[b-hebrew] Basic question on Qal, Piel, and Pual

Trevor Peterson 06PETERSON at cua.edu
Tue Jul 22 12:25:41 EDT 2003

>===== Original Message From waldo slusher <waldoslusher at yahoo.com> =====
>It seems to me that these verb stems have the same
>consonantal FORMS, meaning that in ancient Hebrew (OT
>times), they were the same in FORM (since no vowel
>points were used) but different in FUNCTION. Is that

Depends on what you mean by "form." If you're talking about the writing, the 
answer is that usually they would have looked the same. (And while we're at 
it, you should throw in the Gp (Qal passive), and in prefixal conjugations 
just about everything else at one time or another. But you shouldn't think of 
the writing as the be-all and end-all of the language, not by a long shot. The 
language was spoken by most, read by some, written by few. (That's an 
oversimplification, and I don't want to re-open discussion of literacy, but I 
think generally speaking that we can line up these categories of interaction 
with the language in some relative order.) English orthography doesn't encode 
everything about the language, but how often do we think about it? Just try 
learning French and German, and see which one is easier to learn how to 
pronounce from a written text. The rule of thumb is that you only pronounce 
half of the letters in any French word. In German, you pretty much pronounce 
everything just the way it looks. English seems to fall somewhere in the 
middle, and I'm sure we can all think of examples where foreign speakers would 
get tripped up. Does "read" sound like "red" or "reed?" And here we have a 
functional difference--if you don't know which way it's supposed to be 
pronounced, you also don't know whether it's present or past tense. What kind 
of a silly language would write things so ambiguously? Well, most of the time 
native speakers don't have a problem with this or any number of other 
ambiguities, because when it comes down to it, writing is a mnemonic device. 
We look at the letters, and they remind us of a spoken word we know. If a 
given clump of letters isn't clear enough on its own, usually the context in 
which it appears removes all doubt.

Enough ranting. What is my point? There are at least two: 1) I would think 
twice about trying to learn any language without pronouncing it. Aside from 
classical scholars and people with physical handicaps, almost no one reads a 
language without knowing how to speak it. Certainly, living writing systems 
are not designed for people to do so--they are developed by and for native 
speakers and work because they presume a certain level of oral competence with 
the language. This is especially true of West Semitic writing systems, which 
brings me to my second point. 2) Hebrew, like every other language, has always 
been pronounced with vowels. The meaningful forms of the words from a 
linguistic standpoint include vowels, even if they are not always written. So 
from a linguistic standpoint, the form and function do correspond. That much 
should be allowed, even if we conclude that the relevant formal features are 
not always accessible.

Trevor Peterson

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