I am very pleased to publish an interview with Dr Geoffrey Khan, an expert in the field of Semitic studies, and the Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Cambridge.
Dear Geoffrey, can you describe what attracted you to Semitic languages?
I was very interested in languages in general when I was a teenager. I initially thought that I should aim at a safe career path, such as medicine or engineering, but I realized when I was about 16 that my heart was in the study of languages so I followed my heart and opted for three ‘A’ levels in languages (French, Latin and Italian), i.e. the final school examinations taken by school students when they are 18 years old. When I was considering university courses I was attracted to courses on Semitic languages, since they involved a lot of learning of new languages. Courses on the languages I had studied at A-level where mainly literature-based, which did not interest me. I was also looking for something different, a new world.
How have the field of Semitic languages advanced over the years?
The field of Semitic languages has undergone considerable advances since I was a student, especially in the field of modern spoken languages. In general, however, Semitic languages remain somewhat isolated from general linguistics. One of the issues is that there is only a very small number of scholars in UK university posts who are principally interested in the linguistic aspects of Semitic languages. Posts in Hebrew or Arabic are mainly based in area studies or theology departments. This means that students who study the languages are in general not specifically interested in linguistics.
How do you find the balance between teaching and your research interests?
My graduate students are very important to me and I encourage them to study topics that I have some expertise in so I can give them effective guidance. I have sometimes passed on research material I have gathered to my research students, and I have been delighted to see that many of my students have produced excellent research on this material, much better than I could have done myself.
What, in your opinion, are the main challenges in studying historical relationships between language contact in foreign language acquisition and in language convergence?
Language contact has played a very important role in the formation of Semitic languages. This includes contact between the Semitic languages themselves and also contact of Semitic with non-Semitic languages. Any historical model applied to the history of Semitic languages must take into account language contact. I have found over the years that the processes of contact and historical development are much easier to study in modern spoken Semitic languages. This has become clear to me in my work on Neo-Aramaic. With a modern spoken language, you have access to the full language contact situation.
Which challenges arise in studying religious canonical texts from both linguistic and theological point of view? To what extent it is possible to apply modern theoretical linguistic approaches on ancient textual witnesses?
The main issue with Biblical Hebrew is that the manuscript Masoretic Text and even the manuscripts from Qumran are not direct reflections of a vernacular language, but rather represent a transmitted form of a literary liturgical text. The study of the language of the Hebrew Bible, therefore, is essentially a linguistic study of the reception of the Hebrew Bible at various periods. This applies, for example, to the study of its phonology and morphology, both of which exhibit diversity in different reading traditions, and also its syntax, since any study of syntax should take account of the accent tradition, which is essentially a reception history of the syntax. Certain aspects of language which play an important part of the analysis of modern spoken languages are not accessible in traditions of Biblical Hebrew that have come down to us. This applies, for example, to some aspects of sentence prosody that are very important for identifying the information structure of a language.
What in your opinion are underworked areas and what is the future of Hebrew Semitic studies?
There is still much work to be done on the analysis of medieval and modern traditions of the Hebrew Bible. Hundreds of Genizah fragments of the Hebrew Bible, for example, have not been fully analysed. Some modern reading traditions are still unstudied.
What current projects are you working on?
I am currently finishing a book on the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew. I am also working on a major reference grammar of Biblical Hebrew based on the various traditions of the language (i.e its linguistic reception history), which has been commissioned by Oxford University Press as the successor to the Hebrew Grammar of Gesenius.