The Chosen Letters

This article on how the Hebrews revolutionized writing by inventing vowels blew my mind. Here is a taste:

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.

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.

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.

OK, this is where it gets really amazing:

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.

Joel M. Hoffman, The Jews invent vowels [The Jerusalem Post]

I knew that the Jews held and hold letters and words to be sacred, but I didn’t realize how much. Wow.

via the miraculous mirabilis


11 comments on “The Chosen Letters

  1. Talmida says:

    I loved this article — right up my alley! πŸ™‚

  2. A says:

    This is indeed really cool. Thanks.

  3. Vowels. Watch out for radicals like that; next thing you know they'll be wanting to use verbs in sentences.

  4. This made me pull out a book I read last year, called “Writing: The Story of Alphabets and Scripts”. It talked about the Greeks borrowing certain signs from the Aramaic alphabet to transcribe their vowel sounds. However, it downplays any Jewish connection to the development of written vowel usage.
    “In learning to read, the students of the ancient world simply had to memorize the vowel sounds. This was not a problem with the Semitic languages, as they had relatively few vowels…”
    “In its early form Hebrew script did not include vowel sounds…”
    “Even today, languages such as Hebrew and Arabic are often written without vowels.”
    This is a problem with learning about things that happened 3000 years ago: some parts get left out; some are unknown; and some are in dispute. Won't stop me from studying anyhow.
    Also, sorry about my last comment. It was a lame attempt at connecting to some old Steve Martin humor. Feel free to delete it – perhaps I shouldn't post late at night.

  5. wil says:

    Fascinating. I find it quite interesting that Elohim can mean God (singular) and gods (plural).

  6. Sylvia says:

    That's interesting, Bikkuri. The “Smithsonian Book of Books” glosses over the issue entirely. It says “Eventually consonants and vowels were separated into distinct symbols and were represented by an alphabet.” How's that for describing one of the greatest human innovations ever? (And yes, posting late at night is risky!)
    Wil, I seem to recall that there are one or two places in the Hebrew Bible where God uses the first person plural, or other gods are referred to as though they existed. Perhaps it's part of the evolution from belief in multiple local gods to belief in a single universal God. I'm sure whole books have been written about it.

  7. wil says:

    You're right, whole books have been written about it. I was browsing through such a book just the other day. Interesting stuff.

  8. Chuck says:

    That is one of the most interesting things I have read in ages. Thanks for posting it!

  9. Sylvia says:

    Don't keep us in suspense, wil, what were you reading?

  10. wil says:

    I recently perused God Against the Gods: The History of the War Between Monotheism and Polytheism by Jonathan Kirsch. I didn't buy it because the style seemed a little to pop and it got bogged down in too much Roman imperial history for my taste.
    But the topic definitely interests me, so I did some online research and ordered The Early History of God: Yahweh and the Other Deities in Ancient Israel by Mark S. Smith.

  11. David says:

    The article is mostly taken from Hoffman's book, _In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language_ , which one reviewer calls “Possibly the most exiting book I've read in a decade.”
    Parts are a bit technical, but for those who liked the JP article, the book is the next step.

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