent description of the grammar of the language. No one had ever done this before. I did have some help from a good grammar of a neighboring, related language called Mam (pronounced like "Mom"), written by Nora England. But Tectitec was its own language and I had to figure out a number of things on my own. I also devoured linguistic literature on other Mayan languages.

I learned what ergative meant, and also antipassive. I learned about relational nouns, possessive prefixes that varied depending on whether the word began with a consonant or a vowel, and so on and so forth. I learned about a third person singular prefix that was usually zero but was occasionally ts
or ts' (that is, glottalized ts). More challenging was learning about the very complex system of directional verbs that were tacked on before many, if not most, other verbs, or functioned as the main verb themselves. Up to three directional verbs plus a fourth one that meant "finish" could precede just about any transitive or intransitive verb. They had a wide range of effects on the meanings of verbs: up and down, in and out, up-entering and down-leaving, etcetera.

In the middle of my research, in May 1985, Anne and I were married. She went up to Maine two weeks before our wedding to see to all those last-minute preparations, and I went up one week later. We went through a crash-course of premarital counseling usually done over six weeks, we got married, and two weeks later we were back in Guatemala! (She had come down three months earlier to live and work in the capital, where I was then doing research and writing.)

Finally, after a year and a half of research and writing and even getting help from an eminent linguist, Dr. Kenneth Pike, I had a reasonably good thesis put together. Anne and I went back to Dallas in December 1985, and the following spring I took my last courses and completed my thesis. Shortly after I graduated, we returned to Guatemala to participate in a sociolinguistic survey of the area where various dialects of the Quiché language (now written K'iche') were spoken. But that's a story for another day...

Friday, April 4, 2008

Success in Syriac and Coptic

It was with some relief today that I learned that I had passed both of the comprehensive examinations for my M.A. in Semitics. I took my comps in Syriac (major) and Coptic (minor). This involves, for each language, 8 hours with texts to translate, grammar and literature questions to answer, and a dictionary as an aid. I am glad to have passed this benchmark in my studies. I started studying Syriac 27 months before my comps and Coptic 19 months before. I am grateful for the excellent instruction in these languages that I have received at Catholic University from Dr. Sidney Griffith (Syriac), Dr. Chrysi Kotsifou (introduction to Coptic) and Dr. Janet Timbie (Coptic readings). I look forward to learning more, and to generally enjoying the company of my fellow students and the other members of the faculty who make the CUA Semitics Department so outstanding.

Now I have another very full year of classes (Syriac, Coptic, Aramaic and Akkadian), preceded by 9 hours of Classical Greek in the summer. After this I will be eligible to take my doctoral comps. I hope to feel sufficiently prepared to do this in the summer of 2009.

In the meantime, I will get my intermediate degree in this program (the M.A.) on May 17th, one day before my 23rd wedding anniversary and two days before the beginning of my summer Greek classes.

Shaynaa w-shlaamaa! Rashe hn pJois! (That is, "Peace and wholeness," a good Syriac greeting, and "Rejoice in the Lord," a good phrase in Coptic.)

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Successive Approximations: How Language Learning Really Works

What on earth are successive approximations? Learning some, backing off, learning some more, backing off again, etc. Eventually, with enough of these reiterated cycles, you can accumulate quite a bit of knowledge. I find that this is in fact how I learn languages. Rarely do I just charge in, learn everything from lesson 1, and just keep on in a straight line until achieving a reasonable command of the language.

Although I had had this up-and-down experience with language learning several times before, it had always felt like the wrong way to go about it. I really should just plow on through. The only reason I did not was lack of diligence on my part, I thought. There might be something to this, but in fact, I think it is a behavior pattern that is rooted in common human nature. One day, I think it was when I was taking an anthropology class at SIL, I heard an account of the Indian groups who live along the jungle-lined rivers of Venezuela. Many tribes live along these rivers, and they regularly intermarry. Children grow up learning the language of each of their parents and bits of other languages spoken in their villages. As they grow, they gradually learn more of each of these secondary languages. By they time they reach middle age, they routinely have a good command of 7-10 languages. But they don't learn them by steady study of one at a time. They learn them by this process that I have labeled successive approximations.

After hearing about this, I felt "legitimated," so to speak, with regard to my own experience. I have felt good about it in the 25 years or so since taking that anthropology course. And I have continued learning languages in this way. Now that I am in my forties, I can see the benefit of this approach. I have gained sufficient ability in reading French that I can easily read the technical books and articles needed for my graduate studies. I have learned to read German well enough to at least plod through articles without getting lost in the deep forest of grammatical trees. My knowledge of Greek has likewise progressed in fits and starts to the point that I can now read the book of Hebrews in the New Testament with little difficulty, in spite of its Greek being the most complex in the NT corpus. And so on and so forth.

I am glad to be where I am, though it has taken much effort over many years. Given a couple thousand more years, who knows? I might actually get the sort of knowledge I would like in all the languages I would like to have it in! But in the meantime, it is nice to be able to read a lot of materials, even if slowly, that would have been all but impossible for me to handle ten or fifteen years ago.

So, those few of you who may actually read this blog, take heart. Don't beat yourselves up over your slow, often interrupted progress in learning the languages you want or need to know. Just keep on plugging away in those successive approximations and you will see plenty of good results as the years go by.

Hebrew: Little by little

The Alphabet

The Hebrew alphabet took me a while to learn. I think I made efforts for two or three years before it finally stuck. Why? Maybe because it was so different from the Greek and Russian alphabets which I had already learned. When I was about 12 or 13, I bought the paperback edition of Ehud Ben-Yehuda's pocket Hebrew dictionary. It included a table with the Hebrew alphabet. I made many efforts to learn this alphabet, but for a long time it simply would not stick in my mind. Finally, though, I think it was during my freshman year in high school in Fairborn, Ohio, I looked for the umpteenth time at the Hebrew on the cover of the dictionary. M-I-L-O-N. Whoa! What was that? I read a word?! Yes indeed, I had been able to read the Hebrew word milon, which means 'dictionary' on the cover of the dictionary. It felt like a great breakthrough to me. It may have been a while before I felt I had mastered all the letters, but at least I was over the hump.

However, it would be around three more years before I actually began to study the grammar and vocabulary of Hebrew. I had no idea where to find a grammar of Hebrew, and at any rate, I was busy with Spanish in high school, so Hebrew just remained a language in which I could sound out words but nothing more.

A Grammar

In the spring of 1978, while my family was living in Tehran, we went on the annual trip to Israel led by the pastor of the Community Church of Tehran, an interdenominational English-language church. The trip was a lot of fun, and toward the end, I managed to buy a few inexpensive textbooks of Hebrew for English speakers, as well as a Hebrew newspaper (Ma'arev). I still have these. All of these materials were for Modern Hebrew, rather than Biblical, but they were still useful. I made some modest efforts to learn the language, but only made slight progress.


One summer during my undergraduate days (it must have been 1981), I and one of my apartment mates, Monte, got the idea of going to Israel to work on a kibbutz. Though that idea never came off, it did spark a renewed bout of Hebrew study in me. I made and studied many vocabulary cards. One day, I must have been sitting and doing this for about two hours in the living room, when Monte commented (approximately), "Paul, you're the only person I know who can sit for two hours straight and study a language!" Well, what can I say? I'm an addict, and have been for many years.

Reading, More Grammar, More Vocabulary

After Monte finished his B.A., he started attending a seminary in Fort Worth. The seminary bookstore had the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia for $30, so I had Monte get me one. I still have it. It's a nice, large hardback, the kind that costs about $85 nowadays. With some help from the Brown-Driver-Briggs lexicon and maybe an analytical concordance and some other aids, I plodded through Ruth and some of Genesis. While this didn't exactly make me a fluent reader, it did slowly help me get past the point where I felt the need for an analytical concordance. Those things can too easily become crutches that prevent you from serious language learning.

Sidebar: Beware the Analytical Concordance

In case you don't know what an analytical concordance is, it is a book that lists every form of every word that appears in the Hebrew of the Old Testament or the Greek of the New Testament. It parses each form for you and tells you what root to look under. These books can be very convenient for beginners who cannot yet figure out what the root of an irregular form is, but you should strive to get rid of them at the earliest possible date. If you continue to rely on them, you will be like a baby who never got out of a walker and took steps on his own. You will never learn to "walk" in Hebrew or Greek!

More Grammar

Some time later, when I was living in Guatemala (1987?), I got a hankering to study Hebrew in depth. I got hold of Thomas Lambdin's An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew and made a little progress, but not all that much. Some of my Hebrew Bible reading came before this, and some after it. As it happened, the library of the mission group I belonged to had a copy of what I found to be an extremely helpful introductory Hebrew grammar: A Modern Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, by John F. A. Sawyer. Sawyer used a linguistic approach which I loved, but in so doing, he used reasonably good linguistic terminology. While his terminology was certainly not overly complicated, it was not the "old standard" muddle of Hebrew and Latinate terminology that most English-speaking students of the language are used to, so it never gained much popularity. Lambdin's book seems to have held the top slot up to the present day. Well, in 1997, when I was taking my Greek course at Knox Seminary in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, I found Sawyer's book in the library. I was thrilled! I wanted to get my own copy. I wrote to the publisher at the address in the book, asking either to be told how I could get a copy or to be granted permission to make a copy for myself. Some time later, I got a response from the British company that had acquired the rights to the books by the original publisher, which it had bought. They said the book was out of print and there were no plans to reprint it, and they gave me permission to make a copy for my own use. I did, and I have the letter in a sheet protector in the notebook where my copy is stored. Happily, the book can be obtained for less than $20 via various internet dealers. I think there has even been a reprint, but the site that lists it is down right now.

After we moved to our house in Huehuetenango, Guatemala in January or early February 2002, I had to spend a solid month running around and doing a ton of stuff to get us settled. That was very tiresome. When all that was finally done, I rewarded myself by taking a week or so to read through Sawyer's book again. By that time I didn't imagine that I would magically master Hebrew, but I had become conscious that the way I learn just any language is by what I call "successive approximations." This time through Sawyer's book was another stage of approximation to Hebrew for me.

As 2003 drew toward its close, I got to looking online for possible Christmas gifts for myself. One thing I wanted was a frequency guide to Hebrew vocabulary. That would help me work on the most frequent words first, then gradually move to the less frequent words. I settled on A Student's Vocabulary for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic by Larry A. Mitchel. After it arrived, I started making vocabulary cards. I eventually made about 1,500, all of which I learned over several months. I don't remember them all now, but it was a helpful exercise.

I highly recommend vocabulary frequency lists for learning both Biblical Hebrew and Greek. They give you a palpable sense of progress because they enable you to read the most text the most quickly. There are numerous lists out there for both languages. Which one you get is not nearly as important as simply getting one and going to work on the words.

Uses of Hebrew for a Semitist Majoring in Other Languages

That more or less leads me up to the present. I am not specifically studying Hebrew at Catholic University, but it does come into some of my courses and I find that my knowledge of it, however limited, is useful. To be specific, in the second semester of my Advanced Biblical Greek class, we read parts of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Old Testament. In the process, we regularly compared the Greek text with the Hebrew to see how they were related. There are some interesting differences, and in some of them, it is clear that the Septuagint reading is superior to the Hebrew as preserved in the traditional Masoretic text. At any rate, we had to compare the Hebrew and Greek texts, and on the exams, our professor had us translate a passage from Hebrew into Greek. That was a challenge! During the same semester, we read a good bit of the book of Exodus in Syriac, and in that class we compared the Syriac Peshitta text with numerous versions, including the Hebrew original. This year I am taking Targumic Aramaic. During this spring semester, we have now finished the introductory grammar and are reading 1 Samuel in Aramaic. We regularly refer to the Hebrew to see how the Targum differs from it (the differences are sometimes spectacular!). So my modest Hebrew is being used and even improved a little.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Farsi/Persian: A beautiful language, a deep attachment

My relationship with Farsi, also known as Modern Persian, goes back over 30 years. We learned that my dad, an Air Force officer, had been assigned to go to Tehran to join thousands of other American military personnel in upgrading the training of the Iranian Air Force. As a confirmed language fan even then, my first interest was to study the language of the country, generally known as Farsi (though some people in academia prefer the name Persian). With the help of Elementary Persian Grammar by L. P. Elwell-Sutton, I set out on this interesting journey. It took some time and concentration to learn the alphabet. I even made a large poster of it. I also started to learn some words.

We arrived in Iran about November 1, 1976. In January 1977 my parents and I started taking the first level of Farsi courses offered by the Iran American Society. After a few months of memorizing dialogues and vocabulary lists, and drilling numerous grammatical patterns with the help of our teacher, Homa Salehizadeh, I had gained a basic conversational ability.

My knowledge proved useful for handling purchases at the corner store and also at the U.S. Army Motor Pool, which gave summer jobs to many American high schoolers. We worked under Iranian employees who did not know English (there was a floating interpreter who went from shop to shop to facilitate communication where needed). My modest command of Farsi proved very helpful as I worked in the carpentry shop. Also, the son of the shop supervisor came in sometimes. He was a university student studying English, with the goal of becoming a translator.
I learned the Farsi names of quite a few tools from him, and he learned their English names from me.

Over time, I continued to acquire vocabulary and gain better (though never excellent) control of the grammar. One thing that greatly hampered my study was the lack of an adequate dictionary. There were large dictionaries by S. Haim readily available, but they were designed for native speakers of Farsi who were studying English, not native English speakers learning Farsi. What this meant was that most Farsi words did not have vowels marked, which meant that a non-native had to guess among many possibilities. In practice, this meant that I never shelled out the many rials that such a dictionary would have cost.

Instead, I used the one dictionary that I knew of that showed the vowels of every word: Ann K. S. Lambton's Persian Vocabulary. This was great as far as it went, but it didn't go all that far. It was designed to be used in a classroom with her Persian Grammar textbook. It was definitely not designed to be practical in everyday use in the life of a city. I became so frustrated with its frequent failure to include words I came across, or to include the right meanings for many words, that I added some uncomplimentary words above and below the title on the half-title page: "Greatly Abridged, Short" Persian Vocabulary "For the User of Impractical Persian." My favorite example of an inadequate selection of meanings has to do with the word roughan. I saw this word regularly on billboards. When I looked it up in Lambton, I found the glosses "clarified butter" and "grease". I finally learned, probably from context, that on the billboards it meant "motor oil". One of the words in the vocabulary that struck me as most useless was "Transoxania"--what on earth could that be? What was it doing in this crazy dictionary when it lacked such obviously necessary words as "airport" and "driver"? I suppose that these words just did not occur in the literary texts that Lambton designed her vocabulary for. I eventually learned that Transoxania is a geographical term which refers to a region of Central Asia to the northeast of Iran. A lot of good that did me on the streets of Tehran, but I guess it proved useful to Lambton's classroom students way off in Britain.

One thing I did to help reduce the shortcomings of Lambton's vocabulary was to add every word in Elwell-Sutton's vocabulary that was not already in Lambton. I also added some words from my IAS texts. Probably some of my additions came from other sources as well. The dictionary still lacked many necessary words, but that was as much as I could do at the time. Fortunately, much better dictionaries have appeared in the intervening years. For discussion of some of these, see my reviews on Amazon.

Moving on from my griping, I remember when our family went on a tourist trip to some northern towns. I was able to have limited but interesting conversations with people on the street. That felt very rewarding. By the time I left Iran, I had arrived at what I later learned to call an FSI 2+ level, which meant "limited working proficiency." (FSI stood for "Foreign Service Institute." It has now been changed to ILR, "Interagency Language Roundtable.")

I have dabbled in Farsi off and on over the years since, because it has always had a powerful esthetic appeal to me. It is a beautiful, poetic language. However, my current level is probably around 1+ or 2. I have been sitting in on a Farsi class at a nearby university once a week, which is as often as my schedule permits. This has helped revive some dormant bits of knowledge, as well as adding some new bits. I'm sure I'll keep working on Farsi from time to time. It just fascinates me. Who knows, maybe one of these years I'll be able to read the fine poetry which is the heart of Persian literature.

German: Differences we can't blame on Eddie and Willy

Before I leave the matter of English-German linguistic contrasts, I should note that there is one area of difficulty for English-speaking students of German which cannot be laid at the door of William the Conqueror: syntax. This is the area where my description in the last post is most applicable: "the mildly different grammar patterns that are just different enough to cause constant conflict with our own." Both English and German make heavy use of directional particles in conjunction with verbs, and it is plain that the systems have similar origins. However, the German system is just different enough to cause major difficulties for English speakers.

(Before proceeding, if you have not already done so, immediately consign to the garbage heap of commonly taught misinformation the idea doubtless imparted to you by middle or high school English teachers that "you must not end a sentence with a preposition." This is an artificial imposition of a fact of Latin grammar on a language of a quite different structure. It has always be perfectly natural in English to end sentences with directional particles, which the Latin-trained elite of a few centuries ago mistakenly equated with Latin prepositions. Regardless of who said it, the statement "
That is a rule up with which I will not put," commonly but perhaps inaccurately attributed to Winston Churchill, is quite appropriate when faced with this completely erroneous assertion.)

In English, we normally put directional particles immediately after the verb or after a relatively short direct object following the verb. An example:
I am looking up the word "haymanutha" in my Syriac dictionary.
We could also say:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" up in my Syriac dictionary.
We can also omit the final prepositional phrase and say simply:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" up.
Or even more simply:
I am looking it up.
This is completely natural in English and has been, as far as I know, ever since Anglo-Saxon days. The reason is that "up" is not a preposition here! It is a directional particle that specifies the meaning of the rather general verb "look."

German uses directional particles in the same way, but when they are what are called "separable" directional particles, they must go at the very end of independent clauses, and this can prove confusing to English speakers. Our original sentence would look like this with German word order:
I am looking the word "haymanutha" in my Syriac dictionary up.
This kind of construction is extremely frequent in German, so one must get used to looking quickly at the end of a clause to see if there is a directional particle that might modify the meaning of the main verb of the clause. It takes some getting used to!

One more detail of German word order often proves trying to non-native learners: the placement of the verb in the final position of subordinate and relative clauses. In English the verb may wind up in the final position of a subordinate or relative clause, but it does not have to. For example:
Do you know how much it costs?
I love the same children that my wife loves.
I love the woman who loves my children.
As can be seen, the verb (costs, loves) remains in the position in which it would be found in the corresponding independent clause, while the focalized element (i.e., the item that is questioned or relativized: how much, that, who) is placed at the beginning of the subordinate clause. If this item would normally follow the verb and there is nothing else following, the verb will wind up in the final position, as in the first two examples. But if the item would normally precede the verb, there it stays, and any item that would normally follow the verb stays after the verb, as in the last example.

In German, though, the verb in such clauses
always goes at the end. And in this case, by the way, the separable directional particles remain prefixed to the verb. Thus, the word order for the German equivalent of the first two examples above would be the same. But the order for the third example would be:
I love the woman who my children loves.
In a short example like this it is not too hard to follow this word order, but in the long, complex sentences that typify scholarly prose, one must again develop the habit of immediately looking to the end of the clause.

Oh yes, there is also the matter of auxiliary verbs, equivalent to English
can, should and so forth. In English we always put these auxiliary verbs immediately before the main verb and tend to think of the two as an inseparable unit:
I must look this word up in my Syriac dictionary.
But in German, you can never forget that everything that follows the auxiliary verb is techinically a kind of subordinate clause. The German word order for the preceding sentence would be:
I must this word in my Syriac dictionary up-look.
Thus, whenever you find an auxiliary verb in German, you must immediately look to the end of the following subordinate clause to find the main verb.

Again, these differences cannot be blamed on French influence. English and German just took slightly different tacks in their historical development. But this "slight" difference is just the right kind to lead to
major headaches for English-speaking students of German. The only cure I know of for these headaches is plenty of practice. After you have been regularly reading German for a while (at least several months), these tricks for reading it will become second nature.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

German: Such words! Such syntax! Or, another reason for English speakers to loathe the memory of William the Conqueror

German is a Germanic language. So is English. So, why do English speakers find it so blasted hard to learn German? Two reasons: vocabulary and grammar. Yes, German also has a few sounds that English doesn't have, but these are as nothing compared to the wildly different vocabulary and the mildly different grammar patterns that are just different enough to cause constant conflict with our own.

Who is to blame for this unfortunate estrangement of siblings? A certain Englishman and a certain Frenchman. The Englishman was the last king before William, known as Edward the Confessor. Edward's conception of religion led him to believe that he would be more blessed by God if he remained chaste throughout his life. Maybe he felt personally blessed, but his failure to father an heir proved a curse to England. Upon his death, a vicious war of succession broke out. It was won by William, Duke of Normandy, who had a real, though weak, claim to the throne. As William was French, he brought in a great many Frenchmen to help him rule his new kingdom. Over the course of the next few centuries, the hardy Anglo-Saxon language came under the strong influence of the newly prestigious Norman dialect of French, the language of the nobility. This affected English phonology, morphology and, most especially, its lexicon.

The phonological changes in English were not severe enough to cause a great deal of difficulty with relation to German. The main effect was that certain sounds that had previously been allophones (variants conditioned by the sounds around them) became distinct phonemes. Thus, f and v used to be variants of a single phoneme (a sound considered "the same" by native speakers of a language). The f sound was used at the beginning or end of a word, or within a word before a voiceless consonant. The v sound was used inside a word between vowels or before a voiced consonant. The same conditions applied to s and z, voiced th as in "the" and voiceless th as in "thin." In French, though f and v, s and z were distinctive phonemes, that is, these sounds could distinguish one word from another. This came to be the case in English as well. This is why, in Old English, in the word heofon the letter "f" was pronounced like the "v" of the modern English equivalent, heaven.

Changes in morphology, that is, word structure, were much more noticeable and did create serious difficulties for English speakers learning German. Noun plurals, in particular, became simplified. The consonant s, with phonologically conditioned variant pronunciations, became the almost universal marker of plurality. It had served as the plural in some cases in some declensions in Old English, but the fact that this was apparently the most common plural ending in Norman French no doubt helped make it the standard in English. Also, the highly simplified French case system helped English lose all morphological noun cases except the genitive (the possessive "apostrophe s" of Modern English). German, on the other hand, has retained its complex case system up to the present day. This creates considerable difficulties for English speakers learning German.

The largest barrier to the easy learning of German by English speakers is, in my estimation, the vocabulary. The core vocabulary of the two languages (i.e., about the 200 most frequent words) is largely cognate (i.e., derived from the same Proto-Germanic root and recognizably similar). Thus help/helfen (verb), go/gehen, eat/essen, man/Mann, etc. But once you get out of this core vocabulary, there are huge differences. This is due to the absorption of large quantities of French vocabulary (ultimately from Latin) by English, as well as a considerable volume of Greek, in contrast to the decision of German speakers to coin new words by joining existing German roots rather than borrowing Latin and Greek terms willy-nilly as English has long done. Thus, for example, in linguistic writing, where English says sentence construction (two Latin words), German says Satzbau (one word with two German roots). In the realm of religion, English uses baptism (from Greek), while German has Taufe. English history (Greek), German Geschichte. English society (Latin), German Gesellschaft. And so on and so forth. The result is that English speakers learning French, Spanish or Italian will immediately recognize thousands of cognates, while in German they will only find a few hundred, and most of the technical terms needed for a particular field of learning will be completely different. So English-speaking graduate students face a daunting amount of vocabulary learning to make even modest progress in German, whereas once they have learned a couple hundred words of non-cognate core vocabulary in a Romance language, their path is clear because of the overwhelming mass of cognates in technical vocabulary.

In a separate post, I will deal with syntactic conflicts between English and German that cannot be blamed on William.

Alibris - What's in a name?

If you know Latin, this might not be news to you, but if not, you might find this amusing.

I heard about quite a while before I started using it. A lady at the church I used to go to regularly bought books from them and recommended that I check out their site. I started pondering the name and then I realized that the person who named the site had played one of my favorite games: making a bilingual pun!

"Alibris" is actually two words in Latin:
a "by" (as in the agent of a passive verb) and libris "books" (ablative case, which among other things is used to indicate the agent of a passive verb). Thus we have a phrase meaning "by books," as in, "He was hit by books that fell off the shelf during the earthquake." But of course, this sounds the same as the imperative clause "Buy books!" which is what Alibris wants you to do.

Ah, those clever Romans!

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Biblical Greek: From When It was Greek to Me

As I mentioned in my first post, I learned the Greek alphabet by the time I was nine years old (by dint of repetition, not a deliberate attempt to memorize it). However, it was some years before I started studying the language in earnest. The moment finally arrived when I was a senior in high school. By this time my family had moved to Del City, Oklahoma. A big turn in my spiritual life led me to have an intense desire to study New Testament Greek.


I found a textbook at a local Christian bookstore (Ray Summers, Essentials of New Testament, 1950). It was a reasonably good introduction to the language (although better texts have come out since). The one thing to which I vigorously objected even then, and to which I even more vigorously object now, was a statement in the introduction. I no longer have the book, so the following quote is only approximate, but the meaning is unaltered: "It was logical that God should have used Greek as the medium for the New Testament, for it is the most expressive language known to man." For a person with an appreciation for the range of human languages, this last clause is heresy! Even at the age of 17 or 18, when I got this book, I was appalled by the smugness and ignorance displayed by this statement. There simply is no such thing as "the most expressive language known to man." The most expressive language known to any person is usually his or her first language, whether Sipakapense, Chinese, Xhosa or Spanish... or Greek! Greek was used for the composition of the New Testament because it was the language of scholarship and commerce in the eastern Mediterranean region. The Greeks had been colonizing that area for centuries, and the conquests of Alexander of Macedon ("the Great") spread Greek even farther and cemented its status as a language of government administration. People spoke many languages throughout this large geographical area, but Greek was a language they all had in common. It was likely the native tongue of Paul of Tarsus and the gospel writers who came after him. These men were well prepared to compose the documents that came to form the New Testament in the language in which they could most readily gain wide circulation.

Having gotten past that myth (which I hope is not still circulating in seminaries!), let me tell a bit about how I slowly got to know Greek. I started plodding through Summers' book on my own. I got fairly far along, but I remember that understanding the nature of Greek participles was beyond me at the time. Whether it was a poor exlpanation in the book or simply my own inadequate comprehension of the explanation, I cannot remember. From time to time as an undergraduate I returned to Greek. Bits and pieces kept sinking in, but much still eluded me.

Some time after I started my linguistic studies at the Summer Institute of Linguistics in the fall of 1981, maybe even a year after that, I briefly joined a Greek reading group composed of three or four students. I still had trouble making much sense of connected text. Some verb forms stumped me and the syntax (by which I mean word order) was often incomprehensible. But overall, this exposure did more good than harm.

A Breakthrough: Hepatitis

In 1989, while I was living in Guatemala, I got hepatitis. To make good use of the time as my body slowly recovered, I undertook the study of Russian. It turns out that Russian has a system of participles that is very similar to that of Greek. Somehow, as I studied the books from Moscow, participles finally clicked! Basically, they are verbs turned into adjectives which, like all adjectives in many languages, can also function as nouns. Hurray! I was finally over one of the most daunting hurtles in my acquisition of Greek.

Eventually I found myself in Florida, starting in 1990. A few years after I got a job as a Spanish editor at a Christian publishing company (Editorial Vida), I finally decided that my hankering to be able to read the New Testament (and the Septuagint) in Greek was not going to be satisfied until I actually started applying myself to the task. No thunderbolts of knowledge from heaven were going to suddenly put it in my brain! So I went back to reading the NT on my own, with help from a lexicon and maybe even some help from that crippler of language learners: an analytical concordance. (I know, it's embarrassing to admit it, but even at that late date I may have sometimes given in to the temptation to go back to the linguistic equivalent of bottle-feeding.)

Consolidation: My First Class in a Seminary

Finally, after my company was acquired by another one that offered educational benefits to its employees, I was able to enroll in a local seminary (Knox Theological Seminary, Fort Lauderdale) and take a second semester Greek course (Spring 1997). This was just what I needed at the time. About the time I began the course, I finished my first reading of the entire New Testament in Greek. While there was still plenty that I didn't know, I had at least become somewhat familiar with how the Greek writers expressed themselves. Greek II helped me nail down various of the verb and noun forms that had been hovering on the periphery of my knowledge. Somewhere over the course of the next few years, I finished reading through the NT again, this time with much more appreciation of the style of the language and the idiosyncrasies of the various authors. I still had to look up some words, and Hebrews and 2 Peter continued to be exceedingly difficult syntactically, but I had definitely gotten past the "decipherment" phase to the phase of reasonably fluent reading.

Pedal to the Metal: Greek with Frank

After my second reading of the NT, I very occasionally read a chapter in Greek, but my attention to it was very sporadic. Finally, in the fall of 2006, I began my studies at the Catholic University of America. One of the requirements for all students in the Semitics department is to take two semesters of Advanced Biblical Greek. This I did during the 2006-07 school year. I thought I would die that first semester! I have boundless admiration for my professor, Dr. Francis T. Gignac (JEEN-ee-ack), who likes to be called just "Frank" by his students. He is a Jesuit about my father's age. He is very friendly, very erudite and very demanding of his students.

In the fall semester, our reading consisted of all the genuine Pauline epistles. This meant two chapters every class day (Monday, Wednesday, Friday). We all had to be prepared to translate the entire text of the two chapters. About two weeks into the course, Frank informed us that we would be expected to be able to produce from memory every principal part of every verb. Yikes! That meant up to six forms of each of hundreds of verbs. Also, on the exams he would put a passage from one of the books we had read up to that point and we had to be able to translate it with no reference to a dictionary. This meant some serious vocabulary memorization. I knew most of the words that occured 50 times or more in the NT, but there were plenty that were less frequent than that, so I had to start making cards for all the ones I either didn't know or wasn't quite sure of. Thus my commutes by bus and train to and from the university were largely taken up with studying the seemingly endless lists of words and verb forms. This, combined with my other courses, demanding in themselves, made me feel like I was drowning.

I learned from a student who had introductory Greek with Frank that his first semester is known as "boot camp": he takes the beginners through the entire introductory textbook (which he wrote) in about six weeks! They have to learn all the principal parts of all their verbs. This is the amount of grammar and vocabulary commonly covered in a full two semesters of seminary courses. My friend told me that the beginning students felt like they were drowning too. But, he said, it was extremely satisfying after this very intense period of study, to be able to open the Gospel of John in Greek and find he could read it with ease.

Well, by the time I finished that first semester of advanced Greek, my "okay" knowledge had been whipped into shape and could perhaps even be called "good." But there was more to come! In the second semester (which I was in just a year ago!) we read parts of the Septuagint (abbreviated LXX), that is, the Greek translation of the Old Testament done a couple of centuries before Christ. In that course, we had to keep an eye on the Hebrew text as well, to see how the Greek differed from the Hebrew. We also found that the quality of translation varied wildly, from good renderings in some books to horrible renderings in others, ones so bad as to be virtually incomprehensible, unless you already knew what the Hebrew said. Once again, there were many principal parts and many new vocabulary words to learn, as well as various grammatical peculiarities of LXX Greek that set it apart from both Classical and New Testament Greek. On our tests, we had a passage to translate from Greek to English, but also one to translate from Hebrew to Greek! My Hebrew is only middling, and composing coherent text in Greek was a big challenge, but I survived. I am grateful to Frank for pushing us to learn as much as we did; my Greek would never have reached its current reasonably good level without him, I'm sure. But whew! What a lot of work!

Why Do Semitists Learn Greek?

Since Greek is an Indo-European language, like English and Spanish, rather than a Semitic language, like Hebrew, Syriac and Arabic, you may wonder why Semitists have to study it. Here is the answer.

If you aim to become a scholar of Old Testament Hebrew, you will have to be able to use the Septuagint as you study matters of textual criticism. The Septuagint is the earliest translation of the Hebrew text and sometimes witnesses to a version different from the current Masoretic text.

If, as I am, you are a student of the Semitic languages of the early centuries of the Christian Church (Syriac, Arabic and Coptic [though this last is not quite Semitic, as I explain here]), you will find abundant Greek loanwords, often key theological terms. Also, many Greek theological writings were translated into these languages and exercised a profound influence on how writers of these languages formulated their own theological expressions. Particularly in Coptic, you would be hamstrung without a knowledge of Greek.

What Textbook of New Testament Greek Do I Recommend?

There are a great many possibilities out there, and I am not familiar with them all. Of the ones I am familiar with, though, the one I recommend is the one I used at Knox: David Alan Black's Learn to Read New Testament Greek. Dr. Black shows an awareness of linguistics, and he happily debunks some of the ridiculous myths about Greek that have circulated for generations in seminaries. My favorite is his refutation of the utterly baseless notion that the "aorist" is a kind of magical "once-and-for-all" tense. In the first place, it is not a tense (absolute time reference), but an aspect (indication of the speaker's point of view). In the course of his explanation on page 50, Black says, "Hence, the 'once-for-all' nature of the aorist, so often celebrated in sermon and commentary, is little more than nonsense if one is arguing that it is the aorist tense per se that proves the nature of the action behind it." Amen!

Frank Gignac's book, An Introductory New Testament Greek Course, is a bit more heavy duty. He includes information on the historical development of the language and even on its Indo-European ancestry. If you have a knack for languages and an interest in the history of Greek, you could start out with this book. Otherwise, start out with something like Black and use Gignac for review and expansion of your knowledge.