July 28, 2008

Chapter 4 - Vocab

Note: the English given is a one-word gloss, not a comprehensive lexicon entry.

vocab list
video downloads

July 18, 2008

Chapter 3 - Hebrew Today

• See the word for "house" (and the transliteration of the last name) on the title of this sign: "b(a)y(i)t brnstyyn," or "house of Bernstein"

• This museum in Tel Aviv is called the Eretz Israel Museum, or "Land of Israel Museum"

• A major daily newspaper in Israel is called Haaretz (short for "Haaretz Israel," or "The Land of Israel")


Haaretz website

• See the Hebrew Wikipedia entry for sus (the heading is "domestic horse": "bayit sus," literally "horse of the house")

Chapter 3 - Key Concepts


more on syllabification:
-Cook p.13 (p.23 of the PDF)
-Parsons U 3

the shewa

more on the shewa:
-Cook p.9-10 (p.19-20 of the PDF)
-Parsons U 3.5 and 3.6

Chapter 3 - Key Verses

דבר [dabar]


nēr-ləraḡəlî ḏəḇāreḵā
Your word is a lamp to my feet.

Listen to my reading of this verse:

Listen to a rabbinic reading of this verse:

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Listen to a slower version of this rabbinic reading:

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Eccl. 1:8

kāl-hadəḇārîm yəḡē‘îm
All things are wearisome.

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Listen to a rabbinic reading of this verse:

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more verses

ארץ ['erets]

Gen 1:1

bərē’šîṯ bārā’ ’ĕlōhîm ’ēṯ haššāmayim wə’ēṯ hā’āreṣ
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Listen to my reading of this verse:

Listen to a rabbinic reading of this verse:

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layhwâ hā’āreṣ ûməlwō’āh
The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it.

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more verses

סוס [sus]


’ēlleh ḇāreḵeḇ wə’ēlleh ḇassûsîm wa’ănaḥənû| bəšēm-yəhwâ ’ĕlōhênû nazəkîr
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God.

more verses

* About the Audio: The complete audio of the Hebrew Bible is made available by the University of Washington, which links to this information about the reader.

Chapter 3 - Vocab

Note: the English given is a one-word gloss, not a comprehensive lexicon entry.

vocab list
video downloads

Chapter 3 - Linguistic Background & Field Notes

• learning syllabification

Here is the first example and explanation I was given for dividing a word into syllables. The word was [midbar]. The syllabification process was outlined like this:

1. Start at the end of the word.
2. Note that the word ends with a consonant. Therefore, the last syllable must be closed.
3. Because syllables begin with a consonant and contain one vowel, this syllable must begin with the "B" and be [bar].
4. Keep going "backwards" (this word confused me at a point where I was still getting accustomed to reading right-to-left rather than left-to-right).
5. Note that the "next" letter has a shewa.
6. Determine that this shewa is a silent shewa (it wasn't clear how to reach this conclusion).
7. Recall that a silent shewa occurs at the end of a closed syllable.
8. Conclude that the "D" with the shewa closes the syllable.
9. Because syllables begin with a consonant and contain one vowel, this syllable must be [mid].
10. Conclude that this word has two syllables, with the second accented: [mid]|[bar]'
11. (Move on the the next word and repeat this process.)

(Parsons gives similar breakdowns that are slightly simpler since they make syllabification mainly a function of vowel length. But even that approach has layers of complexity, and presupposes memorization of which vowels are long and short.)

I struggled with this kind of approach, because:
• It's long.
• It seemed "backwards" to start at the end of the word.
• The relationships among numerous syllabification factors--vowel length, accent, distance from tonic syllable, vocal or silent shewa--wasn't clear.
• The reasoning seemed circular: is it a silent shewa because the syllable is closed, or is it a closed syllable because the shewa is silent?
• It made it sound as though there was one precise correct way to pronounce this word.

At this point I was lost, but grimly determined to get all of the rules straight in my mind before going forward. But when I consulted with a former Hebrew student, she gave me a liberating piece of advice: don't try to master syllabification yet. Just start going through the lessons and after a while you'll get a feel for the words. In short, she was recommending the inductive approach over the deductive. This was a lifeline, and I was able to get through the first few lessons with less pressure on myself and more willingness to tolerate uncertainties. I didn't get the "feel" for syllabification as soon as she said I would, but for me, this was the only way I could have gone forward.

• learning shewa

Parsons helpfully says that the number of syllables in a word is equal to the number of vowels in the word. This helped simplify things, but I still got stuck on how to count the shewas. (I don't think he says it outright, but I later concluded that you count the vocal shewas but don't count the silent shewas.) You can't syllabify without knowing the difference between the two shewas.

Most explanations of vocal and silent shewas suffer from many of the same problems on the list above; they're long, multilayered, seemingly circular at times, and hyper-precise. After finally sitting down and listing the five main questions textbooks give for the shewa, I'm starting to get the hang of it, but I'm still not sure how the rules relate to each other--which one you should start with, which ones rule out the other ones (all I have is that the end-of-the-word silent shewa rules out the second-of-two vocal shewa in cases such as [katabt]).

But ultimately the biggest cloud cast over conventional treatments of the shewa comes from historical linguistics. Joel Hoffman, in his notably accessible and provocative In the Beginning, concludes startlingly that the shewa could only have had one function for the Masoretes. Among his arguments:

• The claim that the shewa in the word [shema] is vocal conflicts with the claim that the word [shema] is monosyllabic; but these claims are sometimes made by the same textbook author. This shows how incoherent the traditional two-shewa theory can be.
• The Masoretes would be unlikely to represent two different sounds with the same symbol.
• Most significantly, the rule of the vocal shewa occurring under beged-kephet letters is based on a linguistic fallacy about vowel behavior as governed by "triggers" from proximate consonants.
• The sole purpose of the shewa could only have been to indicate the lack of a vowel.

Confusingly, Hoffman then proceeds to discuss whether the shewa, with this sole purpose, was pronounced; his conclusion seems muddled and barely distinguishable from the two-shewa theory he has just rejected: "As a guess, we can assume that the shewa was pronounced [by the Masoretes] whenever it had to be, and only then."

I could only conclude that there were serious historical question marks about the shewa's original function and sound in Masoretic times.

Then I came to realize another question mark about the shewa: how do you NOT pronounce a silent shewa? How do you produce no sound in moving between consonants? (I think this pertains to adjoining labials and coronals, but it could apply to others sounds as well.) Take [katabt]. From my mouth that tends to come out as something like "ka-tab-uh-tuh," with tiny little "uh" vowels after the ending B and T. I can shrink them, but I can't make them disappear. So in many cases, the difference between a silent shewa and a vocal shewa is phonetically negligible. If so, then all the energy spent on silencing the shewa in, say, [hokmah] (which is additionally dubious in that it's supposed to be silent because the vowel is qamets hatuph, but Hoffman's criticisms of the two-shewa theory could also apply to the two-qamets theory) is misplaced, and needlessly overwhelming to beginning students.

So what are textbooks supposed to do--pull the rug out from under the rules they're trying to teach? Isn't it simpler just to teach the rules rather than try to question them via historical linguistics and phonetics?

I'd say the traditional rules are worth teaching exactly--and only--because they're just that: traditional. They give us the systematic interpretation of the Masoretes' work that has guided all students and scholars of biblical Hebrew for the last several centuries. Additionally, Masoretic markings give us a method for rhythmically reading or chanting the Hebrew text aloud, which has some liturgical use. The rules are worth learning for those reasons.

But not for other reasons. Not because these rules give us the one correct reconstructed pronunciation of ancient Israel (which is not only elusive, but also impossible given the dialects and natural change throughout ancient Hebrew's history). Not because the Masoretes have the best guess as to what Hebrew sounded like (I think their guesses were good in a lot of ways, but not magically perfect). Not because Hebrew cannot be read aloud intelligibly without mastery of these rules (because the difference between a silent and vocal shewa is often negligible). Not because this is the most likely and sensible system ancient Hebrew speakers must have followed (says who?)

With these strides toward a clearer purpose for learning syllabification--and the qualifiers that this system is product of tradition and not beyond debate--I believe would have had more confidence and less frustration in learning syllabification as a beginning Hebrew student.

July 09, 2008

Grammar Groaners

As I say here, I think the Pratico & Van Pelt textbook is a step forward for introductory grammars of biblical Hebrew. So I was surprised to find it used as Exhibit A for dense Hebrew textbooks in this compelling article by William Griffin. He holds up this sentence (from PVP p. 157) as one that must make beginning students' eyes glaze over:
The verb ['rr] differs from [sbb] in one way. In the second and first position forms, singular and plural, the Geminate consonant rejects the Daghesh Forte and the Pathach under the [aleph] becomes Qamets due to compensatory lengthening.
Nothing technically inaccurate there, but shouldn't beginning students have to learn only one foreign language when taking biblical Hebrew, and not be forced to penetrate a forest of grammatical jargon? No doubt this kind of gobbledy-gook leads many students to drop their Hebrew class early on, or to shut the book on Hebrew once they've finally slogged through it, never to read Hebrew again. In Griffin's words, this amounts to "killing a dead language."

I still think PVP is better than most at unclogging the pipeline of biblical Hebrew lessons, but the authors do pull off their share of what I'd call Grammatical Groaners—sentences so stultifyingly obfuscating that they make me, a self-proclaimed grammar geek, blink, rub my eyes, and make monosyllabic utterances in a foreign language of my own. (Submit your favorite (or least favorite) Groaners!)

• "Two-syllable nouns that are accented on the final syllable and have either Qamets or Tsere in the first or pretonic syllable will experience what is called "propretonic reduction" with the addition of plural endings." (p.32)

Related Category: Fancy Terms in Plain English

July 08, 2008

Chapter 2 - Prayers

See the vowel markings on the Shema and the basic blessing (from before) from Parsons.

July 07, 2008

Chapter 2 - Key Concepts

vowel markings
How I learned the 7 basic vowel markings:

(fine print for sticklers: in dictionaries and in the IPA the upside-down E is actually a schwa (from the Hebrew "shewa"); while the sound I represent above with a regular E is given in IPA as [ei]. But the association between the upside-down E and the shorter sound was how I kept these two vowel markings apart in Hebrew.)

Chapter 2 - Useful Exercises

Plug your ears, I'm going to sing!

more exercises:
Cook Lesson 2, #'s 3,5,6

July 03, 2008

Chapter 1 - Fancy Terms in Plain English

transliteration (1.1) - "translating the letters": writing one language in the letters of a different language

begadkephat letters (1.5) - The letters B,G,D,K,PH,&T(taw only). Since this is a made-up word anyway, I prefer a word that is actually pronounce-able and remember-able: Bigfoot Kid letters: BiG-PHooT KiD

daghesh lene/daghesh forte (1.5,2.13,3.5) - "little dot"/"big dot" (the dots are actually the same size, but can be "lene"/"little" in Bigfoot Kid letters to change the sound. (When Bigfoot Kid steps on the dots, they tend to get "little" and stop breathing.)

gutturals (1.6) - "throaty" letters--they come from your throat, like the H in our throat-clearing word ahem.