[b-hebrew] "Paleo" and other Hebrew scripts

Yigal Levin leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il
Thu Nov 26 08:05:16 EST 2009

Dear Richard,

First of all, please remember that the list rules state that you must sign
each message with both your first and last name, preferably also with some
additional information such as place of residence or academic affiliation. 

As to your questions, and I left part of Ted Walther's post as well, since
your post was in reaction to his:

1. I obviously can't know by email what your pronunciation of various Hebrew
letters is, so I can't comment on whether it's correct or not. However,
since you refer to "Synagogue Hebrew", you should be aware that
historically, different Jewish communities (Ashkenaz, Sepharad, Yemen and
others) have pronounced their Hebrew differently, so what is "correct"
pronunciation in one community may be "incorrect" in another.

2. The various websites that you referenced in your post advocate very
"unique" ideas about Hebrew. To say the least, they are not the standard
that one encounters in academic circles.

3. Since there is some confusion between the terms that are used for the
various stages of the Hebrew alphabet, let me briefly summarize the standard
academic view:

a. The earliest stage in the development of what we call the Hebrew alphabet
occurred in Canaan (Israel, Palestine, the southern Levant, use whatever
term you wish) during the Middle and Late Bronze Age (roughly 2000-1200
BCE). This type of writing is often called "Proto-Canaanite", but also
"Proto-Sinaitic". This writing was based roughly on Egyptian Hieroglyphs, so
that each sign looked like a "picture" and was named after that picture,
such as "Bet" - "house", "yod" - "hand", and so on. In the "yehspace" site
you listed, it's the form that's called "Ancient Hebrew", although there are
lots of variants to this form. Remember that the Bronze Age is before there
was a "nation" of Israel, so whether one can speak of "Hebrew" at this stage
as a separate language is a matter of debate.

b. Around 1200 BCE, at the beginning of the Iron Age, the Israelites,
Phoenicians, Arameans and others began adopting and adapting the
"Proto-Canaanite" script. Scholars of Hebrew usually call this the
"Paleo-Hebrew" or "Old Hebrew" script, although others call it "Phoenician".

c. For the first couple of centuries of the Iron Age, the scripts used by
Israelites, Phoenicians, Arameans etc. were practically identical, but
eventually individual "national" scribal traditions began taking hold. Even
so, the differences are so small that it takes an expert to tell them apart,
and since we really don't have all that many inscriptions in any of these
languages, it's sometimes hard to tell if slight differences in the way a
letter is written are really a matter of different national traditions, or
simply of style and of the individual scribe or engraver.

d. After the conquest of the Aramean kingdoms by the Assyrians in the late
8th century, many Aramean scribes were employed by the Assyrian government.
These scribes, influenced by their new environment and cut off from their
Iron Age traditions, began writing Aramaic in a new style, which eventually
became the "square" script. During the Persian Period this script became the
official script for Aramaic, which was one of the official languages of
imperial administration. As such, it was also adopted by the Jews in
Babylonian exile, eventually replacing the "Old Hebrew" script, becoming the
script commonly used by Jews during the Second Temple Period and to this
day. Most of the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, are in the square script. In
some, the Tetragrammaton (the name of God - YHWH) is in the "Old Hebrew"
script, perhaps because it was considered to be more sacred. In Jewish coins
of the Second Temple Period and the revolts against the Romans, the "Old
Hebrew" script was used, probably for "nationalistic" purposes. It also
appears on some of modern Israel's coins, for the same reason.

e. Following all of this, it seems reasonable to assume that whatever sacred
Hebrew texts existed in the pre-exilic period (i.e. the Iron Age) were
written in "Paleo-Hebrew" or "Old Hebrew" script. However, NO such texts
have survived, except for two small silver amulets that were unearthed in
Jerusalem and contain what looks like a form of a few verses from Numbers
and Deuteronomy, and these are indeed in "Paleo/Old-Hebrew" script.

h. However, once the "square" script was finally adopted, all sacred
writings are written in this script. As I wrote above, most of the DDS, and
all of the Hebrew manuscripts that we have from later periods, and all of
the Torah scrolls that now exist, are in the square script. The Rabbis of
the Talmud credited Ezra with "changing" the script from Old to New, and
once that was done, a Torah scroll written in the Old script is invalid for
ritual purposes.

i. Yes, the "Paleo-Greek" alphabet, from which the Classical Greek alphabet
evolved, does look like the "Paleo-Hebrew"/"Phoenician" script, and was
probably adopted from the Phoenicians, replacing the older Greek scripts.
Both the Latin (probably via Etruscan) and later the Cyrillic alphabets are
descended from this Old Greek alphabet. The Syriac, Nabatean and eventually
classical and modern Arabic are derived from the later Aramaic "square"

j. But remember - all of this has been about ALPHABETS, not LANGUAGES. While
Canaanite, Hebrew, Phoenician and Aramaic are all related (but NOT
identical) Northwestern Semitic languages, Greek is not. A writing system
can be borrowed and adapted across linguistic families. When the central
Asian Turks came to the Middle East and adopted Islam, they also adopted the
Arabic alphabet and adapted it to write their own language. In 1918 they
replaced it with the Latin alphabet. English, German, French, Spanish and
others all use the Latin alphabet, but many of the letters are pronounced
differently by different languages. For that matter, there are differences
between British and American English, between Castilian and Latin American
Spanish and between French and Quebecois French. Which makes it very
difficult to say anything about the precise pronunciation of a ancient
languages, short of using a time machine to go back and record.

Hope all that helps,

Yigal Levin 

-----Original Message-----

I was teaching someone is Synagogue Hebrew letters and they said
I kept pronoucing 'h' wrong and many other letters 'h' and 'y' was
really 'e'. She (http://yehspace.ning.com/) said that i was using
modern letters and square script was not right according to
'http://www.ancient-hebrew.org/' Jeff Brenner. I noticed the link on
your page. http://reactor-core.org/
Even Today all i could see was
she had mixed up Paleo Greek pronunciation over Hebrew and was thinking
they was both pronounced the same. 

I was told as a child
square script was not modern it is at least a few thousand years old,
Paleo does not have many Torah scrolls on earth, i personally have
never seen one complete scroll. Also thet Greek paleo and Hebrew paleo
are pronounced diffrent.
Have I got any of this wrong?

> Date: Sat, 21 Nov 2009 15:02:02 -0800
> From: ted at reactor-core.org
> To: b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org
> Subject: [b-hebrew] update to the neo-Paleo standard (interesting for all
> I have updated the neo-Paleo standard.  Now it should be even EASIER to
> communicate Hebrew words and concepts between and to non-Hebrew
> speakers.
> URL: http://reactor-core.org/neopaleo.html
> In addition it shows the strong link between modern alphabets and the
> Israelite writing system.
> Please look it over and get back to me.
> Ted
> -- 
> 	   There's a party in your skull.  And you're invited!
> Name:    Ted Walther

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