Thursday, March 20, 2008

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.


AAAAAAAAAAron J said...

haha we have a similar courtship with the Hebrew language! last year I bought The First Hebrew Primer by EKS (full price and B&N), then picked up for super cheap the audio CDs for it on, and after waiting a couple months for the answer guide to come in, got that too. Thankfully, I can pick up alphabets and scripts without too much trouble (if I write it out over and over, transliterate English texts, etc, in a month, I have it down pretty well); but I've only learned about half of it, about where I left off last summer. I think knowing the Perso-Arabic script helped out on that though (quite a few Semitic similarities!). But in the small time of flirting with Hebrew (about a year), I've only had a couple handfuls of 15-50 min sit downs. I was first attracted to Biblical Hebrew since Biblical archaeology is an interest of mine, and since it's in an ancient form...but I've also listened to about two Pimsleur lessons of Modern Hebrew and have learned "slicha" --excuse me--, "luh" --no--, "cin" --yes--, "muhshlomech" --how are you--, "aat mevina, ataa mevin ivrit/englit" --do you understand (?) hebrew/english-- and finally "ani mevin ivrit" --I understand (or speak? [i think 'understand']) hebrew.

So you've been at it a long time more than I have, but it's interesting to see your undying effort to learn and use it here and there, and I'd like to take your example for myself.

I wrote you small reply back to your email the other day, but now I realize you have a lot of experience in Semitics! from Syrian, Hebrew, and Aramaic to now Qu'ranic Arabic.

AAAAAAAAAAron J said...

One thing though, I was disappointed in the First Hebrew Primer's speakers. They do a fine job in pronunciation, but they read the "tall tales" and other stories presented in Biblical Hebrew basically "how an English person would do it". I didn't expect it to be read like Modern Hebrew, and one can't expect it to be read as it would a couple thousand years back, but I still expected maybe the way a Jewish Rabbi would. Also, the "R" sounds basically like that in English...both the consonantal and the "vowel"-R, like the "er" sound. I've been trying to find out if that's authentic.