Grammatical Concepts 101 for Biblical Hebrew

Gary Long Baker Academic, Peabody, MA December 1, 2001
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Gary Long has written this book to assist students who often are learning English grammar at the same time they are beginning to study Hebrew. True to its title, it attempts to teach basic grammatical concepts; it does not cover Hebrew forms or the full range of Hebrew grammatical functions. In the Introduction, Long says that the book is for the learner with “little or no formal study of grammar” and therefore may at times seem overly simplistic in its descriptions, though at other times it may seem challenging (p. xv). The layout of the book is excellent, using lots of white space and making good use of lines, arrows, and techniques for identifying what a part of a clause is or is doing.

Part 1, “Foundations,” the shortest section (pp. 3–21), defines units of “linguistic hierarchies” from the phoneme to the discourse level. The presentation of “sound production” is more developed and technical than what most first-year grammars provide. The section on the “syllable” is very short, less than one page. Long does not discuss whether the vocal shewa constitutes a syllable (first-year grammars are divided in their presentation of this issue), nor does he discuss syllables that end in two consonants. Also he does not discuss how principles affecting syllabic structure generally lie behind the morphological forms of biblical Hebrew. The section closes with a discussion of translation technique.

Part 2, “Building Blocks,” the longest section (pp. 25–120), covers parts of speech and grammatical concepts related to parts of speech. After introducing a topic, Long illustrates it in English and then comments on its use in Hebrew. He tries to follow a sequence that will be complementary to many first-year Hebrew grammars (p. xv). Attempting to be practical for students using different Hebrew grammars presents difficulties because of the varied sequences in which students are building their knowledge of Hebrew. Long attempts to balance this by abundantly cross-referencing between sections. This certainly helps, though some students may dislike having to move from one section to another in order to learn enough to understand the section where one starts. Occasionally Long recommends reading in a sequence that differs from the presentation. For example reading the entire section on verbal mood before the earlier sections on volitional verbs is recommended, as well as reading the English sections on tense and aspect before reading either of the Hebrew sections.

Part 3, “The Clause and Beyond” (pp. 123–76), discusses the clause, subject, predication, semantics, and discourse analysis. This section goes beyond the grammatical concepts dealt with in most first-year Hebrew grammars, since they focus primarily on morphology. So where explanations in section two may seem overly simplistic, the brief overviews of topics covered in section three that are not complementary to a Hebrew grammar may seem too technical and without obvious application.

A sampling of topics illustrates what the book does and does not do. The section on pronouns (pp. 39–58) has ten pages of discussion of the pronoun in English, then illustrates uses of Hebrew pronouns according to the same categories for ten pages. The discussion of restrictive versus nonrestrictive clauses is applied to English but not reiterated with Hebrew examples. Interlinear translations throughout the book help students follow the Hebrew even though their vocabulary may be lacking. Typeface, bullets, and white space visually set off sections and subsections.

Gender is described superficially, with more discussion about English than Hebrew. The concept of marked versus unmarked forms is not developed fully. And perhaps as a consequence, no functions of gender, such as the feminine singular for abstract concepts, are introduced, other than that many nouns for body parts are feminine. The Hebrew examples are limited to nouns. Seemingly this is geared toward new students who would have encountered only nouns so far.

Long discusses the article as a form rather than under the concept of definiteness (though he speaks of gender and number as concepts). This leads to the error of saying that the lack of a definite article in Hebrew should be conveyed by an indefinite article in English (p. 29). In a later section on adjectives Long notes that a noun with a pronominal suffix is definite (p. 64).

First-year grammars tend not to cover many of the topics that Long addresses. His presentation is well done and concise so that students can learn to distinguish and label elements that they observe.

—Brian L. Webster

October 1, 2006
 

Biblotheca Sacra

This review appeared in the Oct-Dec 2006 vol. 163 no. 4 issue of Biblotheca Sacra, DTS’s quarterly academic journal.

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