LINGUIST List 17.2100

Thu Jul 20 2006

Review: Psycholinguistics, Applied linguistics: Shimron (2006)

Editor for this issue: Laura Welcher <>

Directory         1.    Robert Holmstedt, Reading Hebrew

Message 1: Reading Hebrew
Date: 20-Jul-2006
From: Robert Holmstedt <>
Subject: Reading Hebrew

Announced at AUTHOR: Shimron, JosephTITLE: Reading HebrewSUBTITLE: The Language and the Psychology of Reading ItPUBLISHER: Lawrence Erlbaum AssociatesYEAR: 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 onthe cognitive processes involved in reading modern Hebrew. In order toprepare the reader for these discussions, the book includes an introductionto the basic features of the Hebrew writing system and morphology, as wellas the history of the language and its writing conventions. The book isstructured in two ''cycles.'' The first cycle (chapters 1 to 4) presenting abrief introduction to Hebrew and then analysis and synthesis of theexperimental cognitive research on reading Hebrew. The second cycle(chapters 5 to 8) returns to the lengthier treatments of the history ofHebrew 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 chartsof the Hebrew consonants and vowel points.

Chapter 2 consists of Shimron's introduction to the essential features ofHebrew morphology. Here he raises a number of intriguing issues, such asthe restrictions on the sequence of consonants in Semitic roots and whethersuch restrictions suggest a native speaker sensitivity to roots, therebyreflecting the psychological reality of roots. (Note that he takes upreading sensitivity to roots in greater depth in chapter 4.) The remainderof the chapter is an exposition of verbal and nominal morphology using bothnon-concatenative categories (root and vocalic pattern) as well as theconcatenative categories (base and stem).

Chapter 3 contains Shimron's discussion of experiments relating to the roleof vowels signs in Hebrew writing. He starts by noting the ''odd'' feature ofHebrew (and Arabic), that they use two writing conventions: one that fullymarks vowels by a diacritic system and one that does not. This allowsresearchers an ideal situation in which to investigate the role of vowelsin reading. After surveying the experimental research, he concludes forHebrew (but also later suggests that this may be partly true for otherlanguages) that ''although vowels are dispensable, once introduced they seemto serve several purposes: (a) to disambiguate homophones and homographs;(b) to mark the pronunciation of other (typically adjacent) phonemes thatmay be pronounced in different ways; (c) to facilitate the parsing ofsub-lexical elements; and (d) to signify phonological information'' (p. 53).Additionally, Shimron considers whether Hebrew readers process differentlythe two orthographies (the Orthographic Depth Hypothesis), the shalloworthography with vowels and the deep orthography without vowels. Theexperimental research, he concludes, suggests that Hebrew readers do notuse distinct strategies for reading voweled versus unvoweled Hebrew, butthat they use all the strategies simultaneously, and ''it is the availabledata in the print, and the task requirements, that dictates the nature ofthe reading processes'' (p. 66).

Chapter 4 continues the cognitive discussion, but uses Hebrew morphology,specifically the root and vowel pattern nature, to investigate variousmodels of the mental lexicon. The studies surveyed by Shimron stronglysuggest that the root is in fact represented in the mental lexicon of theHebrew speaker, and is involved in word recognition as a sub-lexicalelement. However, once the root and vowel pattern combine, it is theresulting base that is involved in inflection. It is with this distinctionthat Shimron resolves the differences between those who view the root as alinguistic reality and those who do not.

Chapter 5 moves the reader to the second cycle of the book, and thus awayfrom the psychology of reading Hebrew to the history of the language, fromthe pre-biblical period to the revival of modern Hebrew.

Chapter 6 continues the historical orientation, but focuses instead on theorigin and development of the Hebrew writing system.

Chapter 7 shifts from history to consider the viability of literacy inHebrew, and is shaped as a rebuttal of an evolutionary approach to writingsystems and literacy that champion's the addition of vowels to the Greeksystem as the earliest ''real'' literacy. Shimron argues not only thatliteracy is Hebrew is viable, but that the unvoweled Hebrew alphabet isefficient for the root and vowel pattern structure of the language butwould not work nearly as well for a non-root and vowel pattern languagelike Greek.

Finally, chapter 8 is a study of ancient Hebrew texts, particularlybiblical texts, in order to discern early perceptions of literacy and theuse of texts at the earliest stages.


Overall, Shimron weaves carefully through the complex interdisciplinaryissues 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 beglossed 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 thesubsequent assertion that ancient Hebrew teachers were remunerated, isproblematic -- 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'sorganization is so distracting. The decision to arrange the book''cyclically'' prohibits the reader from easily moving from an introductionto the relevant features of the Hebrew language to the issues involved inreading. Instead, the initial discussion of Hebrew in chapter 1 only poorlyprepares the reader for the meaty discussion of morphology in chapter 2.The reader is then skillfully guided through the issues and researchconcerning the psychology of reading Hebrew in chapter 3 and 4, beforebeing thrown back into discussions of the history of the language and itswriting system in chapters 5 to 8, all of which are considerably lessrefined than chapters 3 and 4. Assuming that the historical discussions arerelevant to the book's thesis (on this, see below), a better flow wouldhave been achieved by placing all of the chapters dealing with the historyand structure of the language first (and combining chapter 1 with chapters5, 6, and 7). In this way, once the reader was primed for the salientlanguage issues, the subsequent chapters covering the psychologicalresearch would have proceeded seamlessly. Since I think that this is a morelogical progression, I will comment on the book in these two parts: Hebrewlanguage (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 withregard to chapter that the reader interested in the history of Hebrew wouldbe 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 ascholarly overview. Three examples will suffice to illustrate theinaccuracies, or at least unawareness of recent research. First, theassertion that prefix ''va'' in the form ''wayyomer'' is the ''mark for theperfect tense'' (p. 113) is not advocated in any of the leading linguistictheories on the biblical Hebrew verbal system (and note that therepresentative 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 presentparticiple (p. 116); although it was used infrequently, this constructionalready 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 themasculine plural inflectional affixes, and it is likely due to influencefrom Aramaic.

The short history of Hebrew writing conventions in chapter 6 isinformative. However, apart from Shimron's observation about the importanttransition from an abjad to an alphabet with the insertion of the vowelpoints c. 700 C.E., I am unsure why the rest of the chapter, the historiesof the language and its writing system, are relevant to the book's thesis,which addresses native speakers' processes in reading Hebrew. In otherwords, since the experimental research can only study modern nativespeakers/readers, strictly speaking it would seem to apply only to suchmodern readers, whether for modern Hebrew or extrapolated to the readers ofother modern languages. If the results can be applied back onto ancientreaders, thus justifying the historical discussion, Shimron should havemade a case for doing so.

Shimron's defense of literacy in Hebrew against the claims that trueliteracy only became possible with the Greeks' voweled alphabet (taken overan expanded from the Canaanite abjad) is well-motivated and compelling: Ihave no doubts that Semitic speakers using an abjad could achieve literacyin every sense of the word. However, Shimron muddles the discussion of whatthe Hebrew letters represented, i.e., whether ancient Hebrew (that is,Hebrew writing before the insertion of the Tiberian vowel points) was asyllabary, an abjad, or an alphabet. Following Daniels 1990, we should nowmake a distinction between writing systems that include consonants andvowels (alphabets) and those that represent consonants only (abjads).Ancient Hebrew clearly did not use an alphabet, which leaves us todetermine whether it used an abjad or a syllabary. Shimron's argument onthis point lacks the appropriate nuance. And in fact, while it is afascinating question, whether Hebrew used as abjad or syllabary, it is nota necessary component in his critique of the evolutionary approach towriting systems.

On the topic of morphology, Shimron's competence is only occasionallymarred by questionable statements, such as the assertion on p. 30 that ''Allaffixes that play the role of function words may also be expressed byindependent function words.'' This is mostly correct, but misses that factthat the Hebrew definite article has no independent form. The presence ofsuch gaffes is unfortunate since not only are they distracting, theinformation is only questionably pertinent to the book in the first place.Similarly, the last chapter on Hebrew language, addressing the sociology ofwriting in the cultural of ancient Israel (chapter 8), does not fit well inthe book. While it is interesting in its own right, it has little to dowith the topic of ''reading'' Hebrew.

In contrast to the Hebrew language sections, the ''psychology of readingHebrew'' sections (chapters 3 and 4) are excellent. Shimron is clearly inhis element as he takes the reader through the various research experimentson Hebrew reading processes. One question I had as I read chapter 3 wasconcerning the role of the vowel markers, i.e., the so-called matreslectionis (v, y, h, and sometimes ') that are occasionally used to markvowels. Since these vowel markers are used more often in modern Hebrew thanin ancient Hebrew (although still not with great consistency), I wonderwhether they play a crucial role in reading, as opposed to the marginalrole of the more explicit vowel points. And the only weakness of chapter 4was occasional lack of explicit or at least clear connections between theword production research that was cited and the central topic of readingprocesses.

To conclude, Shimron's presentation and analysis of research on thepsychology of reading Hebrew exhibit an expert touch in introducing thereader to the general issues of reading processes and the specific issuesof reading Hebrew, a language that employs both an abjad and alphabet. Itis, though, unfortunate and mildly ironic that the organization of a bookon the process or reading disturbs the flow of reading. Finally, thechapters are not tightly bound together by one topic and the weaknesses inthe Hebrew language sections serve to highlight the challenge, mentioned byShimron in his preface, of such a highly interdisciplinary endeavor. Yet,based on the strength of chapters 3 and 4, which again constitute fortypercent of the work, I recommend this book to anyone interested in thepsychology of reading generally, or of reading Hebrew specifically.

REFERENCESDaniels, Peter. T. 1990. ''Fundamentals of Grammatology.'' Journal of theAmerican Oriental Society 110(4): 727-31.


Robert Holmstedt is an assistant professor of ancient Hebrew and NorthwestSemitic languages. He teaches ancient Hebrew philology and linguistics andis interested in all linguistic aspects of Hebrew and related Semiticlanguages, whether ancient or modern. His current research focuses on thesyntax and pragmatics of ancient Hebrew clausal architecture, primarilyfrom a minimalist perspective.