Posts Tagged 'Syriac'



An announcement

Still waiting on the Big Thing, but I can now announce that I will be presenting a paper at the 2008 Dorushe Annual Graduate Student Conference on Syriac Studies, held this year at Notre Dame University, 4-5 April.

Hopefully I have the Big News here before too long.

Thursday and all’s well

To follow are what would normally be inline asides on a blog which uses them. I don’t yet, because I’m not convinced I want to pay for the privilege of editing the CSS, particularly with WordPress’ upgrade to 3GB of free space in the last couple of days. So, bear with me.

I’m waiting right now. Some of you know what I’m waiting for. It is unclear how long I will be waiting. One person who went through this exact same process told me he knew within a couple of weeks; another told me it probably won’t be until the middle of March. I will be happier when I am no longer waiting, regardless of the outcome.

I’m starting to lose a battle against a sore throat. I was in Michigan last weekend with many of our parish’s youth, and between the quite cold weather and being around lots of kidlets, I think I’m set up to come down with something. I always know I’m getting sick because coffee (without which Richard ain’t a happy man, folks) tastes terrible to me when I’m sick; this morning, the coffee wasn’t tasting very good. Sigh.

Now having dipped my toe into three different dead languages over the last couple of years, let me say that one of the gifts of studying a lingua mortua like Latin or Greek is that, without doubt, tons and tons of time and resources have been spent putting together usable materials. This would be as opposed to Syriac, where tons and tons of time and resources, well, haven’t.

For example, one can reasonably expect the following about your standard Greek New Testament:

  • It will have a decent glossary.
  • It will be typeset in a very readable fashion.
  • It will have an apparatus so you know where the text came from.

Whatever one’s disagreements might be regarding the use of the Nestle-Aland critical text, $25.05 for all of the above is a danged good value.

Now, the Syriac New Testament, the ABS edition which is really the only one available, by contrast to the above:

  • doesn’t.
  • isn’t.
  • doesn’t, so you don’t.

Where dictionaries are concerned, you have a bit of a choice: the three-volume Payne-Smith lexicon which is big, expensive, and in Latin; the one-volume Payne-Smith lexicon which is big and moderately expensive; and finally, the much smaller but not much cheaper New Testament lexicon.

So, when reading the New Testament, one way or the other you’re constantly having to look things up in a separate book, and you’re not always sure what you’re looking up because Syriac adds both suffixes AND prefixes to words depending on how they’re used, plus they can go through all kinds of fun changes depending on how they’re prefixed, and, well, the typesetting sucks.

Oh, and the typesetting of the dictionary also sucks. The plates are just old, old, old. You can see what I mean by looking inside the one-volume Payne-Smith on Amazon here. Eventually somebody needs to go through and redo it digitally; I refer anybody to the glossary in the recent `Enbe men Karmo Suryoyo (Bunches of Grapes from the Syriac Vineyard): A Syriac Chrestomathy compiled by Martin Zammit to see what this stuff can and should look like in the age of digital typesetting.

Of course, it’ll still be hella expensive, since there are like forty people in the English-speaking world who care about these things, this being why it won’t happen in my lifetime. If I were a more ambitious and serious Semiticist, maybe I’d entertain the notion of figuring out how to attach myself to such a project and help do it the way it would need to be done, but I’ve no real intention of being that kind of scholar. I am but a beachcomber along the shores of the Semitic ocean, not a deep-sea diver…

…aaaaaaaannnd that was the sound of you (both of you) rolling your eyes simultaneously. Sorry.

At the very least it would be nice to have a standard textbook which isn’t inherently problematic in many respects (both the Coakley and Thackston grammars are, shall we say, no Hansen and Quinn), and/or an English version of the Brockelmann grammar with the chrestomathy (that’s a fancy word which means “reader”), and/or an edition of the Syriac New Testament that is a comparable package to your average Nestle-Aland Greek New Testament. I hear rumors of a thing such as the latter being done at Notre Dame, but it also sounds like there’s going to be a thick, expensive volume for each book of the NT the way they’re going about it. Oh well.

Well. That wound up being a bit more than an aside.

I don’t normally talk about politics here, but this whole business about tax rebates–didn’t we do this back in 2001 or thereabouts? And didn’t it, er, not work, exactly? I mean, I’m not going to beat away with a baseball bat a couple of checks for $300 or $600 or however much they are for our household, but this whole thing sort of comes across to me as, “Now, don’t worry, just go buy a Blu-Ray player and a couple of movies, you’ll feel better.” Am I wrong?

Still waiting.

We seal a dial, she weans a Liam…

I am slowly but surely cramming the Latin verb system back into my head. Today, in class, I realized why I was having trouble distinguishing between second and third conjugation verbs based on the infinitive form: we weren’t using macrons anymore! With saintly patience as though explaining it as though to a four year old, my instructor reminded me that you pretty much have to go to the first principal part to tell the difference without macrons; -eo being the characteristic ending of the first principal part for the second conjugation. And then, of course, for the vowel change in the subjunctive, “we fear a liar.” “He eats caviar.” Or something.

I love being thirty-one and being more-or-less newly at an educational level which, ideally, I would have been at when I was twelve or thirteen.

On the other hand, Syriac was good fun yesterday; we’re reading the Gospel of St. Mark now, and it’s not bad. I do sincerely wish there was an equivalent of the Nestle-Aland critical New Testament for the Peshitta–i.e., with an apparatus and glossary; alas, the UBS edition has none of that, and is extremely hard to read. Sounds like somebody up the road might be working on something like this…? Anybody know?

While I’m thinking about it, anybody know how to get my blogroll displayed using this template?

And yes, I know that my notes for Unit 2 of Hansen & Quinn aren’t posted yet. I’m working on them–the last month or so has just been busier than I would like for such things.

More later.

Urbs, urbis, urbi, urbem, urbe…

Back to Latin today, and tomorrow morning back to Syriac. Blogging may remain light for a few days while the rust shakes out.

End-of-Finals-Week miscellany

In a nutshell: Greek not so good, Syriac very good.

cursivegkms-640w.gifGreek this semester (my third) has been a war over a particular person getting to make a particular point, fought in such a way so that it is those in the classroom who have been the collateral damage, and the final was very much a final salvo. I’m being deliberately vague for a lot of reasons; suffice it to say I did the work, put in my time, and learned a lot, but it is questionable how much of a high point it will wind up being on my transcript. Oh well; it happens.curetoniansyriac-640w.gif

By contrast, I handed in my Syriac final feeling quite chipper, on the other hand, and I felt quite justified in my chipperness when I saw the posted grade this morning.

Now I get to spend the break reviewing Latin for next semester. Opto, optare, optavi, optatus. Sum, esse, fui, futurus. Femina, feminae, feminae, feminam, femina

Dr. Liccione has an essay entitled “Freedom, evolution, and original sin” which he posted yesterday. It’s the kind of thing which, when I read it, makes me think things along the lines of, “You know, maybe things could be worked out between Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy within my lifetime…” I’m not qualified to engage the post on any kind of a theological or doctrinal level, but I do want to point out a few things.

Kecharitomene is an interesting word in Greek. If my Greek teacher were to ask me to give its syntax on a test, I would say that it is a feminine singular participle, perfect tense to show completed aspect, passive voice, in the vocative case, agreeing in gender, number, and case with the unexpressed subject (being the Virgin Mary), and it is being used attributively.

What in the world does all of that mean?

A participle as a verbal adjective; in English we end participles with “-ing” and then use them in conjunction with the verb “to be” to express various tenses periphrastically. If I say, “I am walking,” “am” is the finite verb and “walking” is the participle–it’s attributing the characteristic “walking” to me rather than expressing it directly as a finite verb, whereas a single finite verb in Greek, “baino,” says all of that on its own—the “o” ending indicates that it’s first-person singular, so the subject is already implied, and it in the present tense, so it doesn’t need the helper verb “to be.” In Greek, you would use the participle perhaps to express a parallel thought to the main idea of the sentence (e.g., in “The turkey being cooked, we will now eat dinner”, “being cooked” would be expressed as a participle), often to indicate a present state before an action is taken (my Greek teacher likes to use the example that instead of “Take the money and run,” Plato would say, “Taking the money, run!”), and also to attribute verbal characteristics to people. Think of the movie “The Running Man,” and you’ve got the idea. Kecharitomene is an example of this last use—the verb is being applied to the Virgin Mary as an attribute, and therefore is singular and feminine, since in Greek adjectives must agree with what they modify in gender, number (singular/plural, as in “I/we”), and case. This is direct address, and that case is called “vocative.”

Participles, while not being finite verbs, have tenses like finite verbs; we usually think of tenses as expressing time, but Greek (at least how my teacher taught us) is a little more granular, expressing both time and aspect, aspect being the state in which the action is being performed. There is simple aspect, which means that the action is done once; progressive or repeated aspect, which means that it occurs continuously or over and over, and completed aspect, which means that the action is, well, done to completion. “I am walking” is present time, progressive or repeated aspect. “I was walking” is past time, progressive/repeated aspect. “I walked to the store” is past time, simple aspect. “I have walked home” is present time, completed aspect. And so on. Kecharitomene is in the perfect tense, which indicates present time, completed aspect. One thing about Greek, though, is that participles, if they communicate time at all (outside of the indicative mood, tenses lose connotation of absolute time and only have to do with aspect) communicate time relative to the main verb. “Chaire, Kecharitomene!” being a greeting (“Chaire” is the imperative form of the verb which means “rejoice,” used idiomatically in Greek to mean “Hello”), there’s not really a main verb, so an argument can be made that we can’t really say anything about the time in which this action was performed, only that it is done to completion.

There are two grammatical voices in English, active and passive. In the active voice, the subject performs the action of the verb; “I throw the ball.” In the passive voice, the subject receives the action of the verb; “I am thrown the ball.” Greek has both of these as well (plus a middle voice, where the action is performed reflexively or causatively or there’s some other special meaning being communicated). Kecharitomene is passive, which means the Virgin Mary has received the action of the verb; somebody else has performed the action (presumably, God).

Having now explained the syntax, the base meaning of the verb conjugated as Kecharitomene is “endow with grace.”

Therefore, if we were to try to incorporate every last nuance of the above into a literal English translation of “Chaire, Kecharitomene”, it would come out to “Hello, woman completely endowed with grace (don’t know when that happened, it’s just the way it is)!”

Doesn’t exactly roll of the tongue, does it? Regardless, Dr. Liccione’s summary of the implications is worth a glance:

[The Virgin Mary’s state of being kecharitomene] is sola gratia: a direct product of divine power divinizing. And it is itself but the most proximate effect of…the Incarnation, Passion, and Resurrection of that divine person who is Mary’s Son, a process in which we are all destined to participate, thus becoming “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).

Amen! Others can hash it out further.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is an interesting figure, even to the Orthodox; Fr. Seraphim Rose was quite critical of him, and others (such as Fr. John Meyendorff, I believe) evidently thought he hit the nail on the head. I’ve never read any of his works myself, but I don’t claim to have any particular interest in the creation vs. evolution issue. If we are to understand time as a part of creation, and if we are to understand the Fall as having corrupted all of creation, then presumably time was part of what was corrupted, as well as how we perceive it. For all I know (and I wasn’t there), the Genesis account is exactly and literally what happened, but we’re on the wrong side of the event to be able to see empirical evidence of it. I don’t know, and it frankly is irrelevant to me, having no bearing on the personal struggle to become a partaker of the Divine Nature. Maybe that’s a shortsighted point of view, but there we are.

Moving on…

I’m still stewing deep in thought about my Greek class. I can’t really go into a lot of details because the players would easily identifiable, and I don’t want to go there. What I will say is that after the first year of Greek (assuming use of a introductory textbook like Hansen & Quinn, which appears to be the closest the Greek world has to a standard like Wheelock’s is for Latin), I can imagine a very compelling case being made for Religious Studies departments having a second-year sequence running parallel to a Classical Studies department’s sequence. For example, this semester, we spent roughly three-fourths of the term on Plato’s Ion, and the last three or four weeks on the New Testament. That’s all well and good for classicists, but let’s just say that there wasn’t a lot of love left over for anything written Anno Domini, and I believe I would have ultimately benefited more from the ratio having been reversed, particularly since the fourth semester, as taught here, is radio station WHMR, all Homer, all the time.

It also occurs to me that one thing from which my beloved Hansen & Quinn textbook could benefit, faithful and constant companion, friend, and projectile over the last year as it has been, would be something of a supporting library along the lines of what’s available for Wheelock’s. It’s also quite amusing, looking back at the sentences I slaved over for hours in September 2006; if anyone would like an exact count of how many ways Homer can send the brothers into the battle in the country on the road with books, drop me a line and I’ll see what I can do.

OK. Enough for now. Finals week is over, Deo gratias, the syntax of “deo” being that it’s an indirect object “to/for” dative, and in the singular number you decline that deus, dei, deo, deum, deo…

The Gospel of Judas and the need for languages

I’m late to this party, but Prof. April DeConick of Rice University has gotten a decent amount of attention lately with her critique of last year’s National Geographic story on the Gospel of Judas. Mollie over at GetReligion has some interesting things to say about the warning journalists should take from this:

When going for a scoop, reporters risk sacrificing the quality of their work. This revelation about the allegedly shoddy work of National Geographic couldn’t get a fraction of the publicity of the original story, which is why we should be careful the first time around.

It seems to me that there are a couple of important things underscored here for academic wannabes like me, too. First off, it strikes me that the popular media is a questionable initial venue for scholarship, and the central reason is that the aims are different. The goal of an academic book or journal is to disseminate research; the goal of a popular publication is to make money. Along the same lines, exclusivity, a hallmark of commercial publishing, appears to work at cross-purposes to peer review, a necessity of academic publishing. To this end, signing non-disclosure agreements preventing peer review and publishing photos of a manuscript just large enough to prove you have it but not large enough to be useful for other scholars in verifying claims is, to put it charitably, not exactly best-practice scholarship.

Something else this communicates to somebody like me—and doubtless this will be a point so obvious to somebody who’s been in grad school for any length of time, me saying it is going to be like a three year old proudly shouting, “I’ve discovered one and one make two!”—is the importance of knowing the languages for your primary sources. If you don’t know know the language well enough to not only translate a text but to be able to discern where colleagues may have made errors, you’ve got work to do, and the published translations of other people are no substitute for putting in the work yourself. As Dr. DeConick says here, acknowledging that Coptic is not as accessible a language to New Testament scholars as Hebrew: “Okay. But so what. Learn Coptic.”

An object lesson from my own past brings both of these points together. A couple of years ago, when I was first coming to the conclusion that I’d make a better scholar than an opera singer, I saw a call for papers for a graduate student conference which was going to be relatively nearby. The theme looked interesting; I brainstormed some ideas, did some preliminary research, wrote an abstract, and submitted it. Lo! and behold, they accepted it, and now I had to actually write the paper.

First of all, I’ll point out the obvious mistake: I submitted an abstract for a paper which I had not yet written. I’ve since been counseled that, in practice, this is a horrible way to go. It’s not that it doesn’t happen, I’m told, but it’s a bad idea.

The two real problems, however, were that I had to rely exclusively on translations from Welsh, Latin, Greek, and God only knows what else, rather than being able to look at those texts for myself, and that one of my main sources was a popular book rather than an academic work. I didn’t realize the importance of the former, and I had no idea at the time that there was any real distinction regarding the latter. In other words, what I did would probably have been okay for an undergraduate, at least in some classes, but it was not acceptable by any means for somebody trying to present what they do as graduate-level research, and I have no doubt it made me look bad to people too kind to tell me so. I still have a hunch that some of the things I noticed in that paper might be valid, but until I’m able to read Welsh (since now I can at least muddle through Greek and Latin), I don’t feel qualified to talk about the texts. Not only that, but until I can independently verify the claims made in the popular work I used through my own examination of the sources involved, I’m not going to use those arguments (which is part of why I’m not talking at all about the topic of the paper itself).

By contrast, I wrote a paper a few months ago that deals with sources in Greek and Syriac. I was able to successfully avoid using popular books as sources, but I had to deal with the Syriac text in translation, which the professor said was all right, but having learned my lesson with the other paper, I agreed that the paper wasn’t going to be used for anything outside of the classroom until such time as I could at least verify that textual arguments I made based on the translation weren’t rendered specious by the actual Syriac text. Spot-checks like that are within my reach at this point (as long as I have Jessie Payne-Smith by my side), so I’m going to submit the paper to a conference.

The moral: Learn Coptic. And Greek. And Latin. And Syriac. Maybe Ge’ez, too, and Arabic and Armenian and Welsh and Anglo-Saxon and Gothic. Is it a lot of work? Sheesh. Um, yeah. On the other hand, as my dad used to say, the cheapest way to do anything is to do it right the first time. The overhead you think you’re saving by going with a translation won’t actually be a benefit if you’re relying on the efforts of people who have signed non-disclosure agreements and who are rushing to meet a deadline.

Getting a late start

What does it mean that I “got a late start?”

I ‘m told that I was bright as a child, but nothing I did well lent itself to any particular discipline. I read a lot about everything, I liked music, I liked to draw. I dabbled in computers a little bit. In general, I read everything I could get my hands on, which often led into other interests, but mostly just led to more reading.

This presented something of a vocational dilemma. Both of my parents, while intelligent, are very practical and they didn’t quite see how any of what I did was going to ever make me any money unless I got on a game show. They nonetheless more or less stayed out of my way, while encouraging me to go after sports, since athletes were always the ones you heard about getting big scholarships when college rolled around.

Well, instead of going into sports, when high school came, I got into theatre and the school paper. Again, not-totally-unjustified visions of financial ruin danced through my parents’ heads.

I applied to one college, Western Washington University, and got in. It was a not-particularly-well-funded state liberal arts university, but I had enough of a scholarship that, with in-state tuition, it would be workable, in theory. I applied figuring I’d go for a theatre degree; by the time the first day of classes rolled around, I had been convinced I wanted to be an opera singer, and declared myself a music major.

Midway through my junior year, I dropped out. I won’t go into the whole torturous story here; suffice it to say that various pressures—familial, financial, vocational, educational, and so on—combined to make it clear that this was not the right time for me to be beating my head against a brick wall and taking on massive debt for the privilege.

I continued to study voice privately, however, and I took a job in the software industry (far easier to do in those days for somebody with no formal experience and no degree than it would be today, I assure you) which guaranteed I wouldn’t have to wait tables. Life went on for few years; I became a good enough young tenor to do some interesting gigs around the Seattle area, I got married, and so on. For awhile I took a class a quarter at a local community college, figuring I’d eventually go back to school full-time, but I didn’t have the foggiest idea what the circumstances would be. I thought I’d perhaps enter an opera company’s young artist program before going back to school.

At age 26, it became clear that in order to get to the next step of an operatic career, I needed to go back to school, and I needed to go someplace where I would the kind of performing opportunities I wouldn’t have elsewhere—someplace like Indiana University. Well, as my wife and I discussed, instead of someplace like Indiana University, how about Indiana University? So, we packed up, left our safe little life in the Pacific Northwest and headed off for an adventure in the Midwest (well aware that to many, that expression is internally contradictory). I was sitting in undergraduate theory classes again before I was 27, and I graduated shortly after turning 29, it having taken me eleven years to finish a four year degree.

Again, without going into clinical detail, I’ll simply say that my experience finishing my Vocal Performance degree made it clear to me that opera was the very last field in the world in which I wanted a career, whatever I had thought over the previous eleven years notwithstanding. The problem was simple: I wasn’t good enough to have the kind of career that would allow me to have the kind of life I wanted, and I wasn’t ever going to be good enough, despite my teachers’ best efforts—the truth was, I didn’t want it badly enough. I had too many other interests which I found stimulating to be able to focus every effort on becoming a better operatic performer. I still compulsively read everything that crossed my path, and I really was perfectly happy doing that in a way I never was performing. As it worked out, the successes I had as an undergraduate were more as a scholar and a publisher than a performer.

The other factor at play was that my wife had started grad school in her own field at IU, and we had several years left before that would be done.

So what to do? Given my other interests, I had discussions with faculty members in the School of Music about musicology and choral conducting, but the bottom line was the same—love to have you, they told me, but we don’t have any funding at the Masters level, and if you come in as a Masters-level student, it’ll harm your chances of getting funding as a PhD student. Not being willing to go into an indefinite amount of debt for an indefinite amount of time, that canned those ideas. Seminary was considered, strongly so, but ultimately dismissed, for a variety of reasons.

Medieval history came up as an option; a faculty member from whom I was taking a class told me she thought I’d be a good fit, that surely funding could be worked out, and encouraged me to apply. However, as my application worked its way up the ranks, a dealbreaker emerged: I had no documentable background in the field, whatever my recommendations might say about me, and I had no experience in the languages which were vital to a medievalist—Greek and Latin, at least. I had had a year apiece of college-level French, German, and Italian, but that meant nothing to anybody. As a result, that door was closed. The practical piece of advice I was given was, plain and simple, if this was what I wanted to do, I needed to get these languages under my belt and more importantly, on my transcript.

The following fall I started life as a part-time, non-matriculated student venturing into Attic Greek for the first time, shortly before turning 30. At 31, I’m now in my second year of Greek, I’ve had a year of Latin and will start my second next semester, and I’m also in my first year of Syriac. I’ve also taken some seminars, gotten some good papers out of the deal, as well as some good relationships with faculty members, and where I am presently headed is the Masters degree in Religious Studies here at IU. My application is complete—with any luck, I will hear something concrete in January or February.

All of this is to say, it would appear that all the reading I did as a child did in fact point to a way I could support myself. As a first-generation college graduate, however, there was really no way for my parents to know that or have any idea how to cultivate it. I have to say, I feel sometimes that at 31 I’m where I should have been at 21. Certainly it would have been nice if I could have started Latin and/or Greek fifteen years ago, but the truth of the matter is that I have no idea how I would have done that in the schools available to me in the suburbs of Seattle. I’ve really had to stumble along and find my own way, and it’s taken me down some paths on which I stayed perhaps longer than I should have, but at least nothing has been wasted, I don’t think. I’m getting a late start, no question about it, but hopefully, better late than never.

With any luck, I may actually be able to get my first job before I’m 40, God willing.

Sometimes tags are surprisingly useful

So, I’ve tagged a couple of posts with “Syriac.”

Just to see what came up, I clicked on the tag itself after the last post.

And you know what? This is just danged cool. If that’s the only thing I ever get out of using tags, that’ll be enough justification.

Still searching for the perfect blogging platform…

OK, here’s a brief rundown of what’s come before:

richardbarrett.blogspot.com continues to exist, alas unloved and unupdated as it is and will remain.

The Dell blog existed for a specific purpose; I still get the occasional e-mail and phone call, so it will stay up so that people have some kind of a road map of how somebody once managed to penetrate Dell’s corporate hierarchy, but I don’t plan on updating it regularly by any means, since I no longer spend any money with Dell at all.

The .Mac blog was fun, and everything that was posted there will stay posted there. Thing of it is, for much of what I was doing, iWeb is just plain unwieldy, and you just can’t do stuff with it that Blogger and WordPress can without a lot of extra work. Plus, text often winds up getting published as a graphic, so search engines won’t find things. There’s at least one posting from the .Mac blog where that’s a major problem (and it will probably find its way here in hopes that it solves that problem). I will probably still use it as a photo album–someday I’ll get the Oxford pictures up, I promise.

So, on the advice of a friend (hat tip to Anna Pougas on her patronal feast! Many years!), I’m giving WordPress a shot. I’m adding three words to the .Mac blog’s title so that I’ve got Latin, Greek, German AND Syriac all represented–why not, really? (And please don’t leave a bunch of comments explaining why not–it’s a lark. Deal with it.)

To explain:

Leitourgeia—Greek, noun, meaning “public work” (“work of the people” being another common understanding), as in “liturgy.”

kai—Greek, conjunction, meaning “and.”

Qurbana—Syriac, noun, meaning “offering” or “Eucharist.”

Contra—Latin, preposition, meaning “against,” as in Athanasius contra mundum, St. Athanasius of Alexandria having stood fast for the Orthodox Christian faith in the face of the Arian heresy.

den Zeitgeist—German, accusative singular, meaning “Spirit of the Age,” as in the chapter “Through Darkest Zeitgeistheim” in C. S. Lewis’ The Pilgrim’s Regress, where the protagonist John faces the most horrible monster Lewis has ever depicted, the Spirit of the Age.

Also, Lewis wrote an introduction for an English-language edition of St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

So, we’ll try this for awhile, see what happens.


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