In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language

By Joel M. Hoffman | Go to book overview

Chapter 3

Writing

There is nothing better than writingsthe
office of the scribe is greater than any calling.

— Egyptian Scribe, c. 2000 B.C.E.


A Difficult Task

Approximately 3,000 years ago, the ancient Hebrews discovered what would be the precursors to almost every modern system of writing. For those who can read and write, writing is an obvious extension of speech. But for those who had to develop the first writing systems, it was anything but obvious; its discovery should astound us in retrospect as it astounded those who discovered it.

Modern English speakers, for example, “know” that their words are made up of consonants and vowels, but they don't often appreciate the complexity of that knowledge. For example, most people know that cat is comprised of three sounds, that dog is comprised of three sounds, and that both cats and dogs are comprised of four sounds. But most people never stop to realize that the s in cats does not sound the same as the s in dogs. The final sound of dogs is, in fact, the sound usually written with a z.

Examples such as this abound in any language, including “phonetic” languages like Russian or Spanish. Russian and Spanish speakers usually think their languages are completely phonetic, as English speakers likewise think that s is always pronounced the same at the end of a word. But speakers of a language are in general a very poor source of information about the rules of that language, because they take the rules for granted. This is no exception. English speakers will readily agree that

-15-

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In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Tables xi
  • List of Figures xiii
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • Part I - Getting Started 1
  • Chapter 1 - Introduction 3
  • Chapter 2 - Rules of the Game 7
  • Part II - Antiquity 13
  • Chapter 3 - Writing 15
  • Chapter 4 - Magic Letters and the Name of God 39
  • Chapter 5 - The Masoretes 49
  • Chapter 6 - Pronunciation 81
  • Part III - Moving On 119
  • Chapter 7 - The Dead Sea Scrolls 121
  • Chapter 8 - Dialects in the Bible 149
  • Chapter 9 - Post-Biblical Hebrew 165
  • Part IV - Now 185
  • Chapter 10 - Modern Hebrew 187
  • Chapter 11 - Keep Your Voice from Weeping 211
  • Part V - Appendices 215
  • Appendix A - More About the Rules of the Game 217
  • Appendix B - Further Reading 229
  • Bibliography 245
  • Index 251
  • About the Author 263
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