Dashes and Alephs
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Categories: Ancient

Dashes and Alephs

Photograph of a forest on hills disappearing into fog
At least I am not claiming that I got lost in the mountains, although that is easier in Innsbruck this summer than you might think.

While troubles with my Internet connection have prevented me from posting anything substantial, this week I added a paragraph to my post on how to interpret the special characters in Latinizations of Near Eastern languages. Transliterations of Semitic names often contain dashes (<->) and alephs (<ˀ> or <‘>) and these can look a bit mysterious to the uninitated.

Aleph represents a “very brief constriction of the throat as between the syllables of uh uh.” Words in Semitic languages are based around a cluster of consonants, and in most Semitic languages aleph counts as one. It is therefore very important in distinguishing different words, even if speakers of some other languages have trouble hearing it, just like the distinction between <k>and <q> is real to speakers of Semitic languages even if English-speakers have trouble reproducing it. When speakers of Semitic languages write in an abjad, they write aleph at the start of some words beginning with a vowel, and transliterations sometimes imitate this convention.

A dash – is inserted between the elements of names made up of several words, such as Nabû-kudurrī-uṣṣur “Nabû-protect-my-eldest-son.” The pause between words seems to have been very short, similar to the one indicated by an aleph, but speakers of Semitic languages did not use aleph to mark word boundaries.

So a dash tells you that you are dealing with two words (which can be looked up separately in the dictionary) and an aleph tells you that you are dealing with one. Aleph can appear at the beginning or middle of a word, and a dash in the middle only. Both probably sounded similar, but recording the difference is important for readers who know a little about the original language.

In the next three weeks, look out for a link dump, a Fiorean question, and something nice and meaty on military history. I hope to be able to announce one of my secret projects within that time.

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