Archive for the ‘reading’ Tag

The tipping point of textual expertise   2 comments

How much reading do you have to do in a language until you read smoothly, without having to stop often and ask yourself about morphology or syntax, or to consult the dictionary? A simple question with a more complicated answer. It depends on the reader, on the language, on the text and genre, and even on the particular sentences within those texts (not all sentences within the same author or genre are of the same difficulty for learners), &c. And there are, of course, different kinds of reading, and many texts, too, for one reason or another merit, not only reading, but even multiple re-readings. Even with these variables, for most of us, fluid reading (or hearing) means the past mastering of several thousand lines wherein the dictionary did have to be frequently cracked, wherein the grammar did have to be checked, wherein the concordance did have to be probed, and wherein the original beside the version did have to be compared, and so on.

At the beginning of a unique Greek grammar for beginning students, Paula Saffire refers to a time in graduate school when reading Greek became less encumbered and more automatic for her.

The reason this happened was that I was reading Greek, happily, about eight hours a day, because of Harvard’s most powerful teaching tool, the Reading List. (Read all of Aeschylus, all of Sophocles, all of Homer, seven by Euripides, and so on.)[1]

The great Swedish scholar of Chinese, Bernhard Karlgren, wrote in 1908 of his reading assignments in some Germanic languages — to which family, it should be noted, belonged Karlgren’s mother tongue — while a student of Adolf Noreen:

300 pages Icelandic prose, 80 pages Icelandic poetry, 100 pages Gothic grammar, 40 pages Gothic text, 275 (difficult!) pages Old Swedish. I have very good reasons to rest a little while.[2]

At the time, Karlgren was working on two majors: one the subject just mentioned, and the other being Slavonic Languages. (Karlgren needed to master Russian because of the font of materials on Japanese and Chinese in that language. Students of Georgian are in a similar situation today.)

I don’t have a specific number, whether in hours or in lines, to answer the question asked above. But I know that it is a lot, and in many cases we may recognize the specific number only after the fact. One day, after hour upon hour and line upon line, we just realize that we’re moving along in a text with far fewer bumps in the road than before. And that’s when a new kind of enjoyment begins in the language.

If you have any studio-biographical references for scholars’ and learners’ time and efforts spent among the pages of foreign languages, please share them in the comments.

[1] P. Saffire and C. Freis, Ancient Greek Alive, 3d ed., p. xv.

[2] Letter of April 11, 1908 to his girlfriend Inna, quoted in N.G.D. Malmqvist, Bernhard Karlgren: Portrait of a Scholar, p. 38.


Notes by Ignatius Afram Barsoum in a sixteenth-cent. manuscript   Leave a comment

Saint Mark’s, Jerusalem, 135 is dated Feb 1901 AG (= 1590 CE) and contains a copy of Bar ʿEbrāyā’s Candelabrum of the Sanctuary (Mnārat Qudšē). It was copied at Dayr Al-Zaʿfarān by Behnām b. Šemʿon b. Ḥabbib of Arbo. From a much later note immediately after the colophon we learn that this scribe was made metropolitan of Jerusalem in 1901 AG and died in 1925 AG. Who wrote this later note? None other than Ignatius Afram Barsoum (1887-1957; see GEDSH, 62, including a photo). On the following page, there are three more notes by Barsoum, all autobiographical.

Notes by Barsoum at the end of SMMJ 135.

Notes by Barsoum at the end of SMMJ 135.


In the year 1913 AD I visited the tomb of the savior and I spent two months in our monastery, that of Saint Mark, while I — the weakest of monks and the least of priests, Afram Barsoum of Mosul, alumnus of the Monastery Mār Ḥnānyā [Dayr Al-Zaʿfarān] — was using the old books [there]. Please pray for me!

In the year 1918 AD, on the 20th of Iyyār, I was elected metropolitan of the diocese of Syria, Damascus, Ḥoms, and their environs, and I was named Severius Afram.

In the year 1922 AD I again returned to Jerusalem and I took part in the consecration of the myron with Patriarch Eliya III on the 18th of Ēlul.

Notes like this are important for at least two reasons. First, they remind us that books have had their readers throughout their individual histories, that is, we are usually not the first readers since the time of the author or scribe to examine and study a book; rather, readers make contact with, or meet, books here and there along the way, with ourselves just one node in that continuum, and some of those readers leave their marks, wittingly or not, in the books. Second, these notes are a kind of archival document, in this case for the future patriarch Barsoum and for some goings-on in Syriac Orthodox circles in the first quarter of the twentieth century, and anyone studying the region in this time period might find something of interest here and in similar places. Once again, we see manuscripts as unique objects with unexpected finds!

Towards a repertorium lectionum vivarum orientalium   8 comments

A particular advantage that the student of modern spoken languages has over the student of languages only studied from texts, so-called dead languages, is that of having hour upon hour of spoken samples, whether conversational or simple reading (as at Librivox, where you can search here by language), scripted or ex tempore, of the languages in question. At least in some settings of instruction and reading in ancient languages, those languages are treated as living, and efforts are made to do lots of reading aloud with practiced fluency. My own experience in learning ancient languages fits this picture, for which I am grateful. (There are also some teachers and students who attempt to use the ancient languages in an even more living way, as I mentioned in the third paragraph of this post.) In countries and communities where there is some continuous reading tradition (e.g. Old Georgian in Georgia, Gǝʿǝz in Ethiopia), even where the form of the language has changed, reading is very often still an oral practice, and even elsewhere students who happen to read ancient languages with a professor who sees value in reading aloud will naturally have plenty of opportunity to exercise their ears with the language as heard, but not every student has that advantage, especially not autodidacts. Where, for example, can students of classical Armenian hear samples of Movsēs Xorenac‘i or the Yaysmawurk’? Where can students of Coptic hear some homilies? And so on.
There is a potential means to remedy this lack, as Akkadian students may know: hosted here at the SOAS, London, are several Akkadian texts (given normalized and translated) read by different readers. Why not do the same thing for other languages? The focus of the blog and of my work at HMML is the (particularly pre-modern) languages of the Christian east, but a venture of this kind need not necessarily bow to such limits. Even so, those limits contain no small collection of languages or of literature from which texts might be chosen: Arabic, Armenian, Coptic, Gǝʿǝz, Old Nubian, Georgian, Syriac, Old Church Slavonic, Persian, Sogdian (perhaps even more lately attested texts in Malayāḷam, Kurdish, Turkish?). Texts read might run the gamut of literary genres in these languages: biblical, theological, liturgical, polemic, hagiographic, etc. The particular texts selected should be some kind of logical unit and not too long, the reading being perhaps not more than five or six minutes. Ideally, speakers would indicate the following information, too:
  • Native language
  • Language in which the read language was learned (e.g. learned classical Armenian in French, learned Old Nubian in English)
  • Text (edition or manuscript)

So, dear readers, I would like to gauge potential interest in such a Repertorium lectionum vivarum orientalium. Would you, as students and instructors, find something along these lines useful? Do you have any other remarks on the prospect? I would also be glad to hear about the practical settings of your language learning experiences: was your reading usually viva voce, did you typically translate into another language, etc.

Until next time, πρόσεχε τῇ ἀναγνώσει, μακάριος γὰρ ὁ ἀναγινώσκων!
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