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

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Mon May 2 17:51:46 EDT 2005

On 02/05/2005 18:29, Vadim Cherny wrote:

>>>- all vowels seem to derive from kamatz through syntactical accent
>>>elongation and stress-shift shortening
>>I ignore this because it is not a fact but another baseless speculation.
>Baseless? Is not it too much for a coincidence that Hebrew vowels "exactly"
>match the pattern of syntactical accent elongation and stress shift
>If we had gdilah instead of gdulah, I would have no argument. But shuruk
>derived from complex vowel holam, which lost stress.

What do you mean by a "complex vowel"? Although possibly shuruq and 
holam were originally one vowel, they were certainly distinct from 
qamats. You have no argument.

>If we had godal instead of gadol, I would have no argument. Yet we see
>elongation of kamatz exactly on the place of syntactical accent. Same for
>tzere in verbs.
>Patah in haial appears exactly where stress shifted away from kamatz in
>closed syllable.

I accept that patah and qamats may originally have been one vowel sound 
- as they have again become in modern Hebrew. Perhaps there were 
originally only three vowel qualities in Hebrew, as in Arabic. But there 
were clearly at least these three, for which allophones developed. And 
there were probably also length distinctions, again as in Arabic.

> ...
>I see. So the language appeared fully formed with all seven (32, by other
>accounts) binyans and plenty of mishkals? Or would you accept that earliest
>speaking humans - just like Adam - first needed to name the objects? Look at
>hieroglyphs, how many grammatical forms are there, in the developed

Well, are we talking about the emergence of the first ever human 
language, or the development of Hebrew from proto-Semitic? I accept that 
the original language of cave-men may have evolved over millennia into a 
more modern form (although if you prefer to take the Garden of Eden more 
literally you have to accept that Adam and Eve could speak a 
well-developed language with God and the serpent), but that is quite 
irrelevant to the invention of writing. But by the time Hebrew or even 
western Semitic separated itself from other Semitic languages, it is 
clear that there were a large number of binyanim, maybe more like the 32 
than the 7, a pattern which has survived in all attested Semitic 
languages although many binyanim have been lost (and possibly some new 
ones developed) in some of the languages.

> ...
>I mean no such thing. What I say, is that Semitic alphabet, though invented
>for the developed language with various flexions and vowels, inherited the
>writing tradition of much earlier single-vowel proto-language. Perhaps, this
>concept was preserved by Egyptians.
Well, this is a new claim and an interesting one. I suppose you claim 
that the concept of consonant-only writing was developed before the 
dynastic period of Egypt for a non-Semitic language and preserved 
throughout millennia from which the only surviving writing is 
hieroglyphic - only to reemerge with the same concept but different 
letter shapes for a different type of language. Not impossible, I 
suppose, but it does seem highly unlikely, and you do not have a shred 
of evidence.

> ...
>We use machines for transporting stones, they used labor. Ancients wrote the
>language, and we write it. But they used more primitive descriptory system,
>syllabary, as they used more primitive means of transportation. This does
>not imply that their means were inadequate - they were as sufficient as
>ours. The vowelless alphabet had to be sufficient for the current language
>when it was invented - perhaps by Egyptians.
Indeed. Vowelless script was sufficient for ancient Egyptian and for 
ancient Semitic languages, just as it is for modern Semitic languages 
(and, as Bill has shown, almost true of English). But that by no means 
implies that the ancient languages were pronounced without vowels, any 
more than that is true of the modern languages.

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

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