When we ponder the early Semitic aleph-beth, we readily recognize its pictographic inheritance. Aleph, the first letter, is written thus: Aleph is also the ancient Hebrew word for “ox.” The shape of the letter, we can see, was that of an ox’s head with horns; turned over, it became our own letter A. The name of the Semitic letter mem is also the Hebrew word for “water”; the letter, which later became our own letter M, was drawn as a series of waves: . The letter ayin, which also means “eye” in Hebrew, was drawn as a simple circle, the picture of an eye; it is this letter, made over into a vowel by the Greek scribes, that eventually became our letter O. The Hebrew letter qoph, which is also the Hebrew term for “monkey,” was drawn as a circle intersected by a long, dangling, tail . Our letter Q retains a sense of this simple picture.
These are a few examples. By thus comparing the names of the letters with their various shapes, we discern that the letters of the early aleph-beth are still implicitly tied to the more-than-human field of phenomena. But these ties to other animals, to natural elements like water and waves, and even to the body itself, are far more tenuous than in the earlier, predominantly nonphonetic scripts. These traces of sensible nature linger in the new script only as vestigial holdovers from the old— they are no longer necessary participants in the transfer of linguistic knowledge. The other animals, the plants, and the natural elements—sun, moon, stars, waves—are beginning to lose their own voices. In the Hebrew Genesis, the animals do not speak their own names to Adam; rather, they are given their names by this first man. Language, for the Hebrews, was becoming a purely human gift, a human power.