In my youth, I went to SAR and Ramaz. I was always taught that Hebrew had a 22 letter alphabet. I did not go to Yeshiva University for college, but I did go there for an MA in Jewish history. In my Jewish history courses, I was never taught anything additional about the alphabet. Moreover, throughout my life, I have been taught that we should try to look for a connection between words which have the same three-letter root.
But later in life, I heard from some knowledgeable friends that there were two different “ayins” in Arabic and that our Hebrew “ayin” was a merger of both of these types of “ayins.”
I am now 64. It was only in my 50s that I came across the fundamental insight that I am sharing today: Hebrew has a “reduced” alphabet. I learned this from works like Joseph Naveh, “Early History of the Alphabet,” and Edward Yechezkel Kutscher, “A History of the Hebrew Language,” and from the site balashon.com.
What do I mean by a “reduced alphabet?” Let me explain ... Based on the various Semitic languages, scholars try to determine what the original Semitic language was like. Early Arabic had 29 letters. Based on this and evidence from other Semitic languages, scholars believe that the original Semitic language had either 27 or 29 letters. In our Hebrew alphabet, some of those letters have disappeared and—in those cases—two letters have coalesced into one. The letters that are coalesced are: “ayin, chet, shin, zayin and tzadi.” Let me explain…
Ayin: Arabic has two letters that are similar to the Hebrew “ayin.” But they are written and pronounced differently. One is a soft “ayin,” and the other is a hard “ayin,” used in the place name, “Gaza.” (By the way,“gauze” is called this because it was originally exported from Gaza.)
Scholars believe that what is found in Arabic here reflects what the situation was in the original Semitic language. Thus, our Hebrew “ayin” combines two different earlier versions of the letter “ayin.”
This means that we no longer have to attempt to find a connection between words that superficially looked like pairs, such as: ערב meaning “evening” and ערב meaning “pleasant;” עלם meaning “youth” and עלם meaning “forever;” עצב meaning “sad” and עצב meaning “shape;” עפר meaning “young deer” and עפר meaning “dust;” צבע meaning “color” and אצבע meaning “finger;” ערף meaning “back of neck” and ערף meaning “drip;” עצם meaning “strong” and עצם meaning “close.”
(I am getting these and the subsequent examples from Edward Horowitz, “How the Hebrew Language Grew.” I presume that he can tell from the Arabic that the words are spelled with different “ayins.”)
Chet: Arabic has two letters that are similar to the Hebrew “chet.” But they are written and pronounced differently. One is a soft “chet” and the other is a hard “chet.” Scholars believe that what is found in Arabic here reflects what the situation was in the original Semitic language. Thus, our Hebrew “chet” combines two different earlier versions of the letter “chet.”
This means that we no longer have to attempt to find a connection between words that superficially looked like pairs, such as: חפר meaning “dig” and חפר meaning “be ashamed;” פתח meaning “open” and פתח meaning “engrave;” חלב meaning “milk” and חלב meaning “fat;” חור meaning “pale” and חור meaning “hole;” חבל meaning “cause damage” and חבל meaning “bind;” נחלה meaning “inheritance” and נחל meaning “valley;” חציר meaning “grass” and חצר meaning “courtyard;” חוש meaning “hurry” and חוש meaning “feel;” חרם meaning “ban” and חרם meaning “fisherman’s net;” and חרות meaning “freedom” and חרות meaning “engraved.”
Shin: Two different letters coalesced into this letter. One had the “sh” sound and the other a “th” sound. This means that we no longer have to attempt to find a connection between words that superficially looked like pairs, such as: שמן meaning “fat” and שמנה meaning “eight;” חרש meaning “deaf” and חרש meaning “plow;” ישן meaning “sleep” and ישן meaning “old;” שלח meaning “send” and שלחן meaning “table;” שער meaning “measure” and שער meaning “gate;” נשר meaning “eagle” and נשר meaning “fall-off;” and שאר meaning “remainder” and שאר meaning “kin.” In the latter of all these pairs, the “shin” was originally the “th” letter.
How do we know that some of these “shin” words originally had a “th?” Often, we can determine this from Aramaic. In Aramaic, the original “th” sound usually became ת (in contrast to what happened in Hebrew). E.g., eight in Aramaic is תמני.
Sometimes, we can determine the original letter from Ugaritic. (Ugaritic is a Semitic language close to Hebrew that was only discovered in the early 20th century, in Syria.) In the case of the word שלחן, we find the word in this language with an initial ת—suggesting an initial “th” letter.
(Surely, you have wondered why the Hebrew word for three is שלש, while in Aramaic, it is תלת. The explanation is that the original Semitic letter made the “th” sound. It evolved into “shin” in Hebrew and into “tav” in Aramaic. This also explains the different words for bull in Hebrew and Aramaic: שור versus תור. Interestingly, the latter was borrowed into Latin. Hence, “Taurus” is a bull.)
Now, it is time to discuss those similar looking words: איש and אשה. In the latter, a נ has fallen out and the word was, initially, אנשה. (Note the plural: נשים.) The “shin” in this word was, originally, a “th.” We know this from the Aramaic forms of the word: אתא and אתתא. The root of the word for woman, “aleph” plus “nun” plus “th,” means “weak, delicate.” In contrast, scholars believe that איש—from a completely different root—means “strong.”
Zayin: Two different sounds coalesced into this letter: One had the “z” sound and the other had a harder sound like “th” or “dz.” This means that we no longer have to attempt to find a connection between words that superficially looked like pairs, such as: זרע meaning “sow” and זרוע meaning “arm;” אזן: “ear” versus “weigh; and עזב: “leave” versus “help.” (Note that Exodus 23:5 uses the first meaning of עזב at the beginning of the verse and the latter meaning at the end, a classic wordplay.) (Some believe—based on the Greek letter “zeta,”—that “zayin” was originally “zayit,”—“an olive tree.”)
Tzadi: The book by Horowitz that I cited above writes that the present Hebrew letter merges three different earlier letters! I am not going to discuss this complicated letter here.——
The book by Horowitz points out that שנה meaning “change” originated with a “shin,” while שנה meaning “repeat,”—originated with a “th” (based on that initial ת in the Aramaic form of the word). In my “Roots and Rituals (2018),” I wrote a great article explaining how we could connect “repeat” and “change.” I am not ready to retract it yet, but you are welcome to put an asterisk in your copy of my book.——
Mandelkern’s concordance was published in 1896. He often refers to Arabic, when he tries to explain the meaning of words. Yet, in my 1000s of times looking at his entries, he never mentions that Arabic had multiple ayins, chets, zayins and tzadis. Accordingly, he spent much time seeking connections between words that did not need to be connected. He led me to have many pointless thoughts (and discussions with others) about such word connections as well. But I will give him the benefit of the doubt and believe that although he cites other scholars for Arabic, perhaps, he did not know its details.
Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected] He made extensive use of his wife’s Mandelkern over the years. About 15 years ago, it was so ripped that it was unusable. Miracle of miracles, someone left one in our shul for anyone to take and I grabbed it.