No Vowels In Hebrew And Arabic

Man, it took me friggin 5 minutes trying to figure out what the hell “lngg” is.

For those wondering (I can’t be the only idiot, can I?):

im in ur language stealin ur vowelz

On several occasions, I’ve seen the name “America” used as a demonstration/mockery of how hard it is to make sense of a language that has no vowels. After all, what sense can one make of “MRC”?

But the truth is that in Modern Hebrew, “America” is spelled with six letters: Aleph, Mem, Resh, Yod, Kuf, Heh.

The Aleph at the beginning is a silent consonant, but its presence signals that there is some sort of vowel to be pronounced. In this case, it is an “ah” sound, which is not obvious, but it comes from experience.

The Yod in Hebrew is very similar to the “Y” in English. “Y” is sometimes a consonant, but sometimes (especially at the end of a word) it is the “ee” vowel. In Hebrew, if Yod is the first letter it has to be the consonant Y, but in the middle or end it can go either way.

The Heh is almost identical to the “H” in English, except that when it is the final letter it always means to end with the “ah” sound.

Put it all together, and you have “Amreekah”, missing only the vowel between the M and R.

(I didn’t mention the letter “Vav”, which can be either the consonant “V” or the vowels “oo” or “oh”.)

In addition to all the above, there is also a system in which certain dots and lines go over and under the letters of a word to “fill in the blanks” and ensure proper pronunciation. These are sometimes referred to vowels, and the letters as consonants, but clearly, these concepts are not the same for Hebrew as for English. (Just as the identity of “Y” in English can be ambiguous.) The bottom-line, at least in regard to Hebrew, is that although these dots and lines are used mainly for beginners and children, and in texts where proper pronunciation is unusually important, such as bibles and prayerbooks, they will also appear in ordinary newspapers and advertisements, if the author/editor feels that a particular word would be unduly ambiguous otherwise.

No, it’s j. Where you from-- Egypt?

The Arabic vowel marks are a slant above for a, a slant below for i, a curlicue for u, and a circle for the absence of a vowel. Copies of the Qur’an are always printed with them, as well as kids’ schoolbooks, not to mention Arabic grammar books. Otherwise they’re used occasionally to remove ambiguity when a unvoweled word might be read more than one way in a given context.

It has been many years since I’ve taken Arabic but…

It’s similar to the way Hebrew is described above, and Johanna is also correct. My understanding is that there are the marks above and below the line that correspond to “short” vowels. These are optional except in educational texts and in the Quran - otherwise the exact meaning of the word is figured out by context.

There are also three characters - alif, waaw and yaa - that make vowels long when combined with the short vowels. Waaw and yaa are also pronounced as “w” and “y” respectively, when used as consonants. Alif always has an “ah” sound.

I’m quite rusty.

Given the common roots of these two languages, I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised by the similarity of the alphabets, the common consonant/vowel roles of specific letters (vav and waaw, for example), and the “extra” vowel systems of lines and dots. But for some reason, I am surprised by how identically the two languages choose to use or not use those extra lines and dots. Johanna’s description of Arabic usage seems to exactly parallel my description of Hebrew usage.

The history of how this vowellessness came about is interesting. It also shows that no one created the alphabet as is, but it evolved. First came pictographic writing, sort of like rebuses. The ideographs became sketchier, more like Chinese. After some wearing down, they became associated with their initial sounds, a bit the way do, re, mi, … came from the initial syllables of certain sung serses. This reduced them to a “syllabary” (meaning not that each glyph stood for a syllable, but for a consonant/vowel combination). This system was taken over by an early Semitic language that used vowel change for inflection and found the system unsuitable (imagine how confusing it would be if “mouse” and “mice” started with different letters) so the Semitic langague replaced the syllables by just the consonant. Incidentally, there really are no vowels. In Hebrew, at least, yud is a semi-vowel, aleph is a glottal stop, and ayin is a pharyngeal stop (a distinction not made in modern Hebrew, but is in Arabic, as I understand). This was borrowed by speakers of a Helenic language who wanted and needed the vowels and anyway inflected by adding elements at the end. So they adapted some of the consonants they didn’t need. The glottal and pharyngeal became “a” and “o” respectively. The two “h” sounds became short and long “e” (but the second was taken over by Latin before the second change, so it is still an “h” in the Roman alphabet. The yud became an “i” and the “vav” became the “u” and later gave rise to a constellation of letters (“v”, “w”, and “y”).

It’s not quite true to say vowels aren’t written in Arabic. Arabic has ‘long’ and ‘short’ vowels. The long vowels are always written, just like the consonants. The short vowels (the ones that are represented by diacritic marks below and above the other letters) are the ones that are often omitted.

I learned it as yod. When did it change to yud?

Not a stop, a voiced pharyngeal fricative. The Arabic equivalent is called ‘ayn which means ‘eye’.

MerryMagdalen is right about the long vowels being written out – I believe Arabic orthography adopted the idea from Hebrew, but it’s also sort of inherent in the writing system. The letters yod and vav in Hebrew, like ya’ and waw in Arabic, can stand either for the consonants /j/ and /w/ or the long vowels /i:/ and /u:/ respectively. Additionally in Arabic, alif without the glottal stop mark (hamzah) stands for the long vowel /a:/. These originally consonantal letters for long vowels are called matres lectionis ‘mothers of reading’, a calque from Arabic ummahat al-qira’ah. Which suggests that this was workaround designed to partially remedy the difficulty of reading without vowel signs.

Arabic script derives from Nabataean, which like Hebrew is traced back to Proto-Semitic writing, the origins of which have been found in Sinaitic script, an adaptation of Egyptian hieroglyphs.

hence the reference in Matthew 5:18 to ‘one jot or tittle’. Removing a jot or tittle from the written text could drastically alter its meaning.

And I learned it as a child to be called “yud” (rhymes with “hood”, not with “food”), and only heard the “yod” (rhymes with “rod”) pronunciation more recently.

I get the feeling that “yud” is a more traditional and/or Ashkenazi (European) pronunciation, and that “yod” is a more scholarly and/or Sefardic (Mediterranean) pronunciation, but that’s just my gut feeling.

What about non semetic languages that use alphabets? Do any other omit vowels. I guess what I still don’t get is why NOT use a vowel if they exist?

Why NOT make it as clear as possible? Is it that hard not to write a vowel? Does it save time?