How Biblical Languages Work: A Student's Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek

By Chandler, Edward H. | Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, September 2005 | Go to article overview

How Biblical Languages Work: A Student's Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek


Chandler, Edward H., Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society


How Biblical Languages Work: A Student's Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek. By Peter James Silzer and Thomas John Finley. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2004, 258 pp., $16.99.

The authors' intent in this book is to ease the initiation of the student of biblical languages into the complexities of Hebrew and Greek. This initiation is made all the more difficult in recent decades because of American college and seminary students' increasing ignorance of the particulars of their native English. The authors seek to accomplish their objective (1) by introducing the most elementary concepts of Hebrew and Greek from a modern linguistic perspective; and (2) by consistently providing English analogies to facilitate the student's apprehension of what appears, at first, to be utterly foreign.

The book is divided into eight chapters. While occasional references to other languages appear, all chapters focus primarily on Hebrew and Greek in relation to English. Chapter 1, "The Big Picture," seeks to qualm the fears of students about to plunge into language study by looking at language in general; how languages work in terms of their internal systems; how languages allow people to communicate; and how culture affects language. Chapter 2, "Can You Spell That?" focuses on writing systems and their strengths and weaknesses in representing the sounds of language. Chapter 3, "Putting It into Words," deals with the fundamentals of morphology, including a helpful section on the difference between derivational and inflectional morphology. These two concepts often provide the key to students' organizing the mass of inflections and declensions that confront them. A brief discussion of tense and aspect also appears in this chapter.

Chapter 4, "Putting Words Together," discusses the syntax of phrases and clauses and introduces students to the notion of language classification, in this case classification by word order. Chapter 5, "Telling Stories and Writing Letters," introduces students to discourse patterns and types, semantic roles, the various levels of context and, briefly, speech-act theory. Chapter 6, "What Do You Mean?" is an introduction to the complexities of semantics, with discussions of denotation and connotation, polysemy, the dangers of etymologizing, homonymy, homophony, homography, and related concepts that affect understanding. Chapter 7, "Variety is the Spice of Life," treats dialects and language change, while the content of the concluding Chapter 8, "Practical Ways to Study (and Learn) the Biblical Languages," is indicated well by its title. Chapter 8 is followed by a helpful "Glossary of Linguistic Terms," which is itself followed by a classified bibliography appropriate to beginning biblical language students.

Like the authors of this book, I have perceived the need to educate largely monolingual American students on the nature of language in general. This need exists in part so that biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek can be demystified and recognized for what they are in themselves: just two more languages that people once spoke. They are, therefore, learnable human languages. In that sense alone, this book is a welcome supplement to teaching grammars that still, for the most part, ignore modern linguistic principles that can make the learning process easier. …

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