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 III.

Part I
Part II
Part III

The next step

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

  • What else could account for why a script runs right to left, not left to right?
  • What else could account for whether a script ignores some vowels?
Here, too, the holeyness of this rabbinic scholarship is apparent.

Alternatives I: Direction from generation to generation

The factors affecting direction are extremely obvious. Yiddish and Ladino kept the direction of Hebrew, the alphabet they adopted. Meroitic kept the direction of the Egyptian writing systems from which it developed. And Thaana, of the muslim Maldives, runs right to left under the influence Arabic. Similarly, languages, like Yimas and Iatmul, that adopt the roman script, preserve its left-to-right direction. The same is true of vertical writing. Chinese passed on its vertical direction to Japanese, Korean, and, most strikingly, to the alphabet of Sogdian, an Iranian language—overriding the direction of its Semitic parent script, Syriac. Sogdian, in turn, passed its verticality on to Manchurian, Mongolian, and Old Uyghur.

Conclusion: writing is conservative. Pretty humdrum, huh?

Apply this thinking to the Sacks’ core cases, Hebrew and Greek.

Hebrew writing grew up in a wholesome, stable household, with a well established family of conventions around it. Preserving the ways of its forefathers, it ran right to left, because, Proto-Sinaitic, the Adam of all alphabets, ran right to left, too. (Sabean swung both ways, but there’s one in every family.) Proto-Sinaitic, which emerged in Middle Egypt, plausibly took its direction from a contemporary Egyptian system. The best known of these, hieroglyphs, had variable direction, both on monuments and in manuscripts. But more user-friendly hieratic robustly ran from right-to-left at the time. This direction was established under Amenemhat III. A learned rabbi might know whether Amenemhat’s culture was left-brained or right. But the conclusion would as irrelevant to Hebrew culture as the directions of English and Chinese are to cultures of the Yimas and the Mongols. In other words, Hebrew’s direction is purely incidental.

Unlike Hebrew, Greek grew up without proper oversight. The Phoenicians, whose alphabet they adopted, were, comparatively, highly literate, with writing in artistic, religious, and economic spheres all reinforcing a uniform direction. The Greeks were all but cut off from this tradition, and what little connection they had would have been overwhelmed by the need for a radical redesign to make the system suitable for Greek. They reshaped letters, added new ones, altered sounds. Absolved of pressure to write in a predetermined direction, they went left to right and right to left (just as precursors of our script did). They even wrote “as the ploughing ox turns” (boustrophedon), going one direction on one line, returning in the other on the next. If regimentation of a single direction was eventually to emerge, there was a coin toss’ chance it would be the same as Phoenician. So, the Greek direction looks coincidental.

The chief rabbi pontificates that the opposing directions of Greek and Hebrew could not be possibly be coincidence. Not only are there no grounds for this wishful thinking, it’s not even clear that the comparison is coherent. Greeks took writing from the Phoenicians. So, if we compare cultures, shouldn’t it be Greek and Phoenician? Phoenician inherited its direction from Proto-Sinaitic, heir, in turn, to the scribes of Amenemhat III. So shouldn’t we compare Greek culture to Egyptian, or Proto-Sinaitic, whatever that is? It makes as much sense to compare Greek with Hebrew, as it does to compare Egyptian with English.

Alternatives II: Vowellessness

The other what-else Sacks should have asked is: What else could explain vowellessness?

Again, once you do your history homework, it’s obvious where to look for an answer. When the Phoenicians passed their writing to the Greeks, the Greeks added vowels. When the Syriacs passed their writing to the Sogdians, the Sogdians added vowels. Similarly for the transfer from Egypt to Meroe, from Hebrew to Yiddish, from Arabic, via Farsi, to Kurdish. There is a common theme here. The donor languages, written without vowels, are Semitic (or, better, Afroasiatic). The recipient languages are anything but: Germanic, Hellenic, Iranian, Romance, or, in the case of Meroitic, an unknown isolate.

The real generalization, then, is that Semites exports consonants, foreigners innovate vowels. Even without the spotting the significance of Semitic as a whole, Sacks should still have asked the simpler question: What else might explain why Hebrew can be written without vowels, is there is something particular about the language, rather than the culture?

Again, the answer is under his very nose.

Consider sentence of vowelless English (“Nglsh”?): Wh lks btng? Obviously, this is Who likes b—ting? But the last word could be baiting, bating, beating, biting, boating, or booting. Once you see ng, you know the vowel of the suffix is i. But that’s all the help the suffix, ng, offers. It doesn’t tell you what’s missing inside the verb, and what’s inside the verb massively changes the meaning.

And that is where Hebrew, and its Semitic relatives, are magnificently different from almost every other language on the planet. In Hebrew, if you know the consonant of the prefix or suffix, you know, to within a small margin of error, the vowels of the entire word. Consider MSPRT, MSXKT, MRKZT. These share the prefix M (like “ing”) and the suffix T (feminine). Together, these make the vowels predictable: mesaperet, mesaxeket, merakezet ((she’s) telling/playing/concentrating).

So, missing a few vowels in Hebrew is nothing like omitting them in English (or Greek, Kurdish, Ladino, Meroitic, Sogdian, or Yiddish). The grammatical structure of the language makes the indication of vowels largely irrelevant. It’s nothing more than English not bothering to indicate how the vowels a and i change from rapid (rapəd) to rapidity (rəpidity).

This grammatical structure is common across the whole of Afroasiatic: not just Hebrew, the whole swathe of languages from Western Sahara, through the Maghreb and Arabia, to easterly Oman, and from Malta down to Ethopia, and beyond. Worryingly for Sacks, this includes languages of traditional enemies of the Israelites, like the Amorites and Assyrians, Canaanites and Egyptians. Does the rabbi wish to suggest that what makes Hebrew so special is shared not just with just any old goyim, but with those in contradistinction to whom the Israelites sought to define themselves, “chosen above all other nations and exalted above all other languages”?

Of Hindenburgs and Titanics

Complacently overlooking the obvious, hubristically disregarding the evidence, and incompetently fabricating answers have long been hallmarks of religious thought. I did not expect them to be so richly abundant (and I’ve barely scratched the surface) in the work of a philosopher-cleric, who aims to connect the new world with the old and to steer path through the hazards of modernity, not just for the faithful, but for modernity itself. How can The Great Partnership fulfil its aim of reconciling science and religion, when it holds such scant respect for evidence and such a low regard for truth? And if this is a flagship, what does it augur of the rest of the industry of intellectually respectable theism?

Optimistically, though, The Great Partnership is a Titanic, not a Hindenburg. Travel by blimp perished with the Hindenburg, but ocean liners lumber on, after Titanic, into the jet age. True to Darwinian principles, religion—the mutating work of man masquerading as immutable word of god—is always adapting. Atheists, nonconformists, and people who are just too busy with the good to bother with a god have always pushed forward the bounds of our humanity. Religion resists, then reticently relents, then suddenly claims the new status quo as being what it meant all along. We need clerics, sympathetic to modernity, who are able to translate moral and intellectual progress into the vocabulary of the religious.

And, though we, the god-free, do not want converting, we would appreciate a coherent theism that eschews gross insult to sense and decency. Partly out of curiosity (it’s nice to know what the neighbours get up to). But mostly because moderate religionists share far more with moderate atheists than they do with fundamentalists and to overplay the difference between atheism and theism is divisive, misguided and wrong.

Those of us who had thought to find this coherent theism in The Great Partnership will be sadly disappointed.

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