Hebrew Punctuation

seg's picture

Hebrew currently has a system of 8 punctuation marks. mainly, they arent used. even books hardly use punctuation. it's specifily used for making the meaning of a word clear, in case its spelling allows multiple meanings (for example, God and To looks the same without punctuation).
and I have been thinking to myself - maybe there is a place for a simplified punctuation system. i have made sketchs for a system that uses only 3 marks, which are a line [A sound], a dot [I sound], and two dots [E sounds]. (the O sound is has a letter in hebrew.)
so basicly, i choose 3 punctuation marks that are enough to be used today. all the other punctuation marks are variants of those simple sounds. they are learnt in high-school, but after that nobody really pays attention to them.

i can see the pro and cons in such a punctuation system:
* not many people use the current punctuation system, the new one is much more usable and simple. it could be used more then the old system.
* it suits the way we speak hebrew nowadays.
* this has been done before. the current hebrew punctuation system is a simplified system of an even more big system. in the original system, the text looked like a mess, each word was surronded by many marks.

* because 3 punctuation marks will be simplified into one, when someone will punctuate a word with this system, it will look like a punctuation mistake.
* people probably wont like the idea because its a change too big to make.

well. please tell me what you think. im very unsure about it.

hrant's picture

This is very interesting. But any formal reform like this is a monumental task, nearly impossible to carry out in a democracy, due the fossilizing effect of that social system. The Koreans would never have gained their resplendent Hangul -which puts all other scripts of the world to shame- without their dedicated Monarch.

But playing along...
What I would ask is: what benefits does using any punctuation have in Hebrew? Does the potential disambiguation bring any de facto benefit to adult readers? (Learning readers already have the full system.)


seg's picture

i heard you talk about Hangul in some other part of the forum. it sounded incredible indeed. yet this change im proposing is not in that scale. it far less revolutionary then the new alphabet of Wim Crouwel, or the CH glyph in some bauhaus fonts.
thats why i feel it has more potential to survive then those attempts.

well, currently some of the letters are partially used as vowels. the letter Vav for example, sometimes stands for the same sound as V, and sometimes it stands for O. there's nothing that points out its use other then the context it is used in. the word im currently looking at could be read 'reforma' or 'refverma'. i could even go farther when reading this word because there isnt any punctuation to the letters. its like reading the word 'rforma'. the only way to know exactly how to read it is to know the word allready.
this happens in english too, when sometimes words look diffrent then they sound. but here it happens all the time, since we sliced the whole punctuation off the language.
im just not sure thats a good place for a language to be in.

> what benefits does using any punctuation have in Hebrew?
i think it could increase readability.

John Hudson's picture

Punctuation is entirely the wrong term for the nikud points. These are vocalisation marks, i.e. vowels.

You say that the 'current Hebrew punctuation system is a simplified system of an even more big system' and note that in the original system 'the text looked like a mess, each word was surrounded by many marks'. Surely you know that not all of those marks are vocalisation marks, the teamin are cantillation marks used pretty much exclusively for religious texts to assist the cantor during recitation. So the 'simplified system' to which you refer is not really simplified at all: it is the use of vocalisation without cantillation, as has been done for non-religious texts for many centuries.

I'm not saying your idea is without merit, only that you need to be much more sure of your facts before developing the proposal any further. Sadly, many proposals for reforming writing systems come from people who do not adequately understand the existing system.

hrant's picture

> it far less revolutionary

Let me ask: would a reader automatically understand your system, with no "learning"? In a society where a top-down implementation would be nearly impossible, the key is not requiring any active conscious effort. This limits ambitiousness, but at least it's realistic.

> this happens in english too

With the huge difference that English is an Indo-eurpean language, where vowels play a pivotal role, while Hebrew is a Semitic one, where vowels only serve to differentiate between things like "dig" and "digger", which are very rarely confusable in context.

> it could increase readability.

It's possible (although not to the extent of an Indo-european language). I guess the core question is, how often does the absense of points cause a reading stutter in an adult?

> Punctuation is entirely the wrong term

You're right, it's confusing. Although maybe technically it's OK, since "punct" just means "point"!

> many proposals for reforming writing systems come from people who do not adequately understand the existing system.

Very true, and this includes the great majority of people who never acquire even a cursory understanding of how humans actually read, as well as people who have misguided or circumstancial motivation - for example Bradbury Thompson was motived to create his unicase alphabet basically because his son had trouble reading.

On the other hand, I would say that too much reverence for a writing system (including its history) can be a psychological barrier towards improvement. I'm sure the Romans would have hated lowercase (even Cassandre did), even though it's so much more readable than UC.


seg's picture

john - i accept your diagnosis.

seg's picture

btw john--
im not a professional. im 100% an amatuer.
its just an idea though, and im thinking about it. i reckon your opinion and agree. still, i want to talk about it and think about it. ill try not to do any harm with this idea.

>It's possible (although not to the extent of an Indo-european language). I guess the core question is, how often does the absense of points cause a reading stutter in an adult?

well, i know sometimes it hard for me to read text aloud in class. sometimes i confuse one word with another. more often i stop for a split second to think 'how should i read this word'. i know the word but its still alittle stuck on my tongue. this wouldnt have happened with some vocalisation marks. dont you think?

hrant's picture

> more often i stop for a split second

If that's in fact multiplied over the entire population of [adult] Hebrew readers, then this might be worth pursuing.


John Hudson's picture

I encourage you to continue to think about it, but I worry that proposing a solution (replace existing vocalisation with three marks) is jumping the gun. You should never begin with a solution, but always with a thorough analysis of the problem, beginning with the question 'Is there, in fact, a problem?' There are lots of solutions floating around out there looking for a problem. You should try to avoid any prejudgements or hasty conclusions that will impose a teleological programme on your investigation.

hrant's picture

Itay, I was skimming through Taylor & Taylor's "The Psychology of Reading" (which contains a great explanation of Hangul, btw), and there's some stuff on Hebrew. Specifically, there's a reference to a study by D Navon & J Shimron (in issue #20 of the "Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behavior", 1981, pp 97-109) which apparently found that "for adults ... the presence or absence of the vowel signs does not seem to affect the latency for pronunciation". On the other hand, there's certainly a difference between deliberative reading (the case when pronouncing things outloud) versus immersive reading (where vocalization -even silent vocalization- is tangential, and speeds are much higher, fixations much shorter).


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