[b-hebrew] Hebrew and the Elements of Language

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Thu Aug 23 23:46:21 EDT 2007

Dear James:

I'm sorry, I should have been clearer, my questions were sparked by
chapter five of your paper.

On 8/23/07, JAMES CHRISTIAN READ <JCR128 at student.anglia.ac.uk> wrote:
> 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 now want you to imagine a child that is born with a blank mental state.

Ah, but that picture has been proven false. The newborn child already
has heard the sounds of his household, and knows the voices of his
parents and of whoever else lives in the household.

Further, children are born with the ability to recognize what is a
face already hard wired into them. This raises the question, how much
else is already hard wired into the brain at birth?

I agree with you, however, that the specifics of any particular
language is not hard wired in an infant's brain. The question remains:
is there any aspect of language acquisition that is hard wired, and
can that change upon maturation?

However, could the basic machinery of language be hard wired, namely
that all languages have sentences made up of linguistic elements that
serve the function of noun (subject), adjectives (optional), verb,
adverbs (optional), noun (object, optional), adjectives (optional).
While the specifics of the form (grammar) how those functions are
carried out vary from language to language, yet the function remains?
(We need to be careful here, as context, particularly in spoken
language, may often supply those elements as understood rather than
explicitly stated.)

> ...
> 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.
This was not my question.

The studies that you reference assume that all language learning is
object oriented. But my question, does all language remain object
oriented, or can it change to function oriented? Or in this question,
am I dealing with something that is more cultural than linguistic per

Now I admit that very early language acquisition is object oriented
(mommy, daddy, doggie, sister, brother, table, chair, foot, etc.)
because these are the elements that can be learned without being
linguistically communicated (e.g. pointed to). Likewise, objects
(though usually not the same ones) are usually the first elements
learned in the acquisition of a second language. My question is, can
the primary focus of language change from object oriented to function
oriented, or is this a question that is more psychological and/or
cultural than linguistic?

> 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 you:
> 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
> http://users.ecs.soton.ac.uk/harnad/Papers/Py104/pinker.langacq.html
Brings back memories ...

> 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.
Not necessarily. In many contexts, the missing verb can lead to
frustration and inability to communicate. There are many times where a
child will name an object, but what is important is not so much the
object itself, but what it is doing, and in omitting the verb, the
parent can be mystified why the child brought up the object in the
first place. The same with an incomplete inscription.

But I look at Biblical Hebrew, and see a language that is function
oriented, at least as it is presented in Tanakh.

I mentioned the example of (WP as defined by the function of flying,
not by the form of having wings KNP. In fact, KNP is also used for the
wing of clothing (from the action in clothing that it flaps in the
wind?), so the form/object connected with flying is also used for
non-flying objects and even that could be defined by its action.

> 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.
Again, we usually use the wider context, sometimes a very wide context
(e.g. possible actions in the context) to fill in the blanks. The same
goes with possible objects.

> 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?
But if the object is defined by its behavior (e.g. "creepers",
"flyers", etc. as in Tanakh) then what is more important?

All languages have a combination of objects and actions, the question
is, which is more important, and why? Or is this question more
cultural than linguistic?

I suspect it is more cultural, affecting linguistics, than the other
way around, though there is most likely a certain amount of feedback;
namely the culture affects the language, but then the language
restricts expression to culturally accepted norms.

> KWR: 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.
See above.

> 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.
Or does it?

> 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.
But are there not other cultural/cultic aspects that also come into
play? For example, the worship of Baal was exciting, with sexual
orgies, drink, loud music, feasting, etc. with few restrictions on
personal behavior, while the worship of YHWH was often a fairly quiet,
sober affair with many restrictions on personal behavior. Which would
be more enticing? In fact, there are modern examples of people who
rejected Christianity, not for intellectual reasons, but because
obedience to God would require lifestyle changes that they were not
willing to make (no more hopping from bed to bed, drunkedness, drugs,

But in this you are right: most ancient religions had a visible deity,
an object, while YHWH was a deity who was defined by his actions,
including a recorded history of such. As such, a recorded history of
actions is not always directly visible.

As for the understanding of children, there was an interesting study
(I don't remember who did it, heard about it many years ago) which
showed that even fairly small children can understand abstract ideas.
The one question I remember showed two pictures, one of a bowl of soup
on a table, the other of the sun in the sky. Children, ages four to
ten, were asked "Who put the lunch on the table?" to which they
usually replied "Mommy." When asked about the sun, they usually
answered "God put it there." When the subjects were English children,
the researchers concluded that the influence of Christianity caused
the children to answer that way. So they tried it in Japan which has
no religious tradition of a creator God, and got the same answers.
Surprised and mystified, the researchers announced plans to survey
other cultures/peoples, but I never heard what became of that.

> 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 thoughts? Feelings.
> 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
In teaching Hebrew as a second language, we can make use of a
student's primary language, so we have a little bit of a shortcut.
Even in showing cartoons, we illustrate concepts that can already be
expressed in one's primary language, therefore the only challenge is
to express the same idea in the second language.

The same dynamic is involved with writing, though at least with
writing all that is involved is a different way to express (i.e. a
code) the same language, not a new language.

Getting back to teaching unpointed Biblical Hebrew, the biggest
challenge that I can see is in teaching students to recognize the
different binyanim. In teaching Masoretic Hebrew, we can say "This set
of points define a Qal, and this other set a Piel" and so forth, but
without the points, the difference between the Qal, Piel, even many
Hiphils, Hophals, Niphals, etc. will have to be recognized by their
function in context as their consonantal forms are often identical.
Have you given any thought to this question? How would one teach to
recognize those functions? Have you given any thought to teaching
students to recognize functions?

Yours, Karl W. Randolph.

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