Why do the Hebrew characters look so different?

See, for example: chart of letters

If I look at Greek, Phoenician, etc. I can still see similarities (maybe with rotations or flipping of characters) versus our current Latin system. But the Hebrew ones look very, very different. Maybe only the H is similar (and that's versus lower case h and making it grow a bit on the left). And look how massively different the "O" is. I mean, an oval or a circle or even a box or diamond all look o-like. But the Hebrew one has a couple of arrows coming out of a branch, or like two-thirds of a psi.

  1. They just seem very, very different. Not like softened or distorted versions of common letters.

  2. Seems like a lot of sort of flowing lines, like Arabic (but maybe Arabic comes from it?) Not the straight lines of Greek, etc.

  3. Despite all that, some of the names are pretty suggestive of similarities (e.g. aleph). But the characters are so different?!

P.s. Apologies in advance for any imprecision of the question--I'm just a "civilian", not a language scholar. [And I did try some Googling before coming here, but wasn't finding good answer.]

  • 5
    It is just a question of style. Hebrew letter have a rather unique style, like Fraktur for the Latin alphabet. Historically they started very similar to Phoenician letters. Dec 19, 2021 at 16:22

2 Answers 2


Divergent evolution, mostly.

If you look at the Paleo-Hebrew script from the first millennium BCE, the similarities to Greek are much more evident.

But it evolved differently over time. When typesetting caught on, everyone became familiar with the inscriptional forms of Greek and Latin letters from the first millennium BCE. But look at some other forms of Latin script that eventually got supplanted, like Fraktur. They show a similar level of deviation from their ancestral forms.

(For some reason I'm getting a server error when I try to embed images, so I'm just using links for now. I'll edit those to be actual embeds later once the issue's fixed.)

  • 4
    I'd say we can also just look at our lowercase and cursive. We take them for granted, but the Romans would have had no clue how to read this very comment, even though lowercase is ultimately derived from Roman Cursive (which we also can't read without training, and which looks extremely different from the capitals)...
    – LjL
    Dec 19, 2021 at 18:33

You need more detailed charts of the letter evolution. The point is, the Greek monumental capitals are derived directly from the Phoenician alphabet in its monumental form and the Latin capitals directly from the Greek ones, so their letters look similar and you can trace the way they evolved. However, the modern Hebrew alphabet is not derived directly from Phoenician, it is in fact a modern form of the Aramaic alphabet which, in its own turn, was derived from Phoenician and had a long evolution history of cursive pen-and-ink forms which obscures the connection of the Modern Hebrew and Ancient Phoenician scripts.

Here is a good chart that tells the whole story in detail. As you can see it the two charts at the top, at c. 1000 BC Aramaic was just a minor variation of Phoenician, but later (the two charts at the bottom) the ways of Aramaic diverged from those of Phoenician (top right chart).

What you call “Hebrew” in your question, is called “Jewish” in the chart, while “Hebrew” is used for the original Hebrew script for which the term “Paleo-Hebrew” is now widely used. The Jews abandoned their original Paleo-Hebrew script and the Hebrew language during the Babylonian captivity and adopted the Aramaic script and language which was the lingua franca of the time. Samaritans have kept the original Paleo-Hebrew script and it survived practically to our time in the Samaritan Bible. The last documented usage of the Paleo-Hebrew script is writing the Tetragrammaton (יהוה‎, YHWH) in Bible manuscripts, namely the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran Caves (3rd c. B.C. – 1st c. A.D.). The text of the scrolls is written in the Aramaic letters similar to those used now, but YHWH is written in Paleo-Hebrew looking very Phoenician.

The chart at the bottom left shows the evolution of the Imperial Aramaic into the modern Hebrew script. The bottom right shows the Nabatean and Palmyrene alphabets which began as variations of Aramaic but later gave rise to the Arabic and Syriac alphabets respectively.

  • 1
    I don't think it's really accurate to say the Samaritans still use the Paleo-Hebrew script, so much as the Samaritan script derives directly from Paleo-Hebrew. The differences between the two are pretty significant
    – Tristan
    Dec 20, 2021 at 13:39
  • @Tristan – So, do you mean that the Omniglot article and the Wiki article are both wrong as for the origin of the Samaritan alphabet? They both state Samaritan is a direct descendant of Paleo-Hebrew. And the chart I gave a link to is also wrong? If I said something inaccurate, could you provide more accurate wording for that?
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 20, 2021 at 15:51
  • @Tristan – The book of Hebrew script: history, palaeography, script styles, calligraphy & design, 2002, by Ada Yardeni, pp. 24–25: It seems that after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt the ancient Hebrew script was completely abandoned by the Jews. The heirs of that script were the Samaritans. <...> The Samaritans continued to use the ancient Hebrew script and it became their national script. It was used by them for writing in Hebrew as well as in the Samaritan Aramaic dialect. In the course of its long history the Samaritan script developed several styles, and it is still in use.
    – Yellow Sky
    Dec 20, 2021 at 15:56
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    @YellowSky I don't think Tristan's objecting to the claim that Samaritan script descends from Paleo-Hebrew, just the claim that it is Paleo-Hebrew. The boundary is somewhat fuzzy (we still call our modern script "Latin") but Yardeni does notably give the modern Samaritan script its own name.
    – Draconis
    Dec 20, 2021 at 17:11
  • 1
    Draconis is correct. The Samaritan Hebrew script is different enough that saying it is Paleo-Hebrew is extremely misleading, but saying that it descends directly from it is entirely accurate.
    – Tristan
    Dec 31, 2021 at 13:34

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