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Learning About the Vowel Representation in Written Hebrew

Learning About the Vowel Representation in Written Hebrew

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Published by: levinas on Nov 17, 2009
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Written Language & Literacy
: (),
. – / - – © John Benjamins Publishing Company 
e vowel path
Learning about vowel representationin written Hebrew
Dorit Ravid and Sarit Haimowitz
Tel Aviv University 
is study probes Hebrew-speaking children’s knowledge about vowel rep-resentation by diacritics and by vowel letters in emergent literacy stages, andhow this knowledge changes with formal instruction in first grade. Sixteenkindergartners and sixteen first graders were administered two reading tasks,two meta-linguistic explanation tasks, and two writing tasks involving vowelsin different phonological and orthographic constructions and morphologi-cal roles. e results show that kindergartners already have some knowledgeabout writing consonants, and proceed to meaningful reading and writingin first grade through learning about writing vowels. Reading and writingsyllables were easier than word reading and writing in kindergarten, andconverged in first grade. Explaining vowel differences in words was betterthan in syllables, since children made use of the lexical context. Learning torepresent morphemes at word final position by vowel letters emerged gradu-ally in kindergarten, in the following order: H, standing for
, then Wand Y, representing
. e development of vowel letters is shown tobe dependent on a variety of considerations — orthographic, morphological,phonological, and perceptual. ese results are discussed in the context of general theories about the consolidation of spelling.
“No system of writing is ever so perfect as to be able to reproduce the sounds of alanguage in all their various shades, and
Te Writing of the Semites
has one strik-ing fundamental defect, viz. that only the consonants (which indeed form thesubstance of the language) are written as real letters” W. Gesenius (1910, p.5)
is is how Gesenius, a 19th century German scholar of Biblical Hebrew, de-fined the problem that is at the heart of this paper: Representing vowels in
Dorit Ravid and Sarit Haimowitz
the essentially vowelless Hebrew script. e current paper tackles this prob-lem from a psycholinguistic, developmental perspective, focusing on the spe-cial role of vowels in the early stages of learning to read and write in ModernHebrew.In different languages, vowels are more problematic for readers, and par-ticularly for poor readers, than consonants (Frost & Bentin, 1992; Landerl,Wimmer, & Frith, 1997; Purushothama, 1990). Vowel errors constitute a largepart of children’s spelling errors in English (Treiman, 1993), and are motivat-ed by phonological considerations (Ehri, Wilce, & Taylor, 1987). Varnhagen,Boechler, and Steffler (1999) found that English-speaking children progressfrom using phonological ‘best-guess’ strategies to gradually relying on analogi-cal orthographic information in spelling ambiguous vowel phonemes.Recent studies indicate that vowel spelling and reading pose an even moreacute problem to speakers of Hebrew and Arabic, due to the essentially conso-nantal nature of the Semitic script and the secondary morphological functionsof vowels (Ravid, 2005). For example, vowel spelling is acquired later and withmore difficulty than consonant spelling in Hebrew (Ravid & Kubi, 2003; Share& Levin, 1999). e Hebrew vowel letter W
standing for
was shownto have an ambiguous status in the perception of adult readers, and to be eas-ily omitted in certain contexts by literate adults (Ravid & Schiff, 2004; Schiff &Ravid, 2004a). In Arabic too, vowels have been shown to have a special gram-matical and orthographic status and to pose problems for readers (Abu Rabia,1996; 1997; 2001).Vowel marking has broader implications for general processing theoriesbeyond the psycholinguistics of Semitic orthographies. Katz and Frost (2001)adopt the view that reading and spelling interface in their dependence on
 graphemic and phonological information rather than on one to the exclusionof the other. ey propose that spelling knowledge is thus to a certain extent afunction of the readers’ ability to recognize spelling patterns following multipleexposures to these patterns. According to this view, the stability of a single let-ter is a function of the simplicity of the grapheme-phoneme relation: A stablememory trace of a spelling pattern is the result of a simpler link between pho-nology and orthography, which requires less processing before a decision ismade about the phonemic value of the letter. As we are going to show below, vowel marking in Hebrew is unstable, and learning to read and spell Hebrew vowels is particularly difficult because of the instability and under-determina-tion of the grapheme–phoneme link.
e vowel path
Historical sources of Hebrew vowel representation
Hebrew orthography started out as purely consonantal (Coulmas, 1989). In onehistorical change, the letters AHWY (Hebrew
) were assigned additional vocalic values in Mishnaic Hebrew as
matres lectionis
‘mothers of reading’, toindicate vowels between consonant letters in a manner similar to Greek andLatin (Bendavid, 1971). While vowel letters facilitated consonantal reading,this system was not precise and consistent enough. A fuller and more consis-tent system of vowel marking was introduced into Hebrew in the 7th and 8thcenturies CE (Khan, 1997; Rendburg, 1997). is system (known as
, alsocalled vocalization, voweling, punctuation) consists of diacritics placed mainly under (and also above and within) letters.
Modern Hebrew orthography 
Modern Hebrew orthography is mainly consonantal, reflecting its fundamen-tal Semitic root-based underpinnings: 18 of the 22 letters indicate consonantsalone, while the four
matres lectionis
AHWY have a double consonant- vowel function (Coulmas, 1989; Ravid, 2005). Consonants are the more stablepart of the written Hebrew word, since each and every consonant is representedin writing, while vowels are under- and inconsistently represented, especially in word-medial position (see below).
Vowel diacritics in reading and writing 
Modern Hebrew employs two versions of the same orthography, one shallowand transparent, and another — deep and opaque. e full and transparent version is the
orthography, which represents both consonants and vowels. is version provides precise phonological information about the writ-ten Hebrew word. In addition to the full representation of all consonants by all letters, the five vowels
are represented by 9 diacritic
marks,combining to form 13 marks. us each Modern Hebrew vowel has at leasttwo, in some cases three, corresponding written signs.
For a detailed analysisof 
marking and Modern Hebrew vowels, see Ravid (2005). Vocalizedorthography with
marking is restricted to two contexts: (i) initial readingand writing instruction, and consequently texts for novice readers — children’sbooks and texts for new immigrants; (ii) Biblical and poetic texts, where vo-calization ensures precise reading. In addition, vocalization is sometimes usedto disambiguate words and to provide phonological information about foreignwords in standard non-vocalized texts.

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