Mater Lectionis

The usage of certain consonants to indicate a vowel in the spelling of Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac languages is called matres lectionis (Latin “mothers of reading”, singular form: mater lectionis, Hebrew: אֵם קְרִיאָה mother of reading). The letters that do this in Hebrew are א (aleph), ה (he), ו (waw) and י (yod). The י and ו in particular are more often vowels than they are consonants.

The practice of using matres lectionis seems to have originated when [ay] and [aw] diphthongs (written using the י (yod) and ו (waw) consonant letters respectively) monophthongized to simple long vowels [ē] and [ō]. This epiphenomenal association between consonant letters and vowel sounds was then seized upon and used in words without historic diphthongs. This system developed as an early system for indicating vowels using the Hebrew alphabet. The consonant letters י (yod), ו (waw), ה (He), and א (Aleph) can be given for a rough indication of long vowels. Originally they were put only at the end of the words, e.g., Sāděqā – she is righteous; Sidqī – my righteousness; Sidqō – his righteousness. Gradually, as this was found to be insufficient for differentiating between similar nouns, they were inserted in the medial positions, e.g., saddīq – righteous; sādōq – Zadok.

Where words can be written either with or without matres lectionis, spellings that include these letters are called male (Hebrew) or plene (Latin), meaning “full”, while spellings without them are called haser or defective. In some verb forms, matres lectionis are almost always used. In the 9th century, it was decided that the system of matres lectionis did not suffice to indicate the vowels precisely enough, so a supplemental vowel pointing systems (niqqud) (diacritic symbols indicating vowel pronunciation and other important phonological features not written by the traditional basic consonantal orthography) joined matres lectionis as part of the Hebrew writing system.

In some words in Hebrew there is a choice of whether to use a mater lectionis or not, and in modern printed texts matres lectionis are sometimes used even for short vowels, which is considered to be grammatically incorrect, though instances are found as far back as Talmudic times. In Talmudic times texts from Israel were noticeably more inclined to male spellings than texts from Babylonia. Similarly in the Middle Ages Ashkenazim tended to use male spellings under the influence of European languages, while Sephardim tended to use haser spellings under the influence of Arabic.

Symbol Name Vowel formation Vowel quality Example
Biblical Modern Hebrew Transliteration
א Aleph ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô mostly ā פארן Paran
ה He ê, ệ, ậ, â, ô mostly ā or e לאה Leah
שה Seh
ו Waw Vav ô, û ō or ū יואל Yo’el
ברוך Baruch
י Yod Yud î, ê, ệ ī, ē or ǣ דויד David
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