Culture, Religion, Uncategorized

Hail the vowel god!

An interesting piece in the Jerusalem Post this month about the development of the Hebrew alphabet: as opposed to the Phoenician system of lettering, the Hebrews developed vowels, which allowed people to read out loud their texts, contributed to the spreading of the Bible, and the lasting impact of Judaism. Also, we loved it so much we named our god after the achievement.

In short, the patriarch, matriarch, and deity of the Hebrews all get their names by adding a heh to convert otherwise common words into special ones. The Hebrews used their vowel-letters not just to make writing possible, but to create their most important names.
In addition to ?LHYM, we find a second, four-letter name for God, the tetragrammaton (which means “four-letters” in Greek). The four letters are yud, heh, vav, heh. Common pronunciations such as “Yahweh” or “Jehovah” miss the point. What really matters here is the remarkable fact that this name consists entirely of the Hebrews’ newly invented vowel letters, each included once, with the particularly special heh repeated.
The tetragrammaton is unique in ancient Hebrew, in that its pronunciation seems divorced from its spelling. It also seems to lack any plausible etymology, and is unattested in similar ancient languages. Now we know why. The Hebrews paid homage to the vowel letters that made it possible to spread the Word of God by using those letters to refer to God.

Full article.

10 thoughts on “Hail the vowel god!

  1. The tetragrammaton is unique in ancient Hebrew, in that its pronunciation seems divorced from its spelling.
    It is only the application of medieval masoretic vowels that makes it seem so, and this reflects an earlier qere/ketiv tradition that started out as a fence against uttering the divine name frivolously. Presumably those who first used the tetragrammaton knew the correct pronunciation, especially if the High Priest was ever to utter it.
    It also seems to lack any plausible etymology – it hardly seems unlikely that the God who defines himself to Moses as “Ehyeh asher Ehyeh” would have a name derived from the verb-root Heh-Yod-Heh. It is certainly plausible that it could be the third person singular imperfect of HaYaH with the II-Radical grown into a vav by scribal error/tradition.

  2. The piece in the Jerusalem Post is a wonderfully creative midrash on the potential mystical power of “hey” but it should not be confused with what the evidence suggests. As one who has spent a lifetime engaged in the study of the development of biblical Hebrew, I can assure you that there is not a single paragraph in the piece that is historically accurate. The Hebrews/ ancient Israelites did not invent the use of certain consonants to serve as vowels; this had already been established by the Canaanite peoples who used the Ugaritic language. Frankly, it feels like irresponsible journalism for the Jerusalem Post to have published this as based in scholarship. kol tuv to all.

  3. Good points, Rich.
    For a mind-blowing take on HYH/God’s name, look up the Rashbam on “Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh” and “Zeh Shemi Le’olam”, during the burning bush scene in Shemot.

  4. It’s a pretty cool Rashbam (don’t attempt on shabbos if you don’t write on shabbos). The Seforno on that phrase takes that same idea to the next level of mind-blowingness.

  5. using letters (such as hey, yud, vaev) as vowels was a later development in hebrew. It doesn’t occur till some time around the babylonian exile, what we might now call ktiv male. A simple read of the Torah’s use of these letters dispenses with the article’s thesis.

  6. and then as Tamar pointed out, Nikud wasn’t developed until like the 900s and took some time to be standardized. That is why the Keter Aram Tsove MS is so important. It is the earliest and best witness to this process.
    If you look at ancient manuscripts, you’ll see that nikud was something developed by the masoretes, that while we take for granted a kamatz goes under a letter, some MSs have it on top.
    The implication that the Hebrew developed vowels is surprising. Of the proto-sinaic alphabets, greek certainly developed vowel letters before Hebrew. And in cuneiform text such as Akkadian, vowels we integrated in the language kvar mizman. For example, in Sanheriv’s (Sennacherib’s) cylinder that describes his battles in Judah, he refers to conquering Hazakau (as I recall), which is how they must have pronounced Hizkiyahu in Assyria, and we know this because they had vowels.

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