[b-hebrew] Hebrew and the Elements of Language

Stephen & Rebecca Shead srshead at gmail.com
Thu Aug 23 14:46:52 EDT 2007


I have some reservations about your analysis of languages in general -
similar resevations to Karl's, which I think are important, though I won't
repeat his.

Your description of language development is completely plausible. I don't
think it's too hard to explain, from a cognitive perspective, why children
tend to learn "object" words first - we are, after all, fundamentally
corporeal beings.

However, I'm not convinced by your next logic step, from "how/why they begin
to speak" to generalised value judgments regarding word types. For instance,
in your initial email you said: 

JCR: "My feelings are that languages are object oriented in the sense that
they exist to communicate the interactions between objects (what the subject
is doing/going to do/has done to the object)."

This could equally be rewritten: "Languages are INTERACTION oriented in the
sense that they exist to communicate the interactions between objects".
Prototypical verbs are, essentially, (inter)actions.

And in the subsequent paragraph in your 1st email, I'm not that keen on your
use of the word "merely" - that adjectives are "merely" direct extensions of
the noun, etc. It seems to beg the question, in a subtle way. What if a
particular extension/attribute is precisely what matters, in a particular
communicative event? "No, I said get the BLUE book!" It may be a "mere"
extension of the book, but it's more than "merely" a secondary-importance
word. In this case it's the whole point.

That brings me to my big question: What exactly do you mean by words like
"fundamental", "basic elements", "important", etc.? These words are very
slippery and ambiguous. You might mean (a) that "nouns" (a typological
generalisation for "object word") are necessary for the meaningfulness of
other types of words, or (b) that nouns carry the greater part of the sense
of language utterances, or (c) that nouns are most intimately connected to
our general cognitive natures and abilities, or (d) that nouns are the key
if you want to understand a given literary corpus or worldview - or maybe
something else, or a combination of these. (You implied several in different
parts of your emails.)

Incidentally, though I haven't looked it up again, I remember a helpful
discussion by John Lyons in his book _Linguistic Semantics: An Introduction_
(CUP, 1995) on the problems of ambiguity and imprecision with the use of the
word "basic" in similar linguistic discussions.

And on your nouns vs. verbs example: It's fairly contrived, and equally easy
to contrive a counter-example like the following (with its context):

- "What kind of relationship did you have with your father?"
- "I _____ him intensely."


- "What kind of relationship did you have with your father?"
- "I loved __ intensely."

Stephen Shead
Santiago, Chile

-----Original Message-----
From: JAMES CHRISTIAN READ [mailto:JCR128 at student.anglia.ac.uk] 
Sent: Thursday, 23 August 2007 7:19 AM
To: b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org
Subject: [b-hebrew] Hebrew and the Elements of Language

KWR: Two questions:

1) Does the sequence of learning indicate importance in a mature language,
or can what was learned earlier become overshadowed by later learning?

2) Does frequency = importance, i.e. what is used most commonly is also the
most important, or can there be a hierarchy of value so that a linguistic
element that is used less often yet can trump a linguistic element that is
used more often?

JCR: Very valid questions which deserve well thought out answers. Obviously
I am no expert but I will try my best to give plausible explanations which
fit a workable framework of psycholinguistics and of cognitive psychology.

I want you imagine the human brain as a computational device. However, do
confuse the brain with the inferior devices which sit on our desktops and
are able to process one piece of information at a time (or two if you have a
duo). No, I want you to imagine our brains as a massive network of
reprogrammable circuits (built by connections by neurons) with the ability
to process in parallel. Every stimulus you receive, audible or visual,
provokes the creation of a new circuit. The recreation of that circuit
results in recall. With this massively complex network of reprogrammable
circuits you have the ability not only to build an unlimited database of
cognitive experiences but also the potential ability to recall each and
every one of them by merely stimulating the reformation of the original
circuit associated with original cognitive stimulus.

I now want you to imagine a child that is born with a blank mental state.
The neurons in its brain are not yet aligned into the complex network of a
mature adult with many cognitive experiences and 'memories'. It merely has a
blank slate combined a series of hard wired circuits which make its body
complete its day to day functions and a set of hard wired circuits which
distinguish it as a 'human' baby. This set of hard wired circuits equips the
baby with everything it needs in order to grow into a skilled adult with a
provable record of intelligent achievements, they equip the baby with
'learning algorithms'. The most powerful of which is the starting point in
any learning cycle with starts with zero knowledge, the inductive learning

The inductive learning algorithm is the algorithm which allows an agent to
observe objects and make generalisations. e.g. Baby sees 'Barny', the pet
Barny is dog shaped, has four legs, barks and wags its tail. Baby sees
'Freddy', the neighbours dog which also is dog shaped, has four legs and
barks. Baby makes generalisation that all dog shaped objects have four legs,
bark and wag their tails. Baby, if old enough to understand the word 'Barny'
will probably point to dogs in the park and say 'Barny' because "All dogs
are called Barny, right?".

As this baby travels through life its cognitive circuits are being
constantly stimulated and the blank slate it was born with slowly matures
into a complex network of circuits representing its cognitive experiences. 
However, these circuits are reprogrammable and as the baby matures its
database of dogs and dog associated behaviour matures and is built upon the
foundation of its first experiences with Barny, their pet dog. 
While the hardware for recalling cognitive experiences is reprogrammable
there will always be a trace of first experiences which a more mature
understanding will be built on. So child A whose first experience with Barny
as the lovable playful animal is much more likely to have a positive
database of cognitive dog experiences than child B who was bitten Barny and
viciously barked at the first time they met.

I hope that has partly answered question 1 which is by no means a simple
question and calls into play very deep psychological factors which I have
merely touched upon.

Onto question 2:

What is important to a child is very different (apart from the need to feed
and drink etc.) from what is important to an adult. The high frequency of
the use of names of close relatives and toys used by a child is a strong
indication of what is important to itself just as the high frequency of the
use of the words Yhwh, Isreal, sons of [Isreal], king [of Isreal] is a
strong indication of what was important to the spiritually mature minds of
the prophets and authors of the Hebrew corpus in general. 

On the question of nouns vs' verbs etc. I ask you to consider the following
linguistic dilemma. Imagine you have an ancient inscription to deal with.
The inscription is incomplete but the original read something like:

And Yhwh said to the King...

Which partial inscription would be more meaningful to

a) ...Yhwh...to the King
b) And...said...

Partial inscription a) is the kind of thing you would typically hear a child
say in one of the early phases of linguistic development and can be
meaningful to a mother. For more examples see of child like speech see
section 3 of

I'm not saying that version b) is completely meaningless. A good linguist
with good instincts could extract a lot from it. I'm just saying that the
object oriented quality of languages makes sentence a) prefereable and in a
wider context far easier to understand.

Consider the wider context:

And Yhwh said to the King 'Take the soldiers'

a)...Yhwh...to the King 'Take the soldiers'
b)And ... said ... 'Take the soldiers'

In version a) it is routine to guess the missing verb.
In version b) it is routine to guess the missing somebody said to somebody
but just who remains a complete mystery.

KWR: An example of the first is when first learned, "Pretty is what looks
good", can it later change to "Pretty is as pretty does"? Upon maturation
the verb becomes more important than nouns? 

JCR: It is of course the behaviour of objects that primarily affects our
cognitive understanding and therefore our ultimate opinion of them. But
without a noun to associate behaviour to the actions become meaningless. 
Just what are we to associate the cognitive experiences of behaviour to?

KWP: Or what defines
(WP in Tanakh is not the looks, rather the action, namely these are all
creatures that fly, including locusts and bats?

JCR: Now this is an interesting question. You may be interested in reading
my language acquisition simulation project, http://www.lamie.org/lad-sim.doc
. It touches on psychological research into the stages of development of
categorisation by Rosch et al. In summary, there are three basic types of
object categorisation:

i) Superordinate
ii) Basic
iii) Subordinate 

Taking dogs as an example. The basic category would be 'dogs', the
superordinate category would be 'quadropeds' and a subordinate category
could be 'dalmations'. Children get a grasp of basic categorisation first,
then superordinate and then subordinate.

What you are referring to is a level of superordinate categorisation and my
suspicions are that it is not so much the ability to fly as the possession
of wings that qualifies the object into this superordinate category.

In any case, again, just what will our Hebrews attach the cognitive idea of
flying to if they have no memory of any objects that fly? Everything will
therefore, always reduce to objects (attributes and behaviour) in any spoken
human language.

This brings us onto a point of interest in Hebrew linguistics. The concept
of 'Yhwh'. Very real in the minds of the authors of the Hebrew canon yet the
most abstract of concepts immaginable to the mind of a child.
What is a Yhwh? What shape does it have? What colour is it? Where can I see
one? Given the cognitive nature of the foundation of our understanding it is
easy to see why cognitively driven Isrealites would rather serve a Baal
(which they could touch and see) than a Yhwh which by and large they had to
see and hear with eyes and ears of faith.

Anyway, back onto discussion about reading courses (if you are still
interested). I once saw a small book which made use of cognitive learning
mechanisms by teaching common words by associating them with pictures . The
book progressed into teaching small phrases by associating them with
cartoons with clear interactions between the subject and the object. Any

James Christian Read - BSc Computer Science http://www.lamie.org/hebrew -
thesis1: concept driven machine translation using the Aleppo codex
http://www.lamie.org/lad-sim.doc - thesis2: language acquisition simulation

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