Mater lectionis

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In the spelling of Hebrew and some other Semitic languages, matres lectionis (Latin "mothers of reading", singular form: mater lectionis, Hebrew: אֵם קְרִיאָה mother of reading), refers to the use of certain consonants to indicate a vowel. The letters that do this in Hebrew are א aleph, ה he, ו waw (or vav) and י yod (or yud). The yod and waw in particular are more often vowels than they are consonants. In Arabic, the matres lectionis (though they are much less often referred to thus) are alif ا, waw و, and ya' ي, even though informal, de facto orthographies of spoken varieties of Arabic also use ha to indicate a shorter version of alif, a usage augmented by the ambiguity of the use of ha and taa marbuta in formal Arabic orthography, and also a formal orthography in some languages that use Arabic script, such as Kurdish.

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History

Because of the lack of vowel letters, unambiguous reading of a text would be difficult. Therefore, to indicate vowels (mostly long), consonant letters are used. For example, in the Hebrew construct-state form bēt, meaning "the house of", the middle letter "י" in the spelling בית acts as a vowel, whereas in the corresponding absolute-state form bayit ("house"), which is spelled the same, the same letter represents a genuine consonant. Matres lectionis are also found in Ugaritic, Moabite and the Phoenician alphabets, but are widely used only in Hebrew, Aramaic, Syriac and Arabic.

This system developed as an early system for indicating vowels using the Hebrew alphabet. The consonant letters yod י, waw ו , He ה ,and Aleph א can be given for a rough indication of long vowels. Originally they were put only at the end of the words, e.g., Sāděqā - she is righteous; Sidqī - my righteousness; Sidqō - his righteousness. Gradually, as this was found to be insufficient for differentiating between similar nouns, they were inserted in the medial positions, e.g., saddīq - righteous; sādōq – Zadok.

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