[b-hebrew] Phones, Phonemes, and Th.

David Kimbrough (CLWA) dkimbrough at clwa.org
Thu Mar 18 18:43:29 EST 2004

Karl & Co.

Your example of the two different "th's" in English raises an interesting
point.  There are actually situations where there is a difference.  The two
words "Thy"  and "Thigh" have exactly the same vowel sounds but different
"th"'s.  The difference in the "th"'s is what distinguishes the two words.
The vowel sounds are identical but spelled differently and the consonants
are pronounced differently but spelled the same.  However people rarely use
these two words in the same sentence so the two different "th" sounds can be
effectively represented by the same letters without any practical problems.
Notably, the ancient Anglo-Saxons used two different symbols for these two
"th" sounds so the difference were perhaps once much more important.

My point that there can be instances in a language where there are phonetic
nuances that do have impacts on the meaning of the word that are not
captured accurately or at all in the written language.  

David Eugene Kimbrough
dkimbrough at clwa.org

-----Original Message-----
From: Karl Randolph [mailto:kwrandolph at email.com]
Sent: Thursday, March 18, 2004 2:06 PM
To: Hebrew
Subject: RE: [b-hebrew] Proto-Semitic, was WAYYIQTOL

Dear Kevin Riley:

Your letter reminds me why I almost always 
use “phoneme” instead of “phone”.

For example, in English, the voiced and 
unvoiced th, though they are different 
phones, represent the same phoneme. If I 
were to substitute an unvoiced th for every 
voiced one, it wouldn’t make a whit of 
difference in meaning.

There may have been two different 
pronunciations for Ayen originally, but 
they were the same phoneme: substituting 
one pronunciation for the other didn’t make 
a difference. The same with the Sin and the 

The problem is, all of us, myself included, 
are only guessing how Hebrew was originally 
pronounced. I personally favor the view 
that each phoneme represented one 
consonantal phone, but there’s no way to 
prove it. However, I would be surprised if 
statistical analysis did not show that each 
letter represents one phoneme, and that 
includes that the Sin and Shin were 
originally one phoneme.

Karl W. Randolph.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Kevin Riley" <klriley at alphalink.com.au>

> >-----Original Message-----
> >From: b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
> >[mailto:b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org]On Behalf Of Karl Randolph
> >
> >Yigal:
> >
> >It is exactly your last question that makes
> >me doubt that ancient Hebrews adopted the
> >Phoenician alphabet. It is also the reason
> >I doubt that Biblical Hebrew had the number
> >of phones that the Masoretes recognized
> >over a thousand years later.
> >
> >If proto-Canaanite had 30 characters, why
> >would they adopt an alphabet with fewer
> >characters unless it was brought in from
> >outside, as was the Hebrew writing?
> >
> >
> >Karl W. Randolph.
> >
> Perhaps the whole question of spelling 'phonetically' was not an issue to
> the Hebrews.  If you look at other Semitic languages, you find that it
> a big issue.  Akkadian, Amorite, Eblaite and Ugaritic are about the
> records.  The first three used the Sumerian derived  cuneiform.  Not only
> are the emphatic consonants not consistently represented by separate
> symbols, but the voiced/voiceless distinction is also not made in Eblaite.
> So DA = any dental stop, GA = any velar stop. SA = an sibilant, etc.
> consonants are often ignored.  When you add in the different signs for
> sound, there is what at first sight looks like confusion.  It seems
> reasonable to suppose that the literate Canaanites were familiar with one
> more of these languages.  The need to distinguish each sound by a
> corresponding letter may not have been felt as a pressing need.  Ugaritic
> did have an 'alphabet' that represented the 27 phonemes, but they also had
> 22 letter alphabet that corresponded to Hebrew.  Even though they had the
> longer alphabet which represented the sounds of their language fairly
> there was no problem writing in the shorter alphabet which used the same
> symbol for different sounds.  I tried to find a chart that compared the
> but couldn't find one quickly.  Old Aramaic is perhaps the best parallel
> Hebrew, as it used the 22 letter alphabet.  The letters Het, 'ayin and
> have the same double pronunciation as posited for Hebrew, with a few more
> that don't relate to Hebrew.  The fact that letters represent 2 or 3
> that were similar in Old Aramaic, but became dis-similar in Imperial
> argues against the theory that they had merged into one sound [e.g. shin
> represents 'theta' - a sound similar to a sibilant, that later merged with
> 'taw' which is not similar].
> We may not be able to explain why the Hebrews adopted a 22 symbol alphabet
> when a 'better' one was available, but it is not unique or unusual in
> world.  There is also no explanation for why an Aramaic speaking group
> [Abraham's descendants] should have become a Canaanite speaking nation,
> especially in Egypt.  But then, there is no reason why English has never
> felt the need to distinguish between the two sounds of 'th'.  'Then' and
> 'thin' could be distinguished - edh and thorn existed in Old English but
> were used indiscriminately for both.  Icelandic differentiated the sounds
> using separate letters, English 'chose' to use 'th' for both.  We can
> the habits of the Norman scribes, but from memory the last Norman scribe
> died many centuries ago, and we still write 'th' for both sounds.
> Kevin Riley
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