Linguist Forum

Specializations => Phonetics and Phonology => Topic started by: giselberga on June 09, 2018, 09:47:30 AM

Title: Why isn’t Semitic language important vowel?
Post by: giselberga on June 09, 2018, 09:47:30 AM
Semitic languages like Arabic and Hebrew aren’t important vowel
Why isn’t Semitic language important vowel?
Title: Re: Why isn’t Semitic language important vowel?
Post by: Daniel on June 09, 2018, 03:34:05 PM
th vwls r nt wrttn bcs w cn ndrstnd whn w dnt wrt vwls!

The vowels are actually very important in Arabic and Hebrew: they change meanings, sometimes even things like tense of the verb or from singular to plural for nouns. But they aren't written because speakers of the languages can generally guess what these vowels should be, and so they can fill them in. As you can see above for English, you can do this too, with a little guessing-- and with more practice, you could do it regularly. It makes writing faster. On the other hand, it makes it very hard for students of the language to learn it because they don't already know all of the information so it's hard to read a text where the vowels aren't indicated (there are optional symbols that can be used in class, but it's a hard transition to the real world of, for example, newspapers!).

Also, only short vowels aren't written. The long vowels are written, so that is about half of the information (and arguably the important information about syllable structure).

As for why, it's because Semitic writing originally comes from Phoenician, and eventually all the way back to Ancient Egyptian. First, Ancient Egyptian was written with symbols representing meanings. But then some symbols became associated with the first consonant of the word (e.g., boy>B, girl>G, or something like that). And because of the structure of Ancient Egypitan (and Semitic, related in the same family), it was the consonants that were most important for the general meaning (think about how they were trying to save time when actually carving these symbols into stone!). So because most roots in these languages have 3 consonant roots, it's easy to just write down three symbols to represent almost any word. And that is basically the system that resulted thousands of years later for Phoenician.

Written vowels are actually discovered by accident, when the Greeks made a mistake! They saw Phoenician writing, and because in Greek the vowels and consonants are about equally important structurally (no triliteral root system like in Semitic), they just assumed all of the Greek sounds could or should be written in the same way. So they borrowed many of the shapes from Phoenician and wrote Greek sound by sound, which happened to include some vowels. (A technical explanation: actually the "long vowels" of Semitic that are written aren't really vowels at all but vowel-hosting semi-vowels, etc. Thus these seem like vowels although what they really represent is syllable structure with default short vowels added to them to make long vowels. The Greeks didn't understand that nuance, and just used symbols for Greek vowels.) An interesting example of this happening again later is that in Greek the "h" sound was not considered a consonant, but just a distinction in "breathing" at the beginning of words. So if you compare the Greek letter "Η" to English -- yes, that's a Greek letter, called eta, a vowel! -- then you will notice that it looks like the English letter H. That's not a coincidence, and came about in a complex way as the Romans borrowed the Greek alphabet to spell Latin (with some influence from Estruscan writing at the time).

So, in short, (1) the Semitic languages don't need to write the vowels, and (2) they only exist in English (etc.) because the Greeks made a mistake over 2,000 years ago! (But a fortunate mistake, at least for those who like to write vowels.)
Title: Re: Why isn’t Semitic language important vowel?
Post by: panini on June 09, 2018, 09:56:37 PM
There is another sense in which vowels aren't "important" in Semitic, that lexical roots are characterized just by consonants, and vowels and prosodic patterning indicates inflection and derivation of the roots. The explanation is ultimately lost in ancient history, and aspects of the Semitic system are found elsewhere in Afroasiatic suggesting that the roots of the system are quite ancient. I believe that the Semitic pattern is the result of ordinary prefixation,  suffixation and reduplication causing syncope which was grammaticalized, resulting in the "pattern" aspect of Semitic word formation, and probably localized vowel harmony causing apparent vowel shifts.
Title: Re: Why isn’t Semitic language important vowel?
Post by: Daniel on June 09, 2018, 10:17:47 PM
Indeed. But consonants being the lexical roots and vowels being the inflections wouldn't mean that either isn't important. Not as central to lexical meaning, but arguably more important for grammar!