I take the first step into this blog post with a bit of trepidation. I intend to broach a subject that Hebrew teachers generally avoid, given its controversial nature. In fact, one of Krashen’s hypotheses about the Natural Approach to second-language acquisition is that language teachers must do what they can to lower the “affective filter” (pp. 37–39), which would block students from connecting emotionally with the language and would discourage them from taking independent strides toward putting themselves into positions for receiving comprehensible input and discovering optimal input materials for themselves. It is my hope that I won’t be putting up any blocks for those who sincerely wish to find their way into acquiring and learning Hebrew in whatever form.
I do, however, feel compelled to offer a voice against some of the wild things that are becoming so popular on the internet and are contrary to everything scientific and evidentiary. There are two odd theories in particular: Edenics, the theory that all world languages have descended from Hebrew in some way; and, some popular idea that words in Hebrew derive their “real meaning” from meanings given to their composite letters. I will not confront Edenics at this time, but those interested may read these two answers on the Linguistics subsection of Stack Exchange (here and here) to receive great responses on Edenics. I want to offer some direction to those who are convinced by the second theory.
On the website Hebrew4Christians, they give a set of theoretical meanings for each letter of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. For example, they say that aleph (א) means “ox, strength, leader.” Similarly, bet (ב) means “house.” So, some argue, the word “father,” which is composed of aleph and bet (אב) in Hebrew, means “leader of the household.” This is how they think Hebrew words derive their meanings. You can see here that one who proposes this way of thinking actually interprets the Tetragrammaton (the name of the God of Israel) in the following flippant manner:
It should be clear that יהוה (יהוה), the name of God, does not mean “hand praise nail praise,” and that it has nothing to do with Jesus. The name of God, according to all sources, emerged from the verbal root הוה “to be.” There is some argument about whether it means “he is” or “he causes to be,” but all agree that it is somehow related to that root. Using some made-up “pictograph meaning” leads to false conclusions. Taking the above example of the word “father,” what happens when we change the letters around? In the order בא (בא), these letters mean “he came” or “he is coming,” yet it’s composed of the same consonants. Does “house” and “leader” suddenly mean “he came” when the letters are moved around?
How about when we consider the root of the verb “to come,” which is בוא (בוא) “house” and “nail” and “leader/strong”? Does “to come” suddenly have a secret pictographic meaning of “house nail strong”? This is absurd. The entire theory leads to absurdity, and it only takes on significance when you attribute all of the letters with Christian meanings, such that lamed means “shepherd” (to call to mind Jesus being the “good shepherd”), and vav means “nail” (to call to mind Jesus being nailed to the cross), and tav means “cross” (with obvious meaning), etc. The entire alphabet is arranged so that the most common letters will allow us to interpret any word through pictographs to represent something about the Christian gospel message—and this is not what the alphabet was invented for. This is so very wrong.
How’d We Get the Alphabet?
Writing developed after speech. As a corollary, humanity first had speech—consisting of sounds (phonemes) strung together into words and syntactic structures—and only later went about trying to figure out how to put these things into writing. The first writing systems were indeed pictographic or iconographic (like what we see in the Egyptian hieroglyph system). Hebrew was never written in this way. So, where did it come from?
Language came long before writing. When it came time to begin to write down what we say, the inventers of the alphabet first identified the sounds that they heard in the language. Once they identified the sounds, they assigned each sound a word from the language that began with the sound that they heard. When they heard “b,” they arbitrarily assigned the word בית (בַּ֫יִת báyiṯ) “house” and then drew a symbol that would remind them of the word báyiṯ so that they would remember to read it as the sound “b” that begins the word. They paired up all of the sounds with words in this way, and the words were arbitrarily chosen. They could have been anything. Instead of báyiṯ, for example, they could have chosen ברך (בֶּ֫רֶךְ béreḵ) “knee” or בן (בֵּן bēn) “son,” or any other word that starts with the sound /b/ (represented by ב—the letter bet). The only qualifying limitation was probably the ability to choose a concrete symbol that would indicate the word. It would have been harder to draw a pictograph to represent the knee than it is to draw one that represents a house. The pictograms are all concrete images that are easily distinguishable.
The letter itself does not bear the meaning of the pictogram. It is a mistake to say that a letter means something. There is no meaning in a letter. The word chosen certainly has meaning, but the name and picture were just chosen to make a visual reminder of the first sound of the word. At a later point, the shapes of the letters changed as memory became fixed on the shape of the letters, rather than on pictograms, bringing us to abjads and alphabets.
A list of the shapes of the letters at various periods can be found here on Wikipedia. The name of the letter does not play into how a word is understood. Words have meaning because of how they are used, not because of theoretical meanings of specific letters in the words. Attempting to derive meaning from the alphabet rather than how words are used is not a worthy pursuit.
Let’s take another example of a Hebrew word. The word חלם (חָלַם ḥālam) means “he dreamed.” According to the page linked above, we would derive meaning from fence-wall-separation (ח chet), staff/goad/control (ל lamed), and water-chaos (מ mem). We might cleverly combine these meanings to get the idea that dreams are formed from chaos that are controlled by the limitation of our imaginations while we sleep. However, the same root letters are used for לחם (לֶ֫חֶם léḥem) “bread.” Both are made up of these root letters, and both are primitive roots in Hebrew. How do we get “bread” from “separation, control, chaos”? Why would we think that these meanings should be put together to create these words? Indeed, the same roots are used for the word מלח (מֶ֫לַח mélaḥ) “salt” and מלח (מַלָּח mallāḥ) “sailor.” Do these four words—which all come from some combination of the root letters chet (ח), lamed (ל), and mem (מ)—really come from the combination of “separation,” “control,” and “chaos”? Does this even make sense?
Another example would be the word groups שבת (שַׁבָּת šabbāṯ) “sabbath” and בשת (בֹּ֫שֶׁת bṓšeṯ) “shame”—being supposedly derived from “destroy,” “house,” and “sign”—and נגף (נֶ֫גֶף néḡep̄) “affliction” and גפן (גֶּ֫פֶן gép̄en) “vine”—both of which are supposedly derived from the meanings of “camel/pride,” “word,” and “activity/life.” This could be carried out throughout the language. It makes absolutely no sense to try to get meaning from the individual root letters used within a word.
This just goes to show the strangeness of this theory. It doesn’t fit all words, so it is really useless.
One would think that if I simply gave you a word in English, you could combine three of the shapes and give me the word (or something similar to it) in Hebrew. You should at least be able to work out the combination of root letters, even if you cannot get them in the right order. So, if I give you the word “family,” you might consider that it would be combined of “house” (ב bet), “separation” (ח chet), and “life” (נ nun). These letters come together to create בחן (בָּחַן bāḥan) “to put to the test”—which has no connection to “house-separation-life.” The real word for “family” is משפחה (מִשְׁפָּחָה mišpāḥâ). You could never derive משפחה from a list of letter meanings. This theory has no predictive power. It is completely anecdotal, and it doesn’t fit many of the real words from the Hebrew language. It is powerless to give any kind of real sense to words, and it should be abandoned as a theory.