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Hebrew Script Index for Herbs and Spices


This index contains names for herbs and spices in two languages: Hebrew (unvocalized) and Yiddish. Although both languages are written in Hebrew letters (also known as Jewish Letters or Square Script), they differ in almost all other respects: Hebrew is a Semitic language related to Arabic. Yiddish, however, is based on an a Middle High German dialect that evolved into a separate language by borrowings from Hebrew and Slavonic, but even more so by cultural factors that made Yiddish a language extra­ordinarily rich in metaphors, puns and almost intranslate­able idiomatic expressions. For a native German speaker, Yiddish is not always unprob­lematical to understand, but the obstacles are hardly higher than with some of the more extreme German dialects, e. g., North German Platt or the distinct speeches in Switzerland or even Wien.

The Hebrew script, already used to write ancient religious texts like the Tora, originally codified only consonants. Because this was deemed inpractical, and because of sound shifts that moved some consonants to vowels, some letters for semivowels (vav=ו=V and yod=י=Y) came to denote chiefly the long vowels U and I, respectively (although they retain their original semivowel value on occasion). Likewise, he=ה=H became to mean a long vowel A or E word-finally. Consonant signs that indicate vowels are called matres lectionis mothers of learning.

Although Hebrew writing does not involve ligatures and context-depending glyph shaping, there are five Hebrew letters that assume a diffent shape word-finally. Unlike the situation in Arabic, these positional variants have separate Unicode codepoints. Thus the writer has always to remember to switch to the final forms when necessary. This is sometimes painful but reasonable, since the conventions of glyph choice are different in Yiddisch and Hebrew for the letter peh (פ, ף).

There is also a fully vocalized (pointed) mode of writing Hebrew, which uses a large number of additional diacritics to specify vowels and disambiguate the pronunciation of consonants. This allows to reconstruct the pronunciation of an unknown word from the written form alone, but such writing is not used for everyday purposes; rather it is restricted to language teaching and dictionaries, and of course for religious scriptures. Pointed headwords are given in a separate column as an experimental and perhaps unreliable feature.

The scripts used by Yiddish and Hebrew consist of the same letters, but Yiddish uses some of them (e.j., tav=ת=T) only in Hebrew borrowings, and modifies others by diacritical marks to represent a richer inventory of sounds (e. g., alef qamats=אָ=O). Also, Yiddish assigns some of the Hebrew letters to mean vowels unambigously, e.g., ayin=ע=ʿ represents E.

The transliteration given here is based on the scientific transliteration of Hebrew, which in turn resembles that of Arabic. I use capital letters because I feel this better fits the style of the original Hebrew. Yiddish conjuncts and ligatures have been represented by one character in transliteration, which approximately parallels the official YIVO-Transcription for Yiddish.

The sorting of the entries follows the Hebrew convention. Diacritical marks (rafe, dagesh, geresh) have been omitted in sorting, although they affect the transliteration. As a result, the collating principle is sometimes rather opaque, and cannot be inferred from a look at the transliteration column.

Hebrew names stem from the usual sources, this is, web sites, dictionaries and native speakers (this is, in different proportion, how I get most of my multilingual material). Yet this approach failed for Yiddish, since there are few Yiddish web sites in existence. There are, however, two dictionaries (English—Yiddish and Yiddish—Russian; the latter one is available only in and requires Windows-1251 transport encoding). As further help, the bilingual book entitled Di Gewiksn-Velt in Yidish [די געװיקסן־װעלט אין ייִדיש] The World of Plants in Yiddish (surprisingly, the English title is Plant Names in Yiddish) by Mordkhe Schaechter proved extremely valuable. For historical reasons, Yiddish often has a variety of different spellings for the same word.

This index also contains spice names in another Semitic language related (but not ancestral) to Hebrew: Aramaic. The Aramaic languages form a group widespread over space and time: Their recorded history begins in the 2.nd millennium BC, and in the long time since, Aramaic of one or the other kind has been spoken, for longer or shorter, in many places including the Eastern Mediterranean, Mesopotamia, Persia and India. The 20+ Neo-Aramaic dialects are the extant leaves of this ancient tree, and they are spoken in small, scattered communities in the triangle between Syria, the Caucasus and Iran, alltogether less than 500000 people (most of which are bilingual). A majaority of Aramaic speakers are Christians of various Oriental denominations, most of which have Aramaic as the language of religios ceremonies.

Aramaic script is also known as Syriac, although it is now almost extinct from Syria. It exists in significantly different typographical styles, which are not distinguished in Unicode; therefore, I cannot predict in which script style (if any) you will see the Aramaic names on this page. Syriac script resembles Arabic in that most letters connect to their successors, necessitating the use of multiple glyphs per codepoint. The table on the right side should show (from right to left) initial, medial, final and isolated glyph shapes for all 22 Syriac letters. You can check your browser's abilities by looking at the K row: Four identical glyphs indicate browser failure (reference screenshot). The letter repertoire is identical to Hebrew, justifying Aramaic's inclusion into this index.

I used a single source for Aramaic spice names: The only Aramaic–English dictionary in the web. Yet, this makes these spice names problematic: That dictionary records vocabulary from archeological finds from many different times and locales; therefore, the set contains loanwords from Arabic, Persian and Indian which are very unlikely to coxist in one single dialect. Moreover, the rendering in Aramaic script is solely my work and might be flawed. I here quote the Classical Latin proverb: Caveat Emptor!

A note for the technically minded readers: This index represents composed Yiddish letters (אָ,אַ,פּ,פֿ etc.) by a single character from the Unicode range FB00–FB4F Alphabetic Presentation Forms (NFD), although everywhere else I use sequences of letters plus diacritics (NFC). This has effects on search engine indexation and intra-site search. Also, current browsers seem to like the NFD more, despite my impression that one should go with the NFC in the long run.

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