Tuesday, January 26, 2021

Introduction to SimHebrew - a developer's viewpoint.

As readers will know, I have been allowing the benefits of SimHebrew as a ltr abbreviation for rtl Hebrew sink in over the past year. You could say I have been doing a little word processing experiment with multiple representations of a language. Here is a summary of the things I have learned over the year, extracted from various posts on the subject.


Every software developer who wants to work with a right-to-left language in a left-to-right programming language has a problem testing the values of the words he or she may be working with. SimHebrew is an elegant solution to this problem for Hebrew.

SimHebrew is a representation of rtl square Hebrew in ltr Latin letters. It makes learning the letters easier. It is good for ease of searching, especially with software, and for applications like URL coding. SimHebrew was a very slight translation for me from a technique I had used in the first version of my software, but lowercase rather than uppercase letters and the choices of letters to reflect the shapes through mirroring improve its usability. 

Compare: a traditional keyboard mapping:

xbgdhvzHTjklmnsypcqrwt
אבגדהוזחטיכלמנסעפצקרשת

with the SimHebrew mapping:

abgdhvzk'ticlmnsypxqrwt
אבגדהוזחטיכלמנסעפצקרשת

One has to get used to either one. Dislodging a poor mapping can be difficult for us. My old mapping was usable but I hid it from anything or anyone outside my programs. My aleph was ), my ayin was `, these reminded me of the guttural aspect of the letters. My chet was X. My yod was Y and my kaf was K and my tsade was C like the keyboard. I distinguished shin and sin as $ and W. Enough said. It worked, but SimHebrew is simpler and graphically closer to the Hebrew letters and it doesn't have to be hidden.

The grapheme /a/ begins the alphabet as is traditional. One gets used to /k/, the eighth letter as chet. The ninth, tet is anomalous. SimHebrew uses an escaped /t/. (I use + internally for tet.) The grapheme /i/ is a natural for yod. Similarly C is a natural for כ, its mirror image. And /x/ is not a bad graphic imitation of tsade. Note too how even in our standard typefaces, q, r, and w are all mirror images of the Hebrew letters. This clue is followed up by Jonathan Orr-Stav in his book Aleph through the Looking Glass.

So how do we pronounce these letters and the words they make up? I have no shortcut answers for this question at the moment. But pronunciation can be studied directly by scanning the concordance in the form that I have it in.

Aleph, a, א is a guttural. Think of it as a glottal stop (as in English) but it can carry one of many vowel sounds with it. So the /a/ of ab, father, carries an a. But the /a/ of abn, stone, carries an /e/ so is pronounced ebn (as in Ebenezer). This is not different from English. For example, note that the English any begins with an 'e' sound.

Bet, b, ב sounds as b or v. Gimel, g, ג is g. Dalet, d, ד is d. He (heh), h, ה is the lighter aspirate, but it counts as a guttural too. /a/ and /h/ both have significant grammatical roles.

Vav, v, ו is the connector and appears in SimHebrew as /u/ /o/ or /v/. SimHebrew tells you explicitly for this letter. /v/ is part of the grammatical team.

Zayin, z, ז is z. Chet, k, ח is ch, the serious aspirate, much like ch in loch. Tet, 't, ט is t, a minor player on the grammatical team, occasional metastasis in a word.

Yod, i, י is i. It may operate like a consonant (as does the English /y/, for example, in the name Iago) as well as a vowel.

Kaf, c, כ is a hard c with a little h in it as well. /ç/ is used for a final kaf. Lamed (two syllables), l, ל is l. Mem, m, מ is m. Nun, n, נ is n. /i/, /c/, /l/, /m/, /n/ all play grammatical roles.

Samech, s, ס is s. It may look like an /o/ and be difficult to distinguish from an /m/ sofit. This is not a problem in SimHebrew. Samech, smç, support or sustain, comes in the place of O in the Latin alphabet. There must be story here.

Ayin, y, ע is the heavier-duty guttural - sort of like an emphasized 'excellent' in English. And like aleph, it may take more than one different vowel. For example viyl, so let him go up, is the connector vav, va, followed by the prefix /i/ behaving like a consonant y and the guttural /y/ carrying an ah sound, all together vaiy`al. And yolm, everlasting, eras past, etc, is /y/ glottal stop carrying an o sound, all together `olam. From a pronunciation point of view, two consecutive consonants tend to be separated by something close to a schwa. 

Peh, p, פ sounds like /p/, or /f/ if the last letter of a word. Tsade, x, צ is ts. Qof, q, ק is q. Resh, r, ר is r.

Shin / sin, w, שׁ is sh or s (and you just hafta know). /w/ is a minor player on the grammatical team, the prefix /sh/.

taf t ת is t. /t/ is a grammatical letter. The famous word amt comprised of the first and last letters and the 13th has either a or e associated with its pronunciation, but the two are very close and always heading towards schwa. E.g. amito, his truth, sounds like it is written but amt, truth, sounds like the Lego hero, Emmet.

So: five gutturals, a, h, k, y, and r. (May be disputed.) Several (16) strong letters that rarely disappear in word forms: b, g, d, z, 't, | k, c, l, s, y, | p, x ,q, r, w, t. Several (6) weak letters that often disappear in some word forms a, h, v, i, m, n. In particular, v and i often morph into each other. In SimHebrew the v will be written as v, o, or u.

There does not seem to be anything particularly tidy about this sequence of letters, any more or less than any other alphabet. The ancient scribes were aware of a sequence of letters. This is clear from the acrostic psalms and played on in the poems of Lamentations with what appears to be a reversed order of p and y. There are ancient abecedaries that agree with Lamentations.

SimHebrew has allowed my work to follow an easier path since 2019. Just the use of lowercase rather than my original mapping, has made life easier in this exercise of seeking out the changes in the presentation of the language from the pointed Biblical text to an unpointed text. SimHebrew makes searching very easy and aids greatly in presenting the data of Tanakh. And it so easy to type in both languages.



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