Aleph (or alef or alif, transliterated 示) is the first letter of the Semitic abjads, including Phoenician 示膩lep 饜, Hebrew 示膩lef , Aramaic 示膩lap 饜, Syriac 示膩lap虅 , and Arabic alif . It also appears as South Arabian 饜┍, and Ge'ez 示盲lef .

Bet 鈫
Phonemic representation, a
Position in alphabet1
Numerical value1
Alphabetic derivatives of the Phoenician
LatinA, 獗
Cyrillic袗, 携, 癣

These letters are believed to have derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph depicting an ox's head[1] to describe the initial sound of *示alp, the West Semitic word for ox.[2] (compare Biblical Hebrew 讗侄诇侄祝 示elef, "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 袗.

In phonetics, aleph /蓱藧lf/ 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 ([蕯]), 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 U+02BE , based on the Greek spiritus lenis ; for example, in the transliteration of the letter name itself, 示膩leph.[4]


The name aleph is derived from the West Semitic word for "ox" (as in the Biblical Hebrew word Eleph (讗侄诇侄祝) '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]

Hieroglyph Proto-Sinaitic Phoenician Paleo-Hebrew

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word 兀賱賷賮 /蕯ali藧f/ literally means 'tamed' or 'familiar', derived from the root |蕯-l-f|, from which the verb 兀賱賽賮 /蕯alifa/ means 'to be acquainted with; to be on intimate terms with'.[6] In modern Hebrew, the same root |蕯-l-p| (alef-lamed-peh) gives me鈥檜laf, the passive participle of the verb le鈥檃lef, 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.

Ancient Egyptian

Egyptian 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 ([晒]) sound instead. Despite the name it does not correspond to an aleph in cognate Semitic words, where 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 隃 LATIN CAPITAL LETTER EGYPTOLOGICAL ALEF and U+A723 隃 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 of two crossed oblique lines, much like a simple Latin X.[9]

Cursive Aramaic Lapidary Aramaic


It is written as and spelled as 讗指诇侄祝.

In Modern Israeli Hebrew, the letter either represents a glottal stop ([蕯]) 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: 讛讜旨讗 [hu] "he", 专指讗砖执讈讬 [蕘a藞蕛i] "main", 专止讗砖讈 [蕘o蕛] "head", 专执讗砖讈讜止谉 [蕘i藞蕛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. 讗'转砖谞"讚 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

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 讗指谞止讻执讬, 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 (讗侄诪侄转), 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 讗讛讬讛 讗砖专 讗讛讬讛), 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, and the Scintillating Intelligence (#11) of the path between Kether and Chokmah in the Tree of the Sephiroth .


In Yiddish,[10] 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 讗讜讬讱. The digraph 讜讬 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, 讗址, represents the vowel [a] in standard Yiddish.
  • An aleph with the diacritic komets, 讗指, represents the vowel [蓴] in standard Yiddish.

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

Syriac Alaph/Olaf

Madn岣玜ya Alap
Ser峁璷 Olaph
Es峁璻angela Alap

In the Syriac alphabet, the first letter is , Classical Syriac: 軔艿軤懿堞, 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 軔艿堍艿軔 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, 饜┍ appears as the seventeenth letter of the South Arabian abjad. The letter is used to render a glottal stop /蕯/.

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

South Arabian Ge'ez


Written as , spelled as 兀賱賮 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 示膩leph, from a reconstructed Proto-Canaanite 示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:
賭丕 賭丕

Alif with hamza: and 廿

The Arabic letter was used to render either a long /a藧/ or a glottal stop /蕯/. That led to orthographical confusion and to the introduction of the additional letter hamzat qa峁 . Hamza is not considered a full letter in Arabic orthography: in most cases, it appears on a carrier, either a w膩w (), a dotless y膩鈥 (), or an alif.

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

The choice of carrier depends on complicated orthographic rules. Alif 廿 兀 is generally the carrier if the only adjacent vowel is fat岣h. 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峁 (賴賲夭丞 賵氐賱), occurs only as the initial letter of the definite article and in some related cases. It differs from hamzat qa峁 in that it is elided after a preceding vowel. Again, alif is always the carrier.

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

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 兀丕 sequence: (final 賭丌) 鈥櫮 /蕯a藧/, for example in 丌禺乇 膩khir /蕯a藧xir/ 'last'.

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

"It has become standard for a hamza followed by a long 膩 to be written as two alifs, one vertical and one horizontal."[11] (the "horizontal" alif being the maddah sign).

Alif maq峁E玶ah:

The , ('limited/restricted alif', alif maq峁E玶ah), commonly known in Egypt as alif layyinah (兀賱賮 賱賷賳丞, 'flexible alif'), looks like a dotless y膩鈥 (final 賭賶) and may appear only at the end of a word. Although it looks different from a regular alif, it represents the same sound /a藧/, often realized as a short vowel. When it is written, alif maq峁E玶ah is indistinguishable from final Persian ye or Arabic y膩鈥 as it is written in Egypt, Sudan and sometimes elsewhere.

The letter is transliterated as y in Kazakh, representing the vowel /蓹/. Alif maqsurah is transliterated as in ALA-LC, in DIN 31635, in ISO 233-2, and in ISO 233.

In Arabic, alif maqsurah is not used initially or medially, and it is not joinable initially or medially in all fonts. However, the letter is used initially and medially in the Uyghur Arabic alphabet and the Arabic-based Kyrgyz alphabet, representing the vowel /莎/: (賶賭 賭賶賭).

Position in word: Isolated Final Medial Initial
Glyph form:
賭賶 賭賶賭 賶賭


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.[12]

Character encodings

Character information
UTF-8215 144D7 90216 167D8 A7220 144DC 90224 160 128E0 A0 80240 144 142 128F0 90 8E 80240 144 164 128F0 90 A4 80226 132 181E2 84 B5240 144 171 128F0 90 AB 80
UTF-16148805D015750627180807102048080055296 57216D800 DF8055298 56576D802 DD008501213555298 57024D802 DEC0
Numeric character referenceאאااܐܐࠀࠀ𐎀𐎀𐤀𐤀ℵℵ𐫀𐫀
Named character referenceℵ, ℵ

See also


  • "The Letter Aleph (讗)". Hebrew Today. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  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): 40鈥53.
  3. "Strong's Hebrew: 504. 讗植诇指驻执讬诐 (eleph) -- cattle". Retrieved 2020-07-31.
  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鈥90.
  5. "Meet The Animal That Inspired The Letter A". Everything After Z. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  6. Wehr, Hans (1994). A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic: (Arabic-English) (4th ed.). Urbana: Spoken Language Services. pp. 28鈥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 隃) has always been debated by linguists and egyptologists. Even at the present we can claim surely only that Egyptian 隃 was often not the same as the Semitic glottal stop 蓚.
  8. Schneider, Thomas (2003). "Etymologische Methode, die Historizit盲t der Phoneme und das 盲gyptologische Transkriptionsalphabet". Lingua Aegyptia: Journal of Egyptian Language Studies (11): 187鈥199.
  9. Maraqten, Mohammed (1996). "Notes on the Aramaic script of some coins from East Arabia". Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. 7 (2): 304鈥315. doi:10.1111/j.1600-0471.1996.tb00107.x.
  10. Weinreich, Uriel (1992). College Yiddish. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. p. 25鈥8.
  11. Jones, Alan (2005). Arabic Through The Qur'an. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society. p. 4. ISBN 0946621-68-3.
  12. 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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