Sunday, June 12, 2011

Speaking and Writing

The Aseres Hadibros – which we read on Shavuos – has what is known as a tam ha-elyon (upper cantillation) and what is known as a tam hatachton (lower cantillation). They affect the demarcation of the Aseres Hadibos’ verses and, consequently, the vowelization of their words and the cantillation of the entire running text. The Biur Halacha (494:1) writes that, depending on whether one is following the upper or lower method of conatillation, the demarcation of a verse may or may not coincide with the articulation of a given dibur (or commandment). With the lower method of cantillation, verse structure is independent of dibur articulation. Accordingly, a given dibur may be broken up into several verses (sentences); and, conversely, a single verse may comprise multiple diburim (commandments). By contrast, with the upper method, there is a direct (one-to-one) correspondence between diburim and verses.

The Biur Halacha further explains that tam ha-elyon follows the kesiv (as opposed to the keri). (Note: the kesiv and the keri are both part of the Mesora.) In the kesiv – meaning what is reflected in the way that the Torah is actually written – each dibur constitutes a parsha (demarcated by blank space on either end) in its own right. Look in a sefer Torah, and you will see that even a two word dibur occupies a parsha unto itself, and that, likewise, a relatively long (multi-verse) dibur extends for the full length of a self-contained parsha. According to the Biur Halacha, then, on the level of kesiv, the boundaries of a parsha determine the beginning and end of a verse (and thus how its words are to be vowelized and cantillated). This, then, is why, using tam ha-elyon, each dibur, taken in its entirety, receives expression as an integral verse. On the level of keri, by contrast, verse structure and parsha structure are quite independent. Consequently, diburim and verses follow their separate courses.                        

This is significant, because if we generalize the point and apply it as a principle, it means that the entire system of verses in the Torah holds good only on the level of keri. On the level of kesiv, on the other hand, verses continue until the end of a parsha has been reached.  All the text falling between one parsha and the next counts as one verse. Our whole tradition of parsing the passages of the Torah as we do is due to our adherence to the level of keri. There is one tradition for how to write the Torah (kesiv), and another for how to enunciate the text (keri).


We speak. And we write. In both cases, we use a system of symbolization. In the former case, it is a phonetic system; in the latter, an inscriptional one. Are the two parallel? Or is there an order of priority presiding over them? Might spoken language be prior? In spoken language, sounds serve as symbols. They combine with other sounds and create compounds that have connotations. We hear these symbolic sounds and, also, the larger structures that they form, and we immediately and effortlessly associate them with a meaning.  We apprehend their meaning directly upon hearing them.

More concretely, the constituents of language are words. Words are composed of phonetic sounds. Our language determines which ordered constellation of sounds counts as what word. Then, in writing, we use a system for representing the words we use in speaking. How do we represent, in writing, a spoken word?

There seem to be two possibilities. One is to say that our written words do not represent spoken words as such but, rather their meanings. This is, in effect, to deny that we use writing to represent spoken words. The situation relating spoken and written words is, rather, as follows. A spoken word has meaning; and its written correlate has a corresponding meaning. The two systems are mutually independent: they are not hierarchically arranged with respect to one another. It is rather like having two disparate languages – each using its own linguistic elements to represent a shared collection of meanings.

This is one way of looking at it. At first blush, it is a strange way. It does not account for the fact that there obviously is a systematic relationship between the language we speak and the language we write. Seemingly, our written language would be drastically different if our spoken language were any different from the way it is.  

But there is, it seems, also another of looking at it. It is to say that a written word, unlike a spoken one, does not relate directly to an associated meaning. There is a mediated relation, which works as follows. A written word represents its spoken correlate, which in turn has a meaning. The written word thus comes, indirectly, to acquire that meaning.

This raises the question: how does a written word represent its spoken correlate? Not in an arbitrary way: there is a system. Written words are comprised of elements that are letters. Letters represent sounds – or sound-values. An ordered combination of sounds amounts to the complex sound of some certain (sounded) word. The inscription of this word, consisting of an ordered sequence of letters, where the respective sound-values of these letters map onto the sounds that comprise the corresponding sounded word, thus comes to represent this sounded word. In a more derivative way, the meaning that this enunciated word represents is then appropriated by its written counterpart – which may then be said to represent this meaning, too.

There is a progression here that runs as follows. In the first instance, discrete letters represent distinct phonetic sounds. At one remove, a series of letters represents the complex sound created by combining and sequencing their sound-values. This complex is the sound of a word; so the word comes to be represented by this sequence of written (or inscribed) letters. Finally, at yet another remove, the complex of letters whose respective sound-values combine to represent a phonetic word – these letters create an inscriptional rendition of the word, one that represents the very meaning that the phonetic rendition of this word itself represents. This last is, however, only a derivative accretion to the inscriptional form.

This is so interesting that it’s worth repeating and elaborating upon. Spoken words are built of discrete sounds (a series of phonetic elements). In their written correlates, these discrete sound elements are represented by letters. The individual phonetic sounds of which a word is composed have no representational efficacy.  All they have is combinatorial efficacy, meaning: they may combine to form a word that does have representational efficacy. They also serve to provide something for the component letters of a written word, one with which they are correlated, to latch onto. Each of these phonetic elements is represented by another in the sequence of the word’s component letters. It is the combination of these sound-units in a word that creates something – a symbol – that represents, or correlates with, external meaning.

There is, therefore, a little irony here: the sound-components of a sounded word have no representational efficacy; yet, the letter-components of the written word, used to represent the sounded components of a sounded word, do have representational efficacy. They each, individually represent a sound component in the corresponding spoken word. A correctly formulated series of these sounds represents an entire such spoken word. This is how spoken language comes to generate written language.

But notice, to thus grant that a written word represents is not to go so far as to grant that it (directly) represents what its spoken correlate represents, namely, a meaning. The component letters of a word, taken separately or in combination, have no representational efficacy vis-à-vis external meaning. Its spoken correlate is what it represents. It is the spoken correlate, in turn, that relates directly to a meaning. (We may perhaps say that the written representation of the spoken word indirectly represents the meaning that this spoken word represents.)

The first of these two views treats spoken and written language as being on a par. The second puts spoken language on a pedestal and gives it priority. Written language is seen as at a remove. It is as if, first, there was only the spoken word; and subsequently, the written system of words was encoded to facilitate communication where speaker and hearer are separated, by distance or by time. But even with the introduction of written language, it remains subordinate to spoken language, in that it represents spoken language and not what spoken language itself represents (meanings).

On a third way of looking at it, however, the situation is reversed. The written word is primary. It is composed of certain letters. The combination in question of letters defines this word. The letters are given sound-values. The word thus acquires a sound-form. The spoken word arises – and with it comes the evolution of the spoken language.     

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