[b-hebrew] Ancient Language Acquisition

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Tue Mar 2 06:01:20 EST 2004

On 02/03/2004 02:26, Trevor Peterson wrote:

> Jonathan Walther wrote:
>> When I learned to read English as a lad, I did just that; I steadily
>> read my way backwards from Alice in Wonderland, to Howard Pyle, to
>> Shakespeare, to Chaucer.  Beyond Chaucer I could not go; Beowulfe feels
>> very familiar, but is gibberish as far as comprehension goes.  My
>> English is a conglomerate of all the variations and developements from
>> the past thousand years.  Would it be a bad thing to understand ancient
>> Hebrew or koine Greek in the same way?
> There is a major difference. You were not learning to speak English 
> from these sources. Also, you were cognizant of the different periods 
> you were reading (at least, that's the way you paint the picture 
> above). ...

Perhaps a better analogy would be those learning modern foreign 
languages in a classroom setting, often based on literature from 
different periods and dialects.

Anyway, the situation need not be significantly worse with Hebrew. 
Students can be told roughly from which period particular texts come; 
the texts are not jumbled together, or at least scholars have already 
partly unjumbled them. In the earlier stages texts from the Late 
Biblical Hebrew period, poems using archaic forms, and the book of Job 
can be avoided. The rest of the Hebrew Bible, the great majority, is 
reasonably uniform in dialect, and it seems unlikely that anyone will be 
led seriously astray by internalising this dialect. And this is a 
sufficiently large and varied corpus that it can be used as the basis of 
non-traditional language learning methods, although some minor 
extensions by analogy may need to be made.

> ...
> Incidentally, I would be curious along the lines of this thread to 
> know what people think about the notion that a person ought to learn 
> Modern Israeli Hebrew or spoken Arabic first, before learning ancient 
> Semitic languages. ...

Care needs to be taken here. On this list over the years there have been 
a number of times when those who know modern Hebrew well, who have 
internalised its verbal system, have been confused by the rather 
different biblical Hebrew verbal system. For example, they have assumed 
that YIQTOL forms are future as in modern Hebrew, whereas in the Bible 
they are often past or present imperfective.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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