Volume 1, The Universal Jewish...

Created by Reform Rabbis and Jewish Scholars, many of whom escaped from Nazi Germany, the Encyclopedia exhibits a unique sensitivity to all forms of anti-Semitic agitation and malice and makes every effort to find allies among others, especially Christians, to forge a shield for Jewish people in the face of the coming catastrophe.

ALPHABET THE UNIVERSAL JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA [ 198] area. The question has finally been answered by Mar-tin Sprengling ( The Alphabet: Its Rise and Develop-ment from the Sinai Inscriptions, Chicago, 1931), who succeeded in deciphering the Sinai Inscriptions. Spreng-ling shows that the writing of the Sinai Inscriptions forms a link between the hieroglyphic writing of the Egyptians and the Semitic alphabet which was used by the Egyptians and eventually carried by the Phoeni-cians to the Western world. According to Sprengling, this alphabet probably orig-inated in the following manner: The Sinai peninsula, which received its name from the fact that it is identi-fied, probably falsely, with the Sinai of the Bible, is situated in that part of Arabia which is opposite Egypt. The Egyptians had extensive mining operations in that area, which employed many native workers. A Bedouin overseer, who was familiar with the hiero-glyphics and appreciated their convenience, decided to improve upon them by creating a series of symbols for the consonants. Making use of the Egyptian forms as models, he developed twenty- two letters. As a matter of fact, the Sinai inscriptions contain only twenty- one letters, the letter Teth being missing; but this is prob-ably only pure chance, as the letter is one but little used, and twenty- two has become the standard num-ber in such an alphabet as that of Hebrew. These sym-bols represented concrete familiar objects and each one was given the initial sound of its special object. This very convenient form of writing gradually spread northward and westward. It did not, however, replace the hieroglyphic writing in Egypt or the cunei-form writing of Mesopotamia. Between these two re-gions there was a broad strip of territory including Arabia, Palestine and Syria, where the new form of writing was welcomed. In course of time the forms of the letters were altered; the original pictures became unrecognizable and meaningless. Some of the original names were dropped and others substituted. The order of the letters was changed; and in this respect a cunei-form syllabary, or dictionary of syllable forms used in that type of writing, is so close to the Hebrew order that it suggests that it was the model according to which the Hebrew alphabet arranged its own letters. The names given to the letters in the Hebrew alpha-bet offer a number of clues as to the life of the people among whom it originated. They were apparently a pastoral people possessing herds of oxen ( Aleph) and camels ( Gimel). They lived in houses ( Beth) possess-ing windows ( He and Heth), but had not apparently entirely given up the use of tents with a triangular flap for a doorway ( Daleth). They cultivated the olive ( Zayin, probably originally Zayith), caught ( Tsade) fish ( Nun) from the waters ( Mem) and lived near springs ( Ayin). They were familiar with the use of hooks ( Vav) and drove their cattle by means of a goad ( Lamed), The remaining letters of the alphabet are either derived from parts of the body, such as the head ( Kof and Resh), the hand ( Yod, Kaf, and the earlier form of He), the mouth ( Pe), the eye ( another possible interpretation for Ayin), the teeth ( Shin); or else from marks, such as the cross ( Tav) and the cross within a circle ( Teth). These clues point to a people living in an inland probably hilly country, and not to a maritime people, such as the Phoenicians. It cannot be stated definitely at what time the He-brews adopted their alphabet. According to Spreng-ling, the Sinaitic alphabet was invented about 1850 to 1800 B. C. E., which is approximately the time of Abra-ham. Excavations from 1932 on at Tell el- Duweir, Palestine, which is now identified with the site of the ancient Lachish, turned up a dagger with an inscrip-tion in the ancient Canaanite script, dating about 1600 B. C. E., before the time of Moses. The Hebrews ap-parently took over this Canaanite alphabet sometime between the latter date and the time of the Judges ( 1150 to 1050), when most of the people were able to read and write ( Judges 8: 14). The alphabet with its twenty- two signs did not exactly fit the Hebrew lan-guage which had in reality twenty- five consonantal sounds, and so three of the letters ( Heth, Ayin and Shin) had to take two sounds each. II. Pronunciation. The main sources of informa-tion as to the pronunciation of the letters of the He-brew alphabet are the following: 1. The traditional pronunciation, an extremely valuable source, as Hebrew has been in continuous use among Jews down to mod-ern times; 2. transliterations of Hebrew words into the classical alphabets, especially Greek; 3. plays on words in Hebrew literature; 4. variant spellings of Hebrew words. The testimony of each source has to be weighed with care, since various groups of Jews have different traditional pronunciations, and there are disputes as to the actual pronunciation of the classical languages. However, a careful check gives the pronunciations listed below, which are almost certainly accurate. The order of the letters followed is the traditional one, which must date far back, as it appears in the earliest alphabetic acrostics in the Bible, such as Ps. 25 and 145; Prov. 31: 10- 31; Lamentations 1 to 1. Aleph. A silent letter. Originally it must have had a pronunciation of its own, a deep guttural sound for which there is no equivalent in modern alphabets. This sound was soon lost, and the letter became silent. In fact, at the be-ginnings of words, Aleph is frequently merely the indica-tion that the word begins with a vowel sound. 2. Beth. Pronounced as the English b. After an open syllable, however, the sound was somewhat aspirated, about equivalent to bh, or v, the latter pronunciation being the current Ashkenazic mode. 3. Gimel. Pronounced as the English hard g in get and give. After an open syllable there was originally a slight aspiration of the sound, but the distinction has long since disappeared. 4. Daleth. Pronounced as the English d. This letter apparently, had originally the same slight aspiration after an open syllable as Gimel, which it has likewise lost. 5. He. Pronounced as the English h at the beginning and middle of a word; at the end of a word it is usually silent, the only exception being the ending that indicates the pronominal adjective  her. In ancient writings He was used now and then to indicate vowel sounds, such as e and long o. 6. Vav. Pronounced by Sephardic Jews as w; by as v. Both are supported by ancient evidence. 7. Zayin. Pronounced as the English z. 8. Heth. Heth was one of the letters which originally were used for two distinct sounds. The first was a palatal sound, somewhere between h and k, and about equivalent to the German ch; the second was a sharp, energetic, hoarse h. In course of time there came a tendency to make the pronunciation of Heth uniform, and one or another of these two sounds was the favorite. In modern times, the German ch pronunciation is the usual one, as can be seen from the German transliterations Chaluz, Chanukka, Chas-sidim; but with many Jews in ancient times, and with English and American Jews of modern times, the strong AAR- AZU | BAA- CAN | CAN- EDU | EDU- GNO | GOD- IZS | JAB- LEX | LEX- MOS | MOS- PRO | PRO- SPE | SPI- ZYL   Chapter Home  | Index

Volume 1, The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia


About Book Volume 1, The Universal Jewish Encyclopedia

Front MatterHalf Title PageCopyright PageCONTRIBUTORS TO VOLUME ONEDedication PageSponsors, Friends, and Co-Workers of THE UNIVERSAL JEWISH ENCYCLOPEDIA PrefaceRules Governing Transliterations, Citations, Spelling of Proper Names, and AbbreviationsAAR - AZU ( I )BAA-CAN ( II )CAN - EDU ( III )EDU - GNO ( IV )GOD - IZS ( V )JAB - LEX ( VI )LEX - MOS ( VII )MOS - PRO ( VIII )PRO - SPE ( IX )SPI - ZYL ( X )INDEX TO GUIDE
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