Book Review: How Biblical Languages Work

Silzer, Peter James and Thomas John Finley. How Biblical Languages Work: A Students Guide to Learning Hebrew and Greek. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 2004. ISBN: 9780825426445
Dimensions: 6 x 9 inches
Format: Paperback
Length: 258 pages

I was very impressed by this book. Though, I think that I’m a bit beyond their target audience, I do believe that the fact that I have studied both Greek and Lingusitics only helps my ability to review this book. The book functions as a basic introduction to Greek & Hebrew Phonology, Morphology and Syntax. Its goal is to provide a linguistic accompaniment to traditional grammars. For that reason it in no way replaces such grammars, but it does provide a large amount of valuable information about Greek and Hebrew and it typically not available to the beginning student. Hopefully it will be a hlpeful for teachers who believe that students need a firm grounding in English Grammar before they study Greek and Hebrew. That is not to say that students should not be familiar with the grammatical systems of English, rather that what the student truly needs is an understanding of grammar as a whole, an understanding of language.

Overall How Biblical Languages Work fills in a very small way the need that I have cried for a number of times. Language and linguistic typology should influence how we study Biblical Languages. Is Greek grammar so advanced and so much better than others that we cannot learn from the results of studying other languages? “Its not that,” you say, “Its simply that all languages are different. Why should Swahili grammar influence how we study Greek?” And to that I respond with the reminder that while languages are different, they are also incredibly similar. Studying Linguistics show those of us English speakers that those things which seem very strange in Greek (such as Case, Aspect & Aktionsart, or Nominal clauses) and Hebrew (such as suprasegmental morphemes) are quite a bit less unusual than we would think.

But I digress…

The first chapter function as an introduction to language & linguistics, including a helpful summary of the Sapir-Worf Hypothesis, which claimed essentially that our experience of reality is thoroughly limited by our language. The approach taken by the authors reject the strong version of the hypothesis, but accept within limits the claims of the soft version, that is, culture and history both effect and are effected by language.

From there, the authors examine the various fields of linguistics as they relate to Greek and Hebrew. Thus, they begin with phonetics, phonology (recognizing that the perfect pronunciation of Koine Greek and Biblical Hebrew is still to some degree unattainable) and writing systems in chapter 2. It is good that someone is introducing the world of Biblical studies to the International Phonetic Alphabet, an alphabet created by linguists intending to represent every sound used in language. (though my dream of seeing IPA replace SBL transliteration will probably never take place). The major strength of the system is that there is never any need of a pronunciation guide.

Chapter 3 leads the reader into the world of morphology, those smallest parts of meaning that combine to create words. This chapter is infinitely helpful for the languages of the Bible, all of which are highly synthetic, that is, they pack large amounts of information into single words. Hopefully, this chapter will give beginning students a few hooks to hang their lessons on when they’re examining Greek noun declensions, Greek & Hebrew gender or verb formation.

Also helpful are the discussions of various types of morphemes, particularly roots and affixes (i.e. prefixes, suffixes, etc.). On the topic of affixes, there is a very helpful discussion of the difference between derivational affixes and inflectional affixes. In that respect, the charts of the book shine through in their clarify and explanatory power.

And leading into an explanation of case (a concept that is rather foreign to contemporary English), the authors wisely use the English pronouns to introduce the topic since they are the only part of speech in English to retain the old case system.

Moving on…

The fourth chapter deals with the phrase and clause level. This is an exciting chapter simply because phrases are rarely discussed in any traditional grammar at all. Most grammars of Greek deal with words and clauses, and completely neglect the phrase. Unfortunately, Silzer and Finley assume the existence of the verb phrase rather than provide evidence of it. While Chomskian grammar theories generally assume the existence of the verb phrase in every language, there is plenty of evidence that not all languages have such a phrase type. Such languages are often quite nonconfiguational with their constituent phrases. It is highly possible that Greek is such a language. Definite evidence for the Greek verb phrase, in my opinion, is presently lacking (though I’m still studying the issue). Nonetheless, the chapter as a whole is extremely helpful for providing discussion and explanation of an, up until recently, neglected category.

Chapter four also provides a quick survey of word order. Regarding Greek, the authors acknowledge that the question continues to be highly debated. They follow Timothy Friberg’s conclusions. This is a valid and reasonable, but it would have been helpful to point readers to other dissenting opinions.

Building on phrases and clauses, chapter five moves on to the next highest level of grammar – the discourse level. This level of grammar has been examined with cynicism by some traditional scholars, thinking it to be subjective and essentially no different than commentary & exegesis. But the fact is, discourse grammar simply builds on the notion that language and communication is organized and structured. Surely this is a reasonable claim. If it were false, communication would be impossible. While this chapter is rather short, the bibliography is very good and will hopefully perk the student’s curiosity in pursuing the topic further.

What does that even mean? chapter six examines semantics and meaning. This chapter covers complex issues. How are words related to each other? How do words mean? What about figurative meaning? Idioms? Helpfully, the chapter introduces the concept of semantic roles. Semantic roles are incredibly helpful for understanding meaning and interpreting a text and students will find them to be incredibly helpful for examining and understanding a given clause and its meaning.

The final two chapters cover two important topics. The first deals with socio-linguistics and Greek & Hebrew. The book does an excellent job examining and explaining how languages change, how speakers are viewed by other language or dialect speakers and other important issues that impact the development of Greek and Hebrew and thus also their understanding and interpretation.

The last chapter is highly practical, discussing the very helpful issues of how languages are can be learned, particularly with how personality impacts language learning and how different personality types will makes certain learning styles better than others. The authors make some good suggestions for resources for discovering what kinds of activities and learning methods are best for different learners. They conclude with suggestions for vocabulary learning and finish the book off with an excellent glossary of linguistic and grammatical terminology.

I have to say that this is a wonderful book. But I fear that simply because of where Greek and Hebrew are presently, it will not be taken advantage of as much as it should be. Traditional grammar, in a number of ways, has fought against the introduction of linguistics into Biblical studies, which is highly unfortunate. Even still, students should read this book, its a good introduction to Greek, Hebrew and linguistics and is a wealth of resources in its bibliography for students to move on deeper into Biblical languages and linguistics. As I’ve observed a few times, there are a couple places where linguists would disagree or quibble about various topics, but this does not negate the value of the book. These are issues that will continue to be debated.

How Biblical Languages Work will provide an excellent introduction to the linguistic study of Greek and Hebrew. If only now, there were more grammars that present the languages at this level. For that reason, the best Greek grammars to accompany this book would probably be those by David Alan Black, who has worked hard to introduce linguistics to the study of Greek.

15 thoughts on “Book Review: How Biblical Languages Work

  1. Sounds like the kind of book which should be compulsory reading for anyone learning biblical languages, especially for those, such as Bible translators, who also need to know some linguistics.

  2. Peter, I’d agree. My biggest complaint is less about the book itself and more about the grammars that the book would be used with being “behind the times” in a sense. I would imagine teachers having to do a bit of balancing in their explanations of traditional Greek grammar and what’s in the book.

  3. Thanks for the review. I recall skimming through it briefly in the store and wonder whether or not it would be helpful.

  4. My Google Alerts pointed to your recent review of “How biblical languages work.” Thanks for your thoughtful and helpful review.

    I look forward to browsing your many other pages. Your background is similar to mine. BA in Greek (Concordia Lutheran Senior College), PhD in Linguistics. I worked with SIL from 1972 – 2005. From 1992-2005 I headed the SIL at Biola program mentioned by Brian above. It was during that time I developed relationships with the Greek and Hebrew teachers at Talbot School of Theology and eventually teamed up with Dr. Finley on the book.

    Blessing on your studies. I hope to hear more about you in the future.

  5. I have this book in my collection. Some parts are good. I don’t think it is really that user-friendly. The Greek section is much better than the Hebrew. But a person can still benefit from it.

  6. I’ve got a copy but haven’t read it due to reading reviews that mirror TC’s: intriguing but not really useful for students.

    Oh, and of course the lack of a twenty-fifth hour has something to do with the lack of reading as well.

  7. Chuck, its unfortunate that people have that opinion. Its the kind of book that should be helpful to students. Contemporary linguistic theory has so much to offer in both insights and methodology to Biblical studies that students would be wise to familiar themselves with the field. This book is a helpful survey. Its weakness is that it covers so much material so shallowly, but its major strengths are 1) nobody else does 2) the chapter on language learning, in of itself, is worth the price of the book and 3) its bibliography, which makes up for its weakness.

    Its the kind of book that I think students should read and re-read until they’ve got a good grasp of its contents and then move on through the bibliography.

  8. hmmm, I don’t know about that. Its different than Silva and Barr. I would probably say that all three of those books might require a potential second reading in order to follow things better…

  9. Mike: You make a strong case for the book. I’m sure you are right when you say it is simply too different from what else is out there to please many people.

    Things that stand out in your review for me are the presence of good explanations and clear charts for the bits of Greek and Hebrew not readily mirrored in English. Those and the idea of a system that would provide some overarching way to examine Greek and Hebrew. Those alone make it sound like a worthwhile purchase and necessary read.

  10. Thank you so much for your thorough review of the book that Pete and I wrote. It was gratifying to see that you had such a positive reaction.

    I will have to confess ignorance about the languages with no verb phrase, and I am really curious about why you think Greek may be a language that is “nonconfigurational” with its constituent phrases. Hebrew makes much more use of sentences without a verb than Greek does, but you apparently have something in mind other than what are sometimes called “verbless clauses.” Would you be willing to send me either a brief explanation or else some references that I could check out for myself?

    Shalom,
    Tom Finley

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