[b-hebrew] Why Semitic languages had no written vowels?

Vadim Cherny VadimCherny at mail.ru
Wed Apr 27 07:16:10 EDT 2005

> >I wonder if anyone would like to discuss this topic.
> >The absence of vowels is puzzling: why omit meaningful morphological
data? Shorthand writing doesn't just omit characters, but rather uses new
symbols instead of common combinations of letters. As far as I know, no
other language deliberately omits morphologically significant letters.
> Your knowledge is incomplete. Ancient Egyptian and all languages,
> Semitic or not, written in Arabic script omit vowels, or only mark them
> sporadically.

My mistake about Egyptian. But, then, how much do we really know about the
Ancient Egyptian vowels? All we know, I think, is mere guesswork. Egyptian
also seems close to Semitic in the root system.

> And many languages including English omit semantically
> significant data - even Russian, which normally fails to distinguish in
> the orthography e.g. muka "flour" from muka "torment" (a stress
> difference), and vsye "all (plural)" from vsyo "all (neuter singular)".

The Russian examples are incorrect, but I accept your point that other
languages omit semantically significant stress. A likely explanation for
this, in my opinion, is that stress differentiated based on syntactical
usage. Thus, English speaker cannot confuse recOrd and rEcord even with
wrong stress because of the syntactical difference. So, stress is meaningful
but usually unessential.

> The reason for this deficiency of ancient Semitic scripts is rather
> simple: the concept of writing vowels as independent letters had not yet
> been invented. It was probably the Greeks who first did this
> systematically, long after Semitic alphabetic writing was well

You are talking of consequences, not the reasons. Greek is a late language.
By the time it emerged, vowels were semantically significant, and Greeks
employed vowel letters.
But if vowel sounds were originally meaningful, why omit them in Semitic?
Note that learning textbooks are very detailed. Modern Israelis need not
vowels, but students generally use them. We might expect the opposite
process: vowels were originally present, but later dropped. My point, it is
bizarre to create a vowelless writing, if vowels are meaningful. As an
illustration, I did not hear of any language that omits a consonant -
precisely because consonants are meaningful. By the same token, it is
unnatural to omit meaningful vowels.

> >In my opinion, Semitic languages had no vowels because there was no
distinguishable vowels originally. All words sounded like C'C'C', then
CaCaCa with kamatz. The last vowel sound was naturally reduced.
> There are no current human languages without distinguishable vowel
> sounds. (Some people have tried to analyse Abkhaz in this way, but most
> scholars now hold that it has two distinguishable vowel sounds.) So,
> unless you hold that the ancient Semites were somehow sub-human, you
> need very good reasons to suggest that their language was different from
> the 6000+ current human languages.

Well, I hold that ancient Semites were pre-human, in the sense of
pre-speaking human. Note that children also start from one vowel, long a. In
my opinion, other vowels derive from it, either by elongation (o, e), or
shortening of the elongated vowels (u, i).
I would say that two vowels in Abkhaz are really allophones, originally one
vowel. You might also consider Berber. Many languages are two-vowel. But
anyway, we know relatively developed languages. When humans began speaking,
they probably had less versatile vowel system.

Vadim Cherny

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list