La vie soferet – spare-time activity

I’m taking Prof. Steiner’s Intro to Biblical Hebrew class at Yeshiva University this semester, and I like it a whole lot.

It’s a standard biblical grammar course, but it’s presented in a way I’ve never heard grammar described, and as a result, I’m finding myself actually rather excited about it. This, you understand, is an exceptionally refreshing feeling.

I’m used to thinking of Hebrew grammar as a set of Rules, rather like a function in x. But — if I may get technical here for a moment — instead of f(x)=x2 or something similarly straightforward, f(x) is x2 when 1-400, x9+4ix3+7.35 when -400mad arbitrary. You might think that I, with my mathematical brain, would like madly arbitrary rule systems, but actually in linguistic contexts I really don’t. Mathematics may be a language, but language isn’t mathematics.

So, what I like about Prof Steiner’s course is that it talks about Biblical Hebrew as a language! Isn’t that wild?

Here’s a bit from the introduction to the textbook (Lambdin’s Grammar).

Our knowledge of Biblical Hebrew is directly dependent on Jewish oral tradition and thus on the state of that tradition during and following the various dispersions of the Jews from Palestine. This dependence arises on the peculiarly deficient orthography in which the biblical text was written; it is essentially vowelless, or at most, vocalically ambiguous (see below, ch. 8). The actual pronunciation of the language was handed down orally, and as the Jews left or were expelled from Palestine and formed new communities in Babylonia, Egypt, and eventually throughout most of the civilized world, the traditional reading of biblical texts diverged gradually from whatever norm might have existed prior to these diversions. The written consonantal text itself achieved a final authoritative form around the end of the first century A.D. This text was successfully promulgated among all the Jewish communities, so that texts postdating this time do not differ from one another in any important particulars.

I came out of the first class feeling rather as though my brain had been dipped in bleach, with the revelation that grammar describes and does not define a language. The vocalised Hebrew of the Bible was notated by the Masoretes, who were describing the language they heard.

Okay, that probably sounds trivial to most of you, but it was a big deal to me, okay? I’d just never thought of it that way. I kind of thought the Masoretes inherited the rule systems all in place, and their contribution was to write them down — when actually, they were making the observations that were the groundwork for building rule systems. Of course they noticed patterns and so forth, but their role was very much an observational one, not a prescriptive one.

More from the textbook:

Modern printed versions of the Hebrew Bible derive from several essentially similar sources, all reflecting the grammatical activity of Jewish scholars (or Masoretes, traditionalists in Tiberias, who during the 9th and 10th centuries perfected a system of vowel notation and added it to the received consonantal text. Because the vowel system reflected in this notation is not exactly the same as that of the tradition used in other locales, we must recognise that Hebrew grammar, as based on the vocalized Tiberian Masoretic text, is no more or less authentic than that which would derive from other traditions: it is simply the best preserved and has received, by universal adoption the stamp of authority.

Prof. Steiner also uses words like fricative and labiodental, which are not part of my regular discourse, so they sound excitingly foreign. Seriously though — it’s another part of looking at Biblical Hebrew as a language, and going from there — using various tools of linguistics and grammar to describe it. I’ll say again – this just isn’t a way I’m used to thinking about Biblical Hebrew, and I rather like it.

One Comment

  1. Posted October 17, 2010 at 20:57 | Permalink

    Yep. Of course, differences in Hebrew pronunciation go back further even than that, so it shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

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