After spending the last 15 or so years of my life studying Hebrew, I have to laugh at this point that Walter Ong brings up. It’s true that the everyday Hebrew writing has no vowels and most Israelis would probably laugh at someone if they read or wrote with vowels. None of my Hebrew assignments or papers since elementary school have been written with vowels and the thought of including vowels seems like an unnecessary chore.
Perhaps the lack of vowels is a quality of the language that makes me so attracted to it; when you write and especially when you read in Hebrew, you have to look at the context of a sentence and that tells you how to pronounce a word. Studying Hebrew taught me the value of context for reading and writing and ironically improved my reading comprehension skills in English. In Hebrew, two words might have the same letters, but the vowels above and below the letters change the pronunciation, meaning, and sometimes even the tense of the word. This requires readers to read actively and take the context into account. Reading out loud is especially important because you have to mentally survey the context to figure out the appropriate vowels, while actively pronouncing the words of the sentences. I’m making it sound like a lot of work, but it’s actually a surprisingly natural process. Reading without vowels becomes the norm and I completely forgot about that until reading Ong’s piece.
Reading, writing, and speaking seems so natural and it’s interesting to think about a time where people didn’t have language. If writing, as Plato says, is an artificial process, then what about speaking? Speaking could also be considered a form of technology since it requires a set of “tools.” Communicating through speech requires making sounds and putting thought into some sort of rules and guidelines as means of defining words.