Notes by Autumn Light

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


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So long Genesis, hello Exodus

Imagine a Latin text—e.g. the first verse of the Latin Vulgate Bible:

In principio creavit Deus caelum et terram Terra autem erat inanis et vacua et tenebrae super faciem abyssi et spiritus Dei ferebatur super aquas.
Most of us don’t know Latin, but at least we can read it, and guess at the meaning of some words—or look them up.

Now imagine the same text, but in a non-Roman script, such as traditional Square Hebrew:

אין פרינקיפיו קריאביט דאוס קאלום את תראם תרא אאוטם אראט אינאניס את ואקוא את טנבראה סוּפר פאקיאם אבּיסי את ספיריטוּס דאי פרבּאטור סוּפר אקואס.

If you’re not a fluent Hebrew reader, this is an order of magnitude more difficult, isn’t it? Possibly enough to put you off even trying to deciphering it.

The SimHebrew Bible is the product of this realisation. It is a simulation of the Hebrew Bible in Roman characters, to make it accessible to people who would like to read the Hebrew Bible in the original, but cannot read traditional (“Square”) Hebrew script (or do so with difficulty). Thanks to this simulation, anyone who familiar with the Roman alphabet can see the actual language of the Hebrew Bible, in terms of its spelling, word roots, linguistic patterns, etc.  This provides insights into the biblical text that are not possible in translations (however good), in conventional quasi-phonetic transliteration, or even in linguistic transliteration.

I embarked on this project some two months ago or so—the culmination—and first serious application—of my SimHebrew development project, which I’ve worked on (on and off) for the past eighteen years.With the completion of the Book of Genesis, I feel more confident about seeing the project through.

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Why was almost all the knowledge of Ancient Egypt lost until the discovery of the Rosetta Stone? Did the Romans or Greeks write nothing about it?

hieroglyphics

Ancient Egyptian paid the price of being over-exclusive. Since the skill of writing (and reading) hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic writing was jealously guarded by a small, exclusive caste of scribes, once the Alexandrian and Roman conquests undermined the old Pharaonic regime and made Greek the new language and culture of the elite, that skill became largely redundant, and died out with the scribes.

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Which top countries have their own alphabet but have transliteration problem in Latin characters?

I don’t know if Israel counts as a “top country” in this regard, but it does have a problem with transliteration of Hebrew into English (or in Roman characters in general).

Essentially, the problem is one of what is known in information theory as information loss: in the process of converting from Hebrew to English, information about the spelling of words (including the distinctions between letters that are essentially homophonic, such as ḥet and khaf, tet and tav, kaf and quf, samekh and sin, etc.) is lost, so if you were to try and convert back to Hebrew, you wouldn’t be able to reconstitute the original spelling—even if you were a native Hebrew speaker and recognised the words, as in the following example, from a poem of homophones titled Modern-day Ecclesiastes:

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Test the fidelity and reversibility of any Hebrew-to-Roman transcription system with this poem

Modern-day Ecclesiastes is a poem to illustrate how the spelling distinctions between homophones in modern Hebrew are irretrievably lost in the conventional quasi-phonetic transliteration of Hebrew in Roman characters:

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Are there “rules” to make ligatures in handwritten Hebrew?

True ligatures, in the sense of a character made up of two enjoined letters, like œ or , don’t really exist in Hebrew—with the possible exception of the double yod (), which was common in Yiddish, but little used in Hebrew (most people aren’t even aware that has its own keystroke).

If you mean instances of joined-up letters in modern Hebrew cursive (as I suspect you do), those are mostly precluded by the very nature of that cursive.

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