[b-hebrew] Using an unpointed text

Peter Bekins pbekins at fuse.net
Sat Aug 25 12:27:16 EDT 2007

Others have written:

 >>KG: This idea might sound silly, but a person could learn to read  
 >>Hebrew without the vowels like a deaf person learns to read and  
understand a
 >>language without imagining any sounds connected to the words.

 >>You can just see the letters as words, and recognize what the  
words mean
 >>without any sound connected to the letters. If a person wants to read
 >>Biblical Hebrew, and has no plans to speak the language, then he  
or she can
 >>look at the letters without the words representing sounds. The  
meanings of
 >>the words could be understand by each person in his or her own  
language. If
 >>deaf people can do it, then a hearing person could do it, but it  
would feel

 >>Do you have to speak or even hear a language to know how to read a  

 >>JCR: It doesn't sound strange to me. What you say makes
 >>perfect sense. All reading is is the association of
 >>images on a page with cognitively understood concepts
 >>in the brain. The reason why this could sound strange
 >>to some people is because the Hebrew writing system,
 >>like many other writing systems, is a phonetic attempt
 >>at representing meaning.

 >>But if we were to consider pictoral writing systems
 >>like Egyptian hieroglyphics or Mandarin/Cantonese
 >>pictograms as an example then it may be easier for
 >>people to understand the validity of your suggestion.

This is what worries me a little about this "unpointed text" issue. I  
read both pointed and unpointed text, and I completely agree that  
reading unpointed text is an important exercise. However, including  
the previously cited SBL article, the approach to teaching from an  
unpointed text seems to me to be a shortcut to actually reading  
Hebrew. Instead it is a method of direct translation into English  
from Hebrew consonants. I.e., you see DBR, guess from context whether  
it should be a verb or noun, tag it in your brain with some sort of  
meta-language as DBR-noun, and move immediately to "word, thing"  
without ever comprehending "dabar".

Now if you want to argue about how it was actually pronounced, that  
is a different issue, but if you move directly to "word" without ever  
actually using some sort of Hebrew word, however you want to  
pronounce it, then in my opinion you haven't actually read anything,  
you are just doing ad-hoc translation. There are many reasons why  
this is dangerous in practice.

Further, Gelb argued very hard to use the term logogram instead of  
ideogram for describing both cuneiform and heiroglyphics. A symbol  
does not represent an abstract idea, but a specific word. This is  
seem most directly in the use of phonetic complements to explicitly  
mark what word the scribe meant to be read.

Michael O'Connor argued that writing properly belongs to the field of  
Semiotics rather than linguistics, I am not sure if I fully agree but  
I see his point. The relationship between writing and speech is  
difficult to define. However, when we read as native speakers we  
generally read lexically. By this I mean we see a group of letters  
together as a sign representing a single word, we don't move through  
each letter phonetically to sound them out. In this sense, James, I  
think it is entirely proper to make your analogy between a  
heiroglyphic "picture"-sign and a group of Hebrew consonants, however  
in both cases the sign does not represent an abstract idea, but an  
actual word from the language. In this way, written language uses  
different sorts of phonetically based symbols (logograms-syllabic  
signs-"letter"-signs) to leverage spoken language as a means of  

In short, it is my opinion that if you are reading unpointed text,  
but not coming up with some sort of pronunciation, and instead moving  
directly to English, you are not really reading but ad-hoc  
translating. The goal of reading unpointed text is to be able to read  
lexically without being slowed down by moving through all of the  
vowel points phonetically. And of course there are all sorts of  
exceptions and nuances to be made to my distinction between "reading"  
and "ad-hoc translating" so take it as a general statement.

Peter Bekins

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