Today’s A-to-Z post is a tribute to one of my academic heroes: Thomas O. Lambdin, Professor Emeritus of Semitic Languages at Harvard University. He retired in 1983, and as far as I know he’s still alive, which would make him 90-something years old! While at Harvard, he taught at least half a dozen Semitic languages, among other subjects. As one professor said at the time of his retirement, Lambdin would be “hard to replace.”
I was never a student of Lambdin’s, but we used his INTRODUCTION TO BIBLICAL HEBREW when I was at university. Having tried out a couple of other Hebrew grammars since then, I think Lambdin’s is far and away the best. Hebrew is hard enough for most Westerners to learn, but Lambdin breaks it down into short sections, and gives plenty of exercises and appendices to assist the struggling student. It’s the Hebrew grammar I keep going back to.
Since I am a bit of a linguaphile (that is, I love languages, though I think my interest exceeds my ability), I have on my shelf a couple of Lambdin’s other grammars, namely his INTRODUCTION TO SAHIDIC COPTIC, and his INTRODUCTION TO THE GOTHIC LANGUAGE. (This last book refers to the language spoken by the old Germanic people, not the language spoken by kids in dark clothes and makeup.) He has also written an introduction to classical Ethiopic, but it’s very expensive.
I find it hard not to admire someone who attains this level of proficiency in their chosen field. It’s one thing to know how to speak a language, it’s another thing to write a grammar. To me, writing a grammar is the linguistic version of the Jedi making his own lightsaber. It symbolizes the transition from student to master. And that Lambdin has mastered such diverse languages as Hebrew, Coptic, and Gothic, indicates the level of his genius. Yet his books are very readable, and very conscious of the student. He tries to bring the student along, not leave him ten steps behind. Even if I never match Lambdin’s linguistic achievements, I am inspired by his discipline, and the testimony he gives to what a well-trained mind can achieve.