I have heard that there are languages with no vowels and thought, “How is that possible?” How could you pronounce a word with no vowels? Is it even achievable? Is there really such a thing as a language with no vowels? I decided to investigate.
Disclaimer: the author doesn’t speak Arabic, Hebrew and other Semitic languages… But it nice to see how external people look at a language they are not familiar with.
A phoneme is a basic unit of a language’s phonology. Phonology is the systematic organization of sounds in a language. Phonetics is the study of phonemes and phonology, or the sounds that make up a language and how they are transcribed. Linguists tell us that there are now some 6,600 languages being spoken in the world. Phonetics teaches us that in most languages of the world all or nearly all context words, or words that give meaning to a sentence, have vowel sounds. However, in some languages the vowels are understood and not written.
The Semitic languages, considered amongst the oldest languages and originating in the Near East, include Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic, Aramaic and Tigrinya. Most scripts used to write the Semitic languages are consonant alphabet scripts that omit some or all vowels and are known as abjads. Abjads are usually written from right to left and vocalization (or full vowel indication) can be added. This is usually done by means of diacritics, or accents.
The Semitic languages are distinctive in their discontinuous morphology or the way they form words. Instead of syllables or root words with prefixes and suffixes, the Semitic languages use word roots that are sets of consonants. They usually come in threes, making what is called a triliteral root. Although some prefixes and suffixes are used, words are mainly composed out of roots by filling in the vowels between the root consonants. For example, in Arabic, the root meaning “write” has the consonant set k – t – b. From this root, words are formed by filling in the vowels, e.g. kātib “writer,” kitāb “book,” kataba “he wrote,” yaktubu “he writes,” and on it goes. A fluent speaker knows which vowels are needed by the context.
The Hebrew alphabet, called the alefbet because of its first two letters Alef and Beit, is also a consonant alphabet. However, a decline in literacy after the Romans expelled the Jews from Israel compelled the rabbis to design ‘pointed’ text. This script contains dots and dashes, called nikkud, to aid in pronunciation. The nikkud are a learning tool and no reader fluent in Hebrew needs vowels.
The Slavic languages (Czech, Bosnian, Slovak, Serbian and Croatian) use alphabets that contain vowels. However, they also have many words that have no vowels. The consonants l and r are often the nucleus of a syllable and, again, the vowels are understood.
English speakers may see this as very odd, but the truth is we can do the same in English.
Any fluent English speaker will be able to read, “Trs r th slnt lng f grf.” (“Tears are the silent language of grief.” Voltaire) It is amazing how your mind just slips the vowel sounds in there and completes the context. This is a great way of taking notes and sending texts. In fact, many people believe textspeak is destroying the English language and will soon become a language in and of itself.
That explains it! The older languages of the world are languages with no vowels. However there are no languages without vowel sounds. I would say the languages without vowels would be more difficult to study and learn. What do you think?