Letters missing from the Hebrew Alphabet
By Jeff A. Benner

For the past several years I have been researching and studying the ancient Hebrew alphabet and language for the "Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible". In this research I have come across several anomalies and it has only been recently that one of these anomalies has been answered. The discovery is that there is a twenty-third letter missing from the Hebrew alphabet that existed prior to the written text of the Bible as it is known to us today. The evidence suggests that this missing letter is the letter ghayin. At some point in the development and evolution of the Hebrew alphabet, this letter became absorbed by the letter ayin. I am certainly not the first to discover this as there are other sources making this claim, but it was not until the overwhelming evidence surfaced that I found their claims to be valid.

One Word - Two Meanings

The strongest evidence of the missing ghayin can be found in two different meanings of one Hebrew word. The Hebrew word רע (ra) can mean "friend" or "bad". This in itself is not proof as their are many times where one Hebrew word can have different meanings such as בר (bar) which can mean "grain", "fat", "soap" or "pure". At first glance you would think that these words are all of completely different meanings but when researching this word it is found that they all have a related theme. Grains are fed to livestock to the make them fat. The fat is used to make soap which is used to make one clean. Purity is simply the idea of being "clean".

I was completely unable to make a connection between the two meanings of the word רע but this is often the case as a complete understanding of the ancient Hebrew thought is not always possible. But when this same problem occurred time and again with words containing the letter ע (ayin), such as in the examples in Table 1 below, it begins to become evident that we are working with two different letters.

Table 1

Hebrew w/ ayin w/ ghayin
יעל profit goat
סער hair storm
עול infant wicked
עור skin blind
עיף weary darkness
עיר colt city
ענה heed answer
ערב weave dark
ערם naked crafty
ערף neck rain
רע friend bad
רעה shepherd break

When we compare the meanings of the words that are spelled with a ghayin in Table 1, you will notice the similarity to all of these words. The majority of these words are related to darkness (dark, storm, clouds, rain, blind) and wickedness (wicked, goat, city, bad, crafty). This is very beneficial in attempting to determine which letter, the ayin or ghayin, is being represented in Hebrew words. For example the Hebrew word סעה meaning "storm", may have originally been written with an ayin or a ghayin. As this word means "storm" it is closely related to other words that contain the letter ghayin. Therfore, we can assume that the this word was originally written with a ghayin. Table 2 contains several examples of Hebrew words that originally contained the letter ghayin.

Table 2

עב cloud
עוב cloud
עוה perverse, crooked
עות crooked
עז goat
עקל crooked
עקש crooked

Letter Evolution

This shift from the ghayin to the ayin is not unique with ancient, and even modern words. Over time words and their roots evolve. To demonstrate this let us look at an English word and its evolution. The words, "napkin" and "apron" are derived from the word "map". In ancient times maps were written on sheets of fabric called "maps". A very common shift in letters as words evolve is from an "m" to an "n" and visa versa. The word "napkin", a sheet of fabric, is the word "map" with the suffix "kin" added to it. An old English word "napron", also a sheet of fabric tied around the body, is the word "map" with the suffix "ron" added to it. As we would refer to this latter word as "a napron", the "n" shifted to the "a" and became "an apron".

This same shift of letters can be seen many times in the evolution of Hebrew words. Within the Biblical text we have the ancient parent root זב (zav) meaning "yellow". From this parent root two child roots are derived, זהב (zahav)meaning "gold" and זוב (zuv) meaning "pus", both being yellow in color. Another child root, צהב (tsahav), also has the meaning "yellow," but has no connection to the ancient parent root צב (tsav) meaning "wall". From this evidence, we can conclude that צהב is an evolved form of the root זהב, as the צ (ts) and ז (z) sounds are very similar.

The idea of the letter ghayin shifting to the ayin is not unique except that in this case every use of the ghayin shifted over to the ayin.

Greek Transliterations of the Ghayin

When the Tenach (Old Testament) was translated into Greek about 2,000 years ago, the translator transliterated the Hebrew names into Greek. Table 3 below contains a few examples of these transliterations. As not every letter in the Hebrew alphabet has an equal corresponding letter in the Greek alphabet, there will be some differences yet many of the letter sounds are the same.

Table 3

Hebrew Pronunciation Greek Pronunciation English
אדם adam Adam Adam Adam
חוה havah Euan Euav Eve
חבל havel Abel Abel Abel
קין qain Kain Kain Cain
שת shet Shq Seth Seth

When we examine Hebrew names that contain the letter ayin, we find two methods of transliterating the name. Table 4 below contains Hebrew names where the ayin is not transliterated because it is a silent letter, while Table 5 contains Hebrew names where the ayin is transliterated with the Greek letter "Gamma".

Table 4

Hebrew Pronunciation Greek Pronunciation English
בעל baal Baal Baal Baal
בלעם bilam Balaam Balaam Balaam
עשתרות ashtarot Astarwq Astaroth Ashtaroth

Table 5

Hebrew Pronunciation Greek Pronunciation English
עמרה amorah Gomorraj Gomorras Gomorrah
עזה azzah Gazan Gazan Gaza
פעור peor Fogwr Pogor Peor

The letter ayin, as found in the names listed in Tables 4 and 5, was originally pronounced with two distinctly different sounds when the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible was made. As the Greek translation was made about 2,000 years ago, this means that the ghayin's sound shifted to the ayin's sometime in the last 2,000 years.

Since the ghayin is transliterated into Greek by using the letter Gamma, we can conclude that this missing letter had a "g" type sound, hence its name "ghayin".

Only Hebrew is missing the Ghayin

Arabic, another modern Semitic language, has managed to retain both the ayin and ghayin as separate letters. The Arabic letter represents the ayin, while the represents the ghayin. The ancient Ugarit language also makes a distinction between the ayin, written as , and the ghayin, written as .

Notice that in both of these cases in the Arabic and Ugarit, the script used to write the two letters are very similar indicating some type of connection between the two letters. This is unique to any of the other letters in the Semitic alphabet. I am not certain why this is so, but is another interesting puzzle to this very ancient alphabet.

Edward Horowitz

The following is an excerpt from Edward Horowitz's book "How the Hebrew Language Grew", by KTAV publishing. I read this book several years ago and loved it. There were portions of the book that I did not agree with including this section, that is until recently.

Ancient Hebrew had two different ע sounds. These sounds were represented in our alphabet by the letter ע. One was a harsh, heavy ע. This is now lost, and no longer used in Hebrew. The other was a soft, mild ע. When the Greek Jews translated the Bible into Greek, they had to transliterate Hebrew names having the harsh ע in it. They used the Greek letter gamma for it - so you can just imagine how hard a sound it must have been. This "ע gayin" has even come all the way down to English. The Hebrew place names עמרה and עזה both of which have this strong ע were transliterated into Greek as Gommora and Gaza. Didn't the odd forms of these place names in English ever puzzle you? In medieval times there was exported from Gaza a thin fabric which was naturally name "gauze" after the city of its origin.

Incidently, Arabic a close sister language of Hebrew, still pronounces these two ע's differently, and what's more writes them differently.

This simple piece of knowledge about the existence of two different ע's, should clear up a great many puzzling different meanings that you will often find in a root that has an ע in it.

What does all this mean to the study of the Hebrew language?

In the study of the ancient Hebrew language and alphabet we begin studying the language at its simplest roots, the letters. Each letter is a picture that represents a meaning. When the letters are combined to form roots, each letter supplies meaning to the root. By then studying the various words, which are derived out of any given root, we can begin to reconstruct the original root language of Hebrew. In order to be as accurate as possible, we need to be sure that we are using the correct words, roots and letters.

Now that this letter has been discovered the next steps are to reveal the original pictograph of the letter as well as its meaning and continue to uncover which words that contain the letter ayin are actually an ayin or were originally the letter ghayin. For additional updates on this project watch the "what's new" section on the home page.

Now that the twenty-third letter of the Hebrew alphabet has been found, are there others? The answer is most likely. Edward Horowitz claims that there are two chet's, two shin's, two zayin's and three tsade's bringing the total count of Hebrew letters to twenty-eight. Interestingly the Arabic alphabet contains twenty-eight letters and the ancient Ugarit alphabet contains thirty (but this includes two variations of the letter aleph bringing us again to twenty-eight letters).