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!