Saturday, July 7, 2012

The Great Partnership, or Titanic meets Iceberg:
Why the chief rabbi’s alphabet soup has god spinning in his grave. Part II.

Part I
Part II

Sacks’ facts I: No vowels?

Let’s start with something utterly basic, that no cleric who uses Hebrew professionally should err on. Is it true that Hebrew writes without vowels?

If so, the words gamal (camel), gmalo (his camel), gmala (her camel), and gmali (my camel)—not to mention gomel (benefactor), gimel (name of a letter), gamul (weaned) and their variants—would be written identically. By the time you’re halfway through Hebrew 101, you know they’re not. True, some vowels are not represented (gamal is just GML). True, the letter that distinguishes, e.g., gmali (GMLY) from gamal (GML) is read elsewhere as a consonant—but if i is a vowel in paid, then y is a vowel in pays, and, likewise, Y is a vowel in GMLY = gmali. But conceding these two points does not alter the core fact: these words are not written identically and this means that Hebrew does represent vowels.

Anyone familiar with the language can guess how Sacks has gone wrong here. Hebrew textbooks, as well as some religious texts and poetry, have orthographic measles: dots above, dots below, dots within, where newspapers, religious scrolls, and airport novels are sleek and minimalist. These dots indicate, amongst other things, vowels. The superficial conclusion: no dots, no vowels. But “some” is not “all”. Sacks has committed an elementary error of logic, and compounded it but failing to think through simplicitudes like “my camel”.

Sacks’ facts II: How we read

Sacks’ assumption that the brain works differently when reading Hebrew versus English script is also somewhat suspect.

As an English speaker, you can read this sentence simply and quickly. Not so for “Contains methylisothiazolinone, lauroamphoacetate, and isobutylparaben”, unless you’re an aficionado of soap bottles. Novel words slow you down precisely because you read them letter by letter. When you read at speed, you recognize whole words in fell swoops.

So, the fact that we write different amounts of pronounceable stuff in Hebrew and English doesn’t mean that, when reading English, we sit there putting the pieces together sound by sound, whereas Hebrew readers soar aloft surveying the big picture.

To make commit this oversight, Sacks had not only to ignore the very obvious facts just pointed out (maybe soap bottles, like wikipedia and omniglot, are off the rabbi’s reading list). He had to ignore a mass of research in neurology, an area about which he makes some to-do.

If Hebrew and English readers really used different hemispheres when reading, the difference would be seen in brain scans. Strange then that Reading in the Brain and like works fail to mention this; or that such differences as there are not hemispheric and look grammatical, not vowel- or direction-based. There is even a study that finds similar brain activation in blind (braille) readers and sighted readers (in the, evidently ill-named, visual word form area). It concludes that brains are task machines, not sensory machines. So, if reading Hebrew and English involved such different tasks as Sacks claims, this should be amply evident.

That Sacks contrived to wash his hands of such an elementary fact check is shocking. One is hard pressed to interpret it as anything other than a cavalier unconcern for evidence and stark disregard for truth, or a simple failure to realise that ideas, like actions, have consequences, for which one is answerable. Is this the great partnership The Great Partnership envisages?

Sacks’ facts III: Vowels vs slwV?

Even if Sacks didn’t run the obvious checks on whether Hebrew is really vowelless, whether realtime reading goes letter by letter, or whether brain scans show activation in opposite hemispheres for aleph-beths versus alphabets, you might expect he would at least have fact checked his banner headline: “no vowels = right to left”.

And you’d be wrong. From right to left and left to right, from western antiquity and eastern modernity, and from languages the rabbi has never heard of to examples that sulk, overlooked and accusatory, beneath his very nose, counterexamples abound to Sacks’ great insight.

The Book of Esther opens with a king who ruled from India to Kush. In the Kingdom of Kush lay the city of Moroe. Its alphabet, Meroitic, was used for some seven centuries, to write both Meroitic and Nubian. Contrary to Sacks’ pronouncement, the script had vowels and ran right to left.

Or consider the official writing system of the Maldives, Thaana. A comparatively recent invention, descended from a secret code of traders, it too runs right to left but represents vowels.

And there are counterexamples far closer to home than Meroe and the Maldives.

Yiddish is a language that no vaguely educated European Jew can be ignorant of. It is Middle High German in kosher aspic. Written in the Hebrew alphabet, it runs, like Hebrew, from right to left. Yet, like German, it represents vowels. Just as the Greeks adopting the Phoenician script coopted for vowels the letters needed only for Phoenician, so Yiddish resurrects א as a, ע as e, י as i (and y, like Hebrew, and English), and so on. The result is a language written with vowels, from right to left.

Ladino, “Judeo-Spanish”, too, is a language no vaguely educated European Jew can be ignorant of. Its writers innovated the same principles as for Yiddish, with Hebrew consonants standing for Spanish vowels. Yet that script too runs left to right.

Equally, voweled scripts have been taken on by languages with little, if any need, to write vowels. In several Sepik languages of Papua New Guinea, vowels are largely predictable. In Yimas, Iatmul, and Kalam, if you know the consonants, most often, you know the vowels. In fact, the world expert on Yimas, Bill Foley, told me years ago that Yimas speakers are frequently inconsistent in whether they represent vowels and if so, where. The peoples of Papua New Guinea lack Greek-like science, so, by Sacks’ criterion, they do not have a right-brained culture. Surely, then, Sacks would expect these speakers to have flipped the roman alphabet, just as Greeks did to Phoenician.

Examples from Papua are perhaps arcane. But it takes little online roaming (wikipedia, omniglot, ancientscripts) to arrive at Meroe and the Maldives. And for a European rabbi to overlook Yiddish and Ladino is inexcusable. If his core claim is disproven by examples ancient and modern, eastern and western, far-flung and familiar, one suspects that he simply didn’t bother to check any facts, or couldn’t imagine that there were any facts worth checking. And Sacks did behold his generalization and, lo, it was good. And he rested. End of story.

The next step

Except that a fact check is never the end of the story. Next comes “what else?”, the search for alternative explanations:

Part III

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