whatisaword? (dictionary and beyond)

yochanan bitan ButhFam at compuserve.com
Fri Dec 24 06:25:58 EST 1999

DW: >the modern Hebrew dictionaries I have list things like 
>$FLAX [shalaH] and HI$LIAX [hishliaH] separately under 
>shin and he, respectively.  I 
>like that arrangement, but wonder how likely it is that a BH 
>dictionary arranged this way will appear in any of our lifetimes.  

A BH dictionary with shalaH and hishliaH listed separately will happen,
be`asor ha-shanim ha-ba, besiyya`ta dishmayya.
But it's not a priority with me until we have materials that take students 
to high levels of language competence in BH.
In principle, a dictionary should be practical, easy-to-use. We agree
In addition, I would add that a learner's bi-lingual dictionary should not
fictivize the language. 
You will see what I mean below.
[an aside: A. Even-shoshan, ha-milon ha-Hadash, groups verbs under a root.
i don't mind for a hebrew-hebrew dictionary since no skewing results for
those who know the language.]

>Holladay ... lists things like nouns, adjectives etc. 
>separately rather than listing them under triliteral roots the way 
>BDB does.  Would you consider that a reasonable compromise 
>approach for the time being?  

i have nothing to say about it since it already exists. 
but it is incomplete, IMO, as a model for something new.

>how would you like to see a dictionary (or a word list) arranged?  

list each word, including each qal, nif`al, pi`el, hitpa`el and hif`il
verb, separately. 
then put a short reference at the end of a qal article that lists various
related verbs. 
NB: pu`al and hof`al don't qualify as separate words, IMO, 
though there are a few rare idioms that could be listed.
>This is how most of us learned the language: start with a 
>root, apply the stem and get a "word" with a "meaning."  

Exactly. That is the problem. 
Natural language reverses the process. 
You learn words in context, then you extract roots.

If one were to teach as you mention, then they would be teaching a 
fictive language, with the wrong internal structure. 
what's worse, an experiential 'laboratory' of active language 
use is not available to correct student misappropriations. 
modern languages don't suffer from that because 
students eventually self-correct through interaction.
So, unfortunately, I believe that you are right about "roots" 
being the way most people learn BH.

(straw-example:)  Students should not be taught 'roots' as though to imply
that it is or was expected 
that an individual language user would take a root and willy-nilly create
e.g., ozen 'ear'.  he`ezin 'to listen ('formally'. it is/was high
register.)'  (today='listen to radio'.)
can someone just create/pielize  
izzen *'to surreptitiously listen-in', 'eavesdrop'. ?
or could they decide/assume that he'ezin meant that ?
(likewise, there was nothing to prevent the ancient community from deciding
that izzen or he'ezin meant 'to kill, to be-"ear" [the enemy]'. but they
didn't so create.)

[izzen actually means 'to balance', (possibly a different root or
extrapolated from the hands/?='ears' of a balance?) the etymology is
irrelevant. the point is that the language community filters, accepts and
fixes neologisms and only then do they become lexemes with a particular,
never-completely-predictable meaning, even for the most unremarkable new
words. Afterall, the language user doesn't know if a highly idiosyncratic
meaning will be formed at any (new, open) slot.] 

>I'm also thinking of the average English dictionary, which has an entry
>"think" but no (verbal) entry for "thought" as a past-tense form; this 
>is usually indicated as part of the entry under "think."  Since they 
>are forms of the same verb, that makes sense even if it is 
>occasionally difficult for some learning English who don't yet fully 
>understand the strong verb system.  

Agreed. English dictionaries would benefit from strong verb
Some Greek and Hebrew ones already provide some of this.

>Hebrew is a tad more complex since we not only have the 
>two "tense" forms qatal and yiqtol, but we also have the various stems.  
>I'm not sure there's a "good" way to do it, 
>but I'd be interested in your thoughts on it 

I would say Hebrew is LESS complex.
Two tense forms (or 'four', depending on who's counting) makes it easier 
than most languages.
   --  NB -- I'm pointing out, claiming, that the various stems and
binyanim, Q,N,Pi,Hitp,Hif, (=5), are DIFFERENT verbs. They need to be
listed separately, tagged separately in Bible programs and 
counted separately in any vocabulary statistics. 
Secondary, etymological statistics can then list numbers for roots, etc.,
for those interested.

Basically, the  modern field has been repressed, (though some may be either
im-pressed or de-pressed) by a medieval interest in etymology. 
NB: the etymological studies and collections were started by people who
ALREADY knew the language and were able to study the internal relationships
of it 'after the fact'. 
I would hazard a guess that no successful second language programs
recommend or use etymology as the way to teach beginners a language. In
fact, etymology often skews the actual, current meaning of a word. (Don't
get me wrong--I do believe that it is useful as an intermediate/advanced
level skill for 'attacking' new/unknown words, in any language being
learned. even for re-press, im-press and de-press! but the etymology will
mislead and 'spin your head' if you try to make it 'active'.)
And I highly encourage any program that can 'internalize' the morphology of
the binyanim, since that is vital for thinking with the language, being
able to flip from 
vayshalaH ha-par`o     to 
veha-par`o shillaH     without 'thinking'.

so i suppose i feel that this is potentially a much more foundational 
problem than might appear on the surface. it is not 
simply a terminological or formatting question.

where is the nexus of meaning? 
how does one teach it? 
how do students absorb it?

elef braxot, me'elef tsarot le'elef braxot
randall buth

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