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Q&A

What sound did the letter ℵ encode in ancient Hebrew, and why did it morph into the greek vowel Α?

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Here are two claims I've often heard or read:

  1. The Hebrew language originally did not write down vowels.

  2. The Greek (and subsequently the Latin) alphabet developed from the Hebrew alphabet. In particular, the letter ℵ (aleph) developed into the Greek Α (alpha) and finally the Latin A.

Now I noticed some apparent contradiction in this: The Greek Α as well as the Latin A both encode a vowel. So if it evolved from the Hebrew ℵ, it seems that this should also encode the same vowel. But that cannot be if there were no vowels in ancient Hebrew.

Therefore I guess that not only the letter, but also the sound associated with that letter changed. Therefore my question:

What sound did the letter ℵ encode in ancient Hebrew, and why did it morph into the greek vowel Α?

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3 comments

Just a comment, because I am no linguistics expert. But I know some Hebrew. Aleph is a letter with no real sound of it's own - effectively it is only a vowel, the catch is that which vowel it becomes is not written down. Or rather, not written down in the Torah or other sacred texts on parchment. It is often written down when those same texts are written for study, prayer, etc. manassehkatz‭ about 1 month ago

And in fact, it really does match the letter "A" - cat vs. cape, etc. - the sound changes depending on other letters in the word. Hebrew does it differently, but the point is that Aleph or A - each has multiple vowel sounds and no real sound of its own. manassehkatz‭ about 1 month ago

"A" has different vowel sounds in English, not in all languages that use the letter. tommi‭ about 1 month ago

2 answers

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ℵ (aleph) is a consonant in Hebrew, not a vowel. Like other consonants, it can carry a vowel.[1] You'll see the vowel markers (nikud) in "pointed" Hebrew, but someone who is fluent in Hebrew doesn't need them for comprehension so they're left out of most texts other than children's/learners' texts and (for precision) prayer books and print/study copies of biblical texts.[2]

Aleph is a consonant, but it's silent. I've seen (but can't currently source) a passage in the talmud (completed around 500CE) that talks about the revelation at Sinai beginning with a silent letter (aleph is the first letter of the first word), so it was silent at least back that far. I can't prove one way or the other whether it was silent in the ancient near east.

I can't answer the part of the question about the transition into Greek, but I figured I could at least offer half an answer.


  1. There are five gutteral consonants and the rules are different for them. Aleph isn't one of them. ↩︎

  2. The torah scroll that you'll see used in synagogues does not have the vowel markings. I'm referring to print copies that are often accompanied by translations and commentary. Those usually have vowels marked in the Hebrew. ↩︎

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4 comments

Thank you, that's very interesting. I never considered the possibility of a totally silent letter (as opposed to characters that turn silent in certain situations, which of course can be found in many languages, including English). celtschk‭ about 1 month ago

Actually after reading Jirka Hanika's answer, I noticed that I indeed did encounter a completely silent character before, which I had forgotten about: AFAIK the French “h” is silent in all circumstances. Interestingly, as mentioned in that answer, the “h” sound, like the glottal stop, is a voiceless consonant articulated with the glottis. That looks like a pattern to me: “Glottal consonant” characters tend to turn into silent characters. celtschk‭ about 1 month ago

@celtschk - You might want to read up about the process called "lenition". https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lenition. Pretty much any consonant can disappear over time, but usually not abruptly, but rather through certain articulatory pathways. One of those pathways is debuccalization, and that may explain why a mandatory and later an optional glottal stop could often be the last stages before the ultimate disappearance of an oral consonant. Jirka Hanika‭ about 1 month ago

@JirkaHanika: Thank you, very interesting. celtschk‭ about 1 month ago

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It is not accurate to say that the Greek alphabet developed from the Hebrew alphabet as we know it. Instead, the two have a common predecessor in the Phoenician alphabet. In this sense you could say that the common predecessor of the Greek letter alpha (α) and Hebrew 'aleph (א) was a Phoenician alphabet letter ʾālep (𐤀). When I transliterate the name of the letter ʾālep, please note the initial apostrophe, which transliterates an ʾālep letter. It's unsurprising that the name of a letter begins with that letter.

All letters in the Phoenician alphabet represent consonants. The Phoenician alphabet was used to write a number of languages, including Phoenician and Hebrew.

In Phoenician, ʾālep is never silent. It represents a glottal stop, a sound denoted as /ʔ/.

Glottis sits in your neck, it is the opening between your vocal cords; it's what "gives you your voice". The best known use of the glottis is forcing your vocal cords to vibrate (i.e., to interrupt the flow of air about a hundred times per second). Based on what is happening above your neck, this produces various vowels or it gives voicing to any voiced consonants. However, it is also possible - and rather common - to to close the glottis briefly (stopping the flow of the air through the neck momentarily), and then release it either on the onset of a vowel (which produces a glottal stop, a consonant articulated purely at the glottis), or perhaps together with articulating a consonant somewhere else (which produces a particular "glottalized consonant".)

A glottal stop isn't the only way to start articulating a vowel. A glottal stop gives you an abruptly starting vowel, a vowel which starts with a tiny "explosion". You could also keep your vocal cords somewhat relaxed (but not too relaxed or too distanced from each other which would disable vibration altogether) and then the vowel will begin sounding gradually.[1]

In Phoenician, ʾālep is always pronounced as a glottal stop.

In (Biblical or older) Hebrew, 'aleph can be pronounced as a glottal stop or it can be completely silent.

In (Ancient) Greek or (Modern) English, a word-initial vowel can start with or without a glottal stop[2]. That's somewhat similar to Hebrew, except that there's no tradition to have a letter for a glottal stop in Indo-European scripts, whereas Semitic scripts do have a letter which tends to have that function.

The previous paragraph is very possibly just a rather long lasting and geographically extensive artifact of the way how ancient Greeks chose to (re)interpret the Phoenician letter 𐤀.

How could that happen? Well, if you ask someone to pronounce a bare consonant for you, they can't. "Con-sonant" means the consonant needs to sit on a vowel somehow. In many languages, the "default" vowel that a speaker would use in this situation is traditionally /a/. So, when asked to pronounce /'/, the speaker says /'a/. And the listener may well choose to hear just /a/. It's also possible to imagine the opposite situation when you are trying to transcribe Greek names inside Phoenician texts and run into the problem that Phoenician words never begin with vowels while some Greek words do; it is tempting to hear and write an ʾālep in that situation.

Add to it a different structure of Semitic and Indo-European languages. Semitic languages can't ignore the equivalent of the glottal stop even in the languages where actually pronouncing it is optional, or where it is completely silent, because it has its place in (say) tri-consonantal lexical roots. Greek is grammatically more like English - the root of the word tends to stick together and so it doesn't matter very much how you choose to count its sounds.


  1. Or there's also a way to give a breathy start to a vowel (a bit longer lasting noise), which is yet another kind of glottal contribution to vowel articulation. It's more or less up to your cultural perceptions (how your language works, and how it is traditionally described), whether you will interpret those "extra" functions of your glottal cords as distinct consonants, or as distinct ways of pronouncing a vowel. And English speakers may appreciate that English has at least one unambiguous consonant articulated in the glottis: /h/ is a voiceless glottal fricative; this same sound may perhaps be perceived as voiced by some because the particular position of the vocal cords lets the consonant be enveloped by adjacent "voiced" vibration of the cords. It stands to reason that the vocal cords can't vibrate and "hiss" completely simultaneously, which is why /h/ is technically voiceless. ↩︎

  2. I'm stretching the consensus when comparing Ancient Greek to Modern English here. Some people would even point out that Greek eventually added an extra letter (called ψιλὸν πνεῦμα) for the absence of anything like an /h/ or a glottal stop before the word-initial vowel, whereas others might rather call the possible interpretation of ψιλὸν πνεῦμα as marking a presence of a glottal stop to be "highly improbable". At any rate, the ψιλὸν πνεῦμα grapheme wasn't an original feature of the Greek alphabet, and if there were any glottal stops at that time, arguments can be made that they must have been non-phonological like in Modern English. ↩︎

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7 comments

That's interesting about the Phonecian letter having a glottal stop. As I was taught (and this matches what I hear around me, but I am not a linguist and might have learned it wrong), the Hebrew ע‎ ('ayin) has a leading glottal stop, distinguishing it from ℵ which I was taught doesn't. Most people I know treat both of them as silent, but I've heard native speakers pronounce that glottal stop in 'ayin. Monica Cellio‭ about 1 month ago

Thank you for the comprehensive explanation, it is very appreciated. And yes, once you know it, the concept of a glottal stop symbol with an implied vowel evolving into a vowel symbol makes complete sense. celtschk‭ about 1 month ago

@MonicaCellio - You got that 100% right. In the context of this answer, I had in mind Hebrew written through Phoenician (or Hebrew) letters 2 or 3 thousand years ago. That gives you ʾaleph as an optional glottal stop, and ʿayin (I guess) as a voiced pharyngeal fricative which is very distinct from either way of pronouncing an ʾaleph. Modern Hebrew reduced ʿayin to an optional glottal stop, and ʾaleph is silent. I'll update the answer for more clarity. Jirka Hanika‭ about 1 month ago

Ah, thanks -- I didn't make the connection. Thanks for clarifying. Monica Cellio‭ about 1 month ago

"Well, if you ask someone to pronounce a bare consonant for you, they can't." Is that so? I can think of at least some consonants that I can pronounce without a vowel (e.g. n, m, s) Moshi‭ 24 days ago

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