In this review, my first, of a Hebrew grammar, I want to look at A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar by Christo H. J. van der Merwe, Jackie A. Naudé and Jan H. Kroeze. I chose this particular grammar first because its methodology in analyzing Hebrew grammar is different from what you see on this site. In particular, van der Merwe-Naudé-Kroeze (MNK) take a newer approach, using modern linguistic theories (they credit linguists such as Noam Chomsky, Simon Dik, and Deirdre Wilson) as the paradigm for Hebrew grammatical studies. The more traditional approach – which I adopt – uses Arabic grammar as the paradigm for Hebrew grammar (see my post “Arabic and Hebrew Grammar” under the Featured Topics on Syntax link).
MNK intend for their grammar to be an intermediate grammar (9), so it is easily accessible for students taking on Hebrew after their elementary courses. MNK’s presentation is clear and well-written. They do provide a glossary of their terms in the back, which is helpful in allowing the reader to gain a fuller understanding as some issues are not fully developed in the body of the text (i.e. ‘copula’). Although their grammar is linguistically informed, MNK do keep the amount of linguistic terminology and discussion to a minimum and use traditional grammars like Gesenius-Kautzsch (GK) and Joüon-Muraoka (JM) “extensively” (11).
Because they intentionally lean on grammars like GK, JM, and even Waltke-O’Connor (WOC), the structure of MNK’s grammar and some aspects of their analysis do not stray far from these advanced grammars. Therefore, their discussions of the Infinitive Construct and Absolute, the uses of the various derived stems (Pi”el, Niph’al, etc) often resemble more traditional grammars (with some differences; i.e., MNK do not see the Pi”el as ‘intensive’). Many of their discussions on topics like the Pi”el or the construct relationship can be quite brief, and can leave the reader wanting more. However, in light of the fact that MNK intend this to be an intermediate the brevity is somewhat understood. MNK also provide helpful morphological charts for verbs (weak and strong) and various noun forms. Where MNK’s analysis coincides with more traditional grammars, this grammar can serve as a “gateway” to more advanced grammars.
Although linguistic content is kept to a minimum, the influence of MNK’s linguistic foundation does play a part in their analysis. For example, in lieu of the more traditional categories of ‘nominal’ and ‘accusative’ they introduce the terms ‘adjunct’ and ‘complement.’ (§33). Their inclusion of וַיְהִי and וְהָיָה as ‘discourse markers’ deviates from traditional Semitic grammar. To label וַיְהִי and וְהָיָה as discourse markers detracts from their nature as verbs functioning like other verbs within the clause. The reader is introduced with linguistic concepts primarily in the last chapter (ch. 7 “Word Order”). While some students may find this type of presentation helpful, those students who are not familiar with concepts like “fronting,” “unmarked or marked word order,” “lexicalized” might have need to take time to learn these concepts. Furthermore, MNK’s analysis of the clause differs from the traditional Semitic definitions of the clause. For example, a Subject-before-Verb clause is still a verbal clause (337). To redefine verbal and nominal clauses in Hebrew is to cause them to lose their distinctiveness, and the reader loses what the writer is trying to communicate with the clauses (see my posts on verbal and nominal clauses under the Hebrew 101 link).
I would be naive to say that no one will find this grammar helpful. There are those who do find modern linguistics helpful in studying Hebrew grammar and would prefer MNK’s grammar. I do think, however, that the strength of any Hebrew grammar depends on its adherence to traditional Semitic grammar. Any language is best understood in light of its related languages: Greek with Indo-European languages, Hebrew with Semitic languages, etc. Comparing languages with its sister languages provides a more sure foundation for grammatical studies. In modern linguistics (such as ‘text linguistics,’ ‘grammaticalization theories,’ ‘generative linguistics,’ etc.), however, any one language is compared to all the world’s languages. This, I fear, flattens the distinctiveness of languages and their language families, and the reader loses the richness and depth of the particular language they are studying and risks mistranslating aspects of the text. Furthermore, with linguistic theories, opinions seem to differ from grammarian to grammarian which theory is most helpful (similar to the various forms of criticism in OT studies last century). To that end, I do think there are more suitable Hebrew grammars on the market than MNK’s.