Hebrew — 300 BC, Israel

Hebrew "sh"

Hebrew is a difficult writing system to shoehorn into this blog format.  For starters, when did the Hebrew script come into existence?  Unlike Cree and Cherokee, which had very distinct release dates, the Hebrew script evolved over thousands of years.  Of major* modern languages, only Chinese has been written down for longer than Hebrew.  (Given how much Chinese characters have changed since it started being written down, perhaps we should be surprised at how little Hebrew has changed!)  There have been several significant changes in the script along the way.

As I mentioned in the Samaritan post, the oldest written Hebrew was in a script that looks to me like Phoenician.  Some time during the Babylonian exile (597 BC to 538 BC), the Jewish people started writing in the Aramaic script.  After they got back home, their dialect of the Aramaic script gradually developed its characteristic squarish form.

As Aramaic became more and more popular, Hebrew started to fall out of favour.   By 200 AD, Hebrew was not spoken as a day-to-day language, but was still used as a liturgical language (similar to how Latin held on as the Catholic Church’s primary religious language until 1963 AD).   The Hebrew script was used by Jewish communities for various non-Hebrew Jewish vernaculars, including Karaim, Judæo-Arabic, Ladino, and Yiddish.  In around 1880 AD, a movement began to reintroduce Hebrew as a home language.  That movement ultimately was very successful; today Hebrew is the native language of about 7 million people, mostly in Israel.

Like its Aramaic parent, the Hebrew square script does not have separate vowels, but three consonants sometimes also act as long vowels.  In around 700-1000 AD, scholars got uncomfortable with the ambiguity, and developed various systems of diacritics to augment the consonants with diacritics, with the niqqud system winning out.  With the niqqud system, dots are placed in different places above, below, or even inside the consonants.  However, the niqqud are usually only used for people learning the language, e.g. children and immigrants, or in dictionaries.

The lack of acceptance of using the niqqud meant that there was still significant ambiguity, so there have been several spelling reforms to make it clearer when a glyph is a consonant and when it is a vowel, most recently in 1996.

One innovation that Hebrew made was to have a different form of some of the characters when they were at the end of a word.  This is quite a clever invention: it helps readers recognize word boundaries without taking up more horizontal space on expensive papyrus or vellum.

Hebrew also developed a method for expanding the palette of sounds, e.g. for loanwords.  The geresh — which looks very much like an apostrope — is placed in front of the consonant it changes.  For example, a ‘ in front of a “g” (as in “gap”) sign turns it into a “j” (as in “Jupiter”).

* There are about 200 native speakers of Aramaic.  Greek has been written for longer than Hebrew has been written in the Hebrew square script, but not longer than Hebrew has been written.  Samaritan (which has about 700 native speakers) writing shares an origin with Hebrew, so has been written for the same length of time.

Links: Wikipedia, Ancient Scripts, Omniglot

About ducky

I'm a computer programmer professionally, currently working on mapping applications. I have been interested non-professionally for a long time in the effect on society on advances in communications technology -- things like writing, vowels, spaces between words, paper, etc.
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2 Responses to Hebrew — 300 BC, Israel

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