Monday, February 13, 2006

Hebrew alphabet reform

Language and alphabet reform is a truly strange thing. From Esperanto to invented scripts, these projects are usually spearheaded by...unusual people (to be charitable) or autocracts (as in the writing reform of Ataturk, transforming written Turkish from Arabic to Roman characters). Most of these proposed reforms remain just that, because it seems like they can't be imposed without a gun (and often even they can't even with). Of course there are exceptions, such as the Cherokee syllabary invented by Sequoyah, an illiterate Cherokee silversmith who literally invented a syllabic alphabet for his nation upon observing white people reading and writing. With the gift of a spelling book that he could not read and his own imagination he devised a working writing system for the Cherokee, who quickly became literate.

Anyway, an example of autocratic reform imposed on an alphabet was Stalin's initial embrace of Yiddish culture in the 1930s, as a Soviet-approved Jewish culture, minus Judaism. An entire new Yiddish orthography (spelling system) was devised, designed to make Yiddish words derived from Hebrew look as far from how it was written in the Bible as possible. For example, the Soviet Yiddish newspaper 'Der Emes,' (the Truth) was spelled דער עמעס, instead of דער אמת. Writer Sholom Aleichem's name was spelled שאלמ אלייכעמ, instead of שלום עליכם, which is how he himself spelled his name (as you can see, this orthography did away with the סופית letters as well).

Anyway, this ניט--וורי--עמעס episode was rather short lived, as Stalin soon tired of his Yiddish Jews, closing down the Yiddish press in 1948 and shooting all the Yiddish writers in 1952.

It was brought to my attention (hat tip: Mis-nagid) about a wacky Hebrew alphabet reform proposed by Hugh J. Schonfield, author of the 1965 best seller The Pasover Plot. The Passover Plot was a controversial book which speculated that Jesus intended to fake his own death and resurrection (since death by crucifix typically took as much as 24 hours or more, the plan was to bribe the Roman soldiers to take him down after only a few hours, alive) but the plan went awry when he was speared by a soldier and so died. But I digress.

Schonfield apparently thought the Hebrew alphabet was ugly (!) and in a book called The New Hebrew Typography in the 1930s devised the following in its place (taken from The Schonfieldian Script Page):

As you can see, he created both lower-case and capital letters and the alphabet appears heavily influence by a sort of Cyrillic alphabet. I'm not sure what Schonfield's point was, but there you have it.

An example of Hebrew writing in his reformed Hebrew script (taken from the aforementioned web site):

No, no one took this seriously. Thankfully.

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