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

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Wed Apr 27 19:09:40 EDT 2005

On 27/04/2005 15:28, Vadim Cherny wrote:

> ...
>мука as flour is a new word. The original root is min - mon - mok - muk. I'm
>not an expert in Russian linguistics, but the root is the same "min" as in
>разминать (make softer). мука as torment is from mit - mot root, as in

Thank you. But the age and derivation of these words is irrelevant. What 
is relevant is that they are both in regular use in modern Russian, and 
are pronounced differently but spelled the same. There are of course 
many such examples in English, e.g. the two pronunciations of "lead" and 

>The example of все (all) is the opposite of what we encounter in Hebrew.
>Russian example is a common simplification, encountered cross-linguistically
>(I need not point to English simplification of French loans).
Well, I am not sure of the history, whether the two dots in всё (vsyo) 
are a later addition to an original form все. But if they are, this 
parallels Hebrew and Arabic usage, in which vowel distinctions can be 
made with vowel points, but are commonly omitted.


>There is a huge difference between unmarked stress and vowels.
>Unmarked stress differentiation appeared in highly developed language with
>fluent speakers, while unmarked vowels should be suitable for humans just
>beginning to talk.

Are you talking about children? Or are you claiming that the Hebrews and 
other Semites of the biblical period had only just evolved to a level of 
intelligence at which they were able to talk? Is this an anti-Semitic 
comment, i.e. suggesting that Semites are somehow sub-human, or more a 
historical one, that no humans were able to speak properly 3000 years 
ago? Anyway, in either case it is demonstrably false. I only have to 
turn on my TV at the moment to hear a Semite, one of our main election 
candidates, speaking perfectly clear English complete with vowels, and 
speaking highly intelligently - although I don't like his policies, 
which would ironically have stopped his parents coming to our country at 
all, and very likely to them ending up in the gas chambers. But I 
digress. And the Egyptians and Sumerians of up to 5000 years ago were 
clearly intelligent enough to write their languages, fully as complex as 
modern languages and in the case of Sumerian certainly having vowels - 
and the same is true of the West Semites of the Amarna period.

>Unmarked stress is positively identified by syntactical consideration in
>almost all cases. ...

But not in all cases, neither in Russian (мука), nor in English, nor in 
a few cases in Hebrew.

>... Unmarked stress produce ambiguity in perhaps 1% of the cases. Unmarked
>vowel - I guess, at least in 50%. That's a lot of difference. ...

Fair enough.

>... People
>recognize that vowels are necessary for modern writing: to my knowledge, all
>other languages mark vowels.

Some people recognise this, but not those who use the various scripts I 
mentioned before. I accept that these scripts were originally for 
Semitic languages, but the fact that they continue in use for 
non-Semitic languages shows that these speakers do not recognise that 
vowels must be written.

You might like to look at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abjad .

> ...
>Abkhaz is a developed language.

What do you mean by this?

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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