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

Vadim Cherny VadimCherny at mail.ru
Fri Apr 29 12:25:18 EDT 2005

> The point is that we have a great deal of evidence taking us
> back to essentially the same point in Egyptian script and
> cuneiform. It's possible that one was derived from the
> other, but it's hard to say. The point is that you're trying
> to argue for some ultra-primitive origin of West Semitic
> without any evidence that it was even in use at such an
> early stage. Given the natural pattern of derivation from
> the earlier, complex scripts to the simplified abjad of West
> Semitic, it doesn't seem like there's much room for your
> idea.

Well, it's not really that I argue a hard case I'm convinced of. Just
discussing a possibility.
Let's extend the concept of single-vowel language from West Semitic back to
Egyptian. Do we know for sure of different vowels in Egyptian?

> > > But even if it did originate before, why wouldn't they
> > > have chosen a different writing system as the language
> > changed?
> >

> > > If Ugaritic was being written side-by-side with
> > > logosyllabic Akkadian, and as you say at this point the
> > > vowels were differentiated, why would they not have been
> > > inspired to write vowels?
> >
> > Why English speakers weren't inspired to add a symbol for
> > ch, as in Chicago, and another - for ch, as in chaf?
> This is a fairly minimal variation. I'll repeat what I've
> said before. If you're going to say that a vowelless script
> can't be explained except by a vowelless language (or one
> that doesn't differentiate vowels), then I don't see how you
> can allow for several centuries of continued usage of the
> same vowelless script, long after vowels had differentiated.

I don't say it's impossible to use vowelless script for multi-vowel
language. Rather, it is implausible that people who developed script omitted
semantically significant vowels.
Say, someone charges you with describing a map in words. You would try to be
sufficiently specific to avoid confusing places. This what I expect from
authors of script. Who would deem acceptable a script that does not
unambiguously relate words?

> It was apparently not such a difficult system to use that
> the Phoenicians ever had a problem with it. And if it makes
> sense that it would have derived from Egyptian script, where
> signs only represented consonants anyway, there is a
> perfectly good historical reason for vowelless writing that
> doesn't involve sweeping conclusions about primitive
> phonology.

That does not explain why Egyptians used vowelless script. People who
certainly had vowels employed syllabic writing.

> As I'm sure you know, it was not the mere existence of vowel
> differentiation that created these adaptations. They did not
> arise until the scripts had already been in use for
> millennia during which, as you've already admitted, vowels
> were in fact differentiated. It was only when such factors
> as the importance of sacred texts and shifts away from
> living language communities required serious measures to
> retain vocalization in writing that these diacritic systems
> arose. But if you agree that the pressure I described above
> is real, you have not yet explained how they apparently got
> along just fine for centuries even without matres lectionis.

Emergence of matres lectionis shows they did not get along just fine, but
were uncomfortable without vowels.

> If lack of written vowels
> was as much of a problem as it must have been under your
> theory, surely they would have considered cuneiform
> superior. Alternately, they would have recognized the
> benefits of encoding vowels and created some way to do so
> long before we actually see matres lectionis arising. (And
> in places like Ugarit and Phoenicia, they never did.)

I think there is much difference between working with an existing
inconvenient system (of vowelless script) and creating an obviously
impractical system. People tend to create superfluous descriptions, not
clearly deficient. Vowelless writing is not an impossible instrument for
multi-vowel language, just very odd to create. I cannot think of any other
descriptory instrument in any area of human activity, which incorporates
clear ambiguity. Is it a coincidence that no other script in human history,
to my knowledge, was vowelless? Sure, such a coincidence is highly
improbable. Thus, we might look for explanation, why Egyptian and West
Semitic scripts are vowelless. The only explanation I imagine is that they
did not need vowels. It is not hard proof, just reasoning.

> reasonable explanation why it did not encode vowels. Scripts
> never encode everything about the phonology of a language,
> even potentially significant elements.

Note "everything" and "potentially." Vowels are central to Semitic
morphology. They "are" the morphology. Without vowels, script is not just
potentially sometimes ambiguous, but morphologically inadequate.

> Writing was intended
> as a rough and ready substitute for spoken language,
> primarily for use by native speakers. It could get by with
> omitting a lot.

Isn't it odd to develop compex grammatical forms, and then create a script
ignoring them?

> Isn't it even more bizarre that someone
> would have come up with a writing system like cuneiform,
> which did encode vowels but generally as part of syllables.

They did not realize the tremendous advantage of vowels, but rather thought
of syllables as single sounds. I think, distinction between consonants and
vowels was realized much late. Egyptians and/ or Western Semites possibly
heard not syllables, but only consonantal sounds.

Vadim Cherny

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