Category Archives: literacy

A Brief Digression on Semitic Languages

Scholars date the origins of Semitic languages to about 3800 BCE. They arose in the broad area of the eastern Mediterranean and northern Africa known as the Levant. The earliest has been identified as Akkadian, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia. The evolving languages eventually produced Aramaic, Phoenician (the precursor of Greek), Arabic, and Hebrew, among others.

There’s a terrible irony in the linguistic closeness of Hebrew and Arabic, despite the ancient antipathy between speakers of the two languages. Here are a couple of relatives:

HEBREW                                                ARABIC
melech–king                                         malik–king
–study, interpretation         madrassa–school
menorah–lamp                                    minaret–tower (call to prayer )
kabbalah–esoteric wisdom               kibla--facing Mecca
rosh–head, first                                    ras--ruler

The revolutionary invention of writing appears to have originated in Mesopotamia (those Sumerians again!), perhaps to keep records. The wedge shaped figures incised on wet clay are known as cuneiform (public domain image).


Unlike Asian written languages, which evolved using images to represent things, Western writing used images to represent sounds. The Phoenician script from which our alphabet is drawn may have borrowed the images from Egyptian hieroglphs. For example, the Egyptian heiroglyph for head–a sketch of a head–may have been abstracted to a backwards P to represent the sound that began Ras, or head. This image by HoremWeb shows a possible route from a heiroglph to Phoenician and onto (in modern forms), Arabic and Hebrew.

Initially, Semitic languages were written without vowels (“adjabic” as distinct from “alphabetic” languages). Words were represented by letters for consonants only. For example, the letters SLM meant (Hebrew Shalom, Arabic Salaam). You might have noted that God’s call to Abraham, Lech Lecha, rendered in premodern Hebrew, uses the same characters for both words.


It’s as if “English words are odd” were written as “NGLSH WRDS R DD”. If you were fairly familiar with the written language, you could probably figure out the actual words and extract meaning.

And this is why the introduction of letters for vowels was revolutionary. Some thinkers associate it with the invention of democracy. Now that the vowels were there, it was easier to sound out the words. Many more people could read.


Sir Ken Robinson on Breaking Down Schools

Ken Robinson is a very witty, pointed thinker, whose major complaint is that education (and by extension, society) is founded on false premises and destroys creativity, self-knowledge, and happiness. This talk, animated by RSAnimate, is a gem.

The Real Way to Get Things Done

A little note in the New York Times today reports that a group of retired military officers, working as Mission: Readiness, considers our national swell toward obesity a national  security threat. More than a quarter of all young people are, simply, too fat to fight.

If the idea that obesity–and the industrial food system that drives it–imperils the national defense, we might actually see some action. Exhibit A is the federal highway system, instituted in the 1950s as a national security measure (people needed a way to escape bombed-out sites–not that the highways were that helpful during an actual emergency such as Hurricane Katrina).

As a nation we are apparently willing to undertake huge, life- and earth-changing measures as part of our national defense. Making obesity a factor in defense is a terrific first step. Now we need the generals to note that an undereducated population is also a threat to national defense.

Reading & Your Mind, Part 1

“The consequences of reading are reciprocal and exponential,” write Anne Cunningham and Keith Stanovich in their remarkable essay, “What Reading Does for the Mind”  (2001).  Reading researchers both, they examine how the volume of reading affects mental capacity, in particular the powerful effect on vocabulary.

It turns out that speech is, in the authors’ words’ “lexically impoverished.” A 1988 study that measured the incidence of rare words found that  conversation between college graduates, no less, typically uses only 17 rare words per thousand. Typical preschool books runs at about 16 rare words per thousand. 

Prime-time tv shows use about 23 rare words per thousand. less than a typical children’s book at  about 31 per thousand. Adult books come in at 53, newspapers at 68. 

No wonder people don’t read newspapers! It’s four times easier to hang out out with friends and three times easier to watch tv. Who has the energy to be an intellectual?