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

Vadim Cherny VadimCherny at mail.ru
Tue May 3 02:06:21 EDT 2005

> 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.

Of course, I do, you just do not listen.

I treat tzere and holam as complex vowels ae and au, as opposed to simple
vowels a, u, i. Complex vowels exist only accented, and break into simple
when losing stress or limited by a stop (diber- dibar.ti).

adam (adama) - adAam* adjective with syntactical accent - adAum* - adOm -
adomA* - adumA.

Note a similar process of kamatz-turned-holam, Ashkenazic:

davAr - dAvar - dAuvar - dOivor. As I mentioned earlier, second "o" is
kamatz-katan, not holam.

davar - davAar* verb - davAir* - davEr (catEv) - nich.tav or hich.tiv (tzere
broken in the syllable limited by stop).

There is further explanation why hifil has hirek instead of patah in nifal:
because hirek was originally unaccented, hifil pronounced aIchtiv, because
hi-ai served as diphthong, pulling accent (just as in French). There is a
clear pattern: complex vowels become patah in syllables limited by stop, and
hirek (tzere) and shuruk (holam) when losing accent.

I likewise explain every morphological form. They all derived from the davar

> 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.

In the most simplest form, the argument boils down to: did the Hebrew (or
proto-Egyptian, for that matter) emerged as developed language, or did it
start from a single grammatical form, likely davar? I think, the latter is
obvious. If so, it has necessarily the single vowel - just did not use

Your objections would have been true, if Hebrew verbs were cetav, and
adjectives godal. This vowelization would have been unexplainable by
syntactical elongation. But we have catEv and gadOl, suggesting that kamatz
elongated because of the upward intonation common in Hebrew for verbs and
adjectives because they are generally followed by other words in a phrase.

> >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
> >speaking humans - just like Adam - first needed to name the objects? Look
> >hieroglyphs, how many grammatical forms are there, in the developed
> >language?
> Well, are we talking about the emergence of the first ever human
> language, or the development of Hebrew from proto-Semitic?

I suggest that Hebrew contains traces of such proto-language. These traces
are: vowels in such positions that they are derivative from kamatz, and
vowelless script.
In a sense, Hebrew morphology is "natural": verbs and adjectives
differentiated from nouns by natural vowel elongation, segholate and haial
nouns appeared by penultimate stress shift (word-initial stress shift known
in English).

> 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),

oh, if we talk about literalism, I would point out to those folks outside of
Eden whom Cain was so afraid of. "Their" language was undeveloped.

> >I mean no such thing. What I say, is that Semitic alphabet, though
> >for the developed language with various flexions and vowels, inherited
> >writing tradition of much earlier single-vowel proto-language. Perhaps,
> >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.

I do. Besides the already mentioned reasoning that vowelless syllabary (or
alphabet) is natural only in the absence of differentiated vowels, another
argument is historical. When Moses came to Israelites, they did not know God
under the name Moses knew. Quite obviously to me, Moses made a standard
trick of associating their earlier beliefs with the new religion by
proclaiming that two names both refer to God. I do not seriously doubt that
Moses passed to Israelities ancient Egyptian religion (already surpassed by
polyteist beliefs in Egypt proper) of Aton. Why not suppose that among other
knowledge, he passed to them old Egyptian tradition of writing?

> >We use machines for transporting stones, they used labor. Ancients wrote
> >language, and we write it. But they used more primitive descriptory
> >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
> >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

I'm talking about mathematical or logical sufficiency, an ability of
descriptory system to cover all realistic cases. In this sense, vowelless
script is insufficient. Descriptory systems are always intended as
sufficient, so introduction of vowelless script is odd, unless it is a
tradition - of single-vowel language.

Vadim Cherny

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