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

Kevin Riley klriley at alphalink.com.au
Mon May 2 21:17:42 EDT 2005

-------Original Message-------
----- Original Message -----
From: "Bill Rea" <bsr15 at cantsl.it.canterbury.ac.nz>
> Vadim wrote:-
> >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.
> t sms t m tht f y knw th wrds y cn fgr t wht thy r syng wtht ndng
> vwls. W mst rmmbr tht wrtng mrgd frm spch nd nt th thr wy rnd.
> Thrs nl a prblm f th wrd hs tw sllbls nd nl n vwl r th wrd strts
> wth a vwl.
> For those that can't figure that out:-
> It seems to me that if you know the words you can figure out what they
> are saying without needing vowels. We must remember that writing
> emerged from speech and not the other way round. There's only a problem
> if the word has two syllables and only one vowel or the word starts
> with a vowel.
Which is exactly why Ugaritic used "vowels" for the aleph, or more
precisely, had separate signs for )a, )u and )i.
And that is a major problem with Vadim's theory - the evidence points
strongly to a 3 vowel system - i, a, u - which is not easily derived from
simply 'a', as the intermediate steps of 'e' and 'o' simply didn't exist.
You cannot assume that Hebrew in its classical form represents the state of
the language millennia before [assuming that Vadim's theory was correct and
the inventors of the alphabet were reproducing the situation of a much
earlier stage where there was only one vowel].  That in itself is not a
major problem, as one vowel [probably schwa] is theoretically possible, but
why reproduce it centuries later when there were obviously more vowels?  IF
no vowel symbols in a writing system indicates the presence of only one
vowel, then surely when there are more vowels the system would change?  We
don't see that change in Western Semitic languages for at least 500 years,
and in Phoenician it seems never to have happened, even though many of those
who wrote in Phoenician would have been aware of the cuneiform system that
did indicate vowels.  Even after awareness of alphabets with vowels for
about 2500 yrs, most speakers of Semitic languages continue to write without
vowels.  Maybe there is a good reason for doing so.  If we wanted to
reinvent a writing system for English that was phonemic, we could do it with
no trouble at all for the consonants - the question of /r/ being the only
real problem - but it is impossible to do so for vowels because they are
variable across the dialects, and not in a predictable manner.  While NW
Semitic had far fewer vowels - perhaps only 6 at the time the alphabet was
developed - it may have faced a similar problem.  I have been told that most
Arabic speakers oppose the use of vowel signs generally because it lessens
their ability to understand anything written in another dialect.  I am not
convinced that the argument of no vowel graph = only one vowel phoneme is so
convincing that we should start rewriting everything we know about Semitic
  Kevin Riley 

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