Book Reviews > Bible, general > How Biblical Languages Work: A Student’s Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek
Senior Fellow of the RC Ryan Center for Biblical Studies and Benjamin W. Perry Professor of Bible
It has become typical that American students too often learn the rudiments of English grammar in Greek class—an irony to be sure. Forced to grapple with how words in a particular language relate one to another, these students confront their need to think grammatically. However, the problem is part of a much larger need among those who take up the task of biblical studies, a need addressed by James Barr several decades ago, yet too often ignored, a need to think linguistically. The topic now has been addressed clearly and in introductory fashion by Peter Silzer and Thomas Finley in their book, How Biblical Languages Work. The book is pitched at the level of beginning Greek and Hebrew students, as a supplemental text in elementary language classes, but it should have a broader audience made up of more advanced students, laypersons, and even those who have been teaching for years.
The authors begin with “The Big Picture” in Chapter 1, demonstrating that Hebrew and Greek are not as foreign as a student might think, since they are languages, and the student has been dealing with language for years. Thus, they begin with what languages have in common, their key characteristics (e.g. that they are organized systems, that they use conventionalized symbols, etc.) and their basic functions (e.g. they express creativity, aid in thinking, stir emotions, etc.). The authors then turn to three essential vantage points from which to look at language: the forms, meanings, and context involved in language use. Finally, the relationship between language and culture is addressed.
Chapter 2 addresses how writing systems and speech work. For instance, the student learns that Hebrew and Greek are different as to their alphabets, and, in a clear and helpful summary, Silzer and Finley present a summary of speech sounds and how they are formed in the mouth and throat. The student also is led through a lesson on the basic sounds of Hebrew and Greek, although the use of IPA transliteration symbols may, at first, be intimidating to the beginning linguist. The authors do not address various theories of Greek pronunciation, but point the students to their professors for direction in how the various letters should be pronounced.
Morphology, or how words are formed, and basic issues of grammar constitute the content of Chapter 3, and the building of phrases and clauses, including the fact that dynamics of word order differ from language to language, is taken up in Chapter 4. The treatment of discourse analysis in Chapter 5 is very brief (perhaps too brief), but it at least alerts the reader to the fact that there are macro-discourse issues of which one must be aware when dealing with Greek and Hebrew literature. Much better is Chapter 6 on semantics, where the authors deal with dynamics of meaning, including how words may relate to one another in terms of meaning, the uses of figurative language, the ambiguity of language, various semantic roles words can play in a discourse, and a brief introduction to pragmatics, or language use in specific contexts. Chapter 7 alerts the student to how languages differ as to dialects and change over time.
In Chapter 8 Silzer and Finley provide a number of “Practical Ways to Study (and Learn) the Biblical Languages.” In a helpful manner they discuss briefly theories of language acquisition, learning styles, setting goals, and vocabulary building. The issue of learning styles is especially pertinent, although the vast majority of Greek and Hebrew texts have yet to catch up with pedagogical techniques used in modern language acquisition, techniques that do more to address visual and auditory learners, for instance. An exception to this general pattern is Randall Buth’s Living Biblical Hebrew for Everyone program, which uses a combination of pictures and audio CDs to lay a foundation for the student before launching into dealing with the basics of alphabet and grammar. In other words, students learn the language more naturally, as participants in the language, rather than merely as outsiders attempting to analyze and piece together the language’s mysterious morphemes.
Each chapter ends with a helpful summary and preview section, a brief bibliography for further study, a list of internet resources, and exercises.
It may be that in attempting to provide a broad introduction to the field of linguistics, the authors at points provide more than is necessary for the beginning Hebrew and Greek student, and there is a danger that students might be overwhelmed with more technical details and vocabulary (although a glossary is provided on pp. 230-51). Yet, the need to start our students, and sometimes ourselves, down a path toward thinking in terms of basic linguistics is a crying need and one addressed both helpfully and lucidly by How Biblical Languages Work.
George H. Guthrie
Perry Professor of Bible