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Syllabic Orthography & The Speaking Culture


Literate, Professional Israeli Hebrew (IH) – Speaking Adults

Thesis submitted in partial fulfillment

of the requirements for the degree of



Daphna Cohen  Ben Shaul

Submitted to the Senate of Ben-Gurion University

of the Negev




​This study is concerned with how the orthographic characteristics of a given language affect speech. It focuses upon how Israeli Hebrew (IH) orthography affects IH speech. In IH this influence might be particularly strong given that it was revived as a spoken language in the late 19th century out of a written text tradition, having lost most of its currency as a spoken language after the Roman exile of Jews from the land of Israel in the first century A.D. 

This relatively recent approach to the relation of orthography to speech reverses the traditional trend which was primarily concerned with how orthography evolves from speech. There is a growing interest in this reversed focus, stemming from the expansion of literacy and more so following the recent expansive use of electronic platforms for communication such as the internet or the cellular phone. This has resulted in a growing body of research concerned with the bi-directional relation between orthography and speech. I hereby maintain that the consonant syllabic nature Hebrew orthography influences IH speech.

Throughout history Hebrew has had a "deep orthography" stemming from its consonant based morphologic root system, where letters represent consonants with an overall lack of overt vowel signs (except for four consonants that occasionally function linearly as vowel letters -  (ALEF, HEI, VAV, YOD//א/ /ה/ /ו/ /י). Developments and modifications of written Hebrew over time reflect the tension between spoken and written Hebrew that mostly stems from this lack of vowel presentation. In Hebrew’s primarily consonant-based syllabic orthography, the overall lack of vowel presentation has engendered methods to represent these “missing vowels” in order to fill the gap between spoken and written forms of the language. 

The most significant development occurred in the middle Ages when spoken Hebrew risked disappearance, leading to the creation of the Tiberian NIKUD – a notation based upon the additional placement of diacritical points vertically to the consonant letters in order to represent vowels. In such manner, the NIKUD was used to preserve earlier features of spoken Hebrew with a more complex orthographic system and has become the dominant system for vocalizing all Jewish varieties of Hebrew to this day. 

In IH however, this complex post-biblical system of diacritical marks, present at the beginnings of IH’s revival and easing Israeli Jews’ vocalization of the language, was later discarded (save for its specialized use in religious texts, children's book and poetry), with IH orthography reverting to the ancient Hebrew script characterized by its overall vowel-bare consonant-based syllabary. This was probably due to the tendency of language users to fill in the vowels as means towards “minimal effort to achieve maximal communication” (Tobin 1990a, 1990b,1997), so that once the spoken language was revived, there was no need for a complex and cumbersome system of vertically placed vowel diacritics on a more simple primarily consonantal syllabic orthography.. 


I argue in this study that IH’s traditionally based consonant based syllabic orthography historically based on its rich morphological root system, and its overall lack of vowel visualization affects IH speech production. This is found, mostly is in respect of a spoken emphasis on consonants and an attendant diminishing of the length of vowel expression within an utterance. This seems to relate in particular to literate Israelis, for whom IH is a native and all engulfing language (Ornan 2009), the primary language used for all their written and spoken needs. I presume this would not be the case for other Jewish communities for whom Hebrew is not their primary language. Indeed, psycholinguistic research of literate Israelis written in the last two decades indicates that their mind language-templates prime consonants over vowel presentations (Katz & Frost 1992, Frost, 1995, 1998, 2006). 

In light of these assumptions and findings, I conducted a pilot study based on the hypothesis that IH syllabic orthography (IHS) has effects on speech. I focused my research upon Literate Professional Voice Users (LPVU) given that the written text comprises the principal stimulus in their professional speech production, thus distinguishing this group as homogeneous in respect of this study’s dependent variable, namely the primarily consonantal syllabic orthography’s effect on speech production. 

I hypothesized that the primarily consonant-based syllabic nature of IH orthography engenders -- at least for LPVU -- a consonant-emphasized Hebrew diction, diminishing the length of vowel expression within an utterance. Following the encouraging primary results obtained in the pilot study, I conducted a more comprehensive study where I recorded 8 LPVU Israeli native IH speaking adults (teachers, singers, actors) aged 20-55, who were asked to read different orthographic scripts representing the same words and sentences: the common IH syllabic (IHS) orthography with no vowel visualization; IH with vertical diacritical points visualizing vowels (IHD) and reaching full phonemic presentation; IH with linearly added vowel letters approximating full phonemic presentation (IHVL); and HEBRISH script (IH presented in Latin letters enabling full phonemic presentation of all consonants and vowels). In order to reduce the impact of the reading screening process and enhance the effect of stored orthographic templates to approximate free speech, I chose words that are highly frequent in daily speech and whose reading is rapid and automatic. Spectrogram analysis of the recorded material, based upon a comparison of the measured vowel temporal portion within an utterance produced across the different orthographic scripts, shows that there is a significant difference in vowel/consonant ratio between an utterance consisting of visualized vowel letters versus the same utterance having no vowel visualization. Moreover, a comparison of Hebrew written words to their HEBRISH presentation, shows that the more vowel signs are present in the Hebrew orthography of the same specific words, the smaller the difference in vowel/consonant temporal ratio. In a follow-up experiment, based upon recent studies examining latency responses that found the same orthographic effects when reading aloud and in free speech (e.g. Perre et al 2009, Desroches et al 2010), I tested whether the free speech of literate subjects also exhibits the same effects of orthography on the quality of their free speech as those found in my controlled read-aloud experiment. I asked the 8 LPVU subjects that participated in my previous experiment to freely respond to the same questions. I then compared their articulation of IH CVC (Consonant-Vowel-Consonant) stressed syllables written in established IH orthography with or without vowel representation. The findings replicated those of the controlled reading aloud task, namely showing significantly longer vowels in syllables with vowel representation then the pure syllabic ones. These findings, taken together, corroborate my hypothesis that Hebrew’s primarily consonant based syllabic orthography, at least in respect of orthographic vowel visualization or lack thereof, has effects in IH speech production upon the diction of IH speakers.  

The findings of this study supported the findings of psycholinguists in respect to the effects of consonant based Hebrew orthographic mental templates upon speech and reading perception (Frost 1995, 2006). Furthermore, my study supports and expands their findings to include not only speech perception but also speech production. The results obtained indicate that in the automated reading (i.e. template guided) of the established Israeli Hebrew Syllabic script (IHS) with no vowel visualization, the production of speech by highly literate native speakers presents, in terms of the variability of duration in their diction, a vowel-shortened and consonant-emphasized spoken Hebrew. 

The additional research methodology used to corroborate the hypothesis, namely its emphasis upon consonant/vowel temporal ratio in speech production, opens inroads into the study of the influence of orthography on the qualitative aspects of diction such as variability of duration, intensity and pitch. Furthermore, the ways in which the gap between spoken and written forms of IH have been analyzed, can help examine the effects of orthography upon speech in other languages. It would be particularly interesting to examine other syllabic orthographic languages such as those based on logographic syllabary (e.g. Japanese or Korean). Moreover, this approach could also enhance new perspectives on rehabilitation programs in respect of a range of clinical speech pathologies, particularly voice pathologies, various learning disabilities, diction, and fluency, as well as skills developments which are influenced by the bi-directional relation of orthography and speech. 

 Finally, this study may be also beneficial for studying the reactive influence of spoken IH on IH's orthographic depth as evidenced in the adding of vowel letters when writing in electronic platforms for communication such as the internet or the cellular phone. This reactive trend may stem from IH users' wish to disambiguate IH orthography.  


Key words: Israeli Hebrew (IH), Syllabic Orthography, Literate Professional Voice Users (LPVU),Vowel length, Vowel Duration. 

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