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Aleph in Language and Linguistics

Nature has shaped many of the words we commonly use in our daily lives throughout history. As humankind became more and more civilized, languages transformed shapes into the letters we know today. An undeniable example to the evolution of the language undoubtedly would be the letter “A.”

The letter A takes its roots from the Phoenician letter “Aleph” – a western Semitic word for “ox” (as in the Biblical Hebrew word Eleph (אֶלֶף) ‘ox’) Historically, the origin of Aleph can be traced back to the Middle Bronze Age and the Proto-Sinaitic script found in parts of Egypt and Canaan from around 1850 BCE, which comes from an ancient Egyptian hieroglyph or pictogram depicting an ox’s head. (1) The Egyptian “vulture” hieroglyph is also referred to as aleph, grounding the evidence to the letter representing a glottal stop /ʔ/. (2)

Meaning-wise having their history from Semitic languages, Aleph can be found in various languages within that family in different forms, though usually, the meaning stays the same – “ox, cattle, livestock.” In Modern Hebrew, it is written as א, which represents a glottal stop /ʔ/ or indicates a hiatus, while sometimes being silent. In Modern Arabic, it is written as ا and transliterated as alif, it usually represents either a long /a:/ or a glottal stop /ʔ/.

This very letter that can also be found in nearly all the Semitic languages in various forms gave rise to the Greek alpha (A) through its Phoenician form, being reinterpreted to express not the glottal consonant but the accompanying vowel, and hence the Latin A and Cyrillic A. From there, aleph/alpha has made its way into various languages, reserving itself the first spot in the alphabet, in the form of the letter A. But why is the letter A always the first letter? In Plutarch’s Moralia, according to the Phoenicians, the Phoenician name for ox was considered not the second or third, but first of all necessities. For this reason, it is said that the letter A was placed first while introducing the alphabet to Greece. As a competing theory Lamprias, Plutarch’s grandfather, states that the first articulate sound made is "alpha", because it is very plain and simple—the air coming off the mouth does not require any motion of the tongue—and therefore this is the first sound that children make. (3)


Aleph in Mythology and Religions

Aleph has always been a mysterious letter for various communities and belief systems. In Jewish mythology for example, we can observe the special place aleph has in depicting the creation of man and the universe. Golem, an animated anthropomorphic being that is created entirely from inanimate matter, has aleph carved into its head. It is believed that through that aleph, it gains its life. Moreover Aleph is mentioned in God’s mystical name as well. (Exodus I am, who I am) It is also said that in some traditions within the Jewish community, aleph has three meanings : Aluf, Ulfana and Peleh.

Aluf means master and symbolises the omnipotent force that created everything from nothing: creatio ex nihilo. Talmud tells us that the universe was created to last for 6000 years. And the first 2000 years of these are Tohu or chaos, and in this period Adam acknowledges God. We learn about that omnipotent force, the master.

Next comes Ulfana, translated as school or teacher. God acts as if he is our teacher and reveals the world to us by Torah. The mediator here is Abraham, the prophet that receives the Torah. Next 2000 years of the universe is about us, or more specifically Jewish people, learning about the world we live in.

The last 2000 years, Jewish people are introduced to the mystical level of Torah. We then encounter ecoles such as Kabbalah and the teachings of Chassidic thought. This era is represented by Peleh, which means the wondrous. This period has the potential to “usher in peace and tranquility throughout the entire world.” This is also the time in which Jewish people finally move from exile to redemption. With the help of aleph and its strong metaphorical use, the Jewish community is empowered. (4)

Aleph also has a prominent role in Islamic traditions, especially prominent in sufism and related mystic groups. It is believed that all letters meet in Aleph and they are different versions of Aleph. Vav for example, which looks like a more horizontal version of the number nine, represents the human infant when it is first born. Seeing aleph in all letters is, as if we are seeing the creator in every living and non living thing. And since aleph is not joined by any other letter in words written in Arabic, and stands alone and separate; it represents the oneness of God. Aleph also means to read and to learn, and reminds of us the first command God gave to prophet Muhammad. In literature aleph was used to represent us the beauty of the loved one and its stature. Consequently, the person who suffers in the name of love, who was once tall and upright; bends with the weight of his love and the lover who once was an aleph is now shown by other letters from the Arabic alphabet. (5)(6)

Yunus Emre tells us in one of his poems that

I tried to make sense of the Four Books*,
until love arrived,
and it all became a single syllable.

(*Torah, Psalms, Gospel, Quran, considered by Islamic tradition to be four Divinely revealed books.) (7)

Borges’ Short Story: el Aleph

This story opens up with the death of a loved one and a poet’s visit to his deceased lover’s house. There he meets the cousin of his lover which tells our protagonist that he also writes poetry. Later on, we find out that it is because of an aleph shaped slit in the loft, that the cousin gets the inspiration to write. When our character checks up on the aleph, he saw that “all space was there, actual and undiminished.”:

“I saw the teeming sea; I saw daybreak and nightfall; I saw the multitudes of America; I saw a silvery cobweb in the center of the pyramid; I saw a splintered labyrinth (it was London); I saw, close up, unending eyes watching themselves in me as in a mirror; I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me;” (8)

When he looks through the aleph, whose diameter “was probably little more than an inch”, he sees everything and anything; and concludes that this is the end of language.  How could he transfer the limitless Aleph with words, since in it and because of it we have all those symbols and their meanings that make up our entire language? It is obvious that Borges was influenced by the teachings of Kabbalah in his writings. However, we can also invoke the concept of monads founded by Leibniz here: monads are the simplest, the smallest element (almost infinetismall, smaller than an atom), that make up the universe. Monads, according to Leibniz, are mirrors to the world; like how in a function, an individual point fits to the equation of the function, yet the function is not comprised of a single point but has countless points. Similar to that comparison, monad and respectively aleph, is a mirror onto every other object in the world. (9)

When he sees every corner that has ever existed in the universe, he gets afraid that he wouldn’t be surprised by anything anymore. Maybe this is why the aleph, with the meaning given to it, should remain secret and thus finds a place in the mystic narratives of humankind: it gives the message that we ought to not know everything. Some things are meant to remain secrets, and we are meant to be curious and wonder about the wondrous, about peleh.

by Ümit Altar BİNİCİ & Begüm GÜVEN

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