AUTHOR: Shimron, Joseph TITLE: Reading Hebrew SUBTITLE: The Language and the Psychology of Reading It PUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates YEAR: 2006
Robert D. Holmstedt, Department of Near and Middle Eastern Civilizations, University of Toronto
In this book, Joseph Shimron pulls together over two decades of research on the cognitive processes involved in reading modern Hebrew. In order to prepare the reader for these discussions, the book includes an introduction to the basic features of the Hebrew writing system and morphology, as well as the history of the language and its writing conventions. The book is structured in two ''cycles.'' The first cycle (chapters 1 to 4) presenting a brief introduction to Hebrew and then analysis and synthesis of the experimental cognitive research on reading Hebrew. The second cycle (chapters 5 to 8) returns to the lengthier treatments of the history of Hebrew language, its writing, and literacy.
Chapter 1 is a very brief introduction to Hebrew as a ''Hamito-Semitic'' (better: Afroasiatic) language. It also alerts the reader to the ''root'' and ''vocalic pattern'' components of Hebrew word formation, and provides charts of the Hebrew consonants and vowel points.
Chapter 2 consists of Shimron's introduction to the essential features of Hebrew morphology. Here he raises a number of intriguing issues, such as the restrictions on the sequence of consonants in Semitic roots and whether such restrictions suggest a native speaker sensitivity to roots, thereby reflecting the psychological reality of roots. (Note that he takes up reading sensitivity to roots in greater depth in chapter 4.) The remainder of the chapter is an exposition of verbal and nominal morphology using both non-concatenative categories (root and vocalic pattern) as well as the concatenative categories (base and stem).
Chapter 3 contains Shimron's discussion of experiments relating to the role of vowels signs in Hebrew writing. He starts by noting the ''odd'' feature of Hebrew (and Arabic), that they use two writing conventions: one that fully marks vowels by a diacritic system and one that does not. This allows researchers an ideal situation in which to investigate the role of vowels in reading. After surveying the experimental research, he concludes for Hebrew (but also later suggests that this may be partly true for other languages) that ''although vowels are dispensable, once introduced they seem to serve several purposes: (a) to disambiguate homophones and homographs; (b) to mark the pronunciation of other (typically adjacent) phonemes that may be pronounced in different ways; (c) to facilitate the parsing of sub-lexical elements; and (d) to signify phonological information'' (p. 53). Additionally, Shimron considers whether Hebrew readers process differently the two orthographies (the Orthographic Depth Hypothesis), the shallow orthography with vowels and the deep orthography without vowels. The experimental research, he concludes, suggests that Hebrew readers do not use distinct strategies for reading voweled versus unvoweled Hebrew, but that they use all the strategies simultaneously, and ''it is the available data in the print, and the task requirements, that dictates the nature of the reading processes'' (p. 66).
Chapter 4 continues the cognitive discussion, but uses Hebrew morphology, specifically the root and vowel pattern nature, to investigate various models of the mental lexicon. The studies surveyed by Shimron strongly suggest that the root is in fact represented in the mental lexicon of the Hebrew speaker, and is involved in word recognition as a sub-lexical element. However, once the root and vowel pattern combine, it is the resulting base that is involved in inflection. It is with this distinction that Shimron resolves the differences between those who view the root as a linguistic reality and those who do not.
Chapter 5 moves the reader to the second cycle of the book, and thus away from the psychology of reading Hebrew to the history of the language, from the pre-biblical period to the revival of modern Hebrew.
Chapter 6 continues the historical orientation, but focuses instead on the origin and development of the Hebrew writing system.
Chapter 7 shifts from history to consider the viability of literacy in Hebrew, and is shaped as a rebuttal of an evolutionary approach to writing systems and literacy that champion's the addition of vowels to the Greek system as the earliest ''real'' literacy. Shimron argues not only that literacy is Hebrew is viable, but that the unvoweled Hebrew alphabet is efficient for the root and vowel pattern structure of the language but would not work nearly as well for a non-root and vowel pattern language like Greek.
Finally, chapter 8 is a study of ancient Hebrew texts, particularly biblical texts, in order to discern early perceptions of literacy and the use of texts at the earliest stages.
Overall, Shimron weaves carefully through the complex interdisciplinary issues of psychology of reading and Hebrew language. In terms of the text, I noted only a few errors, of which only three are worth mentioning. First, the consonant root letters for the word 'notebook' are P, N, K, S not P, N, P, K, S as listed (p. 23). Second, on p. 30 Hebrew ''derex harim'' cannot be glossed as 'road mountains' or 'mountain roads' (plural) but only as 'mountain road' (singular); 'mountain roads' would be ''darxey harim''. Finally, the definition of the root QNH as 'to buy' (p. 164), and thus the subsequent assertion that ancient Hebrew teachers were remunerated, is problematic -- one does not 'buy' wisdom (Proverbs 17:16) or offspring (Genesis 4:1).
While the writing may be clean, it is unfortunate that the book's organization is so distracting. The decision to arrange the book ''cyclically'' prohibits the reader from easily moving from an introduction to the relevant features of the Hebrew language to the issues involved in reading. Instead, the initial discussion of Hebrew in chapter 1 only poorly prepares the reader for the meaty discussion of morphology in chapter 2. The reader is then skillfully guided through the issues and research concerning the psychology of reading Hebrew in chapter 3 and 4, before being thrown back into discussions of the history of the language and its writing system in chapters 5 to 8, all of which are considerably less refined than chapters 3 and 4. Assuming that the historical discussions are relevant to the book's thesis (on this, see below), a better flow would have been achieved by placing all of the chapters dealing with the history and structure of the language first (and combining chapter 1 with chapters 5, 6, and 7). In this way, once the reader was primed for the salient language issues, the subsequent chapters covering the psychological research would have proceeded seamlessly. Since I think that this is a more logical progression, I will comment on the book in these two parts: Hebrew language (chapters 1, 2, 5, 6, 7, 8), and reading Hebrew (chapters 3 and 4).
In terms of the Hebrew language components, I will start by noting with regard to chapter that the reader interested in the history of Hebrew would be better served by consulting one of the resources listed on p. 111; Shimron's discussion is too long to be a summary and not sufficient to be a scholarly overview. Three examples will suffice to illustrate the inaccuracies, or at least unawareness of recent research. First, the assertion that prefix ''va'' in the form ''wayyomer'' is the ''mark for the perfect tense'' (p. 113) is not advocated in any of the leading linguistic theories on the biblical Hebrew verbal system (and note that the representative form is not ''wayomer'' with a single /y/ as Shimron has it). Second, Mishnaic Hebrew did not add the verb ''to be'' to form the present participle (p. 116); although it was used infrequently, this construction already existed in biblical Hebrew. Finally, biblical words ending in /m/ were not ''changed in Mishnaic Hebrew to end in /n/'' (p. 116); the /m/ and /n/ alternation is not consistent with any lexeme, it is specific to the masculine plural inflectional affixes, and it is likely due to influence from Aramaic.
The short history of Hebrew writing conventions in chapter 6 is informative. However, apart from Shimron's observation about the important transition from an abjad to an alphabet with the insertion of the vowel points c. 700 C.E., I am unsure why the rest of the chapter, the histories of the language and its writing system, are relevant to the book's thesis, which addresses native speakers' processes in reading Hebrew. In other words, since the experimental research can only study modern native speakers/readers, strictly speaking it would seem to apply only to such modern readers, whether for modern Hebrew or extrapolated to the readers of other modern languages. If the results can be applied back onto ancient readers, thus justifying the historical discussion, Shimron should have made a case for doing so.
Shimron's defense of literacy in Hebrew against the claims that true literacy only became possible with the Greeks' voweled alphabet (taken over an expanded from the Canaanite abjad) is well-motivated and compelling: I have no doubts that Semitic speakers using an abjad could achieve literacy in every sense of the word. However, Shimron muddles the discussion of what the Hebrew letters represented, i.e., whether ancient Hebrew (that is, Hebrew writing before the insertion of the Tiberian vowel points) was a syllabary, an abjad, or an alphabet. Following Daniels 1990, we should now make a distinction between writing systems that include consonants and vowels (alphabets) and those that represent consonants only (abjads). Ancient Hebrew clearly did not use an alphabet, which leaves us to determine whether it used an abjad or a syllabary. Shimron's argument on this point lacks the appropriate nuance. And in fact, while it is a fascinating question, whether Hebrew used as abjad or syllabary, it is not a necessary component in his critique of the evolutionary approach to writing systems.
On the topic of morphology, Shimron's competence is only occasionally marred by questionable statements, such as the assertion on p. 30 that ''All affixes that play the role of function words may also be expressed by independent function words.'' This is mostly correct, but misses that fact that the Hebrew definite article has no independent form. The presence of such gaffes is unfortunate since not only are they distracting, the information is only questionably pertinent to the book in the first place. Similarly, the last chapter on Hebrew language, addressing the sociology of writing in the cultural of ancient Israel (chapter 8), does not fit well in the book. While it is interesting in its own right, it has little to do with the topic of ''reading'' Hebrew.
In contrast to the Hebrew language sections, the ''psychology of reading Hebrew'' sections (chapters 3 and 4) are excellent. Shimron is clearly in his element as he takes the reader through the various research experiments on Hebrew reading processes. One question I had as I read chapter 3 was concerning the role of the vowel markers, i.e., the so-called matres lectionis (v, y, h, and sometimes ') that are occasionally used to mark vowels. Since these vowel markers are used more often in modern Hebrew than in ancient Hebrew (although still not with great consistency), I wonder whether they play a crucial role in reading, as opposed to the marginal role of the more explicit vowel points. And the only weakness of chapter 4 was occasional lack of explicit or at least clear connections between the word production research that was cited and the central topic of reading processes.
To conclude, Shimron's presentation and analysis of research on the psychology of reading Hebrew exhibit an expert touch in introducing the reader to the general issues of reading processes and the specific issues of reading Hebrew, a language that employs both an abjad and alphabet. It is, though, unfortunate and mildly ironic that the organization of a book on the process or reading disturbs the flow of reading. Finally, the chapters are not tightly bound together by one topic and the weaknesses in the Hebrew language sections serve to highlight the challenge, mentioned by Shimron in his preface, of such a highly interdisciplinary endeavor. Yet, based on the strength of chapters 3 and 4, which again constitute forty percent of the work, I recommend this book to anyone interested in the psychology of reading generally, or of reading Hebrew specifically.
REFERENCES Daniels, Peter. T. 1990. ''Fundamentals of Grammatology.'' Journal of the American Oriental Society 110(4): 727-31.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
Robert Holmstedt is an assistant professor of ancient Hebrew and Northwest Semitic languages. He teaches ancient Hebrew philology and linguistics and is interested in all linguistic aspects of Hebrew and related Semitic languages, whether ancient or modern. His current research focuses on the syntax and pragmatics of ancient Hebrew clausal architecture, primarily from a minimalist perspective.