“How To Speak Properly Hebrew”: Towards a New Grammar of the Hebrew Language

25 09 2006

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about the differences between formal English grammar and dialectic English grammar. Now, I’ve never actually studied English grammar before so I am prepared to stand corrected in much (if not all) of what I am about to say. Nonetheless, it appears evident to me that there are a couple of very simple rules when it comes to the usage of prepositions: don’t start a sentence with them, and don’t end a sentence with them. The following are incorrect English sentences:

“To the citadel, gentlemen!”
“For king and country!”
“Who were you speaking to?”
“Where is he from?”

The first two sentences commenced with a preposition (‘to’, ‘for’) and the second two ended with a preposition (‘to’, ‘from’). If I were to be writing an essay, I would alter each of these sentences to:

Let us advance to the citadel, gentlemen!”
We fight for king and country!”
“To whom were you speaking?”
“From where (whence?) is he?”

Each of the above sentences (despite the archaic use of the accusative in the final one) is now grammatically correct – in accordance with the aforementioned rules of formal English grammar. But, dialectically speaking (is there any other way?), the former sentences were correct as well. Literary convention these days also allows me to write the sentences as they initially appeared, so long as I indicate the fact that they are direct speech.

Another example of where dialectic English grammar may find its way into a formal text is where the clause in question constitutes a fixed expression. The following two examples would indicate two expressions utilising this phenomenon:

“Over my dead body!”
“I honked like mad but the bugger cut in!”

Well, maybe that last one doesn’t constitute an expression in its entirety, but “cut in” certainly exists as a verb in its own right, when speaking about driving a car. There is no way that I can alter either of the above sentences to produce something formally ‘correct’.

Now, all this is by way of an introduction.
When studying Classical Hebrew literature, scholars have a habit of formalising the grammar. Rules are developed and then, in the situations where those rules no longer hold, further categories are delineated that allow for these aberrations. At the end of the day, what we are left with is a gigantic corpus of syntactic formulae, to which the ancient Israelite supposedly adhered when penning his or her texts. This seems odd.

Gary Rendsburg of Rutgers University pioneered the notion that the Bible testifies to a variety of ‘grammars’. He isolated regional variations (chiefly, Israelian and Judahite Hebrew), and also went so far as to say that Hebrew itself was a diglossic language. This means that, like Arabic, Hebrew had one system of rules for writing, and another system of rules for speaking. In truth, it means even more than this. For Hebrew to be truly diglossic then it would constitute, like Arabic, one language for writing and another language entirely for speaking. But let’s not get too carried away.

Rendsburg also argued that certain texts within the Bible give away this manner of speaking. My favourite example of this phenomenon was not first noticed by Rendsburg, but is nonetheless one of the examples that he brings. It appears in the first book of Samuel (1 Sam 9:10-13) and takes place when the devastatingly handsome Saul approaches a gaggle of young girls to enquire after the whereabouts of the prophet Samuel. Their answer is ridiculous and reminds me of the terrible habit that people from Shenkin St, Tel-Aviv, have of ending every sentence with כאילו.

The ‘confused syntax’ as manifested in their answer to Saul was taken by many scholars as being proof of the fact that this story had undergone extensive editorial revision and that the finished product was moreso the work of a committee, so to speak, than the polished prose of a single author. On the contrary, however, this marvellous example of girlish chatter can actually be read as being both highly polished and, it must be noted, somewhat satirical. All struggling to answer the handsome Saul at once, the author depicts them as actually speaking in unison. This is not formal Hebrew grammar of course, but it does constitute an example of what may have been dialectic Hebrew grammar.

So, what is my point? The lesson that I have taken from all this is that I should stop being such a ‘grammar Nazi’. So quick to correct the syntactic errors of others, I seem to forget the true value of letting one’s own self shine through accidentally in prose. Without such glorious slip-ups, the world in 2,000 years may indeed know nothing of how twentieth century Australians spoke. And, after all, is that not what we’re writing for?

[Note: This post originally appeared on my former blog. For earlier comments, please click here.]


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