Q&A: What is the mystery in Genesis 1:1?Why does the modern Hebrew script look so square?

Before the invention of printing, the ‘look’ of a script was determined by those in charge of producing large amounts of text—the professional scribes.

When Judeans first adopted the Assyrian version of the Canaanite script as their new script, some time in the 6th centuring BCE, the characters looked like this (pardon the letter order, which is left-to-right order, instead of right-to-left):

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Q&A: Is the Phoenician alphabet suitable for writing modern Hebrew?

You could—the letters are substantially the same (functionally speaking) as the modern Hebrew alphabet—but it is graphically less sophisticated than its derivatives, namely the Greek & Roman alphabets, and the Assyrian script which gave rise to the revised form of Hebrew from the Second Temple period onwards, known today as “Square Script”:

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Cantillations—SimHebrew style

In light of his continued integration of SimHebrew in his system of Hebrew representation, I asked my friend Bob MacDonald if he found SimHebrew more amenable than phonetic or scholastic rendition in combination with Hebrew téamim (cantillation marks). In reply, he told me that there are several problems with it—e.g., the dots of the i could be confused with a revia mark—and of course, the font would cause problems for some technical environments.

He then followed this up with an interesting blog post on the topic, including his improvised method of representing téamim, and the issues of using the actual ones.

But in light of the SimHebrew approach of adapting standard ASCII characters instead of the traditional characters which require higher, double-byte Unicode encodings that are not available in many contexts (much like Square Hebrew itself), I wondered if it isn’t possible to use standard signs to stand in for the official téamim. This is something that has been at the back of my mind to check out at some point, so now was as good an opportunity as ever.

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Q&A: Is it possible to design Scrabble in languages that are not fully alphabetic, such as Hebrew?

There is a Hebrew version of Scrabble, because Hebrew has an alphabet (shucks—who do you think invented it?).

However, the Hebrew version is not always readily available—especially when one is abroad (i.e., outside Israel). For those situations (as in many others), SimHebrew (simulated Hebrew) comes in handy, as evident from this example of a Hebrew Scrabble game that we played in the family:

Scrabble in SimHebrew

Q&A: Why are the Hebrew words melakh, melekh, & malakh so similar?

Misapprehensions like this are precisely why conventional transliteration of Hebrew is so flawed.

In SimHebrew (simulated Hebrew in Latin characters), the spelling distinctions between those three words are clear, and preserved:

  • melakh’: in Hebrew מלח, in SimHebrew mlk
  • melekh’: in Hebrew מלך, in SimHebrew mlç
  • malakh’: in Hebrew מלאך, in SimHebrew mlaç

See Modern-day Ecclesiastes for more examples.

Q&A: How are line breaks handled in bidirectional messages containing both English and Hebrew?

This is a very good question, as it relates to one of several unresolved problems in using traditional (‘Square’) Hebrew text in computer environments:

Mixing RTL (right-to-left) text such as Hebrew or Arabic with LTR text such as English usually wreaks havoc on the display order of the text. One reason is the conflict between two competing standards of encoding in Hebrew—Logical, and Visual:

The bi-directional way (logical method) and the visual method. In the logical method characters are stored in the electronic document in the order that a normal person would type, and in the visual method the characters are ordered assuming that the display device will order them left-to-right. In HTML, only the logical method is a real standard.[1]

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Q&A: Which letters of the Canaanite alphabet were used with the lowest letter frequency?

[A2A] Fun exercise.

In biblical (Old Testament) times, the Canaanite alphabet was common to all Canaanite nations—from Moab and Edom in the southeast to Phoenicia in the northwest. The language was substantially the same, as well, throughout that period, with dialectal differences that widened over the centuries, so that by the time of the late First Temple period (750–580 BCE) mutual comprehension was only partial.

There are plenty of references to letter frequency in modern Hebrew (one good English-language one is Stefan Trost’s Character Frequency: Hebrew). However, although linguistically modern Hebrew is very similar to biblical Hebrew, it does contain many words of foreign origin, and tends to use ‘full spelling’ (i.e. use the letters vav and yod to indicate the vowels /o/u/ and /i/, respectively), which can skew the results somewhat.

So a better test would be a certified ancient text of sufficient length to be indicative.


The Mesha Stele—a commemoration by King Mesha of Moab of the liberation of his people from the “yoke” of Israelite rule—is a good candidate in that regard, as it dates to around 840 BCE, and is written in the Moabite language, in the Canaanite script (see right).

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