Wrod Prfect

An e-mail is making the rounds these days on the Web, and it reads like this: "Aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at an Elingsh uinervtisy, it deosn't mttaer in what oredr the ltteers in a wrod are, the only iprmoetnt tihng is taht frist and lsat ltteer is at the rghit pclae. The rset can be a toatl mses and you can sitll raed it wouthit porbelm. This is bcuseae we do not raed ervey lteter by it slef but the wrod as a wlohe."

I suppose you managed to decipher the text, based on my assumption that in our e-mail correspondences, fired off in great haste, we do indeed tend to misspell and juxtapose letters, and yet somehow manage to communicate. In Hebrew in general there is another problem to tackle, and it is as yet unclear whether it makes this situation better or worse: Hebrew words are spelled in consonants, and the vowels are represented by dots and dashes under (or over or within) the consonants; the so-called Tiberian system of marking the vowels that is used today dates back to the eighth century C.E. The four Hebrew letters aleph, heh, vav and yud may represent more than one vowel each. Faced with a text lacking vowels (which is typical of most printed matter for adults), the skilled Hebrew reader knows how to fill in the gaps, based on his or her reading experience and the context - the letters in the word, the word in the sentence and so on.

The Israeli education system (and, for that matter, many other such systems all over the world) does not really know how to produce skilled readers. According to a 1996 survey, 49 percent of pupils in the eighth grade can't read fluently. Heads did not roll, but committees were convened and the Education Ministry decided to renounce the "language as a whole" approach (the one that helps us read garbled texts, as mentioned above) in the teaching of reading. The "language as a whole" idea was brought here from the United States, but even there they already understood that you don't see the trees in a forest as a whole. So now they teach reading in Israeli schools using elements of the trusty phonetic system.

Joseph Shimron, a professor of cognitive psychology at the University of Haifa, published a book in Hebrew entitled "The Psychology of Reading and Understanding the Text" (1989), from which one can gather that there is something to the claim with which I started: Generally speaking, we gather meanings from a text based on its contexts, and this is an inductive process progressing from the whole down to the parts, involving utilization of our memory and of phonetics - the sounds of the words and the letters as we know them.

Letter perfect

This brings me to an American ritual, the Annual Scripps Howard National Spelling Bee. This is a competition aimed at fourth- to eighth-graders, which was started by a local paper in 1925 and is still going strong: 250 young contestants reach the finals in Washington, D.C., following a grueling elimination process starting at the school level (and then moving on to the town, district, county and state levels).

The contestants are supposed to spell a particular word after it is said out loud by the official spelling-bee pronouncer. This is a somewhat daunting task, given the quirkiness of English spelling. France has something like this, too, and TV personality Bernard Pivot of "Apostrophes" fame is a high priest of spelling in that country. The Israeli education system, alas, does not attach such an importance to spelling, and that could be one of the reasons why so many young Israelis cannot read properly, let alone write without spelling mistakes.

Spelling bee lore forms the background of a beautiful first novel by Myla Goldberg ("Bee Season," Anchor Books), recently published in Hebrew by Yedioth Ahronoth publishers. Its protagonist, 9-year-old Eliza, is endowed with a rare talent, incommensurate with all her other, rather meager, academic skills: She has an innate knack for spelling. When she hears a word, she just sees the letters in the correct order in her mind's eye.

This brings her the much-sought-after attention of her father Saul (who was born Solomon Newman to a Jewish secular family, but when he decided to became a sort of "Orthodox hippie cantor," he changed his name to Saul Neumann). Saul, who becomes his daughter's "spelling trainer," devoting all his spare time to her, now neglects his teenage son Aaron, who once thought of becoming a rabbi, but is now seeking the meaning of life at the local Hari Krishna branch. Meanwhile, the mother Miriam (all the first names are symbolic - "Miriam" and "Aaron" being the siblings of Moses, both of them somewhat marginalized, as was "Saul," with "Eliza" hinting of course at the Dolittle girl) is slowly losing her mind.

Saul decides to help Eliza to reach the spelling bee finals by making her acquainted with the writings of Abraham Abulafia, the 13th-century kabbalist. Abulafia devised ways of using permutations of letters in order, as it were, to divorce the language from its everyday, routine meanings and to pave the way for the soul, through the sounds of the letters, to attain higher, even divine, meaning. As Saul explains to Eliza, who does not understand Hebrew: "Consonants are the backbone of language. They give words their shape. But consonants alone are useless. They require vowels to give them dimension. An `h' alone is barely audible, but paired with a vowel, it comes to life."

He adds: "Abulafia uses language play as a way to clear the mind ... His methods are primarily a kind of Jewish yoga, a way to relax ... While anyone can follow Abulafia's instructions for permutation and chanting, very few can use them to achieve transcendence." Which connects "spelling" with "casting a spell," both from the same root word "spel," or "say aloud" in Proto-Indian-European. Aaron's way of achieving deeper meaning while chanting the words "Hari Krishna" is not so far from this.

As the letters are supposedly coming to life for Eliza to lead her to win the finals of the national spelling bee, the family, a word full of meanings, disintegrates into a group of unconnected, lost, individuals (just as letters are merely sounds without meaning). At the end of the novel, Eliza decides to renounce her innate talent for spelling in order to assert her own private, emerging personality.

And the spelling bee keeps on buzzing: be ... be ...