Luke’s Languages: Tired of Theory?

Hi again, everyone! I hope you’re getting some time to enjoy the leaves as they enter what I consider the ideal colour range. Blessed are they who have few midterms. For the rest, at least you’ve found time for a glance at the newspaper.

Every year, there’s a grant offered to U of T students to take any summer course at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The grant covers travel, residence, and tuition, with some left over. This being awesome, I applied last spring to take the basics of Biblical Hebrew.

As part of the application, I had to justify why a student like me needs to take a course like that. I could have just said that language courses are totes part of linguistics, but that’s really not true. The linguistics department at UTM, for example, doesn’t require you to take any language courses or even know a second language. Instead, I framed it as a massive case study: “Nothing could be more enriching to my field,” I wrote.

As it turns out, I wasn’t far off. I had class five days a week, which majorly cut into my tourism time, but even so I went to every single class. Why? Because I remembered just how fascinating it is to learn a language, particularly with “metalinguistic awareness”—having eyes open for how a language works. I found that studying one language deepened my understanding of languages in general. It made many of the theoretical topics I’ve learned in linguistics real.

I’m sure there are many better lists of phenomena in Hebrew, but I want to stress the value of having one’s own eyes open. So here are a few things I noticed.

1.  Hebrew is one of the few cases of successful language revival. It was mostly dead by the peak of the Roman Empire, and although it continued to be used in literary and liturgical language, nobody spoke it as a mother tongue. But in the 19th century, a few Zionists began a plan of general revival, and by the time Israel was a state, it was the first language of a huge proportion of the population. To get an idea of how unusual that is, imagine if Latin was revived and spoken as a mother tongue in Italy. (I wonder if some Christians would react the same way some Jewish sects have—by refusing to use it in everyday life because of its association with sacredness?)

2. Hebrew is a root-and-pattern language, which means they have a few consonant “moulds” into which you pour different vowel patterns to produce different variations on a semantic root. For example, the verbal vowel pattern of causation means that unlike in English, the same root is in the words for “die” and “kill”, “come” and “bring”, “eat” and “feed”, and so on. And one can tell from the consonants in the word for “book” that it has to do with “writing”, whereas in English it’s a stab in the dark. By the by, this is also why Hebrew is written with only consonants—the vowels just add a secondary meaning. This is characteristic of Semitic languages; Arabic works like this too.

3.  Vocabulary is one of the more popular aspects of any language:

The words for “heart” and “mind” are the same—lev. In some ancient cultures, the heart wasn’t the locus of emotion like it is for us; it was the seat of the will and the intellect. (There’s a verse in the Hebrew Bible that uses the words “heart, soul, and strength”; in the New Testament, which was written in Greek, Jesus quotes that verse but says “heart, soul, strength, and mind”—probably because in Greek, as in English, you have two words for Hebrew’s one.)

Children call their dad abba, a cute word borrowed from Aramaic. But, says my professor, when his children want to ask him for something, they’ll use the grammatically correct avi— “my father”. “They have their ways,” he observes.

As for idioms, “What will become of me?” is literally “Where am I coming to?”, a possible precursor to our popular saying that life is a journey. “Don’t lay a hand on him” is “Don’t send a hand in him”, which is a fascinating understanding of spatial relationships; one is also jealous “in” someone rather than “of” them. “They conspired against him” is “They crafty-ed him together”, a more explicitly evil way to understand the word “crafty”. “She’s seventeen years old” is “She’s a daughter of seventeen years”, as though the years themselves had come together to make her who she is.

4. To form the superlative, you mention what kind of thing it is. “Clifford is stupid among dogs” means “Clifford is the stupidest dog”. Try this in English for other funny-sounding results.

5. The present participle tense performs many roles—making, for example, “she is a shepherd” grammatically indistinguishable from “she is tending” or “she regularly tends”. You are what you do.

There are many other interesting things, but that’s all I’ll list for this time; I hope it piqued your interest. But as intriguing as Hebrew is, Hebrew itself wasn’t my point. It’s just one language that illustrates the joy of learning a language, the joy of seeing how languages do things differently—one of the things that makes linguistics such a rich field. However much you know about language in general, knowing an actual language is the real thing.

If you know a second language, spend a few minutes thinking about what makes it unique. If you don’t, why not spend a few minutes thinking about learning one? (If you’re curious—yes, that grant is available again this year!)


  1. Some of this fine article seems to be missing – the rest of point 5, plus the conclusion. “You are what you do” brings to mind the root conception of Existentialism. This kind of apparently minimal difference in expression can seemingly have wide-ranging effects on the character of human relationships in society. The use of “in” rather than “of,” discussed in point 3, suggests a rather different conception of what constitutes a human individual in the social context, seemingly more sophisticated than that suggested by the English use of prepositions.

    • The prof suggested to me that context often helps determine which is meant, but it was unclear whether he meant that in regards to translation, or whether Biblical Hebrew speakers ever did make the distinction.

      Certainly a fascinating proposition, eh? The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis is that the language a person (and by extension a culture) speaks will drastically shape their conceptualization of the world. Point 3 ties in here too. Can we say for sure whether “lev” is really a word for two things, “heart” and “mind”, as opposed to a word for one thing that other languages divide into abstract sections? (A materialist might say the whole thing is an abstraction!)

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