Why should anyone care about this topic?
One of the more difficult aspects of mastering Semitic literature is the simple fact that most original Semitic writing systems encode only the consonantal sounds. Vowels were an afterthought and often entirely unrecognized in writing. How to explain to beginning Classical Hebrew students that they could overcome this quirk of the written language?
One day I had one of those little epiphanies that often spell the difference between success or failure in communicating a critical concept. For some reason I recalled sitting on a New York City subway car looking at the ads posted opposite. One of those ads always tickled me–it said something to the effect “”F Y’ CN RD THS Y’ CN LRN STNGRPHY!” I worked this into my very first lesson where we introduce the 22 consonants that compose the Hebrew aleph-bet, adjusting the phrase to “‘F Y’ CN RD THS Y’ CN RD BBLCL HBRW!”
Purists can find all sorts of things to fault in this lesson, but I contend that not only is it good enough, it can be an excellent tool for explaining a number of difficult topics in the study of both Hebrew and English orthography.
First a note on what Pete Seeger calls “scholargok.” Why did I use the word orthography rather than the more readily understandable term spelling? The answer is that in a discussion of writing systems I think it is important to realize that there are more clues to reading a word, phrase or sentence than just the consonants and vowels. In English and most modern languages there are a variety of accent marks, punctuation signs and other indicators for the proper pronunciation and interpretation of the words. When we speak, we provide many of these indicators by the way we pronounce the words, where we put the stress (accent) on the word and the pauses between words and phrases. The term orthography encompasses all these signs and indicators. It means “the way we write a language.”
My goal is to clarify rather than confuse, so I’ll make an effort to explain any technical terms (aka scholargok) I use. Please let me know via the communication tools provided at the end of this article if there’s anything you think needed more clarity or better explanation.
The original NorthWest Semitic writing system
Unvoweled, no word separation, bidirectional
The essence of the issues discussed here go back about 3000 or even more years as several civilizations grappled with creating writing systems. Many great civilizations focused their efforts on pictures to communicate, and these famously include Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese characters along with lesser known systems from the Hittites and the Americas. Of these, as far as I know, only the Chinese system continues in widespread use.
About the same time that Egyptian hieroglyphics flowered, the ancient civilization of Sumer took a different approach. Scribes there created symbols for sounds rather than pictures and these symbols became the earliest form of sonically (the preferred term is phonetically) representing a language. This is an important issue so it’s worth taking some time to explain. Consider trying to convey the idea of a house. It is pretty easy to make a simple drawing that looks like a house. The advantage of a pictographic symbol is that one doesn’t really need to know the language at all! The ancient Egyptian drew a house and presumably pronounced the word in Egyptian which means house. But an American would say the word house. A Spanish speaking person would look at the symbol and pronounce it casa. A German would say Haus.
In the Sumerian system, the symbols would not look anything like a house. Instead, there would be one symbol for the initial sound of the word and then another symbol for each new syllable.
You might imagine that picture systems could be more universal, but the inventors soon realized that a large portion of human thought cannot easily be rendered into pictures. So they began to add symbols and signs that represented abstract ideas or instructed the reader that the next sign was of a certain nature. This added great complexity to picture systems and while some systems have survived the long term, the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples have adopted phonetic systems.
The Sumerian system was transmitted to the people who followed them in Babylonia, the Akkadians. The wedge shaped symbols they developed have been given the name cuneiform by modern scholars.
Although cuneiform is easier to learn than hieroglyphics, it is still quite complex. The symbols represented syllables. So there is one sign for “ka” and another for “ko” and another for “kee”–the total runs to about 1000 signs (more or less, depending on the particular cuneiform system being studied).
At some point, perhaps a thousand or so years later than the origin of hieroglyphics and cuneiform, we find the first signs of alphabetic writing in the Near East. The Hebrews were among the first peoples to adopt an alphabet.
The advantage of the alphabet is that it reduces the number of signs that a student has to learn to a manageable few. The ancient Semitic alphabets contain about 22 letters which adequately cover each of the consonantal sounds used in languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic.
The creators of the alphabetic system did not seem to have any notion that the vowel sounds need to be represented. Those could be deduced from the consonants of a word. As we saw above, especially in context, the signs BBLCL will easily be deciphered to Biblical by most readers adept at English reading and writing.
Indeed, the earliest records of Semitic alphabetic writing shows that initially the scribes had not yet developed a number of concepts that would later be added to the orthography of their language. For example, that a space between words would enhance readability. Or even that the direction of writing was important–we have a number of inscriptions that begin in one direction (say right to left) and then just continue on the next line in the opposite direction!
The Evolution of the Semitic Writing System
Migration from Proto-Hebrew to the Aramaic square forms
One fact that usually surprises my first year students is that the alphabet that they have always associated with Hebrew and the alphabet in use today in Torah scrolls, Bibles and the latest edition of Israel’s newspapers was not originally a Hebrew alphabet at all!
The original Hebrew alphabet which must have been used to record our Hebrew Bible is found in inscriptions dating as early as the tenth century BCE. Among the most famous of these is the inscription that was found on Hezekiah’s water tunnel which was dug to provide water to the city during the Assyrian siege in the era when the prophet Isaiah was proclaiming his prophesies.
The words of Hezekiah’s engineers are inscribed in the original Hebrew alphabet sometimes (incorrectly) described as “proto Hebrew”. These shapes are related to today’s forms, but the relationship is so distant no one could be expected to read original Hebrew without significant study. Indeed, the first letter (aleph) in original Hebrew looks far more like the English letter A than it does the current form of the aleph!
So if this ancient alphabet of our Biblical ancestors is not the alphabet we use today, then where did the alphabet we use today come from? The answer is very simple: Babylonia.
The alphabetic writing system was used throughout the coastal regions of Israel and Lebanon most famously at the city of Byblos (in modern Lebanon) which provided the name of our scriptures in English: the Bible. The alphabetic system was also used to the north and the east spreading through the areas we call Syria, Iraq and Iran today.
Among the adopters of the alphabet in these lands were many who spoke a Semitic language called Aramaic. Aramaic has some similarity in structure and vocabulary to Hebrew, but it is a clearly distinct language–no Hebrew speaker can understand Aramaic without significant study and vice versa. Although the people of the dominant culture of Babylon in the fifth century BCE spoke Babylonian (an eastern Semitic language related to the ancient Akkadian), Aramaic was so widely spoken that it was acceptable in much of the Babylonian ruled territory.
Speakers of Aramaic had adopted the original Canaanite signs also used by the Hebrews but gradually changed them into the characters that are essentially identical to the alphabetic forms in use for Hebrew to this day. When the Babylonians conquered Israel (circa 586 BCE) and many Jews were either deported or voluntarily migrated east to Babylon, they shed their original Hebrew alphabet and began writing their language using the Aramaic forms. They also, of course, began speaking Aramaic as their primary language. Judging by the later books of the Bible, for the most part they continued writing their stories in Hebrew, but here and there Aramaic began to intrude. One of the latest of our Biblical books, Daniel, was composed in both Hebrew and Aramaic with Aramaic representing about half the book.
In the days of Ezra the Scribe (circa 450 BCE), Jews began returning in large numbers to their homeland. Many of them spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew and most if not all of them wrote Hebrew using Aramaic letters. That Aramaic alphabet has been retained by Jews for 2500 years. One of the interesting ironies of this is that the Aramaeans went on to further morph their alphabet to the point where it no longer bears any significant resemblance to their original forms. So Hebrew speakers today use Aramaic letters which Aramaic speakers cannot read without being taught. And no one uses the original Hebrew alphabet.
First Stirrings of Vowels in the Ancient Period
One of the most common errors in common circulation is that the Hebrew of the Bible was written entirely without vowels. Over the course of time, Hebrew orthography has consistently moved towards greater degrees of vowel expression. What do I mean by this?
It appears that in the most ancient period–the oldest inscriptions (writing carved into stone monuments) and ostraka (potsherds which were used as a sort of notepad) words were written almost entirely without vowels. But already by the time of our oldest Biblical literature, scribes had begun to use some of the 22 consonants for additional duty–to represent vowel sounds as well as consonants.
The four consonants which developed into vowel signs are the aleph, heh, vav (originally waw) and yod (א ה ו י). Many people call this group of letters “ah-hoo-ee” after a common way to pronounce the letters, but I’m sure there are other candidates. The important point is that while originally the yod, for example, was pronounced “y” as in yellow, the Scribes noticed that in some words the pronunciation morphed to “ee” and they began to use it that way even if the word did not originally have a yod.
Grammarians sometimes refer to these four letters as the matres lectionis. This is a Latin term which means “the mothers of pronunciation.” Although the term is perhaps a little obscure for beginning students, the intent is: these letters are critical for the successful pronunciation of a word.
The easiest way for most speakers of English to understand this is to compare a similar phenomenon in our own language. Think about that letter “y” in English. When it is found at the beginning of a word or a syllable, it has the consonantal sound of the “y”. For example, as we just saw above, yellow. Also: you. How about Yo-Yo? But when the “y” is found at the end of a word, it is rarely pronounced as a consonant. Think about the word very. You could write it as “veree” and pronounce it correctly. This explains why many American school kids learn a little ditty that goes something like “The vowels are a, e, I, o, u and sometimes y.”
Another Hebrew letter with similar development to an English vowel sign is the vav. In Biblical times (and considerably afterward depending on the location of the speaker) this consonant was actually pronounced like the English letter “w”. And just like the w it sometimes morphs into a vowel. For example, the w is a consonant in water. It is a consonant in winter. But what is its function in below? Or yellow? Most English teachers try to simplify things by telling us that the w in these words is “silent.” But that’s not really the case. The truth is that the w is part of the vowel combination ow. As is so often the case in English, there isn’t even a single pronunciation for this combination. While it is like the o in hole for below and yellow, notice that it has a very different sound in the words now or how.
Something similar happened with the Biblical Hebrew pronunciation of the vav (or more accurately, the waw, pronounced like the English word “Wow!”). The correct pronunciation of the ubiquitous word in Hebrew that translates as “and” is w’. The apostrophe means just a slight little slurred e sound. For example, the Biblical Hebrew word וְשָׁנִֽים should be pronounced w’shanim. In modern Hebrew, the waw has morphed to vav and this word is pronounced v’shanim. But the important point is that the symbol is a consonant in these examples, not a vowel.
Just above we saw that in English we often find the w in combination with a vowel so that you might say that the w can sometimes be a good marker for the sounds o as in hole and u as in roof. I realize that this can be a difficult concept to grasp, so let me try one more angle. Think about the following series of words: below, snow, crow, low. In every case you could say that the w is silent. But what if English never invented the sign o? These words might be written like this: : belw, snw, crw, lw. Then, you could be taught as part of your English reading class “When a word ends in w the w is pronounced” (and the teacher would then say the vowel o out loud). See how the consonant w could evolve into the vowel o? This is exactly what happened in Hebrew. Sometimes the vav retains its consonantal pronunciation (which was originally w as in water but is now v as in very). But more often than not, it will be read by the Hebrew speaker as either o as in hole or u as in rule.
And so it was that these four “ah-hoo-ee” letters began to be used by scribes to spell out the vowels of words where no vowel had been used before. Let’s look at a concrete example of this!
In Genesis 7:21 we find the Hebrew participle הָֽרֹמֵ֣שׂ pronounced ha-ro-meis. This word means “crawls” and is part of the phrase “every flesh (kind of animal) that crawls on the earth.” Notice that the vowel “o” is not reflected in the consonants–we’ll talk about the Masoretic diacritical signs soon, but if you did not know these vowel pointers, you would have to guess at the vowel. This is clearly the way that Biblical Hebrew was conventionally spelled in its earliest period. But in Genesis 1:30, we find the very same word written as רוֹמֵ֣שׂ. It is pronounced exactly the same, but in this case we have the vowel marker waw (the second letter in the word reading from right to left).
The point is that very early in the history of the Hebrew language, scribes recognized that readers could use some help with vowels, and they developed systems to hint at those vowels. Notice that even in the same book, and not very far from one another, a given word could be spelled both ways, with or without the vowel letter helper.
This does raise an important issue for Jewish theology, by the way. As you can see, Biblical spelling not only could be, but often was, flexible and therefore inconsistent. This created problems for later scribes who were trying to preserve the text with fidelity and also religious teachers who tried to base parts of their theology either on spelling points or numerical equivalents of the letters.
As time went on, scribes increased their reliance on these vowel letters so that it became normal for any word with the vowel “ee” to be written with a yod regardless of whether that was the more traditional spelling–and this often did violence to the etymology of the word. In Modern Hebrew, in addition to the yod and waw (vav), the aleph and heh and many punctuation signs are used to aid the reader in pronouncing the written text.
Today, grammarians refer to the more laconic Biblical style of writing as k’tiv haser which means “writing that lacks (vowels).” Spelling that includes a generous sprinkling of the vowel letters (a-hoo-ee) is called k’tiv malei which means “full writing.” From our study here you should understand that to truly see k’tiv haser you would need to examine extra-Biblical ancient writing. Although Biblical Hebrew is far less “full” than later Hebrew, there will likely be examples of vowel-letters in just about any verse taken from any Biblical source over the 1000 year history of Biblical writing.
Modern Hebrew did not stop with extending the use of the matres lectionis. Most books and newspapers in Israel feature a variety of diacritical marks that help readers figure out how to pronounce words–especially those of non-Hebrew origin. For example you might see the symbol gimel (always a hard “g” in Modern Hebrew) spelled like this: ‘ג. To the Modern Hebrew reader, this helps to indicate that the word should be pronounced with the soft “g”–one example from my time in Israel struggling to read the newspaper should suffice: קיסינג’ר indicated (Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger. Notice that both of the letters “I” are written with yods in addition to the apostrophe that tells you to pronounce the “g” as in “giraffe.”
To summarize: In the most ancient period of Hebrew, scribes wrote with a purely consonantal spelling system. Vowels were rarely, if ever, indicated. In the early Biblical period, scribes began to use a few letters that originally had purely consonantal pronunciation to spell out the vowels in a word. This practice became increasingly popular. In the period of Middle Hebrew (the long period from the close of Biblical Hebrew to the dawn of the modern language), writers sprinkled the a-hoo-ee letters more and more liberally through their writings. Modern Hebrew not only uses this convention, but adds other symbols drawn from European languages to indicate pronunciation, especially in loan words and foreign names.
The Masoretes: Perfecting vocalization over many centuries
The study of the history of Biblical manuscripts is hobbled by the absence of evidence over a period of about a thousand years. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), which contained fragments of every Old Testament book except Esther, we have an excellent view of how at least one (and probably several) group of scribes was writing and preserving the Biblical text. Most of the texts closely resemble either the form of the Bible we have preserved in the Hebrew (Masoretic) tradition, or the version which was preserved in the Greek translation of the Bible (Septuagint, often abbreviated as LXX). Of course we can only settle issues of spelling with the Hebrew text, so we have to limit this particular discussion to those passages which closely parallel our Hebrew text (usually referred to as the Masoretic text for reasons I will provide below).
When we next see a Hebrew manuscript of the Bible, about a thousand years have elapsed. At some point in the early middle ages, Hebrew scribes began writing the text in books instead of scrolls. We assume that the text of many Hebrew books (especially the first five books called the Torah and several smaller books that were used liturgically) continued to be written in the form of scrolls, but none of these has survived–the oldest scrolls we have today are centuries more recent than the oldest codices. The oldest Torah scroll is believed to date from about 1400 CE. Bibles found in book form are termed by scholars codices (singular: codex). The oldest of the Biblical codices date to around the tenth century CE (meaning, between 900 and 1000 CE). This means that the oldest books (codices) of the Torah predate the oldest scroll by over 500 years!
At Least Three Complete Systems
Students today learn Hebrew via a unified standard of pronunciation symbols. I’ll explain the nature of these symbols shortly, but for now I want to stress that in the early Middle Ages we know of three different systems of vocalization (the term we apply to the pronunciation symbols that help us sound out or vocalize the words).
The system we use today, which consists of signs placed above, below and even in the middle of the pre-existing consonantal text is called the Tiberian system and was widely adopted by Jews in the Land of Israel and in the West. In the East, the Babylonian Jews seem to have preferred a system in which vowel signs were written exclusively above the pre-existing consonants.
Finally, a third system is represented primarily by a few fragments found in the Cairo Geniza. We know very little about this system, but some scholars refer to it as the Palestinian vocalization system.
The reason it is important to note that these symbols were added to the pre-existing text is because the text itself was regarded as sacred. After the Hebrew Bible went through a process of canonization, that is, setting a standard form for the text, no additional letters could be inserted into that text or removed from it. These three systems all allowed readers to clearly distinguish the canonical text from the pronunciation marks.
The Masoretes expand on the earlier vocalization system
We term the people who lavished their time on these system the Masoretes. The name comes from the Hebrew word masar which means to transmit. The Masoretes are those people who were committed to the accurate transmission of the Hebrew Bible. They not only developed the vowel signs, but also most of the punctuation and chanting (musical) symbols. When a person learns the complete set of Masoretic symbols, they have the keys to the accurate pronunciation of the word, the location of the stress, and even the musical rendition of the word.
This does not mean that everyone now pronounces all the words in every Biblical book the same way. Note that I mentioned that there were three complete systems in circulation at one time. It is clear from looking at texts in these three systems that the words were being pronounced and chanted a little differently in each system. In addition, there were regional differences of pronunciation throughout Jewish history.
The mere fact that the written symbols might not have agreed with the way that a given region pronounced their texts does not mean that people were inclined to change their traditional pronunciations. For example, the Tiberian Masoretes clearly pronounced the vowel qamatz (the vowel under the aleph): אָ differently from the patah: אַ –otherwise, why write them differently? But in Israel today, most people pronounce both symbols the same: a as in father. This is the tradition of Spanish Jewish population and seems to be consistent with the symbols in the Babylonian system.
The Jews we call Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) clearly distinguish the two sounds. And interestingly enough, the Yemeni Jews–the population among the most distant from Ashkenaz–agree with them. So whatever the signs originally meant, we can no longer be certain that we are pronouncing the words in the ways that a specific group of Masoretes may have intended.
Modern Hebrew: fully vocalized without Masoretic signs
But we are far from finished with the development of the Hebrew written language! The diacritical signs that we have been discussing are used today in Bibles, poetry and dictionaries but not in newspapers, novels, and general writing. But Modern Hebrew is hardly written in k’tiv haser (the form of writing we discussed above in which there is little or no indication of vowel sounds).
I hope you haven’t forgotten the matres lectionis. These “mothers of pronunciation” (also called the a-hoo-ee letters) were introduced already by Biblical scribes to help readers narrow down the choices conceivable for a given set of letters. Modern Hebrew typesetters simply expanded on a practice already common in the Classical era. They inserted the letter yod for almost every ee sound, and the letter vav for either the vowels o or u.
Modern typesetters can also use a variety of symbols to help readers with sounds that are not used in Modern Hebrew. For example, the g of George can be written in an Israeli newspaper: ‘ג. The small stroke after the gimel tells the reader that this is not the Hebrew hard g sound.
So this makes it all a lot easier for a student to figure out a mysterious word like “Secretary of State Henry Kissinger” which becomes קיסינג’ר — still not a walk in the park for a beginner, but far easier to determine than קסנגר.
The critical point to understand here is that Modern Hebrew is not “unvocalized” (written without vowels). It is not as easy to pronounce as many highly phonetic alphabets (Greek, Latin, Spanish and most Romance derivatives), but it quite a bit easier to learn than–just for example–English. That is the subject of the next language history lesson.
Meanwhile, Back in the West
The Greeks steal the alphabet
There is ample evidence of extended commerce among the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. Ships and shipwrecks, pottery, and even written sources going back before the year 1000 BCE provide this attestation. The trade included Greece, Anatolia (Turkey), Lebanon, Phoenicia, Philistia, Cyprus, Rhodes and Egypt. Egypt and a few other regions already had long-standing writing systems which their professional scribes would have been loath to relinquish. But when the sea peoples plied their trade, they had the opportunity to judge what might be easier to learn: hieroglyphics (Egyptian and Hittite) or syllabaries (the coastal towns from Lebanon to the Sinai), it probably dawned on them rather quickly that syllabaries were easier to learn.
Some of the Greeks actually had their own writing systems which predated the Classical period. These are known as Linear A and B. Scholars, perhaps most famously Cyrus Gordon, have wrestled with interpreting these systems for decades and mostly to little effect. Hieroglyphics and other pictographic systems are very difficult even if they eventually evolve into standardized or more limited character systems. Of course a couple billion Chinese still employ a modified pictographic system, so we can’t claim that learning such systems is impossible. But despite this fact of modern linguistic life, I believe that even most Chinese speakers would concede that learning to write the Latin alphabet is much easier for adult learners than any of the Chinese systems.
Whatever the reasons, it is clear that by the mid-sixth century BCE the Greeks had borrowed and with some modification, promulgated the syllabary they found in widespread use in Canaanite lands (especially the Phoenicians). The syllabary they borrowed seems to be identical to the one in use by the Hebrews prior to their adoption of the Aramaic-style alphabet.
The Greeks came up with an improvement on the Canaanite system. It appears that it was the Greeks who developed the idea of representing vowels as well as consonants–perhaps all they did was extrapolate from ideas that were already permeating Hebrew. As we have seen, at a relatively early time the Hebrew scribes were using the consonant yod to indicate the “ee” vowel along with the older consonantal value of the y in yellow. The Greeks called the letter iota and used it freely as the vowel i. In one of those historical oddities, the Spanish later imported the letter y into their alphabet and Spanish schoolchildren are taught that this is y griega–the Greek Y!
The Greeks either didn’t understand or had no use for the very first letter of the Canaanite alphabet (at this point we can start calling it an alphabet rather than syllabary because, as we’ve pointed out, by this time the Hebrews and others were already using some of the letters for vowels as well as consonants). So they turned the Canaanite letter aleph into their alpha and it became the sign we know today as an A. (Note: purists will point out that the Greek name alpha was not a Greek name but rather the name of letter as they heard it from the scribes of whatever Semitic language became their model–perhaps Aramaic.)
Greek does not have sounds like the Semitic rasped H (het) or the deep laryngeal letter `ayin, so they turned those signs into their vowels E and O respectively. In addition, the Greeks did not have the w sound of window so they turned the waw into the vowel u. It is interesting that at some time (probably in the early Middle Ages), part of the Jewish population also lost the ancient pronunciation of the waw. These Jews converted the sound into the v of very. The original w sound was retained in Hebrew wherever Jews spoke Arabic as their first language.
Phonetic orthography: Greek, Latin, Spanish; even German and French
So the Greeks adopted the Semitic syllabary and enhanced it by changing or adding symbols that instructed readers how to pronounce vowels as well as consonants. In that sense, the Greek writing system became perhaps our earliest example of a true alphabet. The difference between an alphabet and a syllabary is exactly this notion of representing vowels as well as consonants.
The Romans also adopted the alphabet at a very early time, almost certainly from the Greeks. But it is also fun to speculate about their extensive commercial relations with Carthage, a major African trading city settled by the Phoenicians who (of course) used their Canaanite syllabary which was essentially identical to the Hebrew and Aramaic systems. Like the Greeks (or more probably borrowed from the Greeks) they inserted several vowel letters into their Latin alphabet. And like Greek, Latin has a highly predictable, phonetic pronunciation. The beginning student of either Latin or Greek has very little difficulty mastering the alphabets of those languages.
This does not mean, by the way, that there is universal acceptance of a single pronunciation for either Latin or Greek words. Dialectical pronunciation differences do occur in both languages. In addition, modern students of Latin or Greek learn distinct pronunciations based on different scholastic traditions. The German student learns a different pronunciation of the Latin alphabet than does the American because of tradition, but in each case the pronunciation is consistent and locked into the alphabet. The American or German student reads and pronounces a Latin word each to his own tradition, but each is certain that they are pronouncing the word “correctly.”
Other languages derived from Latin (often termed the Romance languages) may have altered the pronunciation of consonants to conform to their specific needs but retained the idea of a phonetic pronunciation. For example, Spanish and Italian are relatively easy for learners to master and even French, which departs more than others from the Latin pronunciation demonstrates a consistent approach to the written language and is therefore not very difficult for someone to learn if they understand any of the other alphabetic writing systems.
English, Not So Much
Likewise German. Although not considered among the Romance languages and with a vocabulary and set of consonants that departs in a major way from the Romance languages, German nevertheless displays a fairly consistent approach to their alphabet (also borrowed from the Romans) and beginning students usually master German reading at a fairly early stage of any instructional program.
But English is another story.
Pronunciation in English
At first it may seem strange to be told that in Hebrew the vowel sounds are either haphazardly written (Classical period) or open to some interpretation (Modern period). If your native language is Latin or Spanish you could be forgiven for feeling that this is absurd–after all, these languages are very easy to sound out with minimal instruction. But we should be very familiar with this problem if we are native readers and speakers of English since English behaves so much like Hebrew in this regard.
Before I explain this in detail, I should note that the examples that follow presume a pronunciation using a standard American dialect. This is the pronunciation widely found on the US west coast and the upper Midwest and favored by teachers of American English and TV news readers –probably the most widely recognized English pronunciation, at least in America. If you hale from London (England) or Sydney (Australia) or even Boston or New York City within America, you might have to work a little harder to understand these examples, but I think they’ll make sense regardless of your particular accent.
As most of us have learned in elementary school, English has five vowel letters plus one consonant often used as a vowel: a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y. Each of the five main vowels occurs in what are often termed “long” and “short” sounds, which means that effectively we start with ten vowels, although only five symbols–so from the get-go we have to figure out which one of two possible sounds a given letter intends. Since my goal here is not to teach English I’m not going to illustrate every vowel, but here are a couple of examples.
The first vowel letter is a. It can be short as in hat or long as in hate.
The second vowel letter is e. It can be short as in bed, or long as the first e in cede. And so on for each.
Just when the new idea of choosing between two utterly different sounds is settling in, the student new to English will discover that it is all a sham. Let’s keep going with our example of that seemingly simple vowel a. As noted just above, a has a normal “short” (whatever that really means) sound in words like cat, hat, rat, slap.
You might imagine that this is the same sound as the word want. But you’d be wrong. If you don’t believe me, try rhyming want with any of the other words I’ve cited. Now say the word can’t out loud. That doesn’t sound like either want or hat! Can’t is not only different, it’s very common so you can’t (forgive me) avoid learning it. And lest you think that can’t is just some sort of weird “exception”, think again: rant all you like, this a is not that unusual. Also, stand, command, oh–and that word that started this paragraph: sham.
But wait, there’s more! Here’s another common word a student new to English can hardly avoid: many. Guess what–this word’s a is closer to the e in bed than it is the a of hat or want or can’t.
Okay, so the short a is hard to describe. What about other vowel letters?
Let’s take a look at the vowel letter I. It can be short, as in the words rid, skid, discipline. It can be long as in the words ride, slide, and disciple. But that short I doesn’t always sound the same. How about the first I in the word liaison? Okay, some of my English teaching friends will cry foul here because liaison is, after all a word borrowed from French. Okay, how about the first I in pronunciation? I won’t comment on the second I because that one is part of a combination of vowels the discussion of which would take us even farther afield.
But as long as I’ve mentioned vowel combinations, let me conclude with another example of the difficulties of English pronunciation. Consider the combination ei in the word receipt. Just how do we reconcile that with the same vowel letter combination in the word freight?
There are whys and wherefores to explain all of these issues. English is a language which has, first of all, developed not only in the ways that a language would develop if the people speaking it were relatively isolated, but it was also heavily influenced by invaders. At its core, English is one of the Teutonic or Germanic languages. That explains its core vocabulary and its strong and weak verb conjugations.
But England was invaded by Rome in the first century BCE. The long Roman domination was eventually weakened, but in the year 1066 the Norman Conquest assured a French speaking upper class for centuries to come. These two facts explain the injection of an enormous number of Romance language words into English. But that doesn’t explain why English spelling is so peculiar. After all, we could just spell English phonetically! Or we could add a few extra signs into the language to clarify pronunciation–that is essentially what we’ve done in our dictionaries to show people the proper pronunciation of each dictionary entry.
There are, in my opinion, two essential facts in control here. First, those who have created our English writing traditions have chosen more often than not to retain archaic spellings. An excellent example of this is the gh in night. Many readers here will know (the k in know, by the way is another example of this phenomenon) that this consonant combination harks back to our Teutonic origins when we pronounced the word not so differently from the German word nacht. That’s the soft guttural sound, not the other English ch of say, chess or even Chicago.
The second fact is that dictionaries have made a difference. Dictionaries record the spelling of words and when literate people learn to rely on dictionaries, they tend to propagate the spellings listed there no matter how far the pronunciation of a word may have strayed from its origin. The English were among the first compilers of dictionaries, and the printing press made dictionaries widely available. In some sense then, our spelling has become frozen to the forms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Colloquialisms and advertising slogans can have an effect (most of us recognize lite for light just fine, but it is interesting that in literate writing the vast majority adhere to light even though lite might make more sense).
Now that I have taken you on a journey which may have convinced you that English is simply impossible to pronounce based on its spelling, let me take it down a notch. The fact is that while spelling may be a horrible chore in English, the vast majority of us manage to read our words out loud from these atrocious spellings with little or no effort. And English is widely and successfully taught all over the world. How do people cope? Is it just brute, rote, memorization?
No, actually it’s not that bad at all!
As you saw, the letter a can be problematic. I demonstrated the variety of vowel sounds (and it probably wasn’t complete) that a single letter a could represent. But so what? Most of the time a short a is pronounced exactly the way you would expect–like the a in hat. Rat, sat, cat, lap, trap. Most of the time, the long a is pronounced like the a in cake: lake, take, make, rate. Now one of those exceptions might be sale–the a is a bit different in the standard American dialect than, say, trade. But it’s close enough that if you don’t quite make the right a sound, no one would have any trouble understanding you.
I’m not an English orthographer so I can’t say whether the case of variation of sounds represented by the letter a is the worst case, but my sense is that It is. The other four vowels all have their peculiarities, but most of us have little or no trouble reading them correctly out loud. And even the letter a has its limitations. A letter a, for example, would never be pronounced I as in ride. Or o as in hole. And this brings me to the critical point.
Even though English spelling is far from phonetic, each of the vowel letters narrows the choices. An I will usually be either short as in spit, or long as in spite. But it will never be confused with the o in hole or the u of rule. Once you know that a word is spelled with I you can narrow the choices down to a small enough set of choices that, provided you have a reasonable command of English vocabulary, you are going to find the correct pronunciation without too much sweat.
And that’s why I contend that English is actually just like Hebrew!
Let’s review the history of Hebrew spelling we began this discussion with. Originally, Hebrew was written with signs for consonants alone, no vowels. While still in the Biblical era, this system slowly evolved to include vowels. A yod would often indicate the vowel sound “ee”. The vav (originally waw) would be used for either o as in hole or u as in rule. The letter heh, especially at the end of a word, was used to indicate the sound a as in father (Israeli and most Spanish and Arabic Jewish heritage populations, the Eastern European Jews pronounced this vowel aw as in craw).
The first letter of the alphabet, the aleph could represent many vowels, but its presence made sure that the reader knew that there was a vowel present at that point. Each of these letters also had their original consonantal role to play, but a reader and speaker of Hebrew could easily learn to differentiate these sounds much as we figure out the story in our whacky world of English spelling.
So at last we get back to the ditty at the beginning of our story. ‘f y’ cn rd ths, y’ cn lrn bblicl hbrw!
Now, believe it or not, even though this little ditty was crafted for your amusement, there are actually some serious points to be made here.
First, take a look at the spelling of the first word: ‘f. Notice that if we were sticking strictly to consonants, we would spell the word: f. But even in the earliest recorded inscriptions of Hebrew, a word which sounded like if would not have been written with a single consonant. As we understand through the full English spelling, there is a sound before the consonant f. In Hebrew, this would have been indicated by preceding the f with a sign which is actually the very first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the aleph which of course became the alpha of the Greeks (and the A of the Romans).
Explaining the true function of the aleph would take us too far afield for this essay, but rest assured I will explain it fully in another place. The important point for now is that the aleph allows us to know that this word does not start with f but rather has some sort of sound preceding it. So, in my ditty, I wrote the aleph using a stroke:’. For most English speakers, this is all the hint you need to figure out that the word is if.
So the ditty expressed as above is actually a pretty good approximation of the earliest and most vowel free period of Hebrew! As I have explained here, this is not how most of Biblical Hebrew is written. Already in the Biblical Hebrew period, scribes began to indicate vowels using the a-hoo-ee system. Suppose you knew that the English letter combination oo should be pronounced u as in roof. One more. Let’s agree that the sign ee will be pronounced ee as in teeth. Even though we’re now going to insert some letters, this would still be perfectly acceptable as proximate to Biblical Hebrew:
‘f yoo cn reed ths, yoo cn reed bblcl heebroo!
Looks a little funny, but I’m guessing that even those among us who couldn’t figure out the ditty at first would be able to now. Modern Hebrew goes even farther, using vowel letters where no Biblical scribe would have bothered and adding punctuation and other diacritical marks. For example, the g of giraffe has no modern Hebrew equivalent. So the modern Hebrew typesetter compensates for this by writing the Hebrew equivalent of a g with a an apostrophe. The apostrophe tells the modern reader to use the soft g rather than the hard g pronunciation: ‘ג.
‘f yoo cn cope wth ths, yoo cn mn’g too lrn ‘nythng yoo st yoor mind too doo!
‘Nuf said, go study.
I want to acknowledge and thank Annette Weinshank for her careful and multiple readings of this article resulting in dozens of corrections and improvements. Thanks also to Steve Rayburn for comments and critique.
©Jacob Love 2011