A world beyond words

The Hebrew Aleph-Beth

The early Hebrews created the first written alphabet, which they called the aleph-beth, which was later adapted by the ancient Greeks. The alphabet we use today is itself derived from that Greek alphabet.

Unlike Chinese, which uses tens of thousands of symbolic pictograms with multiple meanings established largely through context for written communication, our alphabet comprises 26 characters, which represent phonetic sounds of the human voice. Accordingly, as we read text, a blending of our visual and auditory senses takes place called synesthesia; we simultaneously “hear” what we see, and in this way discern meaning in printed words as if spoken. Our modern alphabetic culture and the written word have enabled us to communicate clearly by using words and vocabulary in a precise and non-ambiguous manner.

Yet the original aleph-beth of the Hebrews contained no vowels. Vowel sounds, “a,” “e,” “i,” “o,” and “u,” are active moving breath sounds, unlike consonants, which generally halt or precede the movement of breath. Author David Abram (“The Spell of the Sensuous”) associates this absence of vowels with the idea of the “sacred wind” revered by many ancient peoples. Incorporation of the earth’s primordial natural forces established the cultural ground of early human speech, and established its connection with what was considered a sacred world. Notably, the aleph-beth was not widely shared; the absence of written vowels determined that complete and accurate transmission of the first texts could only be accomplished orally, since written groupings of consonants without specific vowels indicated were subject to varied pronunciation, meaning, ambiguity and misinterpretation.

When the Greeks adapted the Hebrew alphabet, they added new characters to represent the vowel sounds. This alteration facilitated the use of the explicit linguistic distinctions we now take for granted, but it also began to separate our western language from its original ground in the sensory natural world, ushering forth a protracted period of reverence for the written word itself and the fierce dogmatism that often accompanies it. We have all had the experience of being told something, and upon asking where it was heard, being told indignantly, “Why, I read it in the paper!”

For most of human history, wisdom was transmitted orally or through demonstration from teacher to student, often in secrecy. Those who received the teachings would memorize them so that they could be passed orally to others when the time was right. In this way, countless generations learned about the plants and animals, foods and tools, places and history, land and weather. Such lessons and wisdom were viewed as sacred, and preparation to safeguard sacred wisdom included discipline, apprenticeship, study and devotion. It was correctly understood that wisdom placed into the wrong hands or applied carelessly could mean the ruination of the world and all that live upon it.

The written word has great power. It can provoke anger and outrage, fear and loathing, sentimentality, empathy, understanding or ignorance. Undeniably, the written word performs modern magic, transforming thought, and thereby transforming the world. And yet, words cannot adequately describe the color yellow or the music of Brahms. Step outside and feel winter’s chill on your face; listen to the birds at dawn. As mere reference points to our original sensory experience, the written word cannot replace the profound and wordless experience of life itself.