Hebrew Script Hacking

How is this book different from all other books in the series?

I’m referring to Teach Yourself Library’s Script Hacking series, which teaches you several alphabetical writing systems — a limited objective, and the series does a good job with it. Little vocabulary and less grammar, almost entirely how to read and write a script. In previous posts I reviewed the books on Korean and Arabic (8/28/19)Greek (9/28/19), and Russian (12/12/19). Now comes the long-delayed Hebrew (Modern Hebrew, I must point out).

One way that this book is different from all the other ones is that Judith Meyer is the sole author of the Korean, Arabic, Greek, and Russian volumes, but here she has a co-author, Tom Yuval. That may explain some of the differences. Or maybe not.

In a review of this sort, you need to know my background and biases. If you’re not interested, you can just skip this section. Long before I ever took a linguistics course, I learned a reasonable amount of Biblical Hebrew from Rabbi H. When I was 12 years old and my dad was the Superintendent and Medical Director of a large hospital in New Jersey, the powers that be decided that the hospital ought to have some chaplains. Three, to be precise. Yes, one Catholic, one Jewish, one Protestant. (That supposedly covered all the possibilities.) The new Jewish chaplain, Rabbi H, was shocked — shocked, I tell you — to find out that a nice 12-year-old Jewish boy who was fascinated by languages somehow knew no Hebrew, even though I would like to learn. (No Bar Mitzvahs, no Hebrew School, in my secular family, BTW.) So my dad said to him one day, “My son Larry wants to learn Hebrew in the worst way.”

“I will be happy to teach him,” replied the humorless rabbi, “but I will teach him in the best way, not the worst way.”

In particular, he did not do it in what I hear is the typical Hebrew School way. He explained every detail of vocabulary and grammar as we went along, and I lapped it up. We had a regular weekly appointment that lasted until I went off to Phillips Academy. Oddly for an orthodox rabbi, he scheduled these for Saturday afternoons, but he explained that teaching is a mitzvah (”Teachers are next to God,” as my grandmother always said, even though she was an atheist) so it was okay to do it on the sabbath. Of course the hospital had to hire an orthodox rabbi, but it made no discernible difference in my linguistic endeavors. In a brief concession to the modern age, he included a few lessons about Modern Hebrew, but he insisted on using Yiddish pronunciation (or Ashkenazic from his point of view) rather than Israeli pronunciation (or Sephardic, as he always called it).

So here we have a book that uses Modern Hebrew, with the occasional nod toward the Biblical. I found this jarring at first, because of the contrast to what I had learned. Furthermore, the occasional Biblical/Ashkenazic references were all unsettlingly vague to me as a linguist. But let’s not get distracted by something that’s clearly not the main point of the book. What we want to know is how well Meyer and Yuval achieve their objectives, not some other objectives. (It has long been a pet peeve of mine that some reviewers complain that an author should have written a book that’s not the one they wrote!) Like the preceding volumes, this one follows the same schema, including introducing letters one or two at a time and providing lots of exercises that include reading practice, writing practice, and spotting familiar names written in Hebrew.

So far so good.

This page can serve as an instructive example:

Note that there is a clue to each word, which is especially important to beginners, particularly when almost no vowels are included (“authentic Hebrew” in the apt words of the authors). Also note that some words are given in printed form, some in cursive.

There are a lot of complications involved in Hebrew writing. Some were unfamiliar to me, because they are features of Modern Hebrew only. Others were familiar to me, because they were retained from the Biblical forms when Hebrew was revived and turned into the modern language. One could quibble with the authors’ choices of how much to explain and where to simplify, but I respect their judgment even when I disagree with it. (I’m not the intended audience, after all.) And I like the fact that they are open about the decisions not to give explanations at times. Here is a section that illustrates both the complexities and the authors’ handling of them, particularly in the sensitivity to likely confusions in the mind of the reader:

At this point you’re probably saying that things are complicated enough, so why would one want any more complication? Probably most people wouldn’t, but I for one would like a little less of the coyness that substitutes for explanation in places. I admit that that might merely be my view as a linguist, or it might reflect my pre-existing condition of coming from a Biblical Hebrew background. For example, in distinguishing the vowels that I think of as /ɑ/ (the vowel in גַּם) and /ɔ/ (the vowel in דָּג), the authors merely say “There are two ways to mark the vowel APatah (written as a line) and Qamats (written as a small T). Placed below a letter, each of them indicates the vowel A following the letter’s consonant.” OK, all that is perfectly true in Modern Hebrew (apparently), but inquiring minds want to know why there are two different ways to write the same vowel. The answer is simple: originally they were two different vowels. It wouldn’t be hard to say that.

But, as I said, I quibble. On the whole, the vast majority of this book is both unexceptionable and exceptional (a great pair of words).

Categories: Books, Linguistics