Learning the AlefBet
As printed in Proteus, the Journal of the Delaware Valley Mensa  (Oct 2010)


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            At the beginning of 7th grade, I was asked to pick the foreign language I would like to study for the coming years. To me, ever the practical child, the answer was clear: Spanish. Reason #1: it was the second most common language in the United States, so I might actually get to use it. Reason #2: I had always wondered what Ricky was yelling at Lucy.

            I found myself in a bit of a predicament on day one of my 8th grade Spanish class. I understood the need for review after a long summer away, but the instructor had backtracked a bit too much for my taste. I conceded that some in the room might not remember how to recite the alphabet in Spanish, but I did, and was therefore faced with 40 minutes of "learning" something I already knew. Worse, the teacher was moving incredibly, painfully, incomprehensibly slowly. I needed to either occupy my mind or flee the room screaming.

            In my small school, one room served as Foreign Language Central. Whatever the course, students would spend it surrounded by exotic landscapes and chipper illustrations hovering over the world's vocabulary. I recognized the Hebrew alphabet on one of the wall hangings. I pondered it, sensing escape, then looked to my right. There was Joanna, who shared not only my morning English and Social Studies classes, but also my vacant, kill-me-now expression. I would not have bothered her had she actually been engaged in the lesson, but I could see that I had the power to rescue us both. In the conspiratorial whisper honed for years by school children everywhere, I pleaded, "Joanna, teach me the Hebrew alphabet."

            Joanna confirmed her preference for my curriculum by turning her entire body in her chair to face me. And so it began. She said, "Alef." I said, "Ahlif." She said, "Alef, bet." I repeated, "Ahlif, bet." "Alef, bet, vet." "Ahlif, bet, vet."

            Hey, what a great method. It was like a game.

            "Alef, bet, vet, gimel, dalet, he, vav, zayin."

            "Um... ahlif, bet, vet, gimmol, dolly, hey, vuv, zion."

            I forgot about my Spanish teacher. Letter by letter, the list got longer and longer.

            "Alef, bet, vet, gimel, dalet, he, vav, zayin, chet, tet, yod, kaf, khaf, lamed, mem, nun."

            "Ahlif, bet, vet, gimmol, dolly, hey, vuv, zion, ..., chet, tet, ... yud, kaf, chaf? ... Llamed, mem, noon?"

            This was a challenge, but I was pretty sure that was why I was in school (though, technically, I was in Spanish class). I stayed focused and, with Joanna's help and patience with my errors, I could finally get to the end. At some point she realized I was saying "dolly" instead of "dalet" – the conspiratorial school whisper tends to leave off certain important sounds – but I did get points for pronouncing the distinctive Hebrew "ch" with appropriate gusto.

            I practiced reciting these letters on occasion, and later wondered how to write them as well. My friend Elin lent me her Hebrew book so I could copy the script version of the alphabet and use that for reference. When I revisited this interest in high school, curious about the sounds the letters made, my friend Bleema told me that most of the letters represented the first sound in their names. But that would make them consonants. How do you write words? She opened her book – backwards – and pointed to the text. "You see these little dots and lines underneath the letters? These are the vowels."

            I had never heard of a language that segregated its vowels. It just seemed wrong. No vowels no peace! I wondered whether the vowels had once been in the alphabet, but were exiled downward for some horrible sin, such as trying to split up one of the rhyming pairs like Pe and Fe. Or had they revolted against some tyranny? Maybe the letters with big heads bullied the little dots and lines, forcing them to go underground to preserve their dignity. If so, Yod is such a little guy that his continued presence above ground must signify paid protection. Or perhaps the vowels came about separately from the alphabet itself. Maybe ancient Hebrew simply had no vowels, and the consonant on consonant friction got so painful to listen to that an elder sat the council down and said, mopping the blood from his ears, "Dudes, we gotta get some dots."

            My friend David was known to tutor other high school students in Hebrew, so I asked him to sit me down and teach me about these mysterious little vowels. Then, suddenly, this was about more than reciting, more than recognizing letters. I could now make words. There is always something magical about that. I still did not know the actual language, but I was able to decipher any word in written Hebrew and that, I thought, was pretty cool.

            Cool became oddly useful when I practiced writing English words using Hebrew letters, though the lack of a “W” called for a bit of creative phonetic license. Elin, Bleema and I could now take our note-passing tradition to a new level. It was like having a secret code, because our communications would have been unintelligible to most anyone who might intercept them. With Bar and Bat Mitzvahs behind them, most of the kids who had studied Hebrew abandoned it by high school, and even those who had stuck with it would struggle with our notes since none of the words within them actually existed in Hebrew. They barely existed in English: “Ooo-ahts ahp bleemah? Ha-ooo ooo-ahz clahss?”

            My more traditional language study continued throughout high school as well. This enabled me and my multilingual friend Beth to use the Hebrew alphabet to write our notes to one another in Spanish. Only in America. Years later, I was watching I Love Lucy on Nick at Night. Midway through one of Ricky's tirades, I realized that I could understand every word. Dreams do come true.