A First Hebrew Reader, by Duncan Cameron
As someone who likes to read guides to various foreign languages , I have to say that if anyone learned Hebrew from this guide it would take a lot of work and would be nearly miraculous. Why is this the case? It is hard to tell, given that I do not know enough about Hebrew to know the extent to which the author makes it harder than it has to be. It is very clear, though, that the author has no idea about how someone can understand the meaning of Hebrew words through their letters, and so he teaches Hebrew the way most elementary and middle schools teach English grammar, with rules that include all number of exceptions to them. In fairness to the author, this book was written when Hebrew had been a largely extinct liturgical language for many centuries and was just being revived, and so the author did not have an easy task in trying to revive the language among a non-Jewish audience that wanted to read the Hebrew scriptures in their original language. That said, although the challenge was difficult, the author himself appears ill-equipped for the task.
The contents of this book are rather plain. In less than 100 pages the author fits in about thirteen or fourteen lessons on basic Hebrew that included various words and phrases, that attempt to teach not only the Hebrew alphabet (which is tricky enough) but also to show vowel pointing and various forms for initial and final consonants and hidden vowels in the preceding letter and affixes that change form based on the letters that they are attached to. It was a mess, especially when one is used to dealing with more regular languages. English is a language known for being particularly tricky when it comes to rules, but the Hebrew of this book far exceeded even the complexity of remembering rules like “i before c except after c and words that sound -eigh like neighbor and weigh.” If you think that rule is bad, then think of the rules that allow some consonants to be doubled and others not to be and that have affixes show one of three letters depending on which letter they go in front of, with the possibility of numerous vowel sounds that are ambiguously pointed, some of which have to be known by the context. There has to be an easier way to understand Hebrew than what this book has to offer, that’s for sure. Besides the grammar, the book aims to help students to read and translate Hebrew between English and Hebrew over the course of the lessons, which is at least a practical aim that succeeds nicely.
One wonders what is precisely meant by the book’s title. Is this a first Hebrew reader because it was among the first Hebrew-English readers ever made, in which case the book has a great deal of value? Or is this a book that is meant as as first reader in the Hebrew language for English speakers? If so, this book is unconventional as a reader because it has a lot of exercises and very little in the way of consistent reading in a foreign language as is customary for readers. Despite the unconventionality of the work and the fact that the author appears to be less than entirely competent at the language he is trying to teach to others, the fact that this is a book about Hebrew that shows a love of the language and of the Scriptures and a desire to convey that knowledge, at least such knowledge as the writer has, is itself an admirable one. An admirable failure, and I think it is safe to consider this book as such, is often more interesting, if sometimes more difficult to read, than a book that aims low and succeeds at its task, however easy it is to read. At least this book aimed at something difficult, teaching Hebrew to people who have never learned it or spoken it before. Such ambition ought to be rewarded.
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