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Why do certain Hebrew letters have alternate final forms?


Five Hebrew letters -- כ‎, מ‎, נ‎, צ‎, and פ‎ -- have different forms when at the end of a word. I have heard that this is true for certain letters in Arabic too, though I don't know if they're the "matching" letters. My question is about Hebrew, though Arabic might be related.

Why do any letters have final forms, and, given that some do, why these five in particular? Is there a linguistic reason, or is it a quirk of history, or something else? None of the "regular" forms seem like they would be any harder to read at the end of a word than elsewhere in a word, at least in the scripts I'm familiar with.

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The final forms of ‭ך, ן, ף, and ץ are the original forms.

From a Quora answer to What's the origin of the final (sofit) forms for some of the Hebrew alphabet?

Four of the five “sofit” letters in Hebrew are actually older than their non-sofit counterparts: ך ן ף ץ, which all descend below the line. In other words, they were the only form the letter in all positions. They became shortened when not final just as a matter of ease of writing.

From a comment on Why do we need the sofit letters? on the Hebrew subreddit


מקור שתי הצורות של אותיות מנצפ"ך הוא באות קדומה אחת שדומה לצורה הסופית. מקורו של הכתב העברי המודרני בכתב הסופרים הארמים שכתבו עבור האימפריה הפרסית בה שימשה השפה הארמית כלינגואה פרנקה. בכתב זה הייתה לכל אות צורה אחת בלבד. בעברית הייתה מסורת של כתיבה בלתי פורמלית ואותיות מנצפ"ך המופיעות באמצע מילה קיבלו צורה חדשה, "מעוגלת" יותר, ללא ה"זנבון" שהפריע למהירות הכתיבה. בסוף מילה צורת האותיות הללו לא הפריעה שכן בלאו הכי היד נעצרת, ועל כן הצורה הסופית של אותיות מנצפ"ך כמעט זהה לצורת האות בארמית. יוצאת מן הכלל היא מ"ם שמקבילתה הארמית לא דומה גם לצורה הסופית.

(Translation) The origin of the two forms of these letters is one ancient letter resembling the final form. The origin of the modern Hebrew script is in the writing of the Aramaic scribes who wrote for the Persian Empire in which the Aramaic language was used as a lingua franca. In this writing each letter had only one form. In Hebrew, there was a tradition of informal writing, in which letters that appeared in the middle of the word were given a new, more "rounded" shape, without the "tail" that interfered with the speed of writing. At the end of the word, the shape of these letters did not interfere, since in any case the hand is stopped, and therefore the final form of these letters is almost identical to the Aramaic letter. The exception to this rule is mem, of which the Aramaic equivalent does not resemble either Hebrew shape. (End translation)

As for ‭מ/ם...

The Quora answer explains,

There was also a mem that descended, which looked like this:

obsolete mem

but went extinct after its shortened form emerged. Mem’s current final form ם was just a variation of מ used interchangeably in all positions, but later became associated with the end of a word, possibly because of popular use.

There is only one example of a medial ם that I know of: preserved in the Hebrew Bible in Isaiah 9:6. You can see it in the first word of the verse, which is usually written without vowels, and then the actual “correct” word is written after it in parentheses:

לםרבה (לְמַרְבֵּה) הַמִּשְׂרָה וּלְשָׁלוֹם אֵין־קֵץ עַל־כִּסֵּא דָוִד וְעַל־מַמְלַכְתּוֹ לְהָכִין אֹתָהּ וּלְסַעֲדָהּ בְּמִשְׁפָּט וּבִצְדָקָה מֵעַתָּה וְעַד־עוֹלָם קִנְאַת יהוה צְבָאוֹת תַּעֲשֶׂה־זֹּאת

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What of the Gemara that the ס and ם of the Luchos were miraculously suspended? Unless this change occurred pre-Sinai, the miracle would only have applied to ס. DonielF‭ 23 days ago

@DonielF What is this Gemara, and when was this Sinai that you mention? (I'm not a scholar of Hebrew). According to a comment by Christopher Ray Miller, the adoption of the final forms was sometime around the 5th century BCE. Moshi‭ 23 days ago

Sorry, forgot this is Languages CD and not Judaism CD. By Sinai I refer to the giving of the Tablets on Mt. Sinai, traditionally dated c. 1300 BCE. The Talmud in several places (ex. Tractate Megillah 2b-3a) records a tradition that since the letters on the Tablets were carved all the way through, the center of the ס and ם were miraculously suspended, since the shape of these letters means there was nothing connecting the inside and outside. (con't) DonielF‭ 23 days ago

The main teaching discussed there is that if you rearrange these five final letters, you get the abbreviation מנצפכ, short for מן צופיך — "from Your seers." The forms of these letters, in the conclusion of the discussion, were given with the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai (again, c. 1300 BCE), but their forms were forgotten over time; the prophets later re-established them as they were initially. (con't) DonielF‭ 23 days ago

Now, it's not clear from this teaching which prophets are the ones who reinstated these letters. I would not be surprised if it referred to the last of the prophets, in the era of Ezra the Scribe, traditionally c. 350 BCE but could plausibly be earlier depending on your resolution to the "missing years" problem of the Second Temple chronology. So it's possible that Miller refers to what the Talmud describes as the prophets' re-establishment of the forms. (con't) DonielF‭ 23 days ago

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