Orthography as a Political Phenomenon: Why don’t we use the Hebrew alphabet to write English?


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For some time, Jewish people throughout the world have been known for their consistent use of the same writing system to produce written content in a variety of languages. Although, for the most part, this practice has declined in the modern age; these texts were once common to almost all Jewish communities, and their material spanned both religious contexts and every-day ones. 

This phenomenon arose from the multilingual strata that Jewish people have historically had to navigate. As can be read more in detail about in the chapter “Language Socialization in Jewish Communities” by Netta Avineri and Sharon Avni from Springer Journals’ Encyclopedia of Language and Education, for most of history, Jewish people were accustomed to using Hebrew for primary religious purposes, Aramaic for theological and secondary religious purposes and another language for everyday use among other Jews, as well as, sometimes, other languages for secular education or for communication with non-Jews. So, naturally, in these settings, it made sense to write all of these languages using the same alphabet, the one which most Jewish communities had grown the strongest attachment to: the Hebrew alphabet — or, at least, what is today called the Hebrew alphabet. 

As you can read more about in the highly accessible Haaretz article “In the Beginning: The Origins of the Hebrew Alphabet” by Michael Handelzalts, this unconnected right-to-left writing system is, in fact, a script that scholars today call “square Aramaic.” The reason why it has become known by most people as Hebrew today is because Jews are the only people who still use it, and because, for Christian theologists, it is primarily used to read the Hebrew language of the Bible. The original Hebrew alphabet is, in fact, what most people today call the Phoenician alphabet, sometimes called Paleo-Hebrew. Although this script gave rise to all the Aramaic alphabets, including square Aramaic, the degree to which the square Aramaic letters can be associated and compared with their Paleo-Hebrew counterparts varies greatly from symbol to symbol, and many forms differ greatly, to the extent that they are virtually unintelligible. The closest modern script to this Paleo-Hebrew writing system is the Samaritan alphabet, which is used to write Samaritan Hebrew and Samaritan Aramaic. After the Babylonian exile, Jewish canonical texts were written not in Phoenician but in square Aramaic letter; thus, this script went on to become the most cherished by Jews in most communities around the world.  

They used it not only to write Hebrew and Aramaic but, also, Arabic (Judeo-Arabic), German (Yiddish), Spanish (Ladino), Persian (Judeo-Persian) and many others. If you’re Jewish and studied Hebrew or Aramaic when you were little, you probably at one point tried to write English words in the square Aramaic alphabet or in its hand-written variant, known today as “script” Hebrew. It’s a little tricky at first, but once you set a few personal orthographical standards, you can quickly get used to writing and reading English this way.  

However, despite its functionality and precedence in other languages, Jewish people haven’t historically written English using the square Aramaic alphabet. So, the next logical question for Jews in the U.S. and other English-speaking places might be, “Should we write English using the square Aramaic alphabet?” Personally, I think yes, and I’ll tell you why. 

What are today considered Jewish languages are nothing more than Jewish dialects of language groups that belong to nobody. Yiddish refers to a spectrum of Jewish dialects of German, just as Judeo-Arabic refers to a spectrum of Jewish dialects of Arabic. Even Jewish Hebrew differs in style from Samaritan Hebrew. So, I think, in this way, the square Aramaic alphabet can be broadly classified as “the script Jewish people use to write the dialects they speak.” Because we have our own spectrum of dialects of English, I see no reason why we shouldn’t also use our most treasured alphabet to represent these varieties. In a broader and more global context, I also feel strongly in favor of the rejection of linguistic prescriptivism and the idea of “standard” language as the benchmark of acceptability.  

I think that, along with normalizing the social acceptability of all English dialects, regularizing the use of non-standard writing systems is another way of decentralizing standard English and normalizing linguistic diversity and non-dominance. As with all orthographies, if popularized, the Judeo-English writing system would have a domain of relevance, a spectrum of settings where it would make sense to use it: in written communication between Jews, in books written for Jewish audiences or in advertisements and other media which cater directly to the Jewish community. It would need to be accepted by a wide range of Jewish influencers and media creators, most of whom seem perfectly fine with continuing to use the Roman alphabet. But if it could be properly embraced and honed, its effects could usher in a new era for Judeo-English and its speakers, giving Jewish writers a canvas that’s entirely their own for producing content in their native tongue and setting a standard for other diasporic communities to follow.  

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