dialect geography

Mater lectionis

In the spelling of Hebrew and some other Semitic languages, Matres lectionis (Latin "mothers of reading", singular form: mater lectionis, Hebrew: אֵם קְרִיאָה mother reading), refers to the use of certain consonants to indicate a vowel. The letters that do this in Hebrew are aleph, he, waw (or vav) and yod (or yud). The yod and waw in particular are more often vowels than they are consonants.

History

Because of the lack of vowel letters, unambiguous reading of a text would be difficult. Therefore, to indicate vowels (mostly long), consonant letters are used denoting sounds. For example, in the words "the house of" (Hebrew: בית bēt), the middle letter, "י", acts as a vowel versus a consonant. (Contrast bayit, house, where the middle letter is a genuine consonant.) Matres lectionis are also found in Ugaritic, Moabite and the Phoenician alphabets, but are widely used only in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic.

This system developed as an early system for indicating vowels using the Hebrew alphabet. The consonant letters yod י, waw ו and Aleph א can be given for a rough indication of long vowels. Where words can be written either with or without matres lectionis, spellings that include these letters are called male (Hebrew) or plene (Latin), meaning "full"; spellings without them are called haser or defective. In some verb forms, matres lectionis are used almost always. In the 9th century, it was decided that the system of matres lectionis did not suffice to indicate the vowels precisely enough, so a supplemental vowel pointing systems (niqqud) (diacritic symbols indicating vowel pronunciation and other important phonological features not written by the traditional basic consonantal orthography) joined matres lectionis as part of the Hebrew writing system.

In some words in Hebrew there is a choice of whether to use a mater lectionis or not, and in modern printed texts matres lectionis are sometimes used even for short vowels, which is considered to be grammatically incorrect though instances are found as far back as Talmudic times. In Talmudic times texts from Israel were noticeably more inclined to male spellings than texts from Babylonia: this may reflect the influence of Greek, which had full alphabetic spelling. Similarly in the Middle Ages Ashkenazim tended to use male spellings under the influence of European languages, while Sephardim tended to use haser spellings under the influence of Arabic.

In Arabic there is no such choice, and the almost invariable rule is that a long vowel is written with a mater lectionis and a short vowel with a diacritic symbol, although the Othmani orthography, the one in which Quran is traditionally written and printed, has some differences which are not always consistent.

Usage in Hebrew

Most commonly, yud י indicates i or e, while vav ו indicates o or u. Aleph א was not systematically developed as a mater lectionis in Hebrew (as it was in Aramaic and Arabic), but it is occasionally used to indicate an a vowel. (However, a silent aleph — indicating an original glottal stop consonant sound which has become silent in Hebrew pronunciation — can occur after almost any vowel.) At the end of a word, He ה can also be used to indicate that a vowel should be pronounced.

Examples:

Symbol Name Vowel formation Vowel quality Example
Biblical Modern Hebrew Transliteration
א Alef

ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô

mostly ā

פארן

Paran
ה He ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô mostly ā or e לאה Leah
שה Seh
ו Waw Vav ô, û ō or ū יואל Yo'el
ברוך Baruch
י Yod Yud

î, ê, ệ

ī, ē or ǣ

דויד

David

Origins and development

Historically, the practice of using matres lectionis seems to have originated when [ay] and [aw] diphthongs (written using the yod י and waw ו consonant letters respectively) monophthongized to simple long vowels [ē] and [ō]. This epiphenomenal association between consonant letters and vowel sounds was then seized upon and used in words without historic diphthongs.

In general terms, it is observable that early Phoenician texts have very few matres lectionis, and that during most of the 1st millennium B.C.E. Hebrew and Aramaic were quicker to develop matres lectionis than Phoenician. However, in its latest period of development in North Africa (referred to as "Punic"), the Phoenician language developed a very full use of matres lectionis (including the use of the letter `Ayin ע, also used for this purpose much later in Yiddish orthography).

In pre-exilic Hebrew, there was a significant development of the use of the letter He ה to indicate word final vowels other than ī and ū. This was probably inspired by the phonological change of the third-person singular possessive suffix from [ahū] > [aw] > [ō] in most environments. However, in later periods of Hebrew the orthography was changed so that word-final ō was no longer written with the letter He ה (except in a few archaically-spelled proper names, such as Solomon שלמה and Shiloh שלה). The difference between the spelling of the third-person singular possessive suffix (as attached to singular nouns) with He ה in early Hebrew vs. with waw ו in later Hebrew has become an issue in the authentication of the Jehoash Inscription.

According to Sass (5), already in the Middle Kingdom there were some cases of matres lectionis, i.e. consonant graphemes which were used to transcribe vowels in foreign words, namely in Punic (Jensen 290, Naveh 62), Aramaic, and Hebrew (he, waw, yod; sometimes even aleph; Naveh 62). Naveh (ibid.) notes that the earliest Aramaic and Hebrew documents already used matres lectionis. Some scholars argue that therefore the Greeks must have borrowed their alphabet from the Arameans. But the practice has older roots: the Semitic cuneiform alphabet of Ugarit (13th ct. BC) already has matres lectionis (Naveh 138).

Influence on other languages

Later, in some adaptations of the Arabic alphabet (such those used for Persian and Uyghur) and of the Hebrew alphabet (such as those used for the Yiddish and Ladino languages), matres lectionis were generally used for all or most vowels, thus in effect becoming vowel letters: see Yiddish orthography. This tendency was taken to its logical conclusion in fully alphabetic scripts such as the Greek, Roman and Cyrillic alphabets. The vowel letters in these languages historically go back to matres lectionis in the Phoenician script: for example, the letter I was originally derived from the consonant letter yod. Similarly the vowel letters in Avestan are adapted from matres lectionis in the version of the Aramaic script used for Pahlavi.

Bibliography

  • Garr, W. Randall. 1985. Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine, 1000-586 B.C.E. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  • Jensen, Hans. 1970. Sign Symbol and Script. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Transl. of Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften. 1958, as revised by the author.
  • Naveh, Joseph. 1979. Die Entstehung des Alphabets. Transl. of Origins of the Alphabet. Zürich und Köln. Benziger.
  • Sass, Benjamin. 1991. Studia Alphabetica. On the origin and early history of the Northwest Semitic, South Semitic and Greek alphabets. CH-Freiburg: Universitätsverlag Freiburg Schweiz. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

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