[b-hebrew] Re: organic language learning (was: "Basic question on Qal, Piel, and Pual")

Trevor & Julie Peterson 06peterson at cua.edu
Thu Jul 24 05:41:48 EDT 2003

Sameer wrote:

> However, I wonder if you could make the relation
> between the legitimate study of a classical language
> and its living tradition more explicit.  Does the
> inability of a scholar to interact with the living
> tradition invalidate his contribution to the study of
> its classical predecessor?  If so, why?

I wouldn't say that it invalidates any contribution. A lot can be and
has been done in the study of classical Hebrew and other classical
languages by people who did not know later forms. I do think it's
interesting, though, that as far as I know, most people who want to
study a particular period of, say, French or German, learn how to speak
the modern language first. Classical languages are the common exception,
but even there, Latin used to be studied as if it were a spoken language
(even though it was only spoken by academics). So another question we
could ask is, why do we go against this practice with a language like
> And if it does not *invalidate* it but in some other
> way undermines it or weakens it, then how, exactly?

One thing that I already mentioned (which is how we got on this topic)
is the issue of writing. I would say that just about all writing systems
are developed with an assumed fluent audience in mind. (There are
exceptions, of course. Masoretic pointing, as far as it goes, would be
one; IPA standards would be another.) We feel this more acutely with
West Semitic orthography, because it is so much terser than we are used
to seeing. Is spoken fluency the only way to develop skill in reading
unvoweled texts? No. But it's probably one of the best, considering that
it's what the writing system was designed for. If you have an
internalized grasp of the language, your mind can fill in the gaps. This
is true of vowels, but it's helpful for other things too. When I read a
text in English, I don't consciously practice textual criticism in most
cases. Even so, every now and then I'll encounter a misspelling or
grammatical error, note the problem in my head, and go on reading
because I know what the writer meant to say. If I'm not fluent in a
language, I can't do this sort of thing. Textual criticism becomes a
laborious process of determining whether what I'm looking at is a
mistake or some obscure philological datum that I haven't learned to
explain yet. I'm not saying fluency in Israeli Hebrew or even BH will
settle all textual issues. But it helps the process, and again, it puts
you in a better position to do what the original readers could have
done. I think the same thing is true of writing. You can learn to write
the letters by various means and according to various shapes. But the
closer you can get to writing the way they might have, the more likely
you are to pick up on common slips of the pen.

I think even if a person is not going to learn IH or BH in a format like
Michael went through, it is important to work on some level of
internalization. Even the difference between studying vocabulary in one
direction (for recognition only) and studying it in two (to produce the
appropriate word for a given thing or concept) is significant. I've
learned ancient languages according to both systems, and my ability to
interact with the language was affected dramatically by the method used.
Reading out loud makes a big difference, too. You can't brush over
things like vocalization and finer morphological details as easily as
when you're just scanning the letters with your eyes. With an unvoweled
text, it really forces you to make sure you understand what's going on.
(And if you make audible reading a regular practice, when you're working
on unvoweled texts it forces you to know your morphology. It's a lot
easier to look at a word, know that it's a D-stem, and vocalize it
properly on the fly than to stop and look up what the D-stem should
sound like.)

There are probably others that I'm not thinking of right now, but I
think these things are enough. Add the increasing amount of scholarship
that's being written in IH and the general lack of familiarity that most
scholars have with post-biblical stages of Hebrew, and I think there are
a lot of good reasons to pursue spoken fluency.

Trevor Peterson

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