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

Kirk Lowery klowery at whi.wts.edu
Mon May 2 06:04:07 EDT 2005

-------- Original Message --------
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] Why Semitic languages had no written vowels?
Date: Sat, 30 Apr 2005 13:41:56 -0800
From: Yishmor Y <yishmor at heplist.com>
To: b-hebrew-owner at lists.ibiblio.org

Vowels could have been omitted not only because several neighboring
tribes used different vowels in their brand of the language, but also
because the value of the vowels in understanding what is being said is
not as great as many seem to believe. The consonants are by far the most
important element in these languages, including our own. In English, the
word "here" could be pronounced by people of different areas of the
world as "hair", "heer", "hir", "her", "hehr", "hor" or "hoor" and by
context alone be able to be understood. Similarly, in Hebrew, if one
were to pronounce "wihi'irits hiyitah tihaw wabihaw wachishak `il paniy
tihiwm" a speaker of Hebrew should understand what is being said with
not too much difficulty although they would think the pronunciation was
either really off, or that they had a very odd accent. Singing also
often distorts what vowels are pronounced between the consonants, yet we
easily understand what is being sung. Something some people with hearing
loss would understand is that if one hears just the sound of the word
(that is, the vowels and shape of the word) without hearing some of the
consonants clearly, it is often very difficult to understand what was
said. On the other hand, one can mutilate every single vowel in a
sentance, and still be understood as long as most of the consonants are
intact. If vowels can be so easily changed/mutilated and still be easily
comprehended, then the value of these vowels is not really all that
great, they just aren't that important.

If I were to develop a written alphabet where the pronunciation of the
vowels was not the same from one region to the next, I would ignore the
vowels altogether because including them would just add confusion to the
reading of the text by a neighbor who did not pronounce their vowels the

There are many syllabaries (obviously they used vowels) in the ancient
near east (why have a "ba", "be" and "bi" if all your "b" syllables were
"ba"?), yet an alphabet came after these syllabaries. They didn't just
all of a sudden forget all their vowels and start using just one.
Somewhere along the line, someone realized it was just easier to make an
alphabet that ignored the vowels, and suddenly the glyphs one had to
learn dropped by a 2/3 or even 3/4. Another downside to adding vowels:
words would get longer in written form than what they were already
writing. Why write "maracepet" when you could get by just as well with
"mrcpt" (with 4 less letters)?

Only knew one vowel??? How many pre-speaking babies just say "ah ah ah"?
Most babies I have ever heard "talking" to themselves have "eee" and
"ooo" "ih" "uh uh" and even "eeeaaaooowaaa". To think that a people
would not be able to come up with more than an "ah" vowel seems a bit
rediculous, even if they were somehow less evolved than a bonobo. Heck,
I can point at a few dogs that use three vowels and they don't even use
words! :)

Kirk E. Lowery, PhD
Director, Westminster Hebrew Institute
Adjunct Professor of Old Testament
Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia
"Good boy, Dex!"
   -- Joseph "Sky Captain" Sullivan

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