Hebrew script for Jewish languages
A unique phenomenon
That “script follows religion” is well known. Missionary activities by Christian, Manichaean and Islamic, and Buddhist and Hindu proselytizers brought literacy, in alphabetic, abjadic, and abugidic scripts respectively, to previously non-literate communities in Europe, Asia and Africa, and South and Southeast Asia respectively. Judaism, however, did not proselytize; instead, it “wandered,” bringing Jewish communities throughout Europe and a good part of Asia, to lands that were already literate thanks to those earlier missionaries. Jewish languages emerged when diaspora communities adopted vernaculars altered on the basis of the culture-languages Hebrew and Aramaic. Such communities treasured their Hebrew and Aramaic literacies and often wrote the vernaculars using Hebrew script.The Hebrew letters denote consonants only, but the Jewish languages usually have more than 22 consonants and a number of vowels. Medieval Hebrew scholars devised vowels marks, used almost exclusively in sacred texts, but most Jewish languages barely use them. Unlike the other missionary scripts, Hebrew-script orthographies were often influenced by the indigenous orthographies they encountered.Exploring those influences needs an abbreviated account of the development of Hebrew orthography from its second-millennium bce forebears. A few examples follow of the adaptations of Hebrew script to Jewish languages, and various commonalities are found among such adaptations that probably emerged independently with little contact between speakers of the various languages. The question arises as to whether similar divergences and commonalities are found in other scripts spread in Scriptural contexts. That they are generally not reflects the difference between scripts arriving in non-literate versus literate surroundings.
Keywords: Hebrew script, Jewish languages, script and religion
Published online: 10 December 2021
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