Monday, September 22, 2008

Awaking the Dead Hebrew, Part II

David Ker has a plan: "I’m going to learn Hebrew backwards."

And in this post, I have an opportunity, the opportunity to continue an earlier post "Awaking the Dead Hebrew, Part I."

What I really want to say is this: how linguists think of "language" really seems to determine what they think about how to "know" or to "learn" a language (like dead Hebrew).

(A while back, Mike Aubrey posted on "knowing" a language, which starts to descend from linguistics down into philosophy, and further down into epistemology. How do you know, or know that you know? So now I'm trying to get back to my claim that What you think you know language is sort of spells out How you think you can come to know a particular language. I'm going to postpone that a little by suggesting an add-on to the thesis and by telling some stories. The add-on is this: Generally, male linguists (which are most of them), as early as Aristotle, think of language as something that inherently belongs, by nature, to them--something at which they are deeply competent / something for which they are not blamed if their performance is imperfect; something acquired / not learned. Mike, in comments on Part I, wants me to acknowledge Joan Bresnan's work. So, now the stories. First, against charges that Noam Chomsky's a "traditionalist, . . . an old-fashioned patriarch [who. . . ] never really understood what the feminist movement was all about," Chomsky claims he hired Bresnan and Donca Steriade, according to biographer Robert Franklin Barsky. Maybe this was Mike's point, but I'm not so sure Bresnan has been a good Chomskian, like Steven Krashen has been. Seems like Steriade found her way back to MIT, but from her publications, did not find her way back to Chomsky. Second, women and men can participate in Aristotelian or Platonic--i.e., traditionalist masculinist--linguistics; and most do.

Last week, I had lunch with a Ph.D. in Linguistics who's a native English speaker who's been a student of Japanese in Japan and a user of French in the U.S. and in France, confessing "after a decade in French, I still don't know how to get the writing style right"; and with a Ph.D. in Physics from a U.S. university who's a native speaker of Japanese, confessing "I don't know how to speak English properly, exactly." To make them feel better, I cracked a joke in Japanese, which they both laughed at politely--laughed at, because my Japanese is really funny stuff since I don't know it well; and politely, because I hadn't made fun of her French or his English. During dessert, we talked about my "knowing" dead ancient Greek and Hebrew, but neither asked how. They were more interested in how one of my teachers, who had learned more directly from Tommy Wildcat, gave me some pointers on awaking nearly-dead Cherokee from the now-dead Elias Boudinot / Ga-li-ga-na? Watie).

I'm not sure anyone ever asked Mary Sidney Herbert or Julia Evelina Smith how they awoke dead Hebrew (although their translating is good proof that they did, and here's some blogging on the translating by Sidney and Smith).

I do understand that Ruth Behar is "somebody who understood displacement from an early age" who learned Hebrew (as she had to learn her anthropology that breaks your heart) by "displacing" herself "to try to understand another" by "coming from the outside. . . while trying to become an insider." Behar's father, who reads the Torah, is not speaking to her; she calls it, "A nightmare: Seventy-five translated women are burning in the flames. And there my name, the name I took from my father, is burning too" (page 71).

I am fascinated to read how Mary Douglas starts in awaking dead Hebrew, saying: "It will be painful and a failure." Some time back, I shared this fascination with you, saying:

Douglas is "going to change Hebrew by learning it. Of course, she must change too."

You remember, I went on to conjecture more, saying:
1. There’s no law that tells her What she must learn to “learn” Hebrew.
2. There’s no enforcement officer forcing her to Do certain drills or exercises a certain way.
3. There’s not even a living speaker of ancient Hebrew to negotiate with her various meanings.
4. Rather, there is a good bit of listening, hypothesizing, observing, reading, did I say guessing, failing, and hurting she must do. She may listen to texts and she may read living and dead experts. But she cannot stay the same person and still learn Hebrew. The how requires adult human conversion to one profound degree or another.
Let me backtrack again to the thesis statement of this post: how linguists think of "language" really seems to determine what they think about how to "know" or to "learn" a language (like dead Hebrew).

Mary Sidney Herbert and Julia Evelina Smith and Ruth Behar and Mary Douglas think of language (even dead Hebrew) much differently from linguists such as Noam Chomsky and Steven Krashen.

Such linguists think of language as this abstract thing. At least, it's an abstractable thing. Hebrew of the Bible, for example, is what's written in the Bible. At least, to begin with, it's אָלֶף-בֵּית עִבְרִי or אלפבית. Especially if you're a man (and not a woman such as Mary Sidney Herbert or Julia Evelina Smith or Ruth Behar or Mary Douglas), you don't really have to change. You don't really have to go from the outside in because you're already an insider. (I'm running out of time to say more, or motivation to make this clear just yet. So Part III is coming soon enough. I suppose I may say something about Rahab, who had to learn [not acquire] the language of men, including the Hebrew of some of them. I do think Ker's on to something useful; more then soon enough.)


Esteban Vázquez said...

"After a decade in French, I still don't know how to get the writing style right."

Substitute English for French, and add spoken to written, and you'll be looking at what I think at one point or another every day of my life.

David Ker said...

My french/spanish/hebrew speaking friend and his family came over for the weekend and our families got to learn Psalm 150:1 in Hebrew during our morning worship so all the way down the street on our afternoon walk various people child and adult were chanting halalu-el! b'kadesho halelu-hu birkiya uzzo.

We learn the language we need, don't you think? That's why LL programs fail and then some punk spends three months in Guadalajara and comes back babbling like Juan Valdez. I used to hate those students. Then I spent three months in... well, you get the picture.

David Ker said...

And BTW English teacher, since when is awakening rendered awaking? I object!

David Ker said...

Dang. I think this is about transitivity.

J. K. Gayle said...

Stefan, c'est en forgeant qu'on devient forgeron

J. K. Gayle said...

Funny, David:
"object!" "transitivity"

yes, English major, and think again with Shakespeare:
"Ere the time Of her awakening."
The tragedie of Romeo and Ivliet 1592, (Qo. 2) V. iii. 258
"The cause of his awaking."
The winters tale 1611, II. iii. 36

and We learn the language we need, don't you think? That's why LL programs fail Yes, I (we/ they) do.