Scholars in Press: An Interview with Tania Notarius

The following interview is part of an ongoing series titled Scholars in Press, which aims to showcase a particular variety of scholars who contribute to biblical studies through their linguistic skills. Find out more about this series and a list of past contributors, here.

Education: I studied Romance Philology at the Moscow State University (BA and MA). At that time my greatest priority was to go study abroad. I made a short internship in Switzerland and then was granted by a scholarship to study in Heidelberg University (Germany), where I stayed for two years studying Bible, Old Egyptian, and Jewish studies. Since 1996 I have lived in Israel. My PhD dissertation is from the Department of Hebrew and Jewish Languages at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Favorite winter/summer pastime: If I’m not working I spend time with my kids, travelling, reading, playing games, chatting.

How did linguistics intersect with biblical studies in your life (or vice-versa)?

Biblical Hebrew linguistics is an innovative and dynamic field. I personally believe that linguistics is causing a revolution in all the fields of humanities, not just in biblical studies. It provides the language of the actual scholarship – strict, theoretically sound, and heuristic. I am quite convinced that an introduction to the linguistics of Biblical languages (and not just the school grammar of the relevant languages) will soon become a crucial part of the curriculum at Bible departments; the same as textual criticism or biblical archaeology are. I am trained as a linguist, but for me the traditional biblical philology preserves its central role. Biblical Hebrew linguistics is deeply interwoven with philology, involving problems of text, contact phenomena, comparative literature, or relevant historical information. Moreover, the method of Biblical Hebrew linguistics is genuinely eclectic. For us it is not the pureness of the method that is important but the validity of the concrete analysis for the phenomena under discussion. In other words this branch of linguistics does not have theoretical, but rather analytical and descriptive goals. But potentially we can come up with theoretical insights, why not!? The challenges of Biblical Hebrew are intriguing enough.

What informal or personal educational experience stands out the most to you in your learning career?

I am lucky to have learned at good places with great teachers (at least I remember those who were great). The main thing that I learned is how to learn. This made me able to teach myself many things. Much of my linguistic training I acquired myself, reading books rather than sitting in class. This is also the case with many languages.

What would you say is your linguistic niche, or what are you most interested in? (limit of two topics)

I think for me, it is just one topic – historical linguistics, especially syntax. I find the very process of linguistic change the most exciting thing in the world. It strikes my imagination. It tells so much about cognition, language as a system, human culture, and finally the living languages of today. I am very interested in the strict formal analysis as well, but, don’t know why, always end up with problems of linguistic development. Maybe I would mention one more topic – the language of biblical poetry – its structural principle, the communication in poetry, its temporal and spatial patterns.

Where is your field headed? What advances are being made others might should be aware of?

If by ‘your field’ the historical linguistics of Biblical Hebrew is meant, the answer can not be simple. This field is a hot issue today and I don’t want to start summarizing arguments of the on-going discussion. Shortly, I don’t line up with those who claim that the historical linguistics of Biblical Hebrew is a hopeless business. I am against placing Biblical Hebrew in a ghetto of idiosyncratic theses. If the historical linguistics of other ancient written languages is possible, why should Biblical Hebrew be an exception?

The advances are twofold: on one hand, the formal apparatus of the analysis has been enormously improved by virtue of involving more universal and cross-linguistically tested methods; on the other hand, the traditional philology has done its comeback and is in the very core of the research again (mostly due to text-critical problems). The automatically evolved corpus is an indispensable tool of the historical linguistics, particularly in application to ancient corpus-limited material.

How do you hope your work will contribute (or counter) to this end?

My project today is the historical-linguistic link of Archaic Hebrew and ancient North-West Semitic verbal syntax. The ancient North-West Semitic material is commonly compared directly to Classical Biblical Hebrew and other contemporaneous material. The newest research on the Archaic Hebrew complements this continuum with more details. I hope it will add several more pieces in the puzzle of the linguistic development.

What is your end goal with your training? (e.g., teach, research, preach, translate, etc.)

I teach and research.

What books / articles are you currently reading or enjoying most? (Limit 3)

I am reading Peter Stein’s Sabaeische Grammatik; Ethiopic languages (in Russian); Masehet Shabbat.

Who have been your biggest role models?

I learned from many people and from some authors whom I met just through books. To start with books, I learned a lot from Jorge Luis Borges, Paul Tillich, and Alexander Piatigorsky. As for people, I had excellent teachers, in Moscow, Heidelberg, and Jerusalem. I can’t mention everyone, but maybe it will make sense to mention Sergey Loesov and my Doktorvater Steven Fassberg.

What is one piece of advice for those following in your tracks?

Never give up on details. "Der liebe Gott steckt im Detail" (Abi Warburg).

Do you have online resources you would like to refer people to, either your own or others?

As for my publications, I upload them on Academia.edu. As for the field in general, there is a lot, but not enough; the most important sources are commercial and not available for free. We need free sources on Biblical Hebrew, comparable to Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon or Maagarim.