Notes by Autumn Light

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

In Hebrew, how do you differentiate between vav (ו) and bet (ב); tav (ת) and tet (ט); alef (א) and ayin (ע) and hei (ה)? Why don’t we change the spelling of some words if the pronunciations are now the same to simplify spelling?

1 Comment

Here’s a thought: how about we get rid of colours, so our sight is ‘simplified’ to just black-and-white?

I don’t understand the obsession that so people have about simplifying spelling (in all languages). Spelling is a vital link to our past—if you iron out differences just so similar-sounding consonants are spelled the same, you lose key information about the roots of the words and how they relate to each other.

This is particularly true in Hebrew: since the sound of some consonants vary according to their position in the word and the rules of grammar, phonetic spelling would cause the loss of relationship between different forms of the same word root. The word abba (‘Dad’), for example, would be disassociated from av (father), and in tohu vavohu (‘without form’—Gen. 1:2) you wouldn’t know that the two /v/ sounds are in fact different characters.

By way of demonstration of how much information would be lost, take this excerpt of a Hebrew poem where each line features words that in conventional Roman-script transliteration appear to be the same:

Et le’et – ve’et le’et!

kara ha’ikar. veha’ikar: kara

mikreh she-bo hi amrah “bo

vehu, baaliyah, ba vehebit — aliyah vekotz ba

ve’amar: “ani, ani, velach miyeza — ve’at, at-at, lach

koret, be’odi koret.

Hakol avir, vehakolavir.”

In reality, however, all these apparent homophones are distinct words in Hebrew, which is readily apparent in their spelling:

׳עת לעט, ועת לאת!,׳

קרא האיכר. והעיקר: קרה

מקרה שבוֹ היא אמרה ׳בוֹא׳,

והוּא בא, בעליה, והביט – אליה וקוֹץ בה

ואמר:

׳אני, עני, ולח מיֶזע – ואת, אט–אט, לך

קוֹראת, בעוֹדי כוֹרת.׳

׳הכל עביר, והקוֹל – אוויר.׳ *

All these distinctions are lost in a standard transliteration, which doesn’t distinguish between aleph and ayin, tet and tav, samekh and sin, ḥet and khaph, etc.—and the same information loss would occur if Hebrew ditched these distinctions and went for a phonetic ‘simplification.’

Make the effort, and learn the spelling of Hebrew words—it will give you valuable insights into the language and its history, and a richer linguistic experience.

____

*There are many more examples (for the rest of this poem, see Modern-Day Ecclesiastes).

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Author: יונתן אור-סתיו | Jonathan Orr-Stav

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

One thought on “In Hebrew, how do you differentiate between vav (ו) and bet (ב); tav (ת) and tet (ט); alef (א) and ayin (ע) and hei (ה)? Why don’t we change the spelling of some words if the pronunciations are now the same to simplify spelling?

  1. Point well taken Jonathan. One just has to look at the many attempts to simplify English spelling for the same arguments. Until now they never amounted to much, but the texting generation is changing spelling big time these days and kids are growing up with less and less appreciation of the past. IMO U R right!

    Liked by 1 person

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