The Jews invent vowels

The Hebrews took the Phoenician consonantal system and made a seemingly minor improvement.

ancient writing 224 (photo credit: )
ancient writing 224
(photo credit: )
IN THE BEGINNING "Roughly 3,000 years ago, in and around the area we now call Israel, a group of people who may have called themselves ivri, and whom we call variously 'Hebrews,' 'Israelites,' or more colloquially but less accurately 'Jews,' began an experiment in writing that would change the world." That's how I began the remarkable history that links the Jewish people to its historic language and identity. (In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language; NYU Press 2004). As Jews pause in the calendrical cycle to celebrate the Torah, it seems particularly apt to take note of the fascinating story that lies behind this experiment, without which writing would never have become widespread, and without which the world would have no Torah scrolls, books, newspapers or e-mail. The key is the vowels. READING AND WRITING Those of us who read and write take the technology for granted. It was an alphabetic experiment 3,000 years ago in Jerusalem that made widespread literacy possible. Before we look at what happened there, we need to understand the background. There are lots of ways to write words. Three systems that never made it predated the one that finally did. Humankind's first writing system was barely a system at all. Some 6,000 years ago, animal traders drew pictures of their animals with hash marks next to them to indicate quantity. So a tablet might represent "five sheep" with some indication of "5" next to a drawing of a sheep. This seemingly crude technique represented an enormous leap forward, because for the first time people could convey messages over a distance; before this, a merchant who wanted to tell his business partner to expect five sheep had to meet the partner face to face, or rely on a personal go-between. With this improved system, the merchant could send a remote message directly to its recipient. But his message options were severely limited. A second system greatly expanded the inventory of what could get written by introducing hundreds or thousands of "icons" and using them to create more complex messages. These icons were symbolic ways of representing a word with a picture. We still have icons. In modernity, the triangle-over-a-square that we use for "house" or "home" is such an icon. There are no houses that look like that, but we all know what it means. Similarly, even though the familiar heart shape (which we also use for "love") looks nothing like the four-chambered organ, its meaning is clear. The ancient systems of icons offered more complex messages than just "house," "heart" or "love." They even included abstract verbs and adjectives. But literacy was still limited to a professional class of readers and writers called scribes. The Sumerians, as early as the beginning of the 4th millennium BCE, created a third possible way of writing words. They recorded not the meanings of their words, but rather the sounds. The Sumerians devised a few hundred symbols, one for each syllable of their language, and used combinations of these symbols to represent words. This syllabic system was better than the iconic one, both because it was more flexible and because it involved fewer symbols. But literacy was still beyond the reach of the common person. Until the Hebrews, society's progress depended on scribes, for they were the only ones who could read and write. Indeed, a 4,000-year-old Egyptian document shows us the degree to which society valued these mediators of language. "There is no greater calling," it reads, "than to be a scribe." Of course, it was a scribe who wrote that, so we don't know for sure what the rest of society thought. With hindsight, though, we know the scribe was right. But precisely because only scribes could master these three systems - pictures, icons, and syllabic writing - each would eventually give way to a fourth: the alphabet. THE CONSONANTS Sometime during the second millennium BCE, a language commonly called "proto-Canaanite" - that is, "the language that would become Canaanite" - began to be written entirely in consonants. Later, the Phoenicians of southern Lebanon would write similarly. This purely consonantal system cleverly needed only about two-dozen symbols in various combinations to record any word in the language. For example, the common ancient Canaanite word ram, meaning "high/exalted," would be written RM. The word for "god," el, was spelled ?L. (The question mark represents an alef, probably sounding like the glottal stop you hear between the "uh" and the "oh" of the modern "uh-oh.") The plural, gods, (elim) was written ?LM. Anyone could learn the system. Anyone could learn to write. The problem, however, was that without any vowels, many people couldn't read what they had written. The word RM could be read as ram, but also as rama ("height") or even roma ("Rome" - though Rome wouldn't come to be for centuries). So the consonantal system was a huge improvement, but was hard to read because some combinations of letters could be read in too many ways. THE VOWELS Around the time of King David (roughly 1000 BCE), the Hebrews took the Phoenician consonantal system and made a seemingly minor improvement. They used the letter H (which we call a heh) not only as a consonant, but also to represent the vowel A. They used the letter Y (yud) to represent the vowels I and E, and W (now called vav, though back then it probably had a W-sound, not a V-sound) for the vowels O and U. By using letters for both consonants and vowels, the Hebrews created the alphabet. (We should be careful not to confuse these vowel-letters with the "Hebrew vowels" - the dots and dashes in and around letters that have been used for only the past 1,100 years or so.) In ancient Jerusalem, the vowel-letters were generally optional. (American President Andrew Jackson, who opined that, "it's a damn poor mind that can only think of one way to spell a word," would have been proud.) The word for "high" (ram) was still written RM, but if the Hebrews wanted to make it clear that they had the word rama in mind, they could append a heh in its newly invented role as vowel: RMH. And for roma, they could add a vav, too: RWMH. The system still wasn't perfect, but it was enough. Now, for the first time ever, the average person could learn to read and write. It seems that the average person was even expected to become literate. After all, we read in Deuteronomy (quoted daily in Jewish liturgy and to this day affixed in the entranceways to Jewish homes): "Write them on the doorposts of your house, and upon your gates." This presupposes the ability to write and, it would seem, to read. SPREADING LIKE WILDFIRE The Hebrew alphabet - ALEPH, BET, etc... - became a world-wide success. It provided the foundation for the Greek alphabet (ALPHA, BETA....) and Latin too: (A, B...). The Greek alphabet is used to this day in Greece. A variation of it called Cyrillic is used in Eastern Europe for Russian, Serbian, and so forth. Other Eastern European languages, along with the major languages of Western Europe and of the Americas, are written in minor variations of the Latin alphabet. Arabic writing is based on Hebrew, as is the writing of India. And the original Hebrew alphabet from 3,000 years ago, though in a different script ("font"), is used to this day in Israel. Every time the Jerusalem Post is printed, or a prayerbook read, or the Torah chanted, we see the power of the ancient Hebrew system. More than that, almost all the alphabetic writing in the world today - whether in Jerusalem, New York, Moscow, London, Riyadh, Buenos Aires or Mumbai - is the result of the 3,000-year-old Hebrew experiment. (The Korean alphabet is a notable exception; a Korean king woke up one day in the 15th century and invented it. We also have non-alphabetic writing such as Chinese.) The Hebrews gave the world not only writing, but also the world's all-time best-selling book: the Bible. There is hardly a place on earth that has not been touched by it. But there would have been no way to spread and preserve the Bible without writing it down for the masses. And without the vowel letters, the masses would never have been able to read it. (We might contrast the ancient Phoenicians in this regard. While most of us learn about them, few have read any of their books.) In retrospect, we easily recognize the monumental influence of the alphabet, and the vowel letters that made it possible. But we are not the first generation to do so. The inhabitants of Jerusalem themselves seem to have appreciated the incredible power of their newly reinvigorated heh, yud, and vav. THE MAGIC VOWEL LETTERS Genesis 17 tells of a covenant between God and a man, Abram, whose name is spelled ?BRM. (Again, the question mark represents an alef, used for a glottal stop.) The ancient word ?B means "father," and, as we saw, RM means "exalted." ?BRM was the "exalted father," or "tribal elder." When ?BRM enters into a covenant with his God, he gets a heh inserted in the middle of his name: ?BRM becomes ?BRHM. That is, Abram becomes Abraham. Regardless of the historical accuracy or divinity of the story - and here, obviously, well-meaning people disagree - it is clear to all that it is the special heh, one of three letters that completed the alphabet, that gets added to ?BRM to create ?BRHM. His wife, too, gets a heh added to her name: Sarai becomes Sarah. The Hebrews didn't stop there. As we saw above, the ancient Canaanite word for "god" was el, spelled ?L, and the word for "gods," therefore, was elim, spelled in Phoenician ?LM and in Hebrew ?LYM. The Hebrews took this common Canaanite word and added a heh right in the middle to create one of God's names: ?LHYM. In short, the patriarch, matriarch, and deity of the Hebrews all get their names by adding a heh to convert otherwise common words into special ones. The Hebrews used their vowel-letters not just to make writing possible, but to create their most important names. In addition to ?LHYM, we find a second, four-letter name for God, the tetragrammaton (which means "four-letters" in Greek). The four letters are yud, heh, vav, heh. Common pronunciations such as "Yahweh" or "Jehovah" miss the point. What really matters here is the remarkable fact that this name consists entirely of the Hebrews' newly invented vowel letters, each included once, with the particularly special heh repeated. The tetragrammaton is unique in ancient Hebrew, in that its pronunciation seems divorced from its spelling. It also seems to lack any plausible etymology, and is unattested in similar ancient languages. Now we know why. The Hebrews paid homage to the vowel letters that made it possible to spread the Word of God by using those letters to refer to God. IN SUM, the Hebrews modified the Phoenicians' system by using three letters both as consonants and as vowels. They thus gave the world the alphabet. Then they used one of their vowels to create the names of their progenitors and their God. They used a combination of all three letters to create what would become the most important way of writing God's name. The season to celebrate the Torah approaches. As Jews across the world use an ancient invention to revel in an ancient message, it seems fitting to acknowledge the gift that the ancient Hebrews bestowed on civilization. If you read the Torah, or even if you just read this essay, thank an ancient vowel. Dr. Joel M. Hoffman teaches at HUC-JIR in New York, and serves as Resident Scholar at Shaaray Tefila in Bedford Corners, NY. Suggestions for further reading, and more information about his work, can be found on his website: