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!


Brandon Simpson said...

Wow! This is a pretty impressive review considering that you didn't read the book.

Other than that, I want to be a linguist, too. I just got my BA in Spanish. I plan on studying linguistics at the University of Kentucky. I'm hoping that my books can help me pay for my education

Brandon Simpson

Khalid Williams said...

I must say thank you very much for the review you wrote... It saved me a lot of hassle as I (briefly) got very excited when I found Mr Benner's website. I am studying Hebrew at the moment, and I already know Arabic very well so I was looking for some information on the more ancient Hebrew language to compare. Well, Benner's stuff seemed to be sound at first glance, with an impressive name for his 'research center' and all, but I began to be suspicious when I saw that a lot of the times when he mentioned the Arabic language, he was way off in the things he said, when just a simple bit of research could have corrected him. (Like saying that the Arabic pronunciation of ف is 'p'). So I googled 'Jeff Benner' and 'scholarship' or something like that to try and find a criticism of him, and lo! I found your comments.

So you saved me the bother of ordering lots of his books (which I must admit I was about to do - I'm a little too hasty with thse things). Thanks!