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

Vadim Cherny VadimCherny at mail.ru
Sun May 1 12:51:48 EDT 2005

> Partly you seem to be oversimplifying the relationship, which happens to
be one of the most notoriously difficult in derivational morphology.
> If we're supposed to be talking about a stage that far predates attested
West Semitic languages, who's to > say that the force of the Piel wasn't
quite different, or perhaps even non-existent?

I don't think that the relationship between paal and piel is difficult at
all, if only we accept an obvious thing about piel, the notion of intensity.
Many scholars somehow like scholastic discussions, inventing complex reasons
when they are none. A similar case is age-long discussion of verbal prefix
waw, where complex reasons are invented instead of accepting an obvious
thing, that the same prefix could either reverse tense, or serve as
conjugation "and."

I agree that piel is likely a late binyan. This brings us still closer to a
single-stem proto-language, consisting only of paal or possibly only of
davar-turned-segholate nouns. In any case, this proto-language did not
employ multiple vowels. This is the whole point: in modern languages, nouns
might contain all vowels, but in Hebrew - only one vowel, kamatz (patah in
haial and segholate is clearly derivative from kamatz). If we accept an
obvious notion, that proto-West Semitic had a single verbal stem or a single
form of nouns, then there was just no need for different vowels.
Differentiation of vowels in West Semitic run exactly alongside
morphological differentiation. Proto-language had one stem, and therefore
only one vowel.

The discussion boils down to this question: are the vowels in Hebrew
morphological forms arbitrary, or do they derive from a single vowel? And
that seems pretty evident, that they are not arbitrary, but derived from
kamatz through syntactical accent elongation and stress-shift shortening.

Say, if paal was vowelized kamatz-kamatz, and noun - kamatz-tzere, then no
question, surely such vowelization is entirely arbitrary, and therefore
different vowels originally existed in the language. But we have a clearly
derivative pattern, kamatz-kamatz in nouns, and kamatz-tzere in verbs. We
see how tzere appeared through elongation of kamatz because of syntactical
stress. We see how all vowels derived from kamatz.

> > I'm not an expert on writing systems, but I didn't hear of any other
> > vowelless script. When Sumerians created cuneiform for developed
> > language, they resorted to syllabary. Why no equivalent stage in West
> > Semitic?
> I don't recall you answering my question about other alphabetic systems
> that have arisen from scratch, complete with vowels.

I just don't know, but I assume there must be other alphabets in the world
besides Semitic.

> A syllabary must always have a larger inventory of signs and is therefore
more difficult to
> master.

But easier to invent! Superfluous descriptory systems are simple. It takes
advanced knowledge to create economical descriptory system, like alphabet.
So smart fellows would hardly ignore vowels - if there were different

Vadim Cherny

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