"Non-Academic" Original Languages?

Trevor Peterson 06PETERSON at cua.edu
Wed Dec 18 12:24:40 EST 2002

>===== Original Message From "S. L." <lyosovs at cityline.ru> =====
>  As far as dead languages are concerned, I believe textbooks with made-up
>texts using syntax not found in the sources  (Lambdin) or phrases taken out
>of their contexts and therefore incomprehensible for the student unless
>(s)he  consults a translation (Seow) do not lead directly to the study of
>the original texts.

You're right, in that they don't lead directly to study of original texts. 
They can, however, be a useful stop along the way. Granted, it is preferable 
to use syntax that is found in the sources--I'm not trying to argue for any 
departure from this standard! And I agree that there is a problem with lack of 
context for exercises. (On the other hand, there is something to be said for 
developing facility with identifying the possible readings of a bit of text in 
isolation. When reading a broken text for the first time, this sort of thing 
has to be done. In Akkadian exercises (using Huehnergard), we were required to 
come up with every possible reading, especially where the assignment was to 
write a sentence in cuneiform. Granted, this sort of thing needs to be 
balanced by looking at observable tendencies in real texts.

>I mean the gap between the world of textbooks and that
>of the original works remains. Every reader  of the BH knows that not so
>many verses of the  Bible  are completely  free of philological or textual
>problems, and these problems + the limited amount of texts + about 1/3 of
>the lexicon  (near) hapaxes  is what makes learning BH distinct from
>learning, say, Spanish.

True. But there are rough parallels in learning a modern, spoken language. 
Rare vocabulary is avoided in the early stages where possible, and more 
commonly used constructions can be introduced in relative isolation.

>  The textbooks are useful, but mostly for motivated autodidacts  who
>(still) do  not have much philological experience  and therefore cannot
>start teaching themselves just with a descriptive grammar + lexicon + texts.
>Huehnergard's Grammar of Akkadian is to my mind by far the best paragon of a
>dead Semitic language textbook, Jenni's Lehrbuch - the best one for BH.

I do like Huehnergard, but not everything appears unaltered from real texts. 
There are a lot of exercises from real texts, and it is for this reason that 
when I learned Akkadian we didn't rush to finish the book in less than two 
years. (We also worked with supplemental texts that were not in the book, as 
the occasion arose.) But there are also exercises from English to Akkadian and 
fabricated or modified sentences for practice. The grammar is not strictly a 
reference format, and students are shielded from dealing with unfamiliar 
grammar until the point where he chooses to introduce it.

>  But if there is a teacher available, I would now prefer - if I were  a
>beginning student  of BH - to  start with a real text (Ruth, Gen 37-48,
>Jonah, etc.) after having been taught Einleitungsfragen (main periods of the
>history of Hebrew, etc ),  the  writing system, elements of phonology and
>the basics of nominal and verbal morphology. Normally it would take one some
>four lectures to cover these topics, then the  students start exploring a
>text on their own using BDB (or HALOT) + a grammar (preferably
>Gesenius-Kautsch)  and in  the coming  lessons they get information they
>have been  looking for while doing their homework (and much more, of
>course).  Well, it is an ideal picture:  the students are supposed to be
>motivated and not extremely lazy.
> Within this approach the words are memorised in contexts, due to  constant
>re-reading + regular tests. Still one has to learn the paradigms more or
>less by rote, but (morh)phonological and historical explanations can make it
>an easier and a more interesting task, I mean Barth's law and things like
>Do you think it is extreme?

No. I would not call this extreme. When I said "extreme," I was referring to 
something like the anecdote in "Untold Stories" about someone's first day in 
Ugaritic, where he was asked to start reading from a text in sign before ever 
learning a thing about the language. I agree, though, that the textbook format 
can be minimized as students progress in their familiarity with the type of 
material. For us, Akkadian or Arabic was prerequisite to Ugaritic, and 
everyone had already studied several years of Hebrew. So there was no need to 
spend much time at all on preliminaries. I have a hard time picturing a 
similar approach to my first-year Hebrew class back in seminary :-)

Personally, I'm inclined to think that the best way for Hebrew study to 
progress would be for students to learn Modern spoken Hebrew first, then from 
a standpoint of relative fluency, to learn Biblical Hebrew in a careful 
treatment of the differences between the two. By doing that, BH could be 
introduced without much difficulty in unpointed texts and masoretic systems 
added later on. There would also be less need for hand-holding in the teaching 
of the ancient form, and textual issues could be stressed appropriately. I 
happen to think that Randall Buth is onto something with his attempt at doing 
basically the same thing by teaching BH as a spoken language, but there we're 
back into the problem of trying to teach as a spoken language that which is 
not and of the fabrications that inevitably result. I'm just sharing my 
feelings, of course. I have nothing to back them up, since I haven't learned 
any form of spoken Hebrew as yet, let alone tried to teach according to this 

Trevor Peterson

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