Students find intellectual satisfaction in probing the grammatical depths of ancient languages in classes taught by Dennis Pardee.
Pardee teaches Biblical Hebrew as well as courses on the inscriptions in pre–exilic Hebrew and in related languages. His principal research is on Ugaritic, the language of the people of Ugarit, an ancient Syrian city north of Israel. It was a culture in which the mythological Baal was an important divinity, though later he did not fit into the monotheistic Yahwism of the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament.
Passages from the Hebrew Bible form the basis for Pardee’s Intermediate Hebrew classes. The three–quarter sequence begins with prose verses, such as portion of the creation story that begins Genesis. The second quarter consists of reading poetry, primarily the Psalms, and the third includes reading manuscripts, including biblical texts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls.
“Biblical Hebrew poses particular problems because of the place of the Bible in much of our culture,” Pardee said. “Students come in with a very broad range of backgrounds, from fundamentalist to liberal to ‘don't care,’ with every possible variation and from every possible religious or cultural background. Thus my goal is to get them all to a very basic position of doing responsible grammatical and lexical analysis before moving on to higher levels of analysis.”
Pardee thus concentrates on the intellectual side of the study of Hebrew and lets students work through their own reactions to this approach.
“If students work this method into their approach to any text in a language which they do not understand at an intuitive level, I consider that I have done my job. If the occasional student wants to do graduate work in one of our Near–Eastern fields with this approach to the texts, that is even more rewarding.”
Along the way, Pardee learns from his students as well, such as a session in which he got a new insight on a verb form in Hebrew.
“I confess that I had not analyzed the form in detail as I should have. I was essentially repeating the view of one of my most respected colleagues in another university without realizing that his translation implied the existence of a form that does not exist in Hebrew — a third–person imperative.
“It was the student’s ‘naïve’ question, ‘Does Hebrew have a third–person imperative?’ that set me back on my heels and made me rethink the analysis. The closer analysis eventually found its way into a review of the work in which my colleague’s questionable analysis was published,” he said.
In order to increase their understanding of grammar, Pardee has his students do supplemental readings and quizzes them on grammar once a week.
“I want the students to see the beauty of the grammar,” he said. “My basic methodological stance is that one cannot understand a text in a language that one has not learned to near–native proficiency, in particular a dead language, without analyzing it in detail,” he said.
Understanding a text requires a basic grammatical analysis. If students don’t know which word expresses the subject and which the object, they won’t really know the meaning of the text. “Or, in lexical matters, students sometimes try to understand a text by taking a word or words in the most basic sense when a little searching though a dictionary or wider reading will reveal other nuances that fit a given passage better,” Pardee said.