Thursday, March 07, 2019


In English, "other" and the related "another" have different logical meanings.  Sometimes "another" can mean "another of the same kind," as in "I'll have another cookie," meaning, "I'll have an additional cookie."  But the same words in a different context could have a different meaning.  "I can't eat cookies with nuts, could I have another cookie?", meaning, "Could I have a cookie of a different kind?" The Collins dictionary spells this out here.

Hebrew and Aramaic have the same logical ambiguity in their words for "other, another." Lexicographically, should these different logical meanings form part of a dictionary entry?  We saw above that the Collins dictionary does do this for English.  But Hebrew and Aramaic dictionaries do not divide the senses up in this way.  Since I have written a couple of dictionaries, and am working on another (!), I'm wondering about it.  If a particular sense  is completely context-dependent and not signalled by some grammatical difference, is it part of the "meaning"? If not, does it belong in the entry?

Of course, this is part of the age-old lexicographers' polysemy dilemma. When do different contextual modulations of a word's meaning become identifiable as different senses? And is there a principled way in which to spell out how these different meanings are related? E.g., is one more basic, and the others (!) have emerged from it in some identifiable way (metonymy, metaphor, or the like)?

Or in the case of "other," if there is no clear way in which one sense diachronically presupposes another (!), and no difference in phonological form or morphosyntactic frame, do these senses inhere in the word at all?  Perhaps not.  Perhaps here instead of polysemy we have vagueness (in the technical sense of a word that is just non-specific about certain features).

 In that case, how do we deal with these issues in the dictionary? It might be possible to incorporate the necessary vagueness into the definition itself.  In the case of "another/other" (Heb. אחר, Aramaic אוחרן), we have to start with the fact that the word is anaphoric, that is, it always refers to something already mentioned in the discourse, the antecedent.  What "another/other," etc. means as an adjective is "not the antecedent, but similar to it." In any particular context, either the "not the antecedent" (different) or the "similar to it" (second, additional) part may be highlighted.  The logical freight of "another/other" depends on the meaning of the antecedent, not on any inherent semanteme in the adjective itself.

In Gen 26:22 for instance, we have "And he removed from thence, and digged another well," in context, an additional well; a second token of the same type (well).  In Gen 29:19, we have "And Laban said, It is better that I give her to thee, than that I should give her to another man." Here the antecedent (the man Jacob) is a type with a single token (the man who is Jacob); hence another man does not mean "a second man, in addition to Jacob" but "a different man, who is not Jacob."

Therefore an entry based on a clear semantic understanding should express the word's vagueness, which is modulated by the context.  Semitic dictionaries have done this mainly by simply using European glosses that are themselves vague.  I'm not sure this is the best approach, but I'm still thinking about the best way to approach this.

Sunday, December 30, 2018

Fifteenth Annual Ralphies

One more time around the sun!  This year had lows, it had highs, but the lows were lower and the highs were higher.  A pretty intense year, if you want to know the truth. And now to the awards ...

MUSIC:  Maybe it was just serendipity, but music seems to have had a pretty good year, or I just heard some good music that's been out there for a while.   A few songs were outstanding and kept playing in my brain throughout the summer and fall, most notably "Pristine" by Snail Mail and "Your Dog" by Soccer Mommy.  Despite a late surge by "Future Me Hates Me" by the Beths,  the Song of the Year award goes to "Pristine" (local girl Lindsey Jordan makes good).  Other songs I kept pressing repeat on were "Lover Chanting" (Little Dragon), "Almost Had to Start a Fight" (Parquet Courts), "Yellow Bike" (Pedro the Lion), and "Highway Tune" (Greta van Fleet).  Of cover tunes, "Destination Unknown" (Joan Jett) and "Smells Like Teen Spirit" (Patti Smith) deserve notice.

MOVIES:  I saw some movies!  Very enjoyable were The Favourite (not at all what I expected) and Incredibles 2 (pretty much what I expected).  But the Best Movie award goes to Into the Spider-Verse, with Avengers: Infinity War a close second.  (Yeah, I'm a Marvel fan, what of it?  Sad farewell to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee.)

TV:  I didn't watch TV.  I had it on from time to time.   There were ball games and re-runs.  

BOOKS (Non-fiction):  I tried to read Bob Woodward's Fear, but found it too depressing to go more than a few pages in.   But I finally got around to reading Just Kids by Patti Smith, which was SO good.  I don't feel a part of that kind of demimonde at all, but anyone can relate to the story of artists finding their voice and growing up at the same time.  

BOOKS (fiction):  Did anything blow my mind this year? I guess it was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders.   A very compelling read.

POLITICS:  I actually donated some money to Beto O'Rourke's campaign.  First time I've done that in .... a long time.  I'm sorry he didn't win, but I have a feeling he'll be around for a while.

That's all, folks!  See you next year.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Review of "Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories"

Review of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories, by J. D. Pleins with J.Homrighausen (Zondervan)

This is an interesting attempt to organize nouns in the Hebrew Bible by "conceptual categories."  It provides noun lists organized into four large categories: The Created Order, the Human Order, the Social Order, and the Constructed Order. These categories are themselves divided into subcategories, and the subcategories into sub-subcategories. So, e.g., under the Created Order we are given Heavens and Earth; Metals, Stones, Gems, etc.; Colors; Time; Animals; Flora.  (Why not "Fauna; Flora" or "Animals, Plants"?)

Note that almost all of the categories have to do with realia and/or social relations.  There is no category including "Religion" or any of the terms for God, gods, angels, demons, etc.  For instance, the word אלהים is not found, and רוח appears only in the categories of Wind and Upper Body (pp. 32, 66). (The latter is glossed as "air" with a reference to Ex 15:8.) 

The main purpose of the book is, apparently, to facilitate memorization of the lists.  This is explicitly recommended on p. 17.  The philosophy behind this is "that an ancient child did not need a dictionary to learn to read Hebrew and neither should you" (p. 19).  This glib statement reduces facility in Hebrew reading to a rapid retrieval of all of its vocabulary, no matter how rare, recondite, useless, or disputed.  Such memorization tasks are of questionable utility and in most cases will be a waste of time.  If "an ancient Hebrew child" is the benchmark, then the student should learn the same way as a child learns, by being exposed to as much input (in the form of text) as possible, not by memorizing context-free lists.

The book also falls into the same traps as other attempts to organize cultures by their realia.  One trap is that the categories used are modern categories imposed on the lexicon.  For instance, the term יתום orphan is found under "Human: General Terms" (p. 62) and אלמנה widow is found under "Family and Kinship: Widowhood" (p. 93).  However, these terms are often found together in the Bible (30 times); they represent the most helpless and vulnerable members of society, but neither term is found in the category "Law and Covenant: Poor/Oppressed" (p. 102), where they naturally belong.  This distorts the indigenous cultural categories.

The other trap is the trap of polysemy.  Students who memorize the word מכרה under the rubric "Disease, Mortality, and Disability: Medical Tools: General" with the gloss "circumcision blade" (p. 71, with a reference to Gen 49:5) will find it again (same gloss) on p. 99 under "Worship/Cultic: Purity/Impurity: Circumcision" and yet again on p. 108 under the category "Professions and Occupations: Military: Weapons/Armor" with the gloss "weapon, staff" (again with a reference to Gen 49:5).  The ideal student who commits all these lists to memory may not realize that this word occurs but once in the entire Hebrew Bible, with a disputed meaning (Gen 49:5). 

Another example is the word צלע, which occurs 4 times in the book, with the glosses "terrace" (p. 30), "spine/rib" (p. 67), "side (of ark)" (p. 94), and "side chamber, cell" (p. 128). The dutiful memorizer will accordingly wind up memorizing 4 words with 4 different meanings, instead of one word with several related senses.  This is not efficient or true to the nature of language. 

Therefore I can't recommend this book for its avowed purpose.  It is useful as a general organization of Hebrew realia into semantic fields from a modern perspective, and from that standpoint it has its value. It also has a good bibliography and a Scripture index, which magnifies its utility.  But as a pedagogical tool? No. The best way of gaining facility in Hebrew reading is just to read as much Hebrew as possible, seeing words in context, learning the words that come up again and again.  Memorizing a dictionary, however it is organized, is not the way to go about it. 

BIBLIOGRAPHY:  J. D. Pleins, with J. Homrighausen, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary by Conceptual Categories: A Student's Guide to Nouns in the Old Testament (Zondervan, 2017).

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Fourteenth Annual Ralphies

It was the best of times, it was ... nope.  It was not the best of times. Only time will tell if A.D. 2017 was the worst, or simply the beginning of more travails.  It was Amok Time.

MUSIC: I consume most music these days during my commute, while listening to the satellite radio.  When I hear something good I haven't heard before, I jot it down on whatever piece of paper I can grab. Unfortunately, I've misplaced most of these random notes.  Some that remain mention songs like the following (not all are new, but they're new to me):  "On the Level" (Mac DeMarco), "Road Head" (Japanese Breakfast), "Shouldn't Happen to a Dog" (Thee Headcoats), "Ghost" (Tiny Fireflies), "California" (Rogue Wave), etc.  One song that stuck in my head without a written note is my Song of the Year: "Edge of Town" by Middle Kids.  Most effective one-note guitar solo ever.

FICTION: So porous is my memory that I only remember the most recent things I've read.  The most fun was certainly Curtis Sittenfeld's Eligible, a modern re-imagining of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice in modern-day Cincinnati. Very smart and funny.  As a resident of Cincinnati for 20 years, I can vouch for the authenticity of the local color. Also enjoying Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan, although it is not new.  What else?  I am re-reading David Copperfield.  It's good. I read Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five for the first time.  Overall good, but the mannerisms annoyed me.

NON-FICTION:  Read, enjoyed, and reviewed L'aramaico antico by F. M. Fales and G. Grassi.  I didn't know if I could remember Italian well enough to do it, but it came back rapidly.  I think the one I learned the most from (for a project I'm working on) is Klaas Bentein's Verbal Periphrasis in Ancient Greek. Extremely perceptive.

TV:  Once again, I am not a watcher of the latest TV.  I will watch movies, some basketball games, and a few re-runs.  My favorite re-run this year was the old sitcom Barney Miller, which I loved back in the day and still do. (This is what old people do.  You should know this. They are not up on the latest anything.)

MOVIES:  Gee, what did I see? Very little.  I did see The Last Jedi (c'mon, I'm not going to link that.  Just stick a toe in the internet and it will bite.). I'm still up in the air over whether I liked it or thought it was incoherent.  We'll have to wait and see whether the hares that were flushed out in this movie will be caught in the next one or will turn out to be mare's nests ... or red herrings ... or wild geese.  Wait, what? Also saw Get Out, which was widely praised, but by the time I saw it, had been spoiled by TMI on the web.  It was OK.  No award this year.

SPORTS:  Once again, enthralled and disappointed by the Nationals, and this is routine for all sports in DC.  NBA-wise, I have some glimmers of hope for a Laker renaissance.  I legitimately like Lonzo Ball's play, although a lot of people hate him for a stupid reason (his old man is insufferable).  And Kyle Kuzma is a revelation.

OK, just getting this in under the wire.  See you next year! (Namely tomorrow.)

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

What is an Evangelical? (II)

A long time ago, I wrote in this space about "What is an Evangelical?" Reading it today, I am amazed at my own perspicacity, and I generally still agree with myself -- although I'm surprised that back then I didn't know who Rick Warren and Joyce Meyers were; and Michael Gerson has since become a valuable conservative pundit. Richard John Neuhaus has since died.

But the question of "what is an evangelical?" gains added steam today because of the election of 2016, in which a large majority of self-identified evangelicals voted for D. Trump.  Because of this, there are some among the minority who didn't who are no longer willing to call themselves evangelicals.  (Roy Moore of Alabama, running as an ultra-conservative evangelical but accused of sexual misconduct, also comes in for some blame for this.)

But this is the logical outcome of the political identification of evangelicalism with conservatism -- and not just conservatism, but specifically anti-abortion/pro-life conservatism. If a candidate is on the "right" side of the single issue that concerns you, then no other trait of his can be of any relevance.  The result is that we have Donald Trump, who is willing to gut healthcare, give tax breaks to the already wealthy, trash the environment, break up and deport families, and give barely-coded support to white supremacists -- but who will appoint judges who might someday in the future make abortions somewhat harder to get. (Gay marriage, too. Evangelicals today are very supportive of government control of what people do with their reproductive systems.) This is totally aside from his rebarbative personal qualities.

So a lot of people are saying, finally, "count me out." I was already out of evangelicalism in that sense, but I'm glad to see the scales falling from many people's eyes.  I would love to see evangelicals move away from the right, and cease to be running dogs of the Republican Party. Unfortunately, I don't see this happening in anything like the degree I would welcome.

LATER: Some additional thoughts from Timothy Keller in the New Yorker (!).

Monday, December 19, 2016

Annual Ralphies: Lucky 13th

My, what an inactive year for Ralph.  This reflects what an active year it was outside of Ralph.  The first half of the year was devoted to writing lectures and then delivering them – most notably in Cambridge (a splendid and sumptuous event, for which I am eternally grateful) and in Jerusalem (ditto).  The second half of the year was less spectacular and more dismaying; I refer to the recent presidential election, which is the most disturbing one in my lifetime.  Some of my Facebook statuses reflect my growing sense of foreboding:

Amy and I will be voting for the same person this year for the first time ever. #nevertrump (July 22)

Only Trump could make "Merry Christmas" sound like a threat. #nevertrump (July 30)

Evangelicals supporting Trump have permanently lost credibility to speak on public policy or public morality. But hey, good for Albert Mohler. #nevertrump

I really hope that the white male middle class, its spurious Herrenvolk aspirations in jeopardy, doesn't elect the most grotesquely unqualified Presidential candidate ever. (Sept. 26)

Come back, baseball. Don't leave us to face next week without you. (Nov. 3)

Kitchen dialogue in the a.m.:
"I'd like to punch Trump in the face."
"Oh, that's a real Christian attitude!"
"The heart wants what it wants." (Nov. 7)

Haven't felt this grieved since 9/11. (Nov. 9)

And that about says it.  On 9/12/01, I felt that the foundations of society were fragile; now I feel the same way.  Now the Ralphies are more important than ever.

MUSIC:  There has been a lot of good music this year – none of, regrettably, from our newest Nobel Laureate in Literature.  I've heard a lot of great female voices, like Angel Olsen, Mitski, and that gal in Sylvan Esso, and that other gal in Tennis.  But my favorite music came from a bunch of guys, namely Foals.  Can't decide what their best track is, but I'll go with "Birch Tree." They're supposed to be awesome live, which I regrettably can't confirm by experience.

FICTION:  I've read some really good sci-fi this year, with super thumbs-up to Lavie Tidhar's Central Station and Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (about which more below).  Also, I was surprised to find out how good C. S. Forester's Hornblower series is.  The rumor was that the Aubrey-Maturin series (which I love) was far superior, but this turned out not to be the case at all.  Forester's prose is superb, the stories are terrific, and Hornblower, in his own way, is as compelling a character as Jack Aubrey.  But my book of the year award goes to Moby-Dick, by Herman Melville (c'mon, you don't need a hyperlink for this, do you?).  I've never been ready to read this book before, but this year I was, and it was enthralling.

NON-FICTION:  There was a lot, good and bad.  The most stimulating for me was Kees Versteegh's Pidginization and Creolization: The Case of Arabic, which gave me tons of ideas.  

TV:  I was an indifferent consumer of TV this year, with two exceptions.  One was the series Law and Order: SVU, which is in more or less continuous re-runs on a variety of channels. I figured it was junk, but I watched a few, and found the series as addictive as potato chips.  Pretty good plots, interesting characters, decent acting (especially Mariska Hargitay). It ain't Breaking Bad, but it ain't bad.  But the Ralphie has to go to Stranger Things, which I binge-watched during a free month of Netflix.  So much fun.

MOVIES:  We saw exactly two in the theater, namely The Secret Life of Pets (it was OK) and Arrival, based on Ted Chiang's "Story of Your Life" (see above). Arrival takes the prize, just for making a linguist the hero, but a high runner-up is Hail Caesar, which I watched on the plane twice going to and from Israel, then I bought the DVD, which is a rare event indeed.  A knee-slapper, for sure, and Ralph Fiennes' scene with Alden Ehrenreich is not to be missed. 

SPORTS:  Sports was pretty meh this year, with one exception: the Nats' playoff drive, which fell short.  Better luck next year, guys, but thanks for making the summer and early fall a lot of fun, and a great distraction from the collapse of the republic.

OK, see you all next year, if there is a next year.  Not that I'm pessimistic or anything. :)