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Hebrew
Quick Facts
TypeConsonantal Alphabetic
GenealogyProto-Sinaitic
LocationWest Asia
Time10th century BCE to Present
DirectionRight to Left

Hebrew is one of the longest continuously recorded languages thathas survived to the modern day. It first appeared around the late 11thor early 10th century BCE in the form of the Gezer calendar. While thescript on this inscription is called Old Hebrew, it is barely discerniblefrom Phoenician from where it originated.

Meanwhile, another Phoenician-derived script, Aramaic, was quickly becoming theinternational trade language in the ancient Middle East. Consequently, by the 6th century BCE, the Hebrews started writing in Aramaic for every day use and confined the Old Hebrew script for religious use (and the occasional inscription on coins). The Aramaic script adopted by the Hebrews quickly became known as the Jewish script, and because of the shape of its letters it also became known as ketab merubba`,or "square script". The following is the full alphabet but withoutany features that were added later.

You might notice that the letters kap, mem, nun, pe, and tsade each has two forms. The second form is used only when the letter appears at the end of a word.

One note about the previous chart is that the purple letters are Roman-based transliteration of Hebrew letters, and somewhat based on phonetic transcription. For example, the letters that have a dot underneath are emphatic consonants.

The Hebrew alphabet as it is adopted from Phoenician actually doesn't reproduce all the sounds in the Hebrew language, so some letters represent multiple sounds. The letter bet, for example, can represent both [b] and [v]. Similar, pe is both [p] and [f], and kap can be [k] and [x]. To differentiate between the variations, a dot called dagesh is placed inside to indicate the stop ([b], [p], [k]) version of the letter.

Like all Proto-Sinaitic-derived scripts, vowels are not written in either Old Hebrew nor Jewish scripts. However, it became increasingly important to record the vowels when Aramaic became more popular as the spoken language rather than Hebrew. So the system known as "matres lectionis" was devised where certain letters were used to represent long vowels: 'aleph for [a:], he for [o:] and [a:], waw for [o:] and [u:], and yodh for [e:] and [i:]. However, matres lectionis was not a complete system, and by the 9th century CE the practice of adding dots and lines, called nikkudim, above or below a letter to indicate a vowel came into being. This is known as the "Tiberian" system, named after the city of Tiberias in Palestine, and joined matres lectionis as part of the Hebrew writing system.

The Tiberian system is shown in the following example:

1: the vowel is not exactly [o], but could range between [a] and [ɔ] depending on the dialect.

2: these vowels are like [ə] but with a hint of [e], [a], and [ɔ] respectively.

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