Friday, June 26, 2020

A. E. Cowley, Anti-Semite

A. E. Cowley was a major Semitics scholar of the early twentieth century, and the head of the Bodleian library from 1919-1931.  His Wikipedia page is here
Despite his still-important activity in the realm of Hebraica, you can encounter some nasty anti-Semitism in the introduction to his Aramaic Papyri of the 5th century BC (1923). Speaking of the Jewish colony on Elephantine, he says
 "they aroused anti-Jewish feeling, and suffered violence which they ascribed, as always and probably with as little reason then as now, to hatred of their religion. ... [M]uch is also to be ascribed to natural suspicion of a community with customs differing from those of its neighbours, holding aloof from the common pursuits of its fellow-citizens, and showing contempt or hostility to everything outside itself."
 Oof. Thus he explains the destruction of the YHW temple by the adherents of the god Khnub in 417 BCE.  This description traffics in a number of well-known anti-Semitic tropes that would bear evil fruit less than two decades later in Nazi Germany. 
This is the same Cowley who translated the Gesenius-Kautzsch Hebrew grammar, still in use today (GKC = Gesenius Kautzsch Cowley).  He is still cited, without comment, and his despicable views forgotten. 

Father's Day 2020

Posted on Facebook June 20

My father died in 1985, at a younger age than I am now. He was a real "greatest generation" guy, an Air Force vet, a pilot, a weatherman, a smoker and a drinker. My life choices were a constant source of puzzlement to him, although he dutifully financed them (usually). He was an enthusiastic golfer, an activity inherited and enhanced by my brother Chuck Cook, and although I've never taken up the sport, by sheer osmosis I've acquired more knowledge about it than I can use.
For some reason, when I was around 10 or 11, my father would take me periodically to the golf course and pay me a nickel a hole (rounded up to $1.00 for 18 holes) to "caddy" for him — that is, to drag the wheeled tripod holding his bag while he played, by himself. I have no idea why he did this; maybe my mother made him, to spend time with his younger son; or maybe he was hoping (against hope) that I would acquire an interest he could relate to. I didn't, and I was pretty bored by this activity, but a dollar was major coin for a 5th grader in the early sixties. Whenever he asked, I went.
Those caddying days make an oddly vivid memory, and I can still close my eyes and see him under the summer sun, striding ahead of me, holding a club for the next shot, while I toiled behind with the bag. Happy Father's Day, major, wherever you are.

Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Statement regarding Prof. Jan Joosten

FIrst posted on Facebook, June 23, 2020.
I am appalled and saddened by the recent news about Prof. Jan Joosten and his arrest as a collector of child pornography. Our compassion should be extended, first, to the innocent children exploited to make this filth. I also feel that Jan should be pitied as someone who fell into an addiction which, I do not doubt, he earnestly wants to be liberated from. In his own way, he too has been exploited by the pornographers. Our rage should be expended mainly on the producers and criminals who produce this garbage, and those who profit from it.
The wrong response to Jan's misdeeds – which he will and should pay a steep price for – is to ban, censor, and eliminate Jan's scholarly work. His work as one of the finest Hebraists of our time stands on its own, and is indispensable. I don't see how his crimes are relevant to an assessment of his work, nor do I see, going forward, how we are to manage as a guild if we have to inspect everyone's rap sheet and download history before we engage with their work.
Indeed, I am surprised (sort of) that the academy, so constantly on guard against any hint of encroachment on First Amendment rights, is eager to erase the outstanding work of one of their own for his deplorable consumption of heinous pornography – and yet would never countenance any movement or legislation to remove the scourge of pornography from the Internet. In fact, such a suggestion would no doubt be met with howls of rage from those now calling for Jan's head.
I for one will pray for the children (I am a father and a grandfather), and for Jan and his family. For the pornographers, I wish nothing but ill. As for Jan's scholarly work, I will continue to use it, cite it, and honor it for its excellence.
Comments welcome. Trolls will be deleted.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Umpteenth Annual Ralphies

It's that time again.  In accordance with time-honored tradition, and in order to keep my legions of internet fans happy, I offer the latest iteration of the famous Ralphies. Without further ado...

GREATEST SPORTING EVENT OF THE YEAR AND POSSIBLY IN AMERICAN HISTORY:  The Washington Nationals win the World Series.  The last time "my" team won a world championship it was the LA Lakers in 1988 (although there was that 2005  national championship by the Texas Longhorns), so it's been a long wait.  I'm glad I was able to see the Nats play this year (typically, coming back in the bottom of the 9th to beat the Miami Marlins on Aug. 30) and to join in a stadium of people singing "Baby Shark." I was also able to join in the madhouse that was the victory parade.

MOVIES:  How many movies did I see in the theater this year? Three, I think: Avengers Endgame, The Rise of Skywalker, and Little Women.  All were excellent, although the critics didn't like Skywalker.  To spite them, I hereby make it my Movie of the Year.

MOST LOATHSOME POLITICIAN:  Donald Trump could win this category every year, but why give him the satisfaction? Instead the Ralphie goes to Sith Lord Mitch McConnell, who established new lows, even for a Republican, in political cowardice and corruption.

TV:  There is so little of value on TV these days, unless you've shelled out for all the myriad online and premium cable services.  I haven't.  The only one I shell out to (which I won't give free advertising to, but it rhymes with Shamazon) also provided what has to be the funniest (and most poignant) series ever, namely Fleabag.

BEST TRIP:  I traveled more than last year, and each of the trips — to Toronto, Hilton Head (SC), San Diego, and San Jose —had something special about them. But I'm going to go with San Jose because of the presence of a certain grand infant, who was celebrating his first birthday.

MUSIC:  There's always lots of good music, if you look in the right places.  Some of the places I looked turned up tunes like "So Hot You're Hurting My Feelings" (Caroline Polachek), "You're No Good" (the Chromatics), "Dylan Thomas" (Better Oblivion Community Center), "Harmony Hall" (Vampire Weekend), "Stay High" (Brittany Howard), "Peach Fuzz" (Caamp), and no doubt others that I've overlooked.   I'm always on the lookout for some great guitar playing — not shredders or showoffs, but something clear and spare and emotional.  The most beguiling riff I head all year was in "Misheard" (Moaning).  But the Song of the Year was not a new one.  I was late to the Alabama Shakes party and missed a lot, seemingly. However, "Hold On" played on repeat in my head for most of the summer, and has to get the Ralphie.

CONCERTS:  I actually saw three! Lazer Lloyd (excellent axeman), Ex Hex (in Toronto), and the aforementioned Moaning (opening for Ex Hex).  All the artists are highly recommended.

BOOKS:  I always forget what I've read, because I read a lot. But one book stands out.  For fiction I have to give the Ralphie to the tetralogy Book of the Long Sun, by Gene Wolfe (who died this year).  No better writer has worked in the sci-fi idiom.  Non-fiction is a tougher call, and I've got to leave it blank until I think of something. 

All right, you trolls, that's enough for now.  Have a great 2020, the last year of the decade!

Thursday, December 12, 2019

Why and When Did Nebuchadnezzar Regain His Reason?

The story of King Nebuchadnezzar's madness is well-known to Bible readers. In Daniel 4, we hear of the king's overweening pride and his humbling at the hands of God, as he loses his faculties and lives like an animal.  His sentence is that he shall live like this "until seven times shall pass."  Whatever be the exact meaning of "seven times" (seven seasons?), it must refer to a definite period of time.

What happens next? According to Dan 4:31 (English 4:34), "When that period was over, I, Nebuchadnezzar, lifted my eyes to heaven, and my reason returned to me.  I blessed the Most High,   and praised and honored the one who lives forever."  This passage seems to clearly state that, first, the king lifted his eyes, then his reason returned, and then he blessed God.

However, I have my doubts.  For one thing, why did the still insane king raise his eyes? It seems most reasonable that he would lift his eyes to heaven as he prepares to bless and praise the Most High. But in that case, his reason must already have returned to him.  Is this not contrary to the wording of the verse?

 It should be noted that the verbal conjugation of "returned" (יתוב) is different than that of "lifted" (נטלת) and "blessed" (ברכת).  Although the prefix-conjugation normally has a future-modal meaning in Biblical Aramaic, sometimes it is used in stories to give background information on the narrated events.  In this case, we might capture this nuance by translating as follows: "I lifted my eyes to heaven — for my reason returned to me — and I blessed the Most High."

Why did Nebuchadnezzar's reason return? It was not because he realized his sin and praised God, as is sometimes stated, but simply because his time of punishment was over, as the text clearly says.  His term of humiliation ("seven times") having passed, his reason returned to him, and the now humbled king gave praise to God.

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).