This past weekend, Jews began, once again, to read the Torah cycle. As most people know, the Torah scroll itself does not contain any vowels. It is only with the aid of a tanach and/or many years of learning that we understand what the words mean.
So I guess it’s a bit ironic that Jews supposedly invented vowels, around the time of King David. Joel Hoffman, a lecturer at HUC-JIR, explains that this was a vast improvement on previous languages:
Sometime during the second millennium BCE, a language commonly called “proto-Canaanite” – that is, “the language that would become Canaanite” – began to be written entirely in consonants. Later, the Phoenicians of southern Lebanon would write similarly. This purely consonantal system cleverly needed only about two-dozen symbols in various combinations to record any word in the language.
For example, the common ancient Canaanite word ram, meaning “high/exalted,” would be written RM. The word for “god,” el, was spelled ?L. (The question mark represents an alef, probably sounding like the glottal stop you hear between the “uh” and the “oh” of the modern “uh-oh.”) The plural, gods, (elim) was written ?LM. Anyone could learn the system. Anyone could learn to write.
The problem, however, was that without any vowels, many people couldn’t read what they had written. The word RM could be read as ram, but also as rama (“height”) or even roma (“Rome” – though Rome wouldn’t come to be for centuries). (MORE)
By inventing vowels, Jews helped so that “for the first time ever, the average person could learn to read and write.” And who says illiteracy is a new cause.