Pedagogy and the Lesser-Taught (Ancient) Northwest Semitic Languages

In late September I sent out a survey via Jack Sasson’s Agade list. The topic was the pedagogy of less-commonly-taught ancient Northwest Semitic languages (that is, courses in Hebrew epigraphy, Phoenician and Punic, Aramaic, and Ugaritic). My interest is to learn from others by determining a sort of ‘best practices’ short list for teaching these languages.

You may wonder why I am concerned. It’s not because I’ve had poor teaching results. Final exam results and the quality of research projects illustrate that my students are learning about as much as is possible in a term (indeed, they might say is that my “as much as possible” is actually “inhumanly” possible, based on how hard I push them!). Rather, what drives the survey and this post is my own dissatisfaction with how the course unfolds. I become … I hesitate to admit it … bored with my own techniques about half way through the term. There must be a better way (or ways)!

As with my undergraduate Biblical Hebrew courses, I am always looking for better techniques—techniques that are both more effective and more fun. For BH this motivated our second textbook, which recognizes the student interest in learning to “read Bible” but also tries to draw what we reasonable can from modern language techniques. The question is, can we do something similar for the less-commonly-taught ancient NWS languages? Is that even possible, given the nature of the evidence? For example, Ugaritic has a large corpus, but little narrative and very little vocalization. How could it be taught more “communicatively”. And if we could find a way, would the method serve our teaching goals (i.e., would the [mostly graduate] students learn enough of what we want them to learn)? [For a thought-provoking blog discussion of this issue on BH, I suggest starting here and following the various links.]

I wrote the simple survey to probe others who teach NWS languages regarding their goals, curricular structure, and pedagogical style. I received only 8 replies, but they were instructive and represented an interesting distribution (seminary and research university, North America, Europe, and Israel).

I used the survey comments to provoke a discussion at the just-finished MICAH gathering (that is, the Mainz International Colloquium on Ancient Hebrew**). Many commented and below I have summarized both the email survey responses.

** What a blast this event was! The level of expertise, and thus papers, on Hebrew and Semitic languages represented by the participants was impressive and inspiring. So much to learn …

I am indebted to the organizer, Dr. Reinhard Lehmann for inviting me to speak and participate in the panel discussion. I will also take this chance to thank publicly those who organized the event with Dr. Lehmann: Dr. Johannes Diehl, Dr. Anna Zarnacke, Kwang Cheol Park, Anna Schneider, Karoline Ehinger, and Editha Lefebre. Vielen Dank!


Summary of Survey Responses

Q #1: What languages do you teach? Which textbooks do you use (if any)?

- Ugaritic (Bordreuil-Pardee), Akkadian (using Huehnergard)

- Ugaritic, Phoenician, Canaano-Akkadian (= Amarna). No textbooks, per se—I write my own materials for each class that I distribute to my students, but mainly require the use of published grammar books and dictionaries.

- Hebrew (and very occasionally Greek)

- Ugaritic

- Mostly Sumerian, Akkadian, but within West Semitic only Amarna Akkadian. I will now use Tropper and Vita’s Das Kanaano-Akkadische der Amarnazeit.

- Introductory Syriac (Coakley, Robinson’s Paradigms and Exercises); Ugaritic (Bordreuil and Pardee’s Manual; Huehnergard’s unpublished Grammar; Aramaic (Rosenthal’s Grammar of Biblical Aramaic)

- Hebrew, Akkadian, Ugaritic, and sometimes Aramaic. For example, with Ugaritic I use (1) Huehnergard’s Outline, (2) Sivan’s Grammar, and (3) Pardee and Bordreuil’s Manual.

- Classical Arabic and Biblical Aramaic. For the Classical Arabic, I use Wheeler Thackston’s Introduction. For the Biblical Aramaic, no textbook.


Q #2: What is your pedagogical goal when you teach ancient NWS languages?

- I have two constituencies: (1) doctoral students in Hebrew Bible; (2) MA students wanting to go to NELC-style doctoral programs.

- How to study lesser documented languages out of their own scant data, limited (or complex) writing system, and comparative Semitics.

- For the intro level, the ability to read script and parse verbs

- To gain the rudiments of the language and to be able to negotiate an Ugaritic text together with the available tools.

- Syntactic and idiomatic parallels between Amarna Akkadian and better known NWS languages such as Biblical Hebrew.

- Emphasis on the linguistic and philological analysis of the texts as well as on issues of script and epigraphy. At the end of a course, students should be able to read, vocalize, and translate a text; parse all forms; and comment intelligently on questions of grammar and interpretation.

- To engage any piece of scholarship and produce philologically sound scholarship.

- To prepare students to be scholars of the language rather than fluent speakers of the language. For this reason, while most other languages in my department (including Modern Standard Arabic) are taught using a communicative method, my teaching focuses heavily upon grammar and translation.


Question #3: Is a foundation in a more well-known Semitic language (e.g., Hebrew, Arabic, Akkadian) a practical requirement for studying the lesser-taught NWS languages?

- Yes.

- I teach speakers of Israeli Hebrew, but they attend my Introduction to Semitic Linguistics beforehand.

- Yes, we teach Hebrew before Syriac, etc.

- I assume a knowledge of some Hebrew, or Arabic/comparative Semitic. Too much of our reconstruction of Ugaritic grammar and philology is founded on what we know of comparative Semitic, especially Hebrew and Arabic.

- All our students are required to have one or two years of Akkadian before they can take anything else. But only the students who have had Hebrew or Arabic (or substantial linguistics) do well with the Amarna Letters, due to the West Semitic morphosyntax. Students who have only had Akkadian require a lot of outside help, particularly with the verbal system and word-order issues.

- I require knowledge of a Semitic language (not necessarily Hebrew) for Ugaritic and Aramaic. Syriac has no prerequisite. Next time I offer Aramaic, I am considering having no prerequisite.

- Yes.

- A solid foundation in one of the more commonly taught Semitic languages is important. Similarly, students in my Classical Arabic course must spend a year learning MSA.


Question #4: Assuming some knowledge of Hebrew (or Akkadian), what would be (or is) your curricular strategy?

- I have not yet re-worked my Ugaritic syllabus in light of the Bordreuil-Pardee Manual, but in the past I used some homemade exercises while covering grammar for five weeks, and then spent the next quarter-and-a-half translating and discussing cultural and comparative issues.

- It depends on the language and on the time allocated for the course. In a yearly Ugaritic course, I tend to cover the grammar first (including reading some letters), and then have each student present a mythological text. For Phoenician, Ancient Aramaic and Amarna, we start from the very beginning to read texts.

- I teach the fundamentals of the language and poetics by combining grammatical presentation with reading text. I use primarily my own handouts and read mostly from the Kirta epic. … Teaching Ugaritic grammar is an engagement in theorizing and hypothesis-testing, and that, for me at least, is a good part of the fun.

- Topic-by-topic survey of the grammar (approx. 30 minutes per meeting) and then 1 1/2 hours for readings prepared by the students. Because Amarna is built on Akkadian word-stems, their grammatical discussions are usually contrastive: in Old Babylonian the form would be x, but to do the same thing in Amarna Akkadian, you do y. I like to stick to the Gubla letters, and then at the end of the course contrast them with a proper Middle Babylonian letter from Babylon itself.

- For Aramaic and Ugaritic, I usually give an overview of the grammar for several class periods and then jump into an inductive study of the texts. For Aramaic, I also give weekly quizzes for the first 5-6 weeks that cover vocabulary and paradigms (this is to encourage students to memorize forms in a more systematic way). For Ugaritic, we work through by genre. For Aramaic, we work by dialect moving chronologically (for the most part): Biblical Aramaic, Old Aramaic inscriptions, ‘Imperial’ Aramaic, Middle Aramaic (Targum Onqelos, DSS, Nabataean, Palmyrene, Old Syriac), Late Aramaic (JPA, Samaritan, CPA, JBA, Mandaic).

- A basic introduction to the Ugaritic grammar for a few weeks, which gives us the basic foundation to start inductively going through texts. We begin with letters and then do legal texts, after which we turn to mythological texts. The students must vocalize the texts and be prepared to explain why they vocalized as they did. All of this is with the caveat that vocalization is just a heuristic exercise that allows to analyze the text in more depth, and we cannot be sure that this is how any of this material would have been pronounced.

- I usually incorporate some of the more well-tread readings into the grammar (for Biblical Aramaic, sections of the Aramaic portions of Ezra and Daniel; for Classical Arabic, the Qur’an). After the first year, the focus shifts to a close reading of the texts with a review of grammatical points as needed.


Question #5: Assuming NO knowledge of Hebrew (or Akkadian), what would be (or is) your curricular strategy?

- Hard to say. I would surely have to de-emphasize vocalization of Ugaritic, which would make the course simpler in some ways. As it is, I tend to emphasize comparative Semitics in that class.

- I have never done that.

- Send students to introductory Hebrew first.

- Not done.

- Probably not possible.

- For Syriac, which has no prerequisite, we follow a textbook with graded lessons. If I decide to teach Aramaic without a prerequisite, I will do the same.

- I probably would not accept such students into the class. If I were in a position to teach a whole class of students with no knowledge of Hebrew, I would do it the same way, except that I would go through the introductory phase of the grammar, using Huehnergard’s Outline, more slowly and systematically.

- The focus would shift exclusively to grammar, with a review of the state of the field in Comparative Semitics. Because students are likely to encounter serious problems with certain aspects of the morphology and syntax of Semitic languages (such as case markers in Arabic and Akkadian, ablaut plurals in Arabic and Geez, or the TAM system in just about any Semitic language), I feel that it is sometimes useful to give a bird’s eye view of how these phenomena function throughout the family.


This ends the survey responses. After walking through them at MICAH, I asked the audience the following summary questions to promote a good discussion:

1. What is your context? (E.g.., do all of your students already know Hebrew, Arabic, or Akkadian?)

2. What are your goals for the NWS language course? Comparative Semitics or ANE/Mediterranean history, etc.?

3. How do we teach these languages so that the texts are read sensitively (i.e., not as Hebrew-in-another-script?)


Perhaps these will help you also to sort through the issues as you prepare your courses. Although the discussion at MICAH was thoughtful, for my concerns a comment that hit the nail (or one of them) on the head was by Dr. Regine Hunziker-Rodewald. She indicated that she struggles with the balance of grammar and literary analysis, since her goals are not comparative Semitic or grammatical, per se, but for her students to be able to use the texts intelligently in historical reconstruction. I also feel this challenge acutely, but from the opposite direction. While I do have literary, historical, and religious/ritual interests in the texts (yes, it’s true), my research interests are primarily linguistic (as is my facility with the ever-increasing body of secondary literature).

I now open the discussion to other instructors as well as those who may not have taught NWS languages (yet) but have studied them formally. I look forward to a discussion in the comments.

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