A Reference Grammar of Modern Hebrew

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A Reference Grammar of Modern Hebrew, by Edna Amir Coffin and Shmuel Bolozky. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006. 444 pp. $39.99.

This is one of Cambridge University Press's new A Reference Grammar of. . ." series. Modern Arabic, Thai, and Dutch are also out this year and more will be following, no doubt. The publisher's descriptions make the same claims for them all: e.g., that the authors are careful not to use over-technical language (Coffin/Bolozky, hereafter CB, have done that very well); the books have "comprehensive indexes"; and they are all-in-all"both useful teaching resources and easy-to-use reference tools." (Alan Timberlake's A Reference Grammar of Russian [2004] takes quite a different approach.)

These offerings are intended to fit in the interstice between reference grammars and pedagogical grammars, posl/im 'al shtey ha-se'ifim (1 Kings 18:21) is a biblical expression that lurks behind such efforts at satisfying mutually conflicting desires, our "neither fish nor fowl," for the two sorts of grammars are designed to satisfy different needs and not to be combined. These authors are expert linguists and certainly are among the most highly experienced classroom teachers in the United States and thus know this to be the case. Edna Coffin's Lessons in Modern Hebrew (1977/8) and Encounters in Modern Hebrew (1992-6) (Univetsity of Michigan Press) were excellent and useful texts for elementary/intermediate levels of modern Hebrew instruction; perhaps the most important factor that has led many teachers of modern Hebrew in higher education to turn to some other texts is their fit with programs at Israeli universities, especially with the summer ulpan (intensive) program at Hebrew University.

A reference grammar is not designed to teach about how to use a language but to serve as a reference tool about the language, and it generally seeks to place data within field-wide descriptive categories constructed around universals rather than to make practical language acquisition easy. A reference grammar is for people who seek more knowledge about their language and/or for linguists who want information for scientific purposes, whether theoretical or comparative. For those looking for a reference grammar here, the explanations leave very much to be desired; and the lack of vowel pointing/pronunciation aids, thorough explanations, plentiful examples, etc. will also frustrate those looking for a pedagogical grammar. Perhaps a better title would be "A Quick Reference Guide to Modern Hebrew Grammar." The work seems to be best suited for a second-year student who needs a quick reference guide to various grammatical topics to help with homewotk assignments. (It's much more comprehensive than Lewis Glinert's Cbik-chak or his Essential Grammar.)

The preface states that part of the intended audience is students of linguistics. This audience will also find it maddening that none of the examples have transliterations or word-by-word glosses, given that all linguistic study begins with the study and then the comparison of speech-sounds. Thus the only linguistics students that may find this book useful are those that can already read Hebrew (or have access to a Hebrew speaker). The book does not begin, as one would expect in a reference grammar, with a description of the language community, and indeed it has more than one in mind: a community reading texts in ancient works of religion-specifically the Hebrew Bible (pp. 40-44 and sporadically)-and another in conducting modern lives in Israeli Hebrew. Thus, disregarding the work's remarks concerning register and its focus on "Modern," it is cleat that it envisions educated, perhaps even religious users of a certain sort (and not, say, new immigrants). Similar explanations are not given for developments between biblical and modem Hebrew, that is for neo- or rabbinic Hebrew.

A useful index is a sine qua non here, whether for a reference grammar as such or for a pedagogical one. …