The Info List - Mater Lectionis

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In the spelling of Hebrew and some other Semitic languages, matres lectionis (English: /ˈmeɪtriːz lɛktiˈoʊnɪs/; from Latin "mothers of reading", singular form: mater lectionis, Hebrew: אֵם קְרִיאָה‎), refers to the use of certain consonants to indicate a vowel. The letters that do this in Hebrew are <א‬> aleph, <ה‬> he, <ו‬> waw (or vav) and <י‬> yod (or yud). The yod and waw in particular are more often vowels than they are consonants. In Arabic, the matres lectionis (though they are much less often referred to thus) are alif <ا>, waw <و>, and ya' <ي>.


1 Overview 2 Origins and development

2.1 Hebrew 2.2 Arabic 2.3 Syriac

3 Usage in Hebrew 4 Influence on other languages 5 See also 6 Notes 7 Bibliography

Overview[edit] Because the scripts used to write some Semitic languages
Semitic languages
lack vowel letters, unambiguous reading of a text might be difficult. Therefore, to indicate vowels (mostly long), consonant letters are used. For example, in the Hebrew construct-state form bēt, meaning "the house of", the middle letter י in the spelling בית acts as a vowel, but in the corresponding absolute-state form bayit ("house"), which is spelled the same, the same letter represents a genuine consonant. Matres lectionis are found in Ugaritic, Moabite, South Arabian and the Phoenician alphabets, but they are widely used only in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic. Origins and development[edit] Historically, the practice of using matres lectionis seems to have originated when /aj/ and /aw/ diphthongs, written with the yod י and the waw ו consonant letters respectively, monophthongized to simple long vowels /eː/ and /oː/. This epiphenomenal association between consonant letters and vowel sounds was then seized upon and used in words without historic diphthongs. In general terms, it is observable that early Phoenician texts have very few matres lectionis, and that during most of the 1st millennium BCE, Hebrew and Aramaic were quicker to develop matres lectionis than Phoenician. However, in its latest period of development in North Africa (referred to as "Punic"), Phoenician developed a very full use of matres lectionis, including the use of the letter Ayin ע, also used for this purpose much later in Yiddish orthography. In pre-exilic Hebrew, there was a significant development of the use of the letter He ה to indicate word final vowels other than ī and ū. This was probably inspired by the phonological change of the third-person singular possessive suffix from /ahuː/ > /aw/ > /oː/ in most environments. However, in later periods of Hebrew, the orthography was changed so word-final ō was no longer written with the letter He ה (except in a few archaically-spelled proper names, such as Solomon
שלמה and Shiloh שלה). The difference between the spelling of the third-person singular possessive suffix (as attached to singular nouns) with He ה in early Hebrew vs. with waw ו in later Hebrew has become an issue in the authentication of the Jehoash Inscription. According to Sass (5), already in the Middle Kingdom there were some cases of matres lectionis, i.e. consonant graphemes which were used to transcribe vowels in foreign words, namely in Punic (Jensen 290, Naveh 62), Aramaic, and Hebrew (he, waw, yod; sometimes even aleph; Naveh 62). Naveh (ibid.) notes that the earliest Aramaic and Hebrew documents already used matres lectionis. Some scholars argue that the Greeks must therefore have borrowed their alphabet from the Arameans. However, the practice has older roots, as the Semitic cuneiform alphabet of Ugarit (13th century BC) already had matres lectionis (Naveh 138). Hebrew[edit] The earliest method of indicating some vowels in Hebrew writing was to use the consonant letters yod י, waw ו, he ה,and aleph א of the Hebrew alphabet
Hebrew alphabet
to also write long vowels in some cases. Originally, א and ה were only at the end of words, and י and ו were used mainly to write the original diphthongs /aw/ and /aj/ as well as original vowel+[y]+vowel sequences (which sometimes simplified to plain long vowels). Gradually, as it was found to be insufficient for differentiating between similar nouns, י and ו were also inserted to mark some long vowels of non-diphthongal origin. If words can be written with or without matres lectionis, spellings that include the letters are called malē (Hebrew) or plene (Latin), meaning "full", and spellings without them are called ḥaser or defective. In some verb forms, matres lectionis are almost always used. Around the 9th century CE, it was decided that the system of matres lectionis did not suffice to indicate the vowels precisely enough for purposes of liturgical recitation of Biblical texts so a supplemental vowel pointing system (niqqud) (diacritic symbols indicating vowel pronunciation and other important phonological features not written by the traditional basic consonantal orthography) joined matres lectionis as part of the Hebrew writing system. In some words in Hebrew, there is a choice of whether to use a mater lectionis or not, and in modern printed texts matres lectionis are sometimes used even for short vowels, which is considered to be grammatically incorrect according to traditional norms, though instances are found as far back as Talmudic times. Such texts from Judaea and Galilee were noticeably more inclined to malē spellings than texts from Babylonia. Similarly, in the Middle Ages, Ashkenazi Jews tended to use malē spellings under the influence of European languages, but Sephardi Jews
Sephardi Jews
tended to use ḥaser spellings under the influence of Arabic. Arabic[edit] In Arabic
there is no such choice, and the almost invariable rule is that a long vowel is written with a mater lectionis and a short vowel with a diacritic symbol, but the Uthmanic orthography, the one in which the Quran
is traditionally written and printed, has some differences, which are not always consistent. Also, under influence from orthography of European languages, transliterating of borrowed words into Arabic
is usually done using matres lectionis in place of diacritics, even when the latter is more suitable or when words from another Semitic language, such as Hebrew, are transliterated. That phenomenon is augmented by the neglect of diacritics in most printed forms since the beginning of mechanical printing. Informal orthographies of spoken varieties of Arabic
also use ha to indicate a shorter version of alif, a usage augmented by the ambiguity of the use of ha and taa marbuta in formal Arabic
orthography. It is a formal orthography in other languages that use Arabic
script, such as Kurdish alphabets. Syriac[edit] Syriac-Aramaic vowels are classified into three groups: the Alap (ܐ), the waw (ܘ), and the yod (ܝ). The mater lectionis was developed as early as the 6th century to represent long vowels, which were earlier denoted by a dot under the line. The most frequent ones are the yod and the waw, while the alap is mostly restricted to some transliterated words.[1] Usage in Hebrew[edit] Further information: Hebrew spelling Most commonly, yod י indicates i or e, while waw ו indicates o or u. Aleph
א was not systematically developed as a mater lectionis in Hebrew (unlike in Aramaic and Arabic), but it is occasionally used to indicate an a vowel. (However, a silent aleph, indicating an original glottal stop consonant sound that has become silent in Hebrew pronunciation, can occur after almost any vowel.) At the end of a word, He ה can also be used to indicate that a vowel a should be pronounced. Examples:

Symbol Name Vowel formation Vowel quality Example

Biblical Modern Hebrew Transliteration

א Alef ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô mostly ā פארן Paran

ה He ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô mostly ā or e לאה Leah

משה Moshe

ו Waw Vav ô, û ō or ū יואל Yo'el

ברוך Baruch

י Yod Yud î, ê, ệ ī, ē or ǣ אמיר Amir

Influence on other languages[edit] Later, in some adaptations of the Arabic
alphabet (such those sometimes used for Kurdish and Uyghur) and of the Hebrew alphabet (such as those used for the Yiddish and Ladino languages), matres lectionis were generally used for all or most vowels, thus in effect becoming vowel letters: see Yiddish orthography. This tendency was taken to its logical conclusion in fully alphabetic scripts such as the Greek, Roman and Cyrillic
alphabets. Many of the vowel letters in such languages historically go back to matres lectionis in the Phoenician script. For example, the letter ⟨i⟩ was originally derived from the consonant letter yod. Similarly the vowel letters in Avestan were adapted from matres lectionis in the version of the Aramaic script used for Pahlavi. See also[edit]

Hebrew spelling Niqqud Ktiv male Mappiq Tiberian vocalization Tengwar


^ B. J., Segal (2004). The Diacritical Point and the Accents in Syriac. Gorgias Press LLC. pp. 20–21. ISBN 978-1-59333-125-2. 


 Gesenius' Hebrew Grammar, §7 Garr, W. Randall. 1985. Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine, 1000-586 B.C.E. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. Jensen, Hans. 1970. Sign Symbol and Script. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. Transl. of Die Schrift in Vergangenheit und Gegenwart. VEB Deutscher Verlag der Wissenschaften. 1958, as revised by the author. Naveh, Joseph. 1979. Die Entstehung des Alphabets. Transl. of Origins of the Alphabet. Zürich und Köln. Benziger. Sass, Benjamin. 1991. Studia Alphabetica. On the origin and early history of the Northwest Semitic, South Semitic and Greek alphabets. CH-Freiburg: Universitätsverlag Freiburg Schweiz. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht.

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Hebrew language


Language Alphabet History Transliteration
to English / from English Numerology


Biblical (northern dialect) Mishnaic Medieval Modern

Reading traditions

Ashkenazi Sephardi Italian Mizrahi (Syrian) Yemenite Samaritan Tiberian (extinct) Palestinian (extinct) Babylonian (extinct)





Rashi Braille Ashuri Cursive Crowning Paleo-Hebrew


Alef Bet Gimel Dalet Hei Vav Zayin Het Tet Yud Kaf Lamed Mem Nun Samech Ayin Pei Tsadi Kuf Reish Shin Taw


Tiberian Babylonian Palestinian Samaritan

Shva Hiriq Tzere Segol Patach Kamatz Holam Kubutz and Shuruk Dagesh Mappiq Maqaf Rafe Sin/Shin Dot


with Niqqud
/ missing / full Mater lectionis Abbreviations


Diacritics Meteg Cantillation Geresh Gershayim Inverted nun Shekel sign Numerals


Biblical Hebrew Modern Hebrew Philippi's law

Law of attenuation


Biblical Modern

Verbal morphology Semitic roots Prefixes Suffixes Segolate Waw-consecutive


Revival Academy Study Ulpan Keyboard Hebrew / ancient / modern Israeli literature Names Surnames Unicode and HTML

Reference works

Brown–Driver–Briggs Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament

v t e



Language Alphabet History Romanization Numerology Influence on other languages


Nabataean alphabet Perso- Arabic
alphabet Ancient North Arabian Ancient South Arabian script

Zabūr script

numerals Eastern numerals Arabic



i‘jām Tashkil Harakat Tanwin Shaddah

Hamza Tāʾ marbūṭah


ʾAlif Bāʾ Tāʾ

Tāʾ marbūṭah

Ṯāʾ Ǧīm Ḥāʾ Ḫāʾ Dāl Ḏāl Rāʾ Zāy Sīn Šīn Ṣād Ḍād Ṭāʾ Ẓāʾ ʿAyn Ġayn Fāʾ Qāf Kāf Lām Mīm Nūn Hāʾ

Tāʾ marbūṭah

Wāw Yāʾ Hamza

Notable varieties


Proto-Arabic Old Arabic Ancient North Arabian Old South Arabian


Classical Modern Standard Maltese[a]


Nilo-Egyptian Levantine Maghrebi

Pre-Hilalian dialects Hilalian dialects Moroccan Darija Tunisian Arabic Sa'idi Arabic

Mesopotamian Peninsular

Yemeni Arabic Tihamiyya Arabic

Sudanese Chadian Modern South Arabian

Ethnic / religious



Juba Arabic Nubi language Babalia Creole Arabic Maridi Arabic Maltese


Literature Names


Phonology Sun and moon letters ʾIʿrāb (inflection) Grammar Triliteral root Mater lectionis IPA Quranic Arabic

Calligraphy Script

Diwani Jawi script Kufic Rasm Mashq Hijazi script Muhaqqaq Thuluth Naskh (script) Ruqʿah script Taʿlīq script Nastaʿlīq script Shahmukhī script Sini (script)


keyboard Arabic
script in Unicode ISO/IEC 8859-6 Windows-1256 MS-DOS codepages

708 709 710 711 720 864

Mac Arabic