been to ulpan? + living biblical

yochanan bitan ButhFam at
Wed Sep 23 18:22:48 EDT 1998

(caveat: during the first half you may think that i am a pro-modern
hebraist, period. during the second half there is an additional dimension.
hopefully both of interest to some.)

modern hebrew/biblical hebrew, here is what one side of the discussion
sounds like:

a true shakespeare scholar should read only shakespeare, not modernists
like bunyon or milton. and be sure not to learn modern english. imagine the
corruption if you read modern english or a modern english commentary on
shakespeare! some would even suggest that modern english is better for
shakespeare students than their own chinese and chinese commentaries on
(the above is not meant for ongoing discussion, whether right or wrong it
shows what some things sound like. of course, to be true to form it should
have been written in shakespearean english.)

the point is simple--
people who are fluent in hebrew and read from all the periods, e.g., 
biblical, qumran, mishnaic, rabbinic, modern, are very grateful for the
perspective and the insider look at the language. i've never met someone
who was fluent in modern hebrew who recommended against a biblicist
learning modern hebrew. (actually, i've met one, but he was enjoying being
cantankerous.) in most cases, the question itself exposes poor background
or lack of knowledge. advice about ignoring modern hebrew or its
irrelevancy invariably comes from people who do not know modern hebrew, or
do not know it well. 
part of the problem may stem from an groundless fear of implications. there
are some professors in hebrew departments around the world who do not know
modern hebrew, therefore it better not be necessary. or phrased
differently, would learning modern hebrew make someone a better scholar
than those hebrew professors? 
absolutely not. 
BUT --
those professors would be even better biblical hebrew scholars than they
are if they controlled the modern language well and fluently. (catch 22: if
they knew that they might have done it, but they don't do it so they don't
get to know it.)

so-- would the best thing for biblical hebrew students be to come and spend
1-2 years in israel before finishing their studies?
practically speaking, there is no better advice.

someone asked for a testimony of someone who knew biblical hebrew and
learned modern later. i did. i'd read over half the hebrew bible before
coming to israel (25 years ago). what happened? it was like relearning the
language. for one, the language changed from a high speed semi-conscious
crossword puzzle to a language. the biblical patterns helped in the short
run to make fast progress in the modern language, though i now feel that
the transition was rougher than needed to be and that the 'mis-learning' of
biblical hebrew as analytical puzzle-codes hurt more than helped. [my
daughter has learned as an adult (late-teen), too, though from modern to
biblical. i feel that she did not need to remove as much 'scar' material.]
students also need to know that close to 100 % of all the morphology that
they internalize in modern hebrew is also biblical. biblical has additional
morphological patterns but basically uses all of the modern ones. the rare
modern pattern that is not standard biblical will usually be found either
dialectically in the bible or in mishnaic hebrew. yes biblical hebrew has
wonderfully different syntax and storytelling patterns. but those patterns
and the literature are best studied when a person can peruse them fluently
and easily. 
it is also enjoyable to listen to a good reader (e.g. properly pronouncing
`ayin's and het's as the retracted tongue-root fricatives that they are)
roll off a biblical story or read a cadenced isaiah.

now--does the above mean that the best way to learn biblical hebrew is
through modern?
not necessarily !!!

what is probably most important is that the language is learned as a human
language, in as dynamic a communicative setting and as monolingually (!) as
is possible and that every chance to internalize the language is made use
monolingual, of course, is technically impossible because biblical hebrew
is less than half a language. imagine, dogs but no CATS! [yet a semantic
domain for any biblical child would have included HaTulim.] what we
don't/can't have: without a defense department budget setting up a
"monterrey school" biblical hebrew course [this refers to a semi-famous
language program in the US where military and some government personnel are
trained] there will be practical limits to the levels of courses and
materials that can be developed for biblical hebrew. theoretically, it
would be as possible to set up a biblical hebrew training program as to set
up a true shakespearian english training center [such does not exist as far
as i'm aware.] [imagine teachers only speaking/teaching shakespearian
english to students.]

meanwhile, i would say, either develop and use materials that teach
biblical hebrew as a human language according to best language acquistion
methodologies available, or else come and learn modern hebrew fully,
including the full biblical core. 
or do both.

shana tova
randall buth
(ps: a 250 page, 15 cassette 'ulpan le`ivrit miqra'it will be available in
december from a US distribution point and won't be inexpensive. until then
a 13 cassette version is available, but must be privately run off and
shipped from israel. [it uses listening comprehension learnables-style
pictures, refined audio-lingual dialogues and drills (shorter than FSI),
covers jonah, including literary and discourse/textlinguistic notes to the
inevitable morphological/lexical footnotes (in english).])

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