Learning the Hebrew alphabet

'Aravah 'Ivrit trots into the picture with her flamethrower lasso.


In order to learn the Hebrew language, it’s important to learn the Hebrew (or ‘Ivrit) alphabet. The letters play a big role in the “Milhamah: Fighting Words” comics and games series because they affect how characters, objects and the fictional world of Avgad relate to one another.

Note: The name “Avgad” is based on the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet!

In Hebrew, the alphabet is also called the alefbet, since those are the first two letters. Hebrew has 22 main letters, and each has at least one way to pronounce it. Each letter also has its own numerical value, which is sometimes called gematria.

The letters

א is called alef. Its sound is formally a glottal stop, but for practical purposes, it usually sounds like a vowel. Occasionally it is quiescent, or silent. Sometimes, to show the glottal stop in the middle of a word, “Milhamah” transliterates alef with a diaeresis, as in “ë.” This letter’s numerical value is 1.

ב is called bet. Sometimes it sounds like a hard B, as in “boy.” And in Modern Hebrew it has a soft form that sounds like a V, as in “violin.” This letter’s numerical value is 2.

Note: Some Hebrew letters fall into a pattern called begadkefat, in which they have hard and soft forms.

ג is called gimel. Nowadays it just sounds like a hard G, as in “gust.” In ancient times, it may have also had a guttural Gh sound. It is a begadkefat letter. This letter’s numerical value is 3.

ד is called dalet. These days it only sounds like a hard D, like in dog. In ancient times, it may have also had a Dh sound, similar to the word “the.” It is a begadkefat letter. This letter’s numerical value is 4.

ה is called hë, which sounds like “hey.” It sounds like an H, though it often serves as a silent letter at the end of many feminine words. Its numerical value is 5.

ו is called ṿaṿ in Modern Hebrew and waw in ancient Hebrew. It usually sounds like a V or a W, respectively. However, it can sometimes represent an O or U. In “Milhamah: Fighting Words,” this letter is represented as Ṿ to distinguish it from the V in a soft ב. Its numerical value is 6.

ז is called zayin. It sounds like the Z in “zipper.” Its numerical value is 7.

ח is called et. You may see this letter represented as ch or, more ambiguously, as just h. It makes a guttural sound, like how some people pronounce Bach or chutzpah. In ancient Hebrew, it may have sounded like a breathier “H.” This letter’s numeral value is 8.

Note: “Milhamah: Fighting Words” uses for virtually all words except the “h” in the “Milhamah” title. That decision was a practical one. We want to make it easy to search for the series online!

ט is called ṭet. This letter sounds like the T in “truck” in Modern Hebrew, but may have sounded like an emphatic T in ancient Hebrew, articulated further back in the mouth. We represent this letter as T-dot to distinguish it from the T found in Taṿ. This letter’s numeral value is 9.

י is yod. This letter usually sounds like the Y in “yellow” but occasionally signals a “ee” sound. This letter’s numeral value is 10.

כ is kaf. Sometimes it sounds like a hard K, as in “kite.” The soft form sounds like a guttural “kh.” It is a begadkefat letter. Its numerical value is 20. Kaf is also a sofit letter, which means that its appearance changes at the end of a word. Its sofit version is ך.

ל is lamed. It sounds like the L in “lion.” Its numerical value is 30.

מ is mem. It sounds like the M in “money.” Its numerical value is 40. As a sofit letter, it appears as ם at the end of a word.

נ is nun. It sounds like the N in “nice.” Its numerical value is 50. As a sofit letter, it appears as ן at the end of a word.

ס is samekh. It sounds like the S in “same.” Its numerical value is 60.

ע is ‘ayin. In Modern Hebrew it’s often said the same way as alef, like a vowel. Ancient Hebrew used to pronounce it as a guttural sound deep in the throat. Its numerical value is 70.

פ is pë, which sounds like “pay.” It sometimes is pronounced like the hard P, and other times it sounds like the F in “fake.” It is a begadkefat letter. It’s also a sofit letter. Its numerical value is 80. As a sofit letter, it looks ף like at the end of a word.

צ is tzade, which sounds like the end of “its” in Modern Hebrew. In ancient Hebrew, it may have sounded like an emphatic “s” articulated further back in the mouth. We transliterate tzade as “tz,” though some people write it as “ts” or s with a dot underneath. Its numerical value is 90. As a sofit letter, it looks like ץ at the end of a word.

ק is qof, which sounds like a hard K like “key” in modern Hebrew, just like the hard version of kaf. However, in ancient Hebrew, it might have sounded like a more emphatic K, articulated further back in the mouth. We spell qof with a Q. Its numerical value is 100.

ר is resh, which either sounds similar to a Spanish R or to the French R in Modern Hebrew, depending on accent. In ancient Hebrew, it most likely sounded like the former. Ancient Hebrew might have had hard and soft ways to say resh, but it currently is not a begadkefat letter. Its numerical value is 200.

ש is shin or śin. Either way, it has a numerical value of 300:

  • Shin sounds like the Sh in “shine.” We spell it as “sh,” though some people write it as “š.”
  • Śin sounds like the S in “same” in modern Hebrew, though it might’ve had a stranger ancient Hebrew pronunciation that doesn’t neatly correspond with English. We spell it as “ś” to distinguish it from the “s” of samekh.

Note: You can tell the difference between the two forms when the Hebrew uses dots, or nequdot. Shin has a dot in the upper-right corner, and sin has a dot in the upper-left corner. Here’s a way to remember. Satan (שטן :Śaṭan) is sinister, and sinister comes from Latin and refers to the left side. So the sin dot goes on the left!

ת is taṿ. In Modern Hebrew, it always sounds like the T in “Tom.” In ancient Hebrew, it might’ve had an second soft pronunciation like the “Th” in “kith.” As a result, it’s a begadkefat letter. It has a numerical value of 400.

Learning a new alphabet and writing style takes time. Be careful in recognizing the subtle differences in certain letters, like ד and ר, or י and ו, or ו and ן, or כ and נ. Even ancient scribes and copyists usedmixed up letters sometimes when being too careless!


One alphabet, different styles

The 22 Foundational Glyphs in "Milhamah" depict the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. Get ready to enter a study of Hebrew grammar.

The Modern Hebrew alphabet comes from squarish Aramaic letters, and it’s by far the most important to master in order to understand the language.

However, you may see other Hebrew fonts out there. The most common modern alternative is cursive, but Rashi font, paleo-Hebrew font (ketav ‘Ivri) and even proto-Sinaitic font are other ways to spell the same letters. In “Milhamah: Fighting Words,” the Otiyot foundation letters that Ha-Shem used to create the world look like paleo-Hebrew.

Davar and dever: Hebrew and the plague

It’s a bit off-topic from “Milhamah” stuff, but the coronavirus inspired some recent articles on Hebrew and plagues. The connection makes sense, as the word davar (for “word” or “thing”) shares the same ד-ב-ר root as dever (“plague”). The root already debuted in the “Milhamah” comic.

But David Curwin, author of the Balashon Hebrew blog, writes that the two words’ origins differ despite the common root:

More surprisingly, it is not cognate with the word hadbara – “extermination.” That word comes from a third Hebrew root, which meant “to follow behind” or “to push forward.” This meaning led to the word midbar – “desert,” which was a place where cattle were pushed forward to graze. In the more intense hifil form of the verb, hidbir, “pushing forward” became “subdue, overwhelm,” and from there came the meaning “to eliminate, exterminate.” (“Yadber sonenu,” we recite in the Prayer for the I.D.F., asking God to “subdue our enemies.”)

Meanwhile, Daniel Kennemer writes in The Times of Israel about the etymology behind the root ר-ש-ף. It can mean fire, plague, birds, demons and even a Canaanite god named Reshef or Rishpu:

“He spread epidemics and death. […] He is represented with a shield, a club and a lightning bolt,” according to one summary.

Lastly, author Jeremy Benstein writes about the linguistics of infection related to the root ד-ב-ק, tying it to Deut. 28:21. He also notes the root’s sexual and secular meanings, as well as spiritual ones such as “spiritual closeness with God” and the antithesis of:

when an evil spirit clings to a person, a sort of demonic possession, known as a דיבוק dybbuk, made popular in the play by S. An-sky of that name.

Whether our modern anxieties call to plagues, pagan gods or demons, the sickness of our age is obvious. It’s all the more reason why we need heroes armed with candor and dedication.





Grammar Part 3: Hebrew history

A screenshot of the Aqademyah's like of my praise for their services, which included a link to this site.
The Aqademyah likes me! They really like me!


After learning about Semitic languages in November, our journey through the Joüon and Muraoka book continues. This time we’re going specifically through the history of ancient Hebrew.

Biblical Hebrew is fairly consistent throughout the centuries. The Bible’s writers, from earliest to latest, differ most in vocabulary. Some of the syntax also evolves, though it’s not that significant. Morphology, or word formation, changed the least due to stable consonants.

However, Joüon and Muraoka point out that the following Mishnaic Hebrew era strays farther from the biblical style conventions. However, they speculate that some Mishnaic-era writers still wanted to write in the Bible’s older style and format.

And they say Mishnaic Hebrew started to form after most of the Tanakh (Old Testament) was finished. The Mishnaic era also covers the period of the Dead Sea Scrolls and Jesus. 

Joüon and Muraoka divide the biblical language into two eras: a “golden age” before the Babylonian exile and an era afterward. The authors acknowledge that some scholars think the entire Bible was basically written after the exile. But Joüon and Muraoka point out linguistic differences, such as the Bible’s later books spelling “Jerusalem” and “David” in a way earlier biblical books didn’t.

Hebrew’s relationship to ‘Milhamah’

The “Milhamah” webcomic doesn’t glean too much from this history. However, the character of ‘Aravah ‘Ivrit, whom I unveiled last week for Hebrew Language Day, embodies the language. Some of the details are in that post.

My art drew quite a few people from Facebook to this website. I even earned a Facebook like from the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which chiefly promotes the holiday in honor of Hebrew revivalist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Their resources are a great help to my comic research, and I let them know that. 

All in all, it’s not a bad way to end the year!

Grammar Part 2: Semitic languages

As we continue last week’s examination of Joüon and Muraoka’s book “A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew,” the authors remind us that Hebrew is a Semitic language that is similar to neighboring tongues.

For instance, Semitic languages’ shared traits include:

  1. Gutturals like ḥet (ח) and ‘ayin (ע)
  2. emphatics like  ṭet (ט), tzadi (צ) and qof (ק)
  3. Root sequences usually composed of three consonants that suggest specific motifs that are conjugated by adding vowels

According to the book, the oldest Semitic languages were born in the northeast, such as Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian) and Eblaite.

Next the book says the South Semitic languages generally arose, such as Hadrami, Minaic, Qatabanic  and Sabean. The Southern family also includes Ge’ez, which South Arabian emigrants to Ethiopia spoke, according to the book.

Finally the Central (or Northwestern) Semitic languages came to be, such as Canaanite, Aramaic and Arabic. While Hebrew was home to the land of Canaan, the book says proto-Hebrew and ancient Canaanite differed in some ways, like how they conjugated the qal passive verb.

Hebrew is very similar to Moabite and also related to Phoenician. Ugaritic, spoken to the north of Canaan, is a separate language with a cuneiform alphabet.

The Bible refers to Hebrew (‘Ivrit) as Yehudit. Besides the Bible, we know about ancient Hebrew through Babylonian and Akkadian documents. Ostraca and archaeological finds like the Gezer Calendar and the Siloam inscription offer more evidence.

Other languages like ancient Egyptian and Berber have some things in common with Semitic languages, but not enough to part of the family.

Where the languages fit in ‘Milhamah’

As “Milhamah: Fighting Words” begins its first year, expect to see Hebrew explained in depth, along with a smattering of Akkadian.

In our fictional world, several other languages have their own insurgencies and resistance movements against Bavel too. While virtually all of these movements are (at least temporary) allies of the Holy Tongue Society, their activities happen off-camera. “Milhamah” will only deal with Semitic languages, and specifically ones that I study in great detail.

Why Semitic languages? They have features that inspire artistic creativity and make good gameplay mechanics. For example, look at the trilateral shoresh roots, in which three consonants combine to make words with similar meanings.

This concept will make more sense in the weeks to come. The comic’s Episode 9 will be released Tuesday, and I hope to begin showing very early development screenshots or videos of the roguelike game in December.

Meanwhile, if you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!

Hebrew grammar study Part 1: The naqdanim

Today begins a weekly series through a huge tome on A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew by Paul Joüon and Takamitsu Muraoka. While it’s not the best book for learning modern, conversational Hebrew, this book is exhaustive for anyone who wants to master the language.

So from here, I’ll summarize the book’s passages to brush up on my own studies, and I’ll also getting ideas for “Milhamah” characters and plot details. After this book, I hope to move on to study other languages such as Aramaic, Akkadian or Arabic.

So let’s start with Section 1, which is “Hebrew Grammar Defined.” which credits the seventh-century Tiberians, known as naqdanim, for inventing nequdot. Those are vowel symbols under consonants that show words’ pronunciation, syllables and stress.

Other Babylonian, Palestinian and Samaritan groups came up with their own vocalization systems. But this book deems the Tiberians reliable for describing Hebrew’s pronunciation.

The root definitions 

So where might the naqdanim come into play in “Milhamah”? So far this is just in my tentative draft notes, but here it goes…

First of all, the naqdanim and nequdot come from the shoresh root nun-qof-dalet (נקד). According to the Academy of the Hebrew Language’s Ma’agarim Historical Dictionary Project, this root carries a variety of meanings.

The most popular meaning is to mark a dot, and this carries derived meanings of punctuating or vocalizing, which is what the naqdanim do.  (Klein’s dictionary gives “pedant” as another definition of naqdan.) And interestingly, the root’s pointlike connotations tie into neqed, coccus bacteria.

Another root meaning includes shepherding flocks, so shepherds fall into this category. A rarer definition involves stabbing or penetration, which might relate to making a point. There also is a rare definition that seems to be a sunrise or sunshine, but I’ll need to study the context more.

When you permute the root’s letters, you also get dalet-nun-qof (דנק), which seems to be a rare root pertaining to agony. According to the Academy’s more modern Hebrew Terms Database, the root dalet-qof-nun (דקן) is tied to the word for dean.

The worldbuilding approach in ‘Milhamah’

OK, so for “Milhamah,” let’s imagine one of the intersecting paths between Bavel’s gates leads to a place, basically a dot on the map called Nequddah. It’s a sunny pastoral place for sheepherding, so it doesn’t attract many visitors.

The naqdanim are a forgotten group of orators, critics and self-styled linguists. Before Bavel, they might’ve been the traditional guardians of the old order.

But these days, they gather in the fields to pedantically debate the finer points of speech. They basically do nothing while the Bavel Empire threatens and oppresses the world.

While the naqdanim might not be villains, they act more like sheep than the shepherds they believe they are. I’m not sure where the bacteria would play in such a setting, but surely the land carries physical and spiritual sicknesses.

Anyway, that should inspire me to eventually do some art of Nequddah and its inhabitants. It’ll be awhile before we see it in the comic, but maybe they’ll appear in my roguelike soon.