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Questioning the Marks

Ordinarily the Hebrew vowel signs are not headline material, but they made the front page of the newspaper Ha’aretz on June 4. The subject was a proposed spelling reform put forth by Dr. Mordecai Mishor, a member of the Language Committee of the Hebrew Language Academy — and although Dr. Mishor’s proposal will not lead to rioting in Israel’s streets, there are linguists and writers who feel strongly about it.

A bit of background is necessary. Traditionally — that is, going back to the eighth century C.E. — the Hebrew vowels have not been written as letters in the same way that consonants are, but have rather been indicated by diacritical marks placed beneath, above or after the consonant to which they belong. Thus, for example, the word shalem, “whole,” written with three consonants as SH L M, is vocalized by putting the vowel sign called kamatz, which looks like a small “T,” underneath the SH, and the vowel sign called tseirei, consisting of two horizontal dots, beneath the L. And by the same token, gever, “man,” is written as G V R with the vowel sign called segol, composed of three triangular dots, beneath the G and V.

The other three primary Hebrew vowels, “o,” “u” and “i” — known respectively as h.olem, shuruk, and h.irik, can be represented in this manner, too. Over the centuries, however, there has developed an alternative form of representation, known in Hebrew as k’tiv malei or “full spelling,” in which these vowels are indicated not by diacritical marks but by consonants — “o” and “u” by the Hebrew consonant vav, and “i” by yod. The word shalom, for example, is by this method written as SH kamatz L vav M, while sipur, “story,” is S yod P vav R. (In Yiddish “full spelling” extends to the vowels “a” and “e” as well, represented by the Hebrew letters alef and ayin, respectively.)

In actual practice, however, while “full spelling” is the rule in modern Hebrew, the diacritical vowel signs rarely are used. Shalem is spelled SH L M and shalom SH L vav M, and it is up to readers to realize that the first of these does not stand, say, for shalam and the second for shlom.

And yet, in modern Hebrew there are three kinds of texts in which the diacritical vowels are printed, too. These are: 1) the Hebrew Bible and prayer book; 2) poetry; 3) children’s books. In the last-mentioned case, this is done for the obvious reason that young children learning to read Hebrew have a much easier time of it if all the vowels appear. Once they have acquired basic reading skills, the diacritical indicators are dropped and only the “full spelling” ones remain.

Precisely because of this, however, Israelis tend to be notoriously bad spellers when it comes to the diacritical signs. Being unaccustomed to them, they often confuse them, especially when two different signs represent the same vowel, as is the case with the kamatz and the horizontal line known as patah., both of which stand for the same “ah”-sound. (This is one of the differences between the “Sephardic” or Israeli pronunciation of Hebrew and the Eastern European pronunciation, in which the kamatz indicates an “aw”-sound.) Similarly, the tserei and the segol often stand for the same “eh”-sound and get mixed up with each other, too. Even educated Israelis frequently don’t know which of the two should be used.

Hence Dr. Mishor’s proposed spelling reform. Why not, he asks, eliminate the kamatz and the tseirei from contemporary Hebrew orthography, leaving only the patah. and the segol? The Bible and the prayer book would be left as they are, out of respect for tradition, but children’s books and poetry henceforth would be printed with all “ah”-sounds as patah.s and all “eh”-sounds as segols.

Spelling reforms almost always generate fierce arguments between the traditionalists, who want to keep things as they are, and the modernizers, who want words to be spelled the way they have come to be pronounced, which is why English has not had a serious reform since the 17th century. (This is the reason that we still spell “laf” as “laugh” and “nashun” as “nation.”) Dr. Mishor’s proposal is no exception. For every proponent, like Tel Aviv University Hebrew language department head, Haim Cohen, there is an opponent, like Israeli novelist Meir Shalev, who declares: “Being an educated person means knowing one’s own language, and the diacritical vowel signs are part of the Hebrew language.”

My own opinion coincides with Shalev’s. Not only are languages never completely logical, but also it is their illogic — in grammar, in idiomatic vocabulary, even in spelling — that gives them their distinctive character and flavor, even if it also makes them harder to learn. (Say what you will, “laugh” has more character and history than “laf.”) Moreover, since most Israelis rarely have to write anything with diacritical vowel signs in it anyway, why should it matter whether they confuse these signs or not? If you had a precious eighth century chair or table, you wouldn’t trade it in for Danish Modern, even if it were less comfortable. What makes a language any different?


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