Aleph (or alef or alif, transliterated ʾ) is the first letter of the Semitic abjads, including Phoenician ʾālep 𐤀, Hebrew ʾālef א, Aramaic ʾālap 𐡀, Syriac ʾālap̄ ܐ, and Arabic alif ا. It also appears as South Arabian 𐩱, and Ge'ez ʾälef .

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

These letters are believed to have derived from an Egyptian hieroglyph depicting an ox's head.[1] The Phoenician variant gave rise to the Greek alpha (Α), being re-interpreted to express not the glottal consonant but the accompanying vowel, and hence the Latin A and Cyrillic А.

In phonetics, aleph /ˈɑːlɛf/ 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 ([ʔ]), 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 ʾ , based on the Greek spiritus lenis ʼ, for example, in the transliteration of the letter name itself, ʾāleph.[2]


The name aleph is derived from the West Semitic word for "ox", 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.[3]

Hieroglyph Proto-Sinaitic Phoenician Paleo-Hebrew

In Modern Standard Arabic, the word أليف /ʔaliːf/ literally means 'tamed' or 'familiar', derived from the root |ʔ-l-f|, from which the verb ألِف /ʔalifa/ means 'to be acquainted with; to be on intimate terms with'.[4] In modern Hebrew, the same root |ʔ-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.

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[5] tend towards an alveolar approximant ([ɹ]) 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 Ꜣ LATIN CAPITAL LETTER EGYPTOLOGICAL ALEF and U+A723 ꜣ LATIN SMALL LETTER EGYPTOLOGICAL ALEF. A fallback representation is the numeral 3, or the Middle English character ȝ Yogh; neither are to be preferred to the genuine Egyptological characters.


The Aramaic reflex of the letter is conventionally represented with the Hebrew א 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.[6]

Cursive Aramaic Lapidary Aramaic


It is written as א and spelled as אָלֶף.

In Modern Israeli Hebrew, the letter either represents a glottal stop ([ʔ]) 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: הוּא [hu] "he", רָאשִׁי [ʁaˈʃi] "main", רֹאשׁ [ʁoʃ] "head", רִאשׁוֹן [ʁiˈʃon] "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. א'תשנ"ד 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
א א א

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 this folktale, aleph is rewarded by being allowed to start the Ten Commandments. (In Hebrew, the first word is אָנֹכִי, 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 (אֶמֶת), 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 אהיה אשר אהיה), 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 Fool (Key 0, value 1) of the major arcana of the tarot deck,[7] and the Scintillating Intelligence (#11) of the path between Kether and Chokmah in the Tree of the Sephiroth.


In Yiddish,[8] 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 אויך. The digraph וי 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, אַ, represents the vowel [a] in standard Yiddish.
  • An aleph with the diacritic komets, אָ, represents the vowel [ɔ] in standard Yiddish.

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

Syriac Alaph/Olaf

Madnḫaya Alap
Serṭo Olaph
Esṭrangela Alap

In the Syriac alphabet, the first letter is ܐ, Classical Syriac: ܐܵܠܲܦ, 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 ܐܵܢܵܐ 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, 𐩱 appears as the seventeenth letter of the South Arabian abjad. The letter is used to render a glottal stop /ʔ/.

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

South Arabian Ge'ez


Written as ا, spelled as ألف 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 ʾāleph, from a reconstructed Proto-Canaanite ʾalp "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:
ا ـا ـا ا

Arabic variants

Alif with hamza: أ and إ

The Arabic letter was used to render either a long /aː/ or a glottal stop /ʔ/. That led to orthographical confusion and to the introduction of the additional letter hamzat qaṭ‘ . Hamza is not considered a full letter in Arabic orthography: in most cases, it appears on a carrier, either a wāw (ؤ), a dotless yā’ (ئ), or an alif. The choice of carrier depends on complicated orthographic rules. Alif إ أ is generally the carrier if the only adjacent vowel is fatḥah. 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 waṣl (همزة وصل), occurs only as the initial letter of the definite article and in some related cases. It differs from hamzat qaṭ‘ in that it is elided after a preceding vowel. Again, alif is always the carrier.

Alif maddah: آ

The alif maddah is a double alif, expressing both a glottal stop and a long vowel. Essentially, it is the same as a أا sequence: آ (final ـآ) ’ā /ʔaː/, for example in آخر ākhir /ʔaːxir/ 'last'. "It has become standard for a hamza followed by a long ā to be written as two alifs, one vertical and one horizontal"[9] (the "horizontal" alif being the maddah sign).

Alif maqṣūrah: ى

The alif maqṣūrah (ألف مقصورة, 'limited/restricted alif'), commonly known in Egypt as alif layyinah (ألف لينة, 'flexible alif'), looks like a dotless yā’ ى (final ـى) and may appear only at the end of a word. Although it looks different from a regular alif, it represents the same sound /aː/, often realized as a short vowel. When it is written, alif maqṣūrah is indistinguishable from final Persian ye or Arabic yā’ as it is written in Egypt, Sudan and sometimes elsewhere. Alif maqsurah is transliterated as á in ALA-LC, ā 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.[10]

Character encodings

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 B5
UTF-16148805D015750627180807102048080055296 57216D800 DF8055298 56576D802 DD0085012135
Numeric character referenceאאااܐܐࠀࠀ𐎀𐎀𐤀𐤀ℵℵ
Named character referenceℵ

See also


  • "The Letter Aleph (א)". Hebrew Today. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  1. "Oldest alphabet found in Egypt". BBC News. November 15, 1999.
  2. 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.
  3. "Meet The Animal That Inspired The Letter A". Everything After Z. Retrieved 2019-05-05.
  4. Wehr, Hans (1994). A Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic: (Arabic-English) (4th ed.). Urbana: Spoken Language Services. pp. 28–29. ISBN 0879500034.
  5. Schneider, Thomas (2003). "Etymologische Methode, die Historizität der Phoneme und das ägyptologische Transkriptionsalphabet". Lingua aegyptia: Journal of Egyptian Language Studies (11): 187–199.
  6. Maraqten, Mohammed (1996). "Notes on the Aramaic script of some coins from East Arabia". Arabian Archaeology and Epigraphy. 7: 304–315.
  7. "Tarot Journey with Leisa ReFalo". Archived from the original on 2010-07-04. Retrieved 2010-06-21.
  8. Weinreich, Uriel (1992). College Yiddish. New York: YIVO Institute for Jewish Research. p. 25–8.
  9. Jones, Alan (2005). Arabic Through The Qur'an. Cambridge: The Islamic Texts Society. p. 4. ISBN 0946621 68 3.
  10. 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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