On Root / The One and Only Alphabetic System and the Elephant

On the connection between the ox-head symbol for the letter aleph and the Taming of the Shrew.

Athens and Jerusalem are often seen as diametric opposites, the two poles of Western civilization. For what could be more different than Greek and Hebrew? They are even written in opposite directions. As an Israeli poet once wrote, the one goes West to East, the other East to West.

But if the alphabet – or rather, the aleph-bet - is any indication, they share more than we usually think.

The first letters of the Greek alphabet are: alpha, beta, gamma, delta. And Hebrew? Aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet.

This isn't coincidence: it indicates that there really is only one alphabetic writing system in the world. Not only Greek but also Arabic, Latin, Cyrillic and others come from the same ancient Semitic system, Phoenician to be specific, of which Hebrew is just one contemporary example.

But in Hebrew, the names of most of the letters actually mean something. They are words, not just sounds.

This week we shall look just at the first letter of the Hebrew aleph-bet, and some words derived from its root.

Of trained oxen

There are some things you should know about aleph. First, while it is a consonant, the sound of the letter is what's known as a "glottal stop," which is hardly a sound at all (think the initial "uh" in the affirmative "uh-huh.") And so, the aleph takes the sound of the vowel that goes with it.

Second, the consonants comprising the word aleph itself, aleph-l-p (the last can be "p" or "ph" depending on its position) make up a complete root with its own meaning: "tame" or "train."

Now, there is a connection between the root and the letter, the meaning and the form.

From the meaning "tame," the original ancient symbol for the letter aleph was shaped like the head of an ox, known as an eleph –the biggest domesticated animal in the Near East. The verb is le-aleph, and the noun is iluph – as in iluph klavim, "dog training" or the more Shakespearean, Iluph Hasoreret, "The Taming of the Shrew."

Hebrew Dumbo

As far as large, tamable animals go, believe it or not, the word "elephant" may be part of this linguistic family.

After the immediate Latin and Greek antecedents, most dictionaries list the origin as foreign or obscure. The venerable Oxford English Dictionary mentions the Hebrew eleph as a possible cognate indicative of ancient Semitic origins.

There's more to the root than oxen, dogs and elephants. For instance, a place of training, and in modern Israel – a school to learn Hebrew, is an ulpan. Someone who says: "I'm just starting out in ulpan kitah aleph, (first grade, as it were) and I'm learning the aleph-bet," has just used the aleph-l-ph root three times.

The feminine form of the noun, ulpanah, is the sister institution of the yeshiva, that is, a religious training school for girls.

Ulpan also has the general meaning of "studio," used in contexts like Ulpanei Disney, "Disney Studios." While they do have a very animated approach – don't go there to study Hebrew.

The tamer

The person on top doing the 'taming,' as it were, was the aluph, which in modern Hebrew means two things – though if sports is a version of war, then maybe they're not so different.

One meaning of aluph is the military rank of "general." Even in these days of cyberwar, achieving the rank of general requires prowess and proven ability, preferably in victorious combat. Thus the other meaning is that of "champion."

Soccer teams vie for the aliphut, "championship," and in Europe there is the Ligat Ha-aluphot, "the League of Champions."

We haven't nearly covered everything from aleph to tav, which is the last letter of the aleph-bet, and is roughly the same shape as the last Greek letter, omega. But if you don't learn your Hebrew letters, someone may call you analphabet, the thoroughly Greek construction - "an-", negation, + alphabet - which is literally, "illiterate," meaning essentially, that Hebrew is Greek to you!

Comments? Queries? Quibbles? Write: jeremybenstein@gmail.com. Particularly promising or piquant posts will be addressed in this space.

Bloomberg