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Verbal System of Ancient Hebrew

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Randall Buth

shalom John,

Thank you for the heads-up on this blog. I like the proficiency goals you outlined. I would add an ability to follow and understand a narrative text on the fly (especially when read clearly--avoiding 'uh' for both/either shva and/or pataH, RTR/pharyngeal Hets and `ayins are nice, too). This demonstrates some internalization of the language and shows something beyond a common ability/tendency of guild-members to wrestle a text into hopefully appropriate metalinguistics.

Of course, only partially lurking under the surface is the pedagogical question of (90%)-immersion versus grammar/translation. As you are aware, for me that is the watershed. At SBL in San Francisco we are planning to have one presentation where an exegetical discussion of a text will be done in Hebrew with role-playing students. PS: James Asher, developer of Total Physical Response, will also be making a couple of presentations, including a demo using an Arabic dialect.

Robert Holmstedt


I agree with Randall on liking the proficiency goals. I also agree that there is no "winner" among the textbooks, because each instructor has a different teaching style. (We say something similar here: The textbook chosen has to fit the strengths (not just Hebrew, but personality, etc.) of the instructor.

I would add that for most (it was for me years ago) among one's criteria for choosing a textbook is probably also the cost. For example, after coming back from my year in Israel, I wanted to use Randall's materials because my own teaching style had shifted to that more engaging style. But, alas, back then I found myself teaching at a university at which the students never would have bought expensive textbooks for an elective course (they simply would have dropped the course). Perhaps the students at Toronto would accept this, but now I've got my/our own. ;-)
(Hint, hint: Randall -- please find a cheaper publishing strategy!)

I am very glad to hear that Jan Joosten is writing an intermediate textbook. I will wait impatiently to see it. On the additional materials angle, for what it's worth, we've already announced an intermediate reader of the illustrated type as our 2nd textbook (same link as above), and John and I have also begun revising Weingreen's Compositions (which we both use).

Karyn Traphagen

"I think the choice of textbook for introducing biblical Hebrew is not the main thing."

I concur! Yet, this simple statement is too often ignored.

(and thank you for the kind words about my review)

Robert Holmstedt


I agree with you (and John) but we must acknowledge this as an ideal, eh?
That is, the ability to pick up any BH textbook and teach effectively from it presumes 1) a very high level of *active* competence in Hebrew and 2) a fairly high level of experience and/or comfort in the activity of teaching itself. Since it is the case that many new instructors do not fit either #1 or #2 (I'd say I fell into that category my first year in 1996), then the choice of textbook becomes considerably more important.

Karyn Traphagen


Even for an inexperienced teacher, choosing the textbook should not be the first decision (note that I said *should* not). Perhaps we should spend more time mentoring new instructors than reviewing textbooks. With global connectivity ever increasing, we need to start talking about utilizing social media for professional development and for student learning. But that's another discussion!

At the University of Stellenbosch (South Africa), the first-year students are taught (primarily) by the most senior professors because it is felt that the introduction to the material is so very vital. How a new student encounters the subject in their first year can ignite or devastate an interest. In the US, we often put our most inexperienced instructors in front of introductory classes. Perhaps we should rethink this.


Robert Holmstedt


I agree that how a student encounters the language in the first year is critical (and, to be quite honest, I still feel sorry for the students of my first year, when I was given Weingreen and told to "go teach it").

But, the response to your response is a complicated one. First, about "us rethinking this" — sometimes "we" have little control within our institutional contexts. And even if we do, it's still complicated.

Situation 1: I face a situation in which when I go on sabbatical, it is up to one of my graduate students to teach my Hebrew courses. There is no other faculty who can (or, better, wants) to teach BH. What do I do, then? I step out a year before sabbatical so I can train my student: mentoring, observing, guiding, serving as a present resources.

Situation 2: A person comes out of a graduate program that does not provide teaching experience for BH (like Stellenbosch, according to your description) and lands in a job that requires it. Where does the mentoring and guided experience enter into that instructor's path? It typically doesn't, which leaves the instructor inexperienced and perhaps a bit intimidated by the prospect of teaching BH the first time. Add that to the other new preps the new faculty has and it can be overwhelming.

I don't think there are any easy answers to the questions you pose and so I doubt any amount of conversation we could have about it would fix things. In many ways it is no different than the ongoing conversation graduate departments have about the balance between giving undergraduates the *best* teaching environment (with faculty) and setting up graduate students for successful teaching careers (and so using them to teach occasional courses). It is a conversation that occurs here at Toronto and I'm sure it occurs in many other places.

For myself and my BH courses and grad students, I have concluded that the best solution to Situation #2 above is what I'm doing for Situation #1. But, since it is unlikely that all have the freedom or flexibility to do this, then it is clearly preferable for our textbooks to recognize the need to mentor instructors. This is, of course, why John and I have been developing an Instructor's Manual for our 2nd textbook (the illustrated, communicative one).


Robert Holmstedt


I missed a few details in this paragraph the first time around:

"I was taught to love language, that is, linguistics, in a practical hands-on sort of way, by Henry Allan Gleason at the University of Toronto. I’m not talking about theory-heavy stuff of the kind one gets from generativists or functionalists (sorry to step on any toes). I’m talking about a field-experience-laden approach. Gleason in effect taught me Hebrew over all again."

Oh, man, you're killing me. Wait, wait. I have to pick myself off the floor because I just fell out from laughing too hard. So, Gleason taught you linguistic field experience for Biblical Hebrew?

You know, there are still folks here who knew Gleason, who remember the Linguistics Club that turned into the Linguistics department that was first run by Martin Joos (who was adamantly anti-Chomsky), etc., etc. And I have yet to hear of this fascinating group of ancient Israelites with whom you students in the 70s were able to do field work.

Wow. Another one to add to my collection of Toronto lore. ;-)

Ok, I'm poking fun, but it is a good case of toe-for-toe, you know ...

Robert Holmstedt

Correction/addition (for John's sake):
The recently deceased and brilliant John Wevers was one of the formative influences of the Linguistics Club. I *believe* (but am not sure; I'd have to check my notes) that Gleason came later when the Club became the Centre for Linguistics in 1967.


Hey Rob,

I'm not that old for goodness' sake.

It was a pleasure in the late 70s to have so many people at U of T in and out of the department who had ancient Hebrew in their bones. Gleason was one of them.

Here's an anecdote you will enjoy. Gleason gave a lecture with lots of stories from India. I approach him afterwards, tell him I'm a student in Hebrew and he promptly sits me down for half an hour. One of the first questions he asks, in order to illustrate some linguistic point across ten different languages: "Give me the vav-consecutive of גלה in the Qal and Hiphil." After I gave them to him w/o hesitation (Mansoor drilled this stuff into us), I was family from that point on.

I hope it is clearer now what I meant by a field-experience laden approach. Gleason approached ancient Hebrew the same way a field worker approaches a language yet to be analyzed in some remote corner of the world. He didn't care what the grammars said and he loved to prove them wrong. It was child's play for him.

Karyn Traphagen


Thank you for engaging my comment. You are, of course, right. This is a very complicated discussion.

I applaud you for taking a year before sabbatical to mentor the person who will teach BH during your absence. I want to assure you that grad students do indeed get opportunity to be mentored in teaching BH at Stellenbosch. My point was not that all courses are taught by faculty, but that the initial course is prioritized to receive excellent instruction.

There are opportunities to mentor beyond the confines of an individual institution. If a grad student/graduate has no BH instruction experience and lands a job (yikes! how did they do that? the job market is pretty tight and I know many exceptionally qualified people with experience who are looking!), and if that institution has no one with teaching experience who can mentor them, then it is time to hook up with someone at another institution (near or far) for mentoring. This can easily happen with email, skype, twitter, etc. We do this all the time for science (I work with physics instructors too).

Anyway, it is good to have John open up the conversation again.

Robert Holmstedt


I agree that perhaps we could do more with technology re: mentoring. But, and perhaps I'm just stone-age here, I find so much of mentoring, whether it's about teaching or other non-teaching areas, comes from face-to-face contact and on-the-spot illustration.

For instance, I'm guessing that a lot of blog readers who see my comments on Hobbins' blog or even our own obscure blog don't have a clue that behind much is a sense of humour and not naked and nasty arrogance.

Such things only come across in personal interaction and I find that especially with teaching there is only so much I can *say*; there is much I have to *show*. After all, a large ingredient of classroom teaching is performance art (Hobbins -- do you know who at UW taught me that?) and most new instructors have be pushed-shown-pushed-shown when it comes to that.

Karyn Traphagen

One last jab.

Sure, IRL (in real life) is better than virtual. But I will bet that you probably call, email, update on FB or skype your family when you travel rather than stay out of communication because it isn't as good as face-to-face (Skype, Google chat and others do have video capabilities). And there are benefits to virtual networks that cannot be found in your own bricks-and-mortar department. Within minutes (sometimes seconds) I can have an answer to a query from a bevy of scholars. I can receive an international response in the middle of the night. I can get responses from people I didn't even know existed, but who are connected to people who are connected to people who are connected to me.

Wouldn't you rather have *something* instead of nothing?


One specific question that both Levinson and Robson raise in their reviews is the terminology to use for the various verb forms. Neither is in favor of the mixed system Hackett proposes.

I agree with Bernard that consistency is helpful but I have reservations about what he calls the traditional terminology ([converted] perfect - [converted] imperfect). As Robson suggests, it makes sense given the lack of a consensus about TAM in ancient Hebrew to use qatal, yiqtol, vayyiqtol, weqatal, and I would add qotel, qetol, etc.

Robert Holmstedt


I disagree. The use of the morph terms is useful for later historical-comparative study, buy I think in a first year setting it simply results in confusion for the students. You aren't giving them a verbal system that they can compare to their own languages. I think the instructor has to decide about the verbal system and the present the debate at the advanced level.

John Hobbins


In practice, I've found that difficult. Let's say I want to illustrate the qatal: yiqtol : qotel distinction based on Deut 1:30. Just an example; you are free to offer a better one. I will elucidate the distinction based on my best understanding of the TAM system. Regardless of the content of my elucidation, how are terms like perfect, imperfect, and participle valuable starting points for a native speaker of English? I don't see it.

In English we have perfective and progressive aspects that interact with a series of tenses; we also have a perfective progressive (he has been working).

To build a bridge from there to a theory of qatal yiqtol qotel is well nigh impossible in my estimation, regardless of one's particular take on AH TAM.

It doesn't get any better with vayyiqtol and weqatal. There are no straightforward analogues to these in English.

I won't bore you with the way I go about explaining AH TAM - the explanation has to be integrative of course, inclusive of the stative : non-stative distinction; the binyanim; the verbal participle; adjectival participle distinction; and the volitives. A contrastive approach to English grammar has value in my estimation.

Robert Holmstedt


First, perhaps I have the advantage of teaching in a context not entirely dominated by English-first students. So the students really don't have a hard time understanding the concept of aspect and mood, with temporal frames determined from context (or overt temporal phrases). Actually, even the Anglophone students don't have such a hard time with it once the aspectual constructions in English are pointed out.

But this does bring up a good point: not only does one have to be sufficiently confidence in one's take on the verbal system, I think that the description will be easier for students to understand if it makes sense typologically (perhaps it's a hard-wired thing -- oh, sorry, I made a theory-grounded statement! My toes, my toes!). That means, of course, most of the nutty, typologically unattested theories on the verbal system won't make sense to most students. (That's probably a good thing, I supposed, but stinks for those students.)

Second, I don't teach the verbal system by being stuck to English (or any other target language) translation values. I don't teach a translation course, but a Hebrew language course. In my experience, if you describe a bit, have them read Hebrew examples, then produce Hebrew examples, and reinforcing all the time even after you've moved on, the students won't have a hard time understanding how to recognize the verbal system.

Now ... making them compose (a la revised Weingreen) in advanced grammar this term... that is always a challenge at a whole different level!

David Reimer

I'm always a bit late to these parties! :) A couple thoughts on the different themes from post and comment thread:

(1) Post: I concur with much (most? all?!) of John's reflections, save that some of them strike me as "ideals" -- none the worse for that, but well beyond the constraints of the particular programme/curriculum pattern that we live with here.

We have been struggling for years -- at least a decade -- to find the best way of maintaining rigorous and meaningful biblical language courses within a degree programme which sets up a number of obstacles to doing so. We get a single semester: 10-11 weeks, four classes per week, one-third of a student's full-time load.

By the end of the semester they're able to read simple Hebrew prose with a bit of lexical help where needed. I consider that a triumph! :) Their final exam is about equally weighted between seen and unseen texts for translation, grammatical identification and explanation. It is, of course, the "unseen" part the is the best indicator of how well things have bedded in.

In the past few years we used Seow's grammar. It was pretty much universally disliked in first year, but those who went on into second year came to appreciate it. Still, that wasn't a great situation. This past semester (just finishing now), I've used the Cook & Holmstedt Biblical Hebrew: A Student Grammar (the "boring" :) one), and it has worked quite well. (Hope to get some comments/feedback off to Robert next week some time).

I'm starting to think of teaching grammars as "scripts", to be "performed" loosely or closely as the context requires. There is probably enough variety now to allow for a responsible introduction to the language (that's all it will be!), with the goals set according to local needs.

I could go on, but this is already turning into a ramble!!

(2) Comments: I wanted to get in on the "NES @ U of T" reminiscence wallow, too. :) Unfortunately, I first learned Hebrew in a very poorly taught course. Won't go into that. But I arrived at NES and was stuck into Ted Lutz's 300-level Hebrew course. (And Al Pietersma's "Greek novellas" course. That's another story.) Lutz did the first-class thing, then passed around a handout which we were to prepare for the next class. I couldn't even tell which way was up! (It was a photocopy of the Gezer "calendar".) That was the real beginning of my Hebrew learning, I reckon.

Wevers. What a star. Quote: "German is the second most important Semitic language." Slippers on desk. Quote: "Regulations are to protect us from bad students." LOL, as they say...


"Those were the days, my friend, we thought they'd never end." To be clear, besides local jazz, I think I was listening to a steady diet of Peter Gabriel and Bruce Cockburn at the time.

Re: Wevers. I offered a tribute here:

Re: German. I don't remember who said it - was it Benno Landsberger? - German is "die semitische Ursprache." It's off topic, but I wonder now about the ideological location of those who pursued a "gemeinsame arisch-semitische Ursprache." Was it at odds with the ideological location (see Bruce Lincoln) of the average Indo-Europeanist?

This was the kind of question that might come up over coffee at NES @ U of T back in the days. With people like Williams, Wevers, Redford, and Talmadge in the same room, the fur could start flying rather quickly, in the most genteel of ways.

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  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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