Saturday, June 15, 2019

Blackboard Excercise of Psalm 52 (תהלים ל֞֞ב) in Hebrew and English: Why Hebrew Grammar is Necessary

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Writing Out Hebrew Verb Forms For Practice, קאל קטל וקאל יקטל (Blackboard photo)

Those of you who follow my doings on Facebook know that I regularly do language exercises on a blackboard in my kitchen, particularly Biblical Hebrew. I work through verses in the Torah, Proverbs, Psalms, etc., in a somewhat haphazard way, once in a while wandering back to an old set of verses after I learn more. I copy the verses in Hebrew, often in a parallel text, mark it up, and write notes. I intersperse with vocabulary and grammar practice. and try to work on something every week.

I do this for a number of reasons, including the simple fact that I learn language best when I can incorporate reading, writing, and speaking. I do copy work on paper often, but the blackboard has the advantage of being centrally located: I have to walk by it several times a day, every day, looking at the piece in progress, reading and thinking about it subconsciously, noticing mistakes, picking up the chalk to make small notes, sometimes stopping to read (or sing!) the verses aloud. Sometimes it becomes a focus of family discussion. The blackboard becomes a centerpiece to daily, continuous study.

My weekly posts are usually just photos of the piece and whatever snippets of thoughts I happen to have. The blackboard exercise which is at the center of this post is a bit more involved. Over a period of weeks, I have written and rewritten it, walked away, worked on aspects of grammar and come back several times. Part of the reason for that is that this time, instead of bypassing aspects of grammar and, especially, Hebrew verbs that I did not understand, simply taking the word of translations or commentaries, I finally had the tools to tackle them head on and, well, not conquer exactly, but at least end up holding the field. It has therefore become a crystallization of why I went down this road in the first place.

So, this time, by going through the blackboard exercise, I am going to use it to explain exactly why learning at least a critical mass of Hebrew grammar is necessary in the first place, why parallel translations, keyed texts, concordances, and a good dictionary are not, by themselves, enough. Nor am I-- or does everyone have to be-- a trained Hebraist. There is a point in-between where we can usefully muddle as we go without having to be all that and a plate of latkes.

(This is not targeted at a Hebrew scholar. You don't need to know anything at the start. Skim over what you don't understand and try to soak in why it might be useful to know more.)

The Text of Psalm 52 v 7-9

The exercise text is take from Psalm 52, verses 7 through 9. It is written in the blackboard with the English Revised Version (ERV) text on the right and the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensia (BHS) Hebrew text on the right. Since English flows left-to-right and Hebrew right-to-left, this is a convenient form for verse numbers on the left and right edges and a center divider. The English text and the Hebrew text (or at least a very close one-- a subject for another day) are available at Bible Hub.

Note: If you read Hebrew numbers, you may notice that the Hebrew and English verse numbers do not actually match up. This is normal in the Psalms as the Hebrew Bibles generally count the prologue of the Psalms differently. If you do not read Hebrew numbers, what you don't know will not hurt you for now: the blue highlighted verse numbers in the Biblehub link I give match the King James versification.

Start With the Visual

Start just by looking at the verses in English and Hebrew, whether or not you can read any Hebrew words or even understand the letters. Notice that the Hebrew is quite compact, taking up considerably less room. The Hebrew characters represent consonant values with small markings called nikud or 'pointing' for the vowels and punctuation. The nikud is a relatively recent invention (Medieval period) and were not written in the original ancient text. A fluent Hebrew reader would have had to remember those details from their familiarity with the language, text, and tradition, jst as yu cn ryd ths yf yu fmlyr w/Englsh. The Hebrew is also compact because it chains small prefixes and suffixes to add preposition, subjects, object, etc., to a root word. A single word in ancient Hebrew might take most of an English sentence to express. "I will give thanks to thee" in the English here is all represented with "אודך" in the Hebrew, just four characters! We'll come back to that phrase later. A waw character (ו) is used to prefix a word with "and", which the Hebrews liked to use quite often to separate ideas, almost like punctuation. You see this in the beginning of verse 8 which starts with "ואני" or "But I". All these things give the Hebrew a unique character visually.

Next, note that these verses are part of a Psalm, a Hebrew prayer book or hymnal. Each verse is set in two parts which I break up in four lines. There is a Hebrew mark called a munach which looks like a carrot (^) under the logical midpoint of each verse. This is poetry folks, and that is often not reflected in the English at all! An English translation has to try to convey meaning, context, structure, idiom or imagery, poetic arrangement, etc., and different translations choose which of these to try to get across. That means, straight off, the question of which translation to use is always "it depends".

Using a Keyed Text Helps, But...

Some people use keyed study Bibles, usually using Strong's Numbers in small notations alongside the English words. These keyed texts are extraordinarily helpful, but, as we will see, have serious limitations as well. The next image shows these versus in my King James Hebrew-Greek Keyed Study Bible which I was given as a gift over twenty years ago. If you look at the word "man" in such a text, it has a helpful notation "1397" which is the Strong's Concordance number for the Hebrew word "גבר", often translated as "strong man" or "warrior". These words are defined in the dictionary in the back of the keyed Bible, but these days you can generally simply type "Strongs" followed by a number into your browser search bar and get a definition.

The key tells you that the Psalmist was not using the name "Adam" which is often used generically for "a human", nor the form of Enosh commonly used ("fallen man") but the word for a beefy self-reliant manly man. You may (or may not) be able to see that I use the same numbers on my blackboard, drawing connecting lines between English and Hebrew words or phrases noted with the Strong's numbers. In some cases, I write the number and definition at the bottom of the board. These standard numbers are probably the most helpful tool ever invented for basic study of the Hebrew Bible.

Looking at the keyed text, it is clear that not all of the words are noted (nor could they be without making a mess), and there is little indication of the problem of prefixes, suffixes, and whole phrases being glommed together in a handful of Hebrew characters. It is very difficult to see, that the "But I" in verse 8 is one word and that neither "am" nor any equivalent appears in the Hebrew (linking verbs-- essential in English-- are usually entirely absent). Although "will praise" is keyed here with 3034, it does not show that "thee" is included as a suffix. Finally, if you look up that key, it is very hard to have the foggiest clue how to go from the Hebrew yada (ידה) to an English future imperfect (actually, Hebrew verbs have no past-present-future tense at all as we understand it in English but something strange and subtly different).

Learning Enough Hebrew To Use a Lexicon/Dictionary

The next step deeper is to learn to read enough of the actual Hebrew characters to recognize and look up individual words. The compact dictionary at the back of the keyed text is a start, or you can try to do online searches, or sit down with a copy of a decent lexicon like the Brown-Driver-Briggs (BDB). There is no practical difference between 'lexicon' and 'dictionary', by the way: one word is Greek and the other Latin, but they both mean a list of words and their meanings. In any case, you will need to actually learn what the Hebrew letters mean, and train yourself to read them right-to-left. This takes work, clearly, but it is rewarding and can be fun.

Do not bother much with transliteration, being able to read and recognize 'bara' for 'he creates', for instance, except as very short-term training wheels to learn the actual alphabet (Aleph-Bet א-ב). Transliteration was never standardized, so the same word can be written several different ways. Searching for a transliterated word will just frustrate you. Nor will the transliteration tell you how to correctly pronounce the Hebrew without adding all kinds of phonetic symbols which end up being more work than just learning the letters correctly. Trust me: just learn the Hebrew Alphabet and learn to sing the song in your head, just like you may still do in English while alphabetizing files.


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