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Review of  Reading Hebrew

Reviewer: Robert D. Holmstedt
Book Title: Reading Hebrew
Book Author: Joseph Shimron
Publisher: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates
Linguistic Field(s): Language Documentation
Writing Systems
Subject Language(s): Hebrew
Issue Number: 17.2100

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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

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.

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

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.

Format: Hardback
ISBN: 0805850767
ISBN-13: N/A
Pages: 216
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