Sunday, October 11, 2009

Out of sight and out of mind

Time for an interdisciplinary tidbit.

I read about a study an Israeli scientist did with Finnish, American, and Israeli children recently. It dealt with the way language affects thought.

In Hebrew, you find gender in every noun, every adjective, and almost every verb. In English we have a few nouns with obvious gender endings, but it usually only shows up in pronouns. In Finnish (which I know less about), there is no gender for pronouns, and seldom for nouns. The study found that Israeli children universally come to a realisation of gender identity before Americans and Finns. Americans usually figure it out before Finns, but the correlation is not as strong.

That is totally irrelevant to this website. Here's what isn't:

In Hebrew there is one form of past tense. On occasion, they will use a periphrastic construction when they want to emphasise process (ie: 'I went' as opposed to 'I was going'), but this is more a part of the literary idiom, and is somewhat rare in everyday speech. In English, we have about five or six nuances of past tense that are used in every day speech (I went, I have gone, I had gone, I was going, I have been going, I had been going).

The same study found that Israeli tots have much more difficulty remembering chronology, even to the extent that they don't recall very well if something happened yesterday or the day before, or last week.

If you can't figure out what this has to do with our Jewish histories recorded in the Bible, think harder.


  1. I should probably mention that Ancient Hebrew does have consecutive verb forms, that are more specific in terms of chronology. However, these forms are not found often in reported speech (except in the Torah, but still not to the extent that they are used in narrative), and it is generally assumed that they were only used in as a higher register of language by the beginning of the monarchy. In the post exilic writings they are barely used even in writing (and sometimes used incorrectly). By that time, the adverb and the temporal conjunction had won out as more effective means for communicating time and aspect, just as it is today in Hebrew.

  2. Where can this study be found?

  3. I will have to do some checking. I read a simplified summery of the findings that was used as used as text in my modern Hebrew text book (it's a great book, with a lot of interesting texts about the history of Israel, Jewish thought and culture, and some scientific studies as well, but always on a gramatical level that we could understand. Best language textbook I've used by a long shot).

    The childeren in the study were very young. Israeli adults have a reasonable grip on the concept of chronology, as I suppose the authors of the bible did as well, but it is interesting to note how language affects way one thinks, and, at least for me, this seemed fairly illuminating in terms of the differences in our Gospel chronologies, and other anachronisms that crop up from time to time. Not that English writers get their chronology right all the time either.

  4. Also, I'll post the name of the scientist and I'll attempt to find the article as soon as I get my book back (I left it at someone's house by mistake). I have no idea if the article is even in English.

  5. Ok, I looked, and I couldn't find the original article anywhere. The the guy who did it is Professor A. Z. Giora from the University of Haifa. (don't know if those initials are right. It's Aleph Zayin in Hebrew). I couldn't find anything about the research on the internet though. I'll ask at school when the semester starts. I'd like to get a hold of the article too. Not that I'll be able to read it for some months, but hey, waddaya gonna do?


  6. This has litlte to do with this post...

    I'm still thinking about tradition, actually I've been thinking about church tradition for some time now... I think you're probably right about rather giving tradition the benefit of the doubt than some scholar removed from the events by language, culture and some 20 or so centuries.

    But Peter and Paul working together in Rome, I'm just thinking about their differences we see in Galatians and how that seemed to be unresolved in Paul's writing to the Corinthians.

    Of course they might have made up, Paul did accept John Mark in the end...

    I just find it a bit too convenient that both of the "superstar" apostles are said to be "founders" of the church in Rome, the church that later became the centre for the catholic church.
    I'm not saying it's impossible they both went there, Peter did visit Corinth, I'm just saying I find it hard to belive they did it together.

    But... I think you're right to accept tradition with some optimism, I guess the best way to become familiar and comfortable with tradition is to accept all, or nearly all, to begin with, and then later on working your way through it in a more critical way.
    I think you could have chosen a worse denomination...

    from the landice

  7. Peter likes Paul in his second book... If Peter actually wrote Peter's second book...