[b-hebrew] song of Deborah

Will Parsons wbparsons at alum.mit.edu
Mon Nov 21 20:32:04 EST 2011

Hi Dewayne:

On Mon, 21 Nov 2011 16:10:58 -0600, Dewayne Dulaney <dewayne.dulaney at gmail.com> wrote:
> One does not need to speak a language natively to have an excellent
> mastery of it. Near-native is just as good in the case of Mishnaic
> Hebrew. I am not a native speaker of Spanish; American English is my
> native tongue. However, due to a good teacher, hard work and practice,
> despite only having the opportunity to speak it with other non-native
> speakers while in my first Spanish studies in high school (2 years),
> when I made my first trip to Mexico the following year,  I was able to
> function and be understood on a near-native level by natives, and even
> serve effectively as an interpreter. Continued work with the language
> in my college years solidified and extended this, so that when I met
> and talked with international students from a dozen different Hispanic
> nations, I was frequently mistaken for a native speaker.

Spanish is the native language of millions of people, even if it not your
native language.

Karl is right in making the distinction between a language that is spoken but
learned as a second language and one that is the primary language, or mother
tongue of a community.  I don't know enough about the linguistic situation of
post-exilic Hebrew to venture an opinion on whether or not Mishnaic Hebrew was
ever spoken natively, but certainly that is was used for oral communication is
not enough to prove that it was, no more than that Latin was the primary
language for anyone despite its being used as a means of oral communication in
certain spheres (e.g., law, education) throughout the mediaeval period.

> I mention this not to brag but to show what is possible. The Mishnaic
> speaker had the possibility of becoming near-native in that dialect,
> which would have sufficed.

Assuming that Mishnaic Hebrew was not spoken as a native language (which I
am not stating as a fact), no, the Mishnaic speaker did not have that
possibility, any more than a mediaeval European had the possibility of being
near-native in Latin, since in fact there was no such thing as a native Latin

> Even less that that level could still be
> good if it was not possible. As a former Spanish teacher myself, I
> have observed that there are varying levels of mastery in language
> learning, and some skills are faster to develop than others. One
> learns to understand what is spoken somewhat faster than he/she learns
> to speak well, for instance. A good accent usually takes longer to
> acquire than control of vocabulary and syntax when speaking. Control
> of idioms also takes more time and effort. One could function at a
> high level in some sense without having the highest level of control.
> I have known Spanish students who have near-native speaking fluency as
> regards vocabulary and sentence formation but who do not have a good
> accent.

Not to quibble with your point that one can become exceedingly good in a
language that one wasn't brought up in, you are again working from your
experience in Spanish, which is a fully living, native language.  Such
languages develop and are used differently that a purely learned language.
To point out one (comparitively minor) point: you mention acquiring a "good
accent" (which implies pronouncing the language as close as possible to how a
native speaker would).  This has been (until quite recent times) irrelevant in
the case of learned languages, since there were no native speakers to compare
one's pronunciation to.

> As for the assertions made earlier in this thread that the post-exilic
> authors of the Tanakh did not have native ability in Hebrew, I find
> that unbelievable.

I don't.  What's to prevent an author to write in a language that he was
competent in and even had mastery of, but which was not his native language?

> Even if one rejects the view that these men were
> inspired by the Holy Spirit (and I personally do believe they were so
> guided), the information we have about their backgrounds leds one to
> think that for the most part they were well-educated individuals. Such
> individuals would be more likely than not to have native ability in
> Hebrew. Or if not native, then near-native. Given that they were
> raised in homes that respected Jewish tradition and were loyal to
> Yahweh, it is a given, in my view, that they would have learned to
> speak, read, and write Hebrew even if they also learned Aramaic and
> other languages such as Akkadian and Persian.

I certainly have no quarrel with the statements you make that these men were
indeed well-educated and learned Hebrew from childhood, but that doesn't mean
their first language was Hebrew.  Nor should it have any bearing on whether
the authors were inspired by the Holy Spirit - certainly in the case of the NT
no-one considers that the fact that several authors of the NT wrote in Greek
but were not native speakers of Greek has any relevance to whether they were
inspired or not.

> On 11/21/11, Isaac Fried <if at math.bu.edu> wrote:
>> Speculations!
>> Isaac Fried, Boston University
>> On Nov 21, 2011, at 2:15 AM, K Randolph wrote:
>>> so Mishnaic Hebrew was an official language used for high
>>> literature, religion and civic affaires, but no-one spoke it natively.

William Parsons

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