E. Bar-Asher Siegal – A Response to M. Morgenstern

A Response to Matthew Morgenstern’s Review of My Book, Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic – Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal

One of my philosophy professors once advised us on how to read an academic text: first, have a question in mind and try to see how each sentence in the text addresses it. When you read the text for the second time, he said, have a specific question that is based on your first reading. This, he suggested, is the beginning of your own research. I followed the professor’s advice: reading Matthew Morgenstern’s review of my Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic for the second time, I had formed my question: is the fact that he consistently misrepresents what I wrote the result of dishonesty or of a lack of comprehension?

Matthew Morgenstern recently published a highly critical review of my Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (see here for the book’s table of contents). Nobody likes their hard work criticized, but in this case it is not my hard work that was criticized; Matthew Morgenstern misrepresented what I wrote and criticized that misrepresentation. I would like here to set the record straight, and note just a few examples of this dynamic (of which, apparently, my books is not the only victim). It seems, surprisingly, that his review is a response not to my book but to another paper of mine, which raises serious methodological questions reflected in his own work. I will argue that instead of seriously grappling with these questions, Morgenstern only chooses to restate his opinion.


Examples of Misrepresentation of My Claims

Morgenstern ascribes to me the following claim: “In his view, the Talmud was written in the higher-valued language (H-language) of a diglossia, not reflecting a genuine ‘spoken’ JBA of the less-valued domain (L-language), and hence colloquial Babylonian dialectal features should not be taken as an indication of linguistic primacy.” (p.38)

Morgenstern does not give any reference to the book for the claim, and I could not find it in my book or in my articles. I refer the reader to pages 30-31 in the book or to my paper, ‘Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic: Five Decades after E. Y. Kutscher and his Influential Methodology’, ZDMG 163 (2013), 341–64, where it is clear that this way of thinking is as distant as can be from the methodology I use throughout the book. The main point that I make throughout the book and articles (contra Morgenstern) is that it is impossible in most cases to evaluate what the origin and character of a given form is. I repeatedly emphasize that we must be careful not to make unjustified assumptions about either the text’s register or the content of the original language, since different registers and dialects can be in play from the start.

In contrast with the view that Morgenstern ascribes to me, that the Talmud was written in a high register, the model that I propound in fact suggests that, as is usually the case with old texts, we may posit two historical stages—stage A: composition of the texts in the context of diglossia, with differences between the written and spoken languages; stage B: transmission of the texts—and assume that various sorts of changes occurred in stage B during the transmission of the texts (adaptations to the spoken language; adaptations to grammars of both higher and lower registers; misunderstandings of the original language; and mistakes). I also stress that when a feature appears to reflect the spoken language, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether the feature is a manifestation of diglossia in stage A, or of changes in stage B. Likewise, when there is a feature that reflects “classical” grammar, the question is whether it is an indication of the Aramaic of stage A (either in the written or the spoken register), or a later adaptation in stage B to a different grammar representing a higher register. I do not argue (strenuously or otherwise) that we must assume a higher register; I claim only that this is an option that must be considered. This is the same claim that I made in the book.

Furthermore, Morgenstern quotes from my article: “With regard to phonology, other sources are closer to the original Babylonian texts, while the E[arly] E[astern] M[anuscript]s better reflect the spoken language – as was the case with regard to the pharyngeals and the anaptyctic vowel.” His comment: “It is unclear on what basis he determines the grammatical profile of these unattested texts” (p. 39). Indeed, if this were what I was saying, Morgenstern would be completely correct. However, a few lines later I clarify: “The goal of the last few paragraphs was not to argue fiercely for the alternative picture, but only to demonstrate how different plausible explanations for the same data are possible simultaneously, and that we do not have definite criteria how to choose between them” (p.361). Morgenstern was quoting nothing more than an intellectual exercise, meant to show that two alternative solutions are possible, and thus that neither can be assumed to be true.

I have a distinct feeling that Morgenstern read little more than some of the introduction, and probably took a quick look at some tables with forms. He clearly did not even have the patience to read the notes following these tables, or to read the entire paragraph. For example in n. 23, he mentions that I note אונא as an example of the elision of /d/, whereas in fact it is an example of an assimilation. Had he continued a few lines later on page 67 in my book, he would have read the discussion as to whether it is a token of an assimilation or of an elision. Similarly, Morgenstern ridicules my claim that I find myself in agreement with the conclusions of Margolis (1910) and Levias (1930), taking this as evidence of the backwardness of my approach to manuscript variation. Had he actually read the book, he would have realized that all the topics on which I agree with Margolis and Levias deal with syntactic analysis, and specifically in cases where there are no significant variations between the manuscripts.


Possible Interpretations of Morgenstern’s Review

Morgenstern seems to be responding not to my book but to my paper (‘Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic‘), which advances strong arguments against the methodology Morgenstern uses in his own book (M. Morgenstern, Studies in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Based upon Early Eastern Manuscripts [Harvard Semitic Studies, 2011]). I am afraid that instead of dealing with the theoretical problems that I raised in that paper, Morgenstern chose to set up a straw man and argue against it. Morgenstern has employed similar tactics before, against authors greater than myself (see e.g. his critiques against Margolis in Studies, p.12 and Sokoloff’s Dictionary [!] ibidem, p. 36).

Yet, perhaps Morgenstern did not understand me correctly? Perhaps he actually believes that I argue for the H language, since he believes that “the Talmud was formulated in a semi-formal or informal literary register abounding in linguistic features that may be assumed to be closer to the vernacular than they are to a formal literary standard” (Review, p.39). In his mind, perhaps, whoever disagrees with him must take the other side in the dichotomy. Unfortunately for him, I have actually never participated in this debate or accepted this dichotomy. According to the methodology that I actually used, we must document all forms and try to understand their origin. Once we have a clear picture of the nature of the texts and their transmission, it is very often impossible to provide a simple answer, but we can, and should, only tell competing stories. We simply cannot be certain a priori about the nature of the text in front of us, and as noted in my paper, it is hard to even determine whether we are seeking the original language or the original text. Therefore, we do not deal with questions of the yes/no type.

Consider also this quote: “Criteria for establishing what an excellent textual witness might be have been much discussed in the literature, but Kutscher’s methodology has provided the guiding light for all subsequent research” (Review, p.38). I welcome a debate on methodology, and would be happy to participate in such a debate, but unfortunately this is not what this review offers. Instead it reasserts assumptions going back fifty years, and restates as fact what is in truth debatable: in my paper I argued that the validity of these criteria was not really discussed in the literature, casting doubt on subsequent scholarship. Noting that Kutscher’s approach has become established tradition is not much of an argument.


A Note for the Users of the Grammar

Morgenstern is worried that whoever reads my book may be misled by the forms and remain ignorant of the achievements of scholarship over the last five decades. To alleviate this concern, I hereby issue this advice: please read the book. More specifically, please read carefully the comments after the tables of forms, which include all attested forms. The subsequent discussions mention almost everything found in the secondary literature, and they often suggest alternative interpretations. Readers will of course have to exercise more caution in their methodological assumptions, and realize how very often it is hard to decide between various alternative proposals, but this is hardly a drawback. If you continue after chapter six, you will be treated to the discussions of the syntax of this dialect, an experience that, as far as we can tell from the review, Morgenstern did not avail himself of.

And, as Morgenstern says on p. 41, this book does pose a dilemma to philologists: they will have to decide between Morgenstern’s approach that considers only a simple dichotomy and a more sophisticated one. I hope the ease of the former does not overshadow the great rewards promised by the latter. I thank Morgenstern for characterizing the book as sui generis, but I wholeheartedly hope it does not remain so.

Readers who are interested in reading reviews written by scholars who have actually read the book are invited to see the review by Aaron Koller and Tzvi Novick’s review (in Hebrew).

Elitzur A. Bar-Asher Siegal holds the Sidney and Betty Sarah Berg Senior Lectureship in Hebrew Language at the School of Language Science and in The Department of the Hebrew Language at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is also a member of the Language Logic Cognition Center.

2 responses to “E. Bar-Asher Siegal – A Response to M. Morgenstern

  1. Returning to this response, I’m concerned that Prof. Bar Asher-Siegal is retreating from and perhaps even partially repudiating one of the more intriguing and original aspects of his own work, namely that a higher linguistic literary register of Aramaic existed and that the composition and reception of the Talmud cannot be considered without reference to this register.

    He states the case more strongly in his 2013 article, Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic:

    “An explanation of JBA texts that takes this possibility into consideration could suggest that the texts were composed in the H-language, not reflecting a genuine “spoken” JBA (the L-language), but rather a different literary grammar. Accordingly these texts may reflect the grammar of older dialects of Aramaic, or other contemporary dialects of a higher prestige. Accordingly, it is even possible that manuscripts in general and the EEMss in particular could reflect a later textual development, in which the language of these texts became closer to the original spoken JBA.”

  2. thank Chuck Haberl for this comment; (in fact I owe a lot of this article to a discussion I had with you about the ways to apply the notion of diglossia to old texts).
    As for your comment; indeed I mention this quoted sentence as a possibility; but the whole idea of my paper is that this is merely a possibility among many other possibilities that should be considered, making none of them a definite one.

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