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Phonemic representation?, a
Position in alphabet1
Numerical value1
Alphabetic derivatives of the Phoenician

Aleph (or alef or alif, transliterated ?) is the first letter of the Semitic abjads, including Phoenician lep ?, Hebrew lef ?, Aramaic lap ?, Syriac lap? ?, and Arabic alif ?. It also appears as South Arabian ?, and Ge'ez ?älef ?.

These letters are believed to have derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph depicting an ox's head[1] to describe the initial sound of the West Semitic word for ox,[2] preserved in Biblical Hebrew as Eleph 'ox'.[3] The Phoenician variant gave rise to the Greek alpha (?), being re-interpreted to express not the glottal consonant but the accompanying vowel, and hence the Latin A and Cyrillic ?.

In phonetics, aleph originally represented the onset of a vowel at the glottis. In Semitic languages, this functions as a weak consonant allowing roots with only two true consonants to be conjugated in the manner of a standard three consonant Semitic root. In most Hebrew dialects as well as Syriac, the glottal onset represented by aleph is an absence of a true consonant although a glottal stop , which is a true consonant, typically occurs as an allophone. In Arabic, the alif has the glottal stop pronunciation when occurring initially. In text with diacritical marks, the pronunciation as a glottal stop is usually indicated by a special marking, hamza in Arabic and mappiq in Tiberian Hebrew. (Although once thought to be the original pronunciation of aleph in all cases where it behaves as a consonant, a consistent glottal stop appears to have been absent in ancient Semitic languages such as Akkadian and Ugaritic besides being absent in Syriac and Hebrew.) Occasionally, the aleph was also used to indicate an initial unstressed vowel before certain consonant clusters, without functioning as a consonant itself, the prosthetic (or prothetic) aleph. In later Semitic languages, aleph could sometimes function as a mater lectionis indicating the presence of a vowel elsewhere (usually long). The period at which use as a mater lectionis began is the subject of some controversy, though it had become well established by the late stage of Old Aramaic (ca. 200 BCE). Aleph is often transliterated as ʾ , based on the Greek spiritus lenis '; for example, in the transliteration of the letter name itself, leph.[4]


The name aleph is derived from the West Semitic word for "ox" (as in the Biblical Hebrew word Eleph () 'ox'[3]), and the shape of the letter derives from a Proto-Sinaitic glyph that may have been based on an Egyptian hieroglyph


, which depicts an ox's head.[5]

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word ? /?ali:f/ literally means 'tamed' or 'familiar', derived from the root |?-l-f|, from which the verb ? /?alifa/ means 'to be acquainted with; to be on intimate terms with'.[6] In modern Hebrew, the same root |?-l-p| (alef-lamed-peh) gives me'ulaf, the passive participle of the verb le'alef, meaning 'trained' (when referring to pets) or 'tamed' (when referring to wild animals); the IDF rank of aluf, taken from an Edomite title of nobility, is also cognate.[clarification needed]

Ancient Egyptian

in hieroglyphs

The Egyptian "vulture" hieroglyph (Gardiner G1), by convention pronounced [a]) is also referred to as aleph, on grounds that it has traditionally been taken to represent a glottal stop, although some recent suggestions[7][8] tend towards an alveolar approximant sound instead. Despite the name it does not correspond to an aleph in cognate Semitic words, where instead the single "reed" hieroglyph is found instead.

The phoneme is commonly transliterated by a symbol composed of two half-rings, in Unicode (as of version 5.1, in the Latin Extended-D range) encoded at U+A722 ? LATIN CAPITAL LETTER EGYPTOLOGICAL ALEF and U+A723 ? LATIN SMALL LETTER EGYPTOLOGICAL ALEF. A fallback representation is the numeral 3, or the Middle English character ? Yogh; neither are to be preferred to the genuine Egyptological characters.


The Aramaic reflex of the letter is conventionally represented with the Hebrew ? in typography for convenience, but the actual graphic form varied significantly over the long history and wide geographic extent of the language. Maraqten identifies three different aleph traditions in East Arabian coins: a lapidary Aramaic form that realizes it as a combination of a V-shape and a straight stroke attached to the apex, much like a Latin K; a cursive Aramaic form he calls the "elaborated X-form", essentially the same tradition as the Hebrew reflex; and an extremely cursive form with of two crossed oblique lines, much like a simple Latin X.[9]

Cursive Aramaic Lapidary Aramaic
Aleph.svg Lapidary aleph


It is written as ? and spelled as .

In Modern Israeli Hebrew, the letter either represents a glottal stop or indicates a hiatus (the separation of two adjacent vowels into distinct syllables, with no intervening consonant). It is sometimes silent (word-finally always, word-medially sometimes: ?[hu] "he", ?[?a'?i] "main", [?o?] "head", [?i'?on] "first"). The pronunciation varies in different Jewish ethnic divisions.

In gematria, aleph represents the number 1, and when used at the beginning of Hebrew years, it means 1000 (e.g. ?'"?‎ in numbers would be the Hebrew date 1754, not to be confused with 1754 CE).

Aleph, along with ayin, resh, he and heth, cannot receive a dagesh. (However, there are few very rare examples of the Masoretes adding a dagesh or mappiq to an aleph or resh. The verses of the Hebrew Bible for which an aleph with a mappiq or dagesh appears are Genesis 43:26, Leviticus 23:17, Job 33:21 and Ezra 8:18.)

In Modern Hebrew, the frequency of the usage of alef, out of all the letters, is 4.94%.

Aleph is sometimes used as a mater lectionis to denote a vowel, usually /a/. That use is more common in words of Aramaic and Arabic origin, in foreign names, and some other borrowed words.

Orthographic variants
Various Print Fonts Cursive
Serif Sans-serif Monospaced
? ? ? Hebrew letter Alef handwriting.svg Hebrew letter Alef Rashi.png

Rabbinic Judaism

Aleph is the subject of a midrash that praises its humility in not demanding to start the Bible. (In Hebrew, the Bible begins with the second letter of the alphabet, bet.) In the story, aleph is rewarded by being allowed to start the Ten Commandments. (In Hebrew, the first word is ?‎, which starts with an aleph.)

In the Sefer Yetzirah, the letter aleph is king over breath, formed air in the universe, temperate in the year, and the chest in the soul.

Aleph is also the first letter of the Hebrew word emet (‎), which means truth. In Jewish mythology, it was the letter aleph that was carved into the head of the golem that ultimately gave it life.

Aleph also begins the three words that make up God's mystical name in Exodus, I Am who I Am (in Hebrew, Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh ? ?), and aleph is an important part of mystical amulets and formulas.

Aleph, in Jewish mysticism, represents the oneness of God. The letter can be seen as being composed of an upper yud, a lower yud, and a vav leaning on a diagonal. The upper yud represents the hidden and ineffable aspects of God while the lower yud represents God's revelation and presence in the world. The vav ("hook") connects the two realms.

Jewish mysticism relates aleph to the element of air, the Magician (Key 0, value 1) of the major arcana of the tarot deck,[10] and the Scintillating Intelligence (#11) of the path between Kether and Chokmah in the Tree of the Sephiroth.


In Yiddish,[11] aleph is used for several orthographic purposes in native words, usually with different diacritical marks borrowed from Hebrew niqqud:

  • With no diacritics, aleph is silent; it is written at the beginning of words before vowels spelled with the letter vov or yud. For instance, oykh 'also' is spelled ?. The digraph represents the initial diphthong [oj], but that digraph is not permitted at the beginning of a word in Yiddish orthography, so it is preceded by a silent aleph. Some publications use a silent aleph adjacent to such vowels in the middle of a word as well when necessary to avoid ambiguity.
  • An aleph with the diacritic pasekh, , represents the vowel in standard Yiddish.
  • An aleph with the diacritic komets, , represents the vowel in standard Yiddish.

Loanwords from Hebrew or Aramaic in Yiddish are spelled as they are in their language of origin.

Syriac Alaph/Olaf

Syriac Eastern alap.svg Madn?aya Alap
Syriac Serta alap.svg Ser?o Olaph
Syriac Estrangela alap.svg Es?rangela Alap

Syriac letter shapes Alaph.PNG

In the Syriac alphabet, the first letter is ?, Classical Syriac: ‎, alap (in eastern dialects) or olaph (in western dialects). It is used in word-initial position to mark a word beginning with a vowel, but some words beginning with i or u do not need its help, and sometimes, an initial alap/olaph is elided. For example, when the Syriac first-person singular pronoun is in enclitic positions, it is pronounced no/na (again west/east), rather than the full form eno/ana. The letter occurs very regularly at the end of words, where it represents the long final vowels o/a or e. In the middle of the word, the letter represents either a glottal stop between vowels (but West Syriac pronunciation often makes it a palatal approximant), a long i/e (less commonly o/a) or is silent.

South Arabian/Ge'ez

In the Ancient South Arabian alphabet, ? appears as the seventeenth letter of the South Arabian abjad. The letter is used to render a glottal stop /?/.

In the Ge'ez alphabet, ?älef ? appears as the thirteenth letter of its abjad. This letter is also used to render a glottal stop /?/.

South Arabian Ge'ez
? ?


Written as ?, spelled as and transliterated as alif, it is the first letter in Arabic. Together with Hebrew aleph, Greek alpha and Latin A, it is descended from Phoenician leph, from a reconstructed Proto-Canaanite ?alp "ox".

Alif is written in one of the following ways depending on its position in the word:

Position in word: Isolated Final Medial Initial
Glyph form:
? ?

Arabic variants

Alif with hamza: ? and ?

The Arabic letter was used to render either a long /a:/ or a glottal stop /?/. That led to orthographical confusion and to the introduction of the additional letter hamzat qa?' ?. Hamza is not considered a full letter in Arabic orthography: in most cases, it appears on a carrier, either a w?w (?), a dotless y?' (?), or an alif. The choice of carrier depends on complicated orthographic rules. Alif ? ? is generally the carrier if the only adjacent vowel is fat?ah. It is the only possible carrier if hamza is the first phoneme of a word. Where alif acts as a carrier for hamza, hamza is added above the alif, or, for initial alif-kasrah, below it and indicates that the letter so modified is indeed a glottal stop, not a long vowel.

A second type of hamza, hamzat wa?l (? ), occurs only as the initial letter of the definite article and in some related cases. It differs from hamzat qa?' in that it is elided after a preceding vowel. Again, alif is always the carrier.

Alif maddah: ?

The alif maddah is a double alif, expressing both a glottal stop and a long vowel. Essentially, it is the same as a sequence: ? (final ) '? /?a:/, for example in ?khir /?a:xir/ 'last'. "It has become standard for a hamza followed by a long ? to be written as two alifs, one vertical and one horizontal"[12] (the "horizontal" alif being the maddah sign).

Alif maqrah: ?

The alif maqrah ( , 'limited/restricted alif'), commonly known in Egypt as alif layyinah ( ?, 'flexible alif'), looks like a dotless y?' ? (final ) and may appear only at the end of a word. Although it looks different from a regular alif, it represents the same sound /a:/, often realized as a short vowel. When it is written, alif maqrah is indistinguishable from final Persian ye or Arabic y?' as it is written in Egypt, Sudan and sometimes elsewhere. Alif maqsurah is transliterated as á in ALA-LC, ? in DIN 31635, à in ISO 233-2, y in Kazakh and ? in ISO 233.


As a numeral, alaph/olaf stands for the number one. With a dot below, it is the number 1,000; with a line above it, alaph/olaf will represent 1,000,000. With a line below it is 10,000 and with two dots below it is 10,000,000.

Other uses


In set theory, the Hebrew aleph glyph is used as the symbol to denote the aleph numbers, which represent the cardinality of infinite sets. This notation was introduced by mathematician Georg Cantor. In older mathematics books, the letter aleph is often printed upside down by accident, partly because a Monotype matrix for aleph was mistakenly constructed the wrong way up.[13]

Character encodings

Character information
Preview א ا ܐ 𐎀 𐤀
Encodings decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex decimal hex
Unicode 1488 U+05D0 1575 U+0627 1808 U+0710 2048 U+0800 66432 U+10380 67840 U+10900 8501 U+2135
UTF-8 215 144 D7 90 216 167 D8 A7 220 144 DC 90 224 160 128 E0 A0 80 240 144 142 128 F0 90 8E 80 240 144 164 128 F0 90 A4 80 226 132 181 E2 84 B5
UTF-16 1488 05D0 1575 0627 1808 0710 2048 0800 55296 57216 D800 DF80 55298 56576 D802 DD00 8501 2135
Numeric character reference א א ا ا ܐ ܐ ࠀ ࠀ 𐎀 𐎀 𐤀 𐤀 ℵ ℵ
Named character reference ℵ, ℵ

See also


  • "The Letter Aleph (?)". Hebrew Today. Retrieved .
  1. ^ "Oldest alphabet found in Egypt". BBC News. November 15, 1999.
  2. ^ Goldwasser, O. (2010). "How the Alphabet was Born from Hieroglyphs". Biblical Archaeology Review 36/2 (March/April): 40-53.
  3. ^ a b "Strong's Hebrew: 504. (eleph) -- cattle". biblehub.com. Retrieved .
  4. ^ Andersen, F.I.; Freedman, D.N. (1992). "Aleph as a vowel in Old Aramaic". Studies in Hebrew and Aramaic Orthography. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. pp. 79-90.
  5. ^ "Meet The Animal That Inspired The Letter A". Everything After Z. Dictionary.com. Retrieved .
  6. ^ Wehr, Hans (1994). A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic: (Arabic-English) (4th ed.). Urbana: Spoken Language Services. pp. 28-29. ISBN 0879500034.
  7. ^ Lecarme, Jacqueline; Lowenstamm, Jean; Shlonsky, Ur (2000). Research in Afroasiatic Grammar: Papers from the Third Conference on Afroasiatic Languages, Sophia Antipolis, France, 1996. John Benjamins. p. 345. ISBN 90-272-3709-3. The "aleps" problem in Old Egyptian The character of Egyptian "aleph" (transcribed ?) has always been debated by linguists and egyptologists. Even at the present we can claim surely only that Egyptian ? was often not the same as the Semitic glottal stop ?.
  8. ^ Schneider, Thomas (2003). "Etymologische Methode, die Historizität der Phoneme und das ägyptologische Transkriptionsalphabet". Lingua aegyptia: Journal of Egyptian Language Studies (11): 187-199.
  9. ^ Maraqten, Mohammed (1996). "Notes on the Aramaic script of some coins from East Arabia". Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. 7: 304-315.
  10. ^ "Tarot Journey with Leisa ReFalo". tarotjourney.net. Archived from the original on 2010-07-04. Retrieved .
  11. ^ Weinreich, Uriel (1992). College Yiddish. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. p. 25-8.
  12. ^ Jones, Alan (2005). Arabic Through The Qur'an. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society. p. 4. ISBN 0946621 68 3.
  13. ^ Swanson, Ellen; O'Sean, Arlene Ann; Schleyer, Antoinette Tingley (1999) [1979], Mathematics into type. Copy editing and proofreading of mathematics for editorial assistants and authors (updated ed.), Providence, R.I.: American Mathematical Society, p. 16, ISBN 0-8218-0053-1, MR 0553111

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