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About the Author
Miles Van Pelt (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is the Alan Belcher Professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, where he also serves as Academic Dean. Miles lives in Madison, Mississippi, with his wife, Laurie, and their four children.
Read an Excerpt
English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew
By Miles V. Van Pelt
ZondervanCopyright © 2010 Miles V. Van Pelt
All right reserved.
Chapter OneALPHABET: Time to Learn about Your ABCs
Some of us can remember when computers filled entire rooms and cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to build. In those days, computers were available only to the elite in business, government, or education. Today, however, computers are common, handheld, and affordable. Small children run around with computers more powerful than those that sent the first man to the moon. In some ways, the history of writing is not that different from the history of the modern computer.
Prior to the invention of the alphabet about 4,000 years ago, writing systems were large and cumbersome, consisting of hundreds or even thousands of different written symbols. Due to the complexity of writing systems like this, their use was often restricted to scribes for conducting business or to priests for religious purposes. The ancient Egyptian writing system, for example, commonly known as hieroglyphics, consists of hundreds of different symbols, each representing a different word. This system of writing is called a logography and is represented today by traditional Chinese, which utilizes thousands ofdifferent written symbols. In a system like this, a single sign could represent a noun like "human."
In addition to the logographic writing system, there was also the syllabary, the symbols of which represent different syllables. An example of a syllabic writing system is Akkadian (one of the languages Daniel would have learned in Babylon). There are over 200 basic signs in Akkadian, each of which represents a different syllable. In a writing system like this one, the noun "human" would have been written with two symbols, one for the syllable "hu" and another for the syllable "man."
As you might imagine, the memorization of hundreds or even thousands of different written symbols for a single language would overwhelm just about anybody. With an alphabet, however, only a handful of written symbols are required to represent a spoken language.
In English there are twenty-six letters in the alphabet, and in Hebrew there are only twenty-three letters (BBH 1.1). Alphabets are compact, flexible, and powerful. The reduction of a written system of language to fewer than thirty characters has certainly expanded the potential for literacy. Even today, small children learn the English alphabet with little trouble. This single alphabet, however, can be used to create hundreds of thousands of words in English as well as many other languages such as Spanish, German, and French.
ENGLISH AND HEBREW ALPHABETS
Before you begin a study of the Hebrew alphabet, it is a good idea first to consider the English alphabet. Most of what follows you already know intuitively. However, consideration of the English alphabet will help you to understand related aspects of the Hebrew alphabet.
First, the English alphabet consists of twenty-six letters, but not all letters were created equal. In English there are twenty-one consonants and five vowels - a, e, i, o, and u. One of these consonants, the letter y, can also function as a vowel. For example, the y in "yellow" functions as a consonant, but the y in "silly" functions as a vowel. In the Hebrew alphabet, there are twenty-three consonants, but no vowels (BBH 2.1). That's right, no vowels! There are, however, three Hebrew consonants that can be used to indicate vowels in certain contexts ([??], [??], and [??]). When used as vowel indicators, they are called "vowel letters" (see chapter 2 and BBH 2.7).
Second, the English alphabet (derived from Latin) and the Hebrew alphabet (derived from Aramaic) use completely different sets of written symbols. For example, the English m and the Hebrew [??] (called "Mem") represent the same basic sound but use different symbols to represent that sound. In other words, you could write English using Hebrew letters or Hebrew using English characters. I could spell the English noun "dog" as [??] using Hebrew letters or I could spell the Hebrew noun [??] (meaning "dog") with English letters as "kelev." When learning another language like Spanish, one finds that the written symbols are the same but the words are different. In Hebrew, both the alphabetic symbols and the actual words or vocabulary are different. Don't worry too much about this. It may seem complicated right now, but your brain is hardwired to understand, interpret, and use language. That's just how God made you.
Third, the English alphabet is written from left to right but the Hebrew alphabet is written from right to left (BBH 1.3). Try opening up to Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and your first instinct will be wrong. In the Hebrew Bible, Genesis is located in what looks to us like the back of the book. If the alphabet is backwards, so are the books!
The direction in which an alphabet is written is simply a matter of convention. Whether an alphabet is written in one direction or another does not impact the use of the alphabet or the meaning of the words. In fact, when the alphabet was still young, the direction was not firmly established. Some ancient inscriptions alternate the direction of writing between left to right and right to left. This type of writing is called boustrophedon, a Greek word meaning "as the ox turns" when ploughing a field, back-and-forth, in alternating rows. Just remember, English is written in one direction and Hebrew is written in the other direction.
Fourth, in the English alphabet, some letters sound alike and other letters have more than one sound. As adults we rarely encounter problems with this reality unless we are trying to pronounce or learn a new word. If you have ever watched children learn to read, this problem is more apparent. For example, the c in "cat" and the k in "kite" sound identical, but c and k are two different letters. Complicating this reality is the fact that c can sound like the c in "cat" but it can also sound like the c in "celery." The f in "fun" and the ph in "phone" sound the same, but they are different symbols. Notice how the g in "great" and the g in "giant" sound different but they are the same symbol. When you begin to study the Hebrew alphabet, you will notice that some letters represent more than one sound (BBH 1.5) and some sounds are represented by more than one letter. Additionally, some letters will look alike, as do the English b and d (BBH 1.7). In time, these alphabetic idiosyncrasies will become inconsequential. In the beginning, however, they can be a pain in the boustrophedon.
Without a doubt, the English and Hebrew alphabets, though stemming from a common technological ancestor, do have their differences, and these differences can make learning the Hebrew alphabet a challenge. But there are also numerous similarities between these two alphabets. When possible, focus on the similarities and how certain features correspond. Build as many bridges between these two alphabets as possible, and travel often on those bridges. In this way, you may just become a resident alien in that land across the bridge.
1. Write out, in order, the twenty-six letters of the English alphabet.
2. Circle the five English vowels.
3. Identify some of the English letters that have similar sounds, like the English letters k and c.
4. Identify the English letters that have more than one sound, like the English letter c.
5. Once you have leaned the Hebrew alphabet, identify where the order of the English and Hebrew letters corresponds and where the order differs.
Excerpted from English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew by Miles V. Van Pelt Copyright © 2010 by Miles V. Van Pelt . Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
1. Alphabet Time to Learn about Your ABCs (BBH 1)....................15
2. Vowels Time to Check the Oil! (BBH 2)....................20
3. Nouns Name It, and Claim It (BBH 4)....................26
4. The, And, Of Are You Kidding Me? (BBH 5, 10)....................32
5. Prepositions Watch Where You Sit (BBH 6)....................37
6. Adjectives Our Theology Requires Modification (BBH 7)....................41
7. Pronouns Grammatical Stunt Doubles (BBH 8, 9, 19)....................47
8. The Sentence Parts Is Parts! (BBH 23)....................55
9. Mood, Tense, Aspect Understanding Verb Psychology (BBH 12-35)....................62
10. Person, Gender, Number Understanding Verb Reference (BBH 12-35)....................68
11. Voice and Action Understanding Verb Verbalization (BBH 12-35)....................74
12. Imperative Clause Commandos (BBH 18)....................81
13. Infinitives To Be or Not To Be, That Is the Infinitive (BBH 20, 21)....................86
14. Participles Those Verbs That End with -ING (BBH 22)....................91
Glossary of Terms....................97