[b-hebrew] Why Semitic languages had no written vowels?
abuian at access4less.net
Wed Apr 27 14:18:50 EDT 2005
I hope it's not being too presumptuous to infer that this
message was probably meant for the whole list, not just me.
I apologize if I have judged incorrectly. I'm preserving the
entire content of the original for the benefit of others who
didn't get it. My response follows.
----- Original Message Follows -----
From: busi <busi at heplist.com>
To: abuian at access4less.net
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] Why Semitic languages had no written
Date: Wed, 27 Apr 2005 09:39:44 -0800
> One good reason to omit vowels is that the vowels are
> highly variable over a geographic area (that is, between
> groups of people living in different areas). An example
> of this in English are the many various accents and
> pronunciations one finds from different regions such as
> Brooklyn NY, London UK, Mobile AL, Glasgow Scot., Los
> Angeles CA, Melbourne Aust., etc. The variability of how
> the vowels are pronounced from one area to another is one
> of the many "roadblocks" to reforming spelling in English
> (whose pronunciation would be used?).
> When looking at areas of the Middle East that still are
> broken into tribal territories, you see this same
> situation -- each tribe in a certain area can often have
> very different vowel pronunciations of the same word. A
> similar situation probably existed in the Western Middle
> East 3500 years ago as well.
> If one drops the vowels, one can often determine on their
> own what the vowels for the word for their own area would
> be. In fact, a trick that some people use to read things
> written in languages that they do not speak is to drop
> the vowels and determine from the consonants alone what
> the words might be. This is especially effective when
> someone can associate certain consonantal sounds with
> others. Such associations include the groups: (T, TH, D
> and DH), (Q, K, G and KH), (P, B, V, F, PH and BH), some
> languages exchange the P group for the Q group (such as
> compare Q-Celtic Irish "mac" with P-Celtic Cornish "mab").
> These associations are helpful, but what the vowels are
> is usually never helpful (except in confusing you), so
> one should often ignore them in this case.
> These non-vowelic Semitic alphabets were probably
> developed with the same understanding. A non-vowel
> alphabet would have been more "universally" usable by
> neighboring tribes or even distant tribes if the vowels
> were dropped.
> As for cuneiform mentioned earlier, cuneiform was a style
> of writing, not an alphabet, not a syllabary nor a
> hieroglyph. If one writes the roman alphabet (the
> standard one we use for writing English) in clay with a
> reed stylus which produces wedge shaped strokes, even
> though the overall shape of the letters is Roman alphabet
> , it is now Roman alphabet written in cuneiform. There
> are a number of different syllabaries, alphabets, and
> hieroglyphs that have been written in cuneiform in the
> Middle East. This is why it is important to distinguish
> who the writers are and what time period one is talking
> about when mentioning a particular cuneiform writing. Is
> is early Sumerian cuneiform writing, or is it a late
> Akkadian syllabary cuneiform writing? Or, is it an
> Ugaritic alphabetic cuneiform writing?
> yimor busi
I'm only concerned with responding to the last paragraph. I
can't speak for anyone else, but I have been using
"cuneiform" in the fairly standard way of referring
specifically to the logosyllabary used first for Sumerian,
then adapted for Akkadian and several other languages (which
all seem to have got it from Akkadian). Although "cuneiform"
etymologically means "wedge-shaped," as you interpret it
here, it is normal in the field to apply the name
specifically to this particular writing system. Ugaritic
script is sometimes referred to as a cuneiform alphabet, but
I would not be alone in calling this an erroneous
designation. It is a wedge-alphabet, or more precisely, a
wedge-abjad. For the most part, this kind of consistency and
precision of terminology is desirable but unnecessary, since
one can normally tell what another means by their terms
through careful examination of the context. But since you
decided to correct my usage, I thought I should offer some
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