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How are the meanings of the Ancient Hebrew letters determined?

By Jeff A. Benner

In my Ancient Hebrew Alphabet Chart I identify the different meanings of each Hebrew letter. How are these meanings determined? Each Hebrew letter was originally written as a picture, a pictograph. As an example, in the modern Hebrew alphabet the letter peh is written as פ, but in the ancient pictographic script this letter was a picture of a mouth (see below). The letter ayin, written as ע in modern Hebrew, was originally a picture of an eye.

The ancient letter peh (mouth) The ancient letter ayin (eye)

How do we know that these pictures are of a mouth and eye? The names of the Hebrew letters are also Hebrew words. The Hebrew word פה (pey) means "mouth" and the Hebrew word עין (ayin) means "eye."

Yea, they opened their mouth (פה / pey) wide against me, and said, Aha, aha, our eye (עין / ayin) hath seen it. (KJV, Psalm 35:21)

I also explain that each picture represented different ideas and concepts. In the case of the letter peh, the meanings of this letter are mouth, speaking (as done with the mouth) and edge (from the lips being the edge of the mouth). How do we know that these are meanings of the letter peh? Because the Hebrew word פה (peh) also has these very same meanings.

And the sons of Israel did so, and Joseph gave to them wagons according to the mouth (the spoken words) of Pharaoh, and he gave them food for the road. (Genesis 45:21, my translation)  

And Joshua prostrated Amelek and his people by the mouth (the edge) of the sword. (Exodus 17:13, my translation)

In the same way, the Hebrew letter ayin has the meanings of eye, see (the function of the eye) and knowledge (as gained from seeing). Again we can see that the Hebrew word עין (ayin) has these same meanings.

And Aaron spoke all the words that YHWH spoke to Moses, and he did the signs to the eyes of (in the sight of) the people. (Exodus 4:30, my translation)  

And it will be, if with the eyes (knowledge) of the congregation it was done in error... (Numbers 15:24, my translation)

Ancient Hebrew Alphabet and Language

Related Pages by Jeff A. Benner

Origins of WritingOrigins of Writing (Article)
The Egyptian, Sumerians, and Semites originally wrote with a pictographic (meaning picture writing) form of writing.

Hebrew Alphabet ChartHebrew Alphabet Chart (Chart)
A detailed chart showing the different stages of the Hebrew alphabet from ancient to modern times.

The Hebrew Origin of the English AlphabetThe Hebrew Origin of the English Alphabet (Video)
Examing the Ancient Hebrew alphabet and how it transformed over thousands of years into the English alphabet.