Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav

Introducing SimHebrew: Hebrew unbound


If you ever wondered why the Russian letter sha (ш) is so similar to the Hebrew letter shin (ש) (which, to be frank, you probably haven’t, unless you’re a Russian-speaking Israeli), the reason is, of course, that the Cyrillic alphabet is derived from the Greek one, which in turn was derived from the Phoenician alphabet, which was also the original Hebrew alphabet, in which the shin was a w-like character:


One of the striking features of this table is the degree to which the European characters resemble their original Canaanite/Hebrew counterparts far more than their Aramaic (“Square”) Hebrew equivalents (even in the Roman script, which is two or three generations on). This is why tables of this sort were never compiled in the past, or discreetly suppressed, and a unique conspiracy of silence maintained over the past two thousand years, between the Jewish leadership (who dreaded their followers asking awkward questions such as why the Gentiles’ script resembles the one used by their ancestors from the time of Moses till the end of the First Temple period more than the Square Hebrew that has been used since ca. 500 BCE), and the Christian authorities (who preferred their followers not to know that the Holy Land was the source not only of the Western world’s religion, but of its very literacy, as well—with all that implies).

This family resemblance was only slightly obscured by the fact that, once they were comfortable enough with the Canaanite alphabet and made it into their own, the ancient Greeks took the liberty of switching its direction (and mirroring all the letters, except L), and changing the actual function of some of the Canaanite letters. In particular, they decreed that the aleph, heh, yod and ayin become vowel letters (Α, Ε, Ι, Ο, respectively); that the vav should serve as F; that the Canaanite guttural ḥet serve as the Greek H; and the Canaanite samekh become ksi ( Ξ ).

The Romans, for their part, made a few more changes: changing the gamma into a C (because they had difficulty distinguishing between the hard /c/ sound and the hard /g/); dropping the Greek theta  Θ (Canaanite tet) and the Canaanite tzadi altogether; and inventing the letter V, to serve both as a consonantal /v/ and /u/ vowel:


pullquote_the_fact_that_the_roman.pngBut beyond the historical interest of this story, the fact that the Roman alphabet is essentially an incarnation of the original Hebrew one has profound implications that most Hebrew speakers have not yet internalised. Israelis are taught—nay, conditioned—from a very early age to see the Roman script as something quintessentially foreign: the letters are introduced by their English names, and the rules of writing in Roman characters are treated with a certain awe and reverence—as though they were the personal effects of some great benefactor who has been kind enough to lend them to them for a while.

All attempts at “Romanizing” Hebrew writing in the past century—be it Itamar Ben-Avi’s method; the “Karmeli” alphabet of Michael Avinor; Uzzi Ornan’s Phonemic script; or the quasi-phonetic ISO 259 standards—were conceived with this deferential attitude, which was based on two premises:

  1. that the Roman script is a sacred and inviolate entity—i.e., that the pronunciation or function of each character must strictly comply with its function in English, or German, or the rules of phonetics (depending on the culture that the author regarded as the guiding benchmark)
  2. that when representing Hebrew in Roman characters, the European approach of using actual letters for vowels must be adopted—as though the Hebrew approach of implicit vowels, or indicating them with dots and dashes, was somehow flawed or inadequate.

In reality, both these premises are unfounded. After all, every Western European language does with the Roman alphabet as it pleases, attributing to each character the phonetic values that it sees fit—and if they can do that, surely Hebrew speakers should be allowed to, since it’s their ancestors who invented the alphabet in the first place. As for the use of vowels in Hebrew: as any Israeli can tell you, Hebrew can be read and written quite successfully with implicit vowels, thank you very much—so why should it necessary when writing Hebrew in Roman characters? (So that foreigners will find it easier to read? Why? Let foreigners learn the Hebrew rules of reading, just as all non-French people are required to know that Champs Elysées is pronounced shah(n)-zay-lee-ZAY/ and not tchamps eli-zeez….)

pullquote_pursuing_this_logic.pngThe moment one removes the psychological barrier and realises that the Roman alphabet is not foreign to Hebrew, but a reincarnation of it, it becomes obvious that if the letter A was originally alephB was originally bet, etc.—then, pursuing this logic to its conclusion, one can simply use Roman characters as though they were Hebrew letters to all intents and purposes. Thus, the Hebrew word אבא would be written aba, the word אמא as ama, and similarly, the words

דלת, גמל, בית, אתה

would be written ath, bit, gml, and dlt, respectively.

And what, you may ask, about the Hebrew letters that the Greeks or Romans changed beyond recognition, or dropped entirely?  Simple—do “the Greek manoeuvre” in reverse: take Roman characters with no obvious Hebrew counterpart, and assign them to the “orphan” Hebrew letters that most resemble them graphically. Let’s face it, if the Irish can decide that the name that sounds like “Neave” is written Niambh, Hebrew speakers can certainly decide that—

  • the Hebrew ḥet (ח) is henceforth represented by the letter k (because it resembles the letter h much like ḥet resembles heh)
  • the Hebrew yod (י) is henceforth represented only by the letter i (which is also its historical descendant)
  • the Hebrew kaf (כ)is represented by the letter c (because they are coincidentally mirror images of each other)
  • the Hebrew ayin (ע) is represented by the letter y (because the resemblance is obvious)
  • the Hebrew peh sophit  ף is represented by the letter f
  • the Hebrew tzadi (צ) is represented by the letter x
  • the Hebrew quf (ק)is represented by the letter q (which is also its historical descendant)
  • the Hebrew shin (ש)is represented by the letter w (since that was exactly its form in Old Hebrew, and is still similar to the modern Hebrew version)


The final mapping scheme between the two alphabets then looks like this:


The result—as I discovered when I completed development of an early version of this method in 2001, out of frustration with the lack of Hebrew-compatibility on my Mac, Palm Pilot, and other devices—is an extraordinary sense of liberation. Suddenly, with this method (which in 2006 I realised should be called כלאמ”ר—the Hebrew acronym for “Non-Square Script”, pronounced klomar), one can accurately simulate Hebrew in any software or electronic device, without specially adapted software, without the loss of information that usually occurs when transcribing Hebrew phonetically into Roman characters, and in a manner that is easily converted back to conventional Square Hebrew at any time.

To demonstrate the difference between such simulated Hebrew (SimHebrew, for short) and a phonetic rendition of Hebrew, here is a poem in composed entirely of Hebrew homophones, where their  distinctive spellings in Hebrew are lost in phonetic rendition, but maintained in SimHebrew:


It also meant that suddenly there was no more agonising over how to spell Hebrew names—or anything in Hebrew, for that matter—in Roman characters. Since the mapping between the two alphabets is one-to-one, the spelling in SimHebrew always emulates that of Square Hebrew. Thus:


It is important to note, however, that SimHebrew, as its name suggests, is proposed only as a simulation of Square Hebrew in most contexts, not as a replacement: the Square script is not only far too deeply rooted in Hebrew culture, it is also wonderfully suited to the language. Even for me, after nearly twenty years of using it for personal purposes, SimHebrew does not leap out of the page as it does in Square Hebrew characters (Square Hebrew letters such as lamed and tav are squarer and therefore have far greater “presence” on the page than their SimHebrew equivalents of l and t; conversely, the SimHebrew v has too great a presence compared with the Square Hebrew vav). But it is definitely legible, and in software programs and devices where Square Hebrew is unavailable, or technically too problematic (of which they are still many, even in 2017), it allows one to express oneself or to communicate in Hebrew, instead of having to resort to English or awkward quasi-phonetic renditions.

The reason I am publishing this method only now, some eighteen years after first conceiving of it, is practical: from my experience with friends and family with whom I tried it out over the past ten years, I know that most people find it hard not to make mistakes when writing SimHebrew (the tendency to slip into phonetic writing is too strong)—so I needed to develop a computerised conversion app, which was beyond my abilities. Fortunately, in the past year, based on my algorithm, my younger son Guy has produced such an app, and this is now available in beta (pre-launch testing) form, which anyone can now use to convert Square Hebrew into SimHebrew—and back again—with full fidelity:


The SimHebrew transcription method is currently offered under a Creative Commons License.

SimHebrew has many potential applications for Hebrew speakers, but interestingly, it may be non-Hebrew speakers to be the first to reap the greatest benefits from it—both as an intermediate stage to learning the Square Hebrew script (to learn its “logic”, as it were), and as for studying the patterns of language in the Hebrew Bible.  Here’s a sneak peek of Genesis 1 in Square Hebrew and SimHebrew:



Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

7 thoughts on “Introducing SimHebrew: Hebrew unbound

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