Thursday, January 5, 2017

21st Century Bible Hebrew -- basic concepts

Just so you know, the Fact-Checking blog will continue tomorrow with a new post. 
This is a reboot of the Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew page. I had already posted a lot of the original page when I read a dissertation by Dr. John A. Cook that overturned much of what I had always been taught about Hebrew. During two years of study, I learned things that completely changed how I understood Biblical Hebrew. I ended the original page with lessons on what I learned.
The posts on this page repeat some of what I did on the original posts, like going one verse at a time at first, to help you learn the letters, and giving conjugations and declensions. But when I explain grammar, I do so in the terms I use in my book Narrating the Torah, which relies on what I’ve learned since 2014. This is not how you learned Hebrew before. It is not how anybody learned Hebrew before.
If what you want is to learn Hebrew the way everybody learned Hebrew before, there are plenty of websites that do that. They all have their strong points; they all have their weak points. If you think learning things that way is important, use them.
Here are some terms you need to know.
The Hebrew alphabet is really a syllabary. Each letter is thought of, by default, as a consonant plus “a” as in “father”, but in words they use all the vowels you are used to: “a”, “e”, “i", “o”, “oo”, plus “ai”. There are long and short versions of each vowel except the diphthong. There is a “schwa e” (which got its name from the Hebrew reduced vowel shva) and a “null vowel”. And there’s a set of markings for a vowel which is used when spelling and grammar collide.
Sofit This is a description of some Hebrew letters which have two shapes, one of which only appears at the end of a word. Count yourself lucky. Arabic has four shapes for some letters, and so does its descendant Syriac.
One letter does have four forms, if you want to count it that way: one plain with the “kh” sound back in your throat; one with a dot in it that is “k”; one at the end of a word with a vowel that makes it “kha” which is a masculine gender ending; and one at the end of a word with a shva in it that makes it “kh” again, a feminine gender ending.
Dagesh This is a dot in the middle of some letters. It changes the sound of some of them. It is part of the spelling rules and all you care about is to recognize when you have to say a letter differently because of dagesh. Some letters never take dagesh and I’ll point them out.
Shva is two vertically placed dots under a letter. This is also a spelling rule, but sometimes shva has a sound you may have been taught about in school, the schwa e, which is kind of a half-vowel sound. Schwa is a German version of shva.
A little orientation.
Hebrew is a Semitic language. It is a northwest Semitic language from the same sub-family as K'naani/Ugaritic, from which it got its original alphabet and letter forms. The ancient Mesopotamian language Akkadian is a northeast Semitic language.
The northwest Semitic languages began splitting from Akkadian about 2300-2000 BCE. Ugaritic had a written form by 1300 BCE and notes in its writing system appear on tablets in Egypt from the reign of Akhenaten about that same time.
Hebrew developed a writing form distinct from Ugaritic by 800 BCE. One tablet from 1000 BCE is probably also Hebrew.
Hebrew letters double as numbers, in a base-10 system.
Somebody once suggested to me that since there are no letters in Hebrew that always represent vowels, a given set of Hebrew letters can represent almost any word. That's not true. If you wrote down a sentence in English without the vowels, after some puzzling you could make out what it means.
Writing is only a record of words already known from a spoken language. Before developing a system of writing, a spoken language develops a grammar, a syntax, a set of idioms, and a morphological system for action words, substantives, descriptives, and for reflecting the mental state of the speaker. But every word has to be set in some context to have meaning, and the same word can have slightly different connotations in different contexts, whether used in speech or writing, in one period of time or centuries later.
When writing develops, it has to record the spoken language, not make the language up, and people who know how to read, know when the grammar is wrong because it doesn’t agree with proper speech formats. It's not free form at all.
People usually learn to speak their languages before the age of 5, which is when most kids begin to learn their letters. You don’t have to know your letters to communicate.
All right. That's a lot of words but hopefully you now understand that the written form of Biblical Hebrew, even without vowel marks, means what it means because it records the words used in speaking Biblical Hebrew, as the Jewish people did up to about 25 centuries ago.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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