[b-hebrew] Origin of the Alphabet

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Mon Nov 20 23:03:52 EST 2006

On 11/20/06, davidfentonism at aim.com wrote:
> But in the case of the (paleo) Hebrew, its very alphabet (i.e., its
> characters) are derived from pictograms of the things Adam
> named (e.g., animals, trees, father, etc.). This is what I have
> read, at least. The Crown Diamond Torah studies website has this:

This is a very slanted misrepresentation of the evidence.  It's not
that one cannot believe that this is so.  But it appears to suggest that
the Hebrew alphabet is somehow sanctified, was known already in
the beginning of time, and that the names of the letters correspond to
the words that Adam would have used in naming the creatures.

Practically all the alphabetic names derive from words of qal/qatl form,
or forms that began originally with a vowel *a, even if in either Phoenician
or Hebrew the word no longer maintains the vowel a in the first syllable.
For example: bet < *bayt, yod < *yad, resh/rosh < *ra)$.

Some cases where the letters seem to be derived from other forms
such as nun < *nuwn, have easy explanations (in this case, the
letter represents a snake or, in my opinion, a stream < *naxa$,
*naxl) while the fish symbol was used for d < *dagg).   The
correspondence of practically all letter names with words that originally
had an "a" vowel in the first syllable suggests that this is no accident and
that the letters were named at a stage before certain sound changes
occurred that obscured that vowel, including the Canaanite sound change
a: > o, and perhaps even an earlier change where an a followed by
unvocalized aleph was lengthened.  This must be a stage that can no
longer be considered either Hebrew or Phoenician.

Also, the idea that the Paleo-Hebrew script is somehow special or original is
wrong.  Paleo Hebrew is generally used as a term for the Old Hebrew script as
it appears in post-exilic documents.  But the Old Hebrew, Aramaic, and
Phoenician scripts are all developments of the same Phoenician script form
that is in turn a development from a script called "Proto-Canaanite".  Proto
Canaanite also developed into Old South Arabic.  But this script was not the
earliest writing system and it succeeded syllabic writing systems such
as Sumerian cuneiform as well as Hieroglyphic Egyptian scripts.  That letters
represent pictographically only "a" vowels may suggest that this was also the
case originally for the alphabet (that is, a syllabic script in which
non-"a" vowel
pictographs were dropped).

A nice description of the alphabet's development can be found here:

Yitzhak Sapir

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