[b-hebrew] Proto-Semitic, was WAYYIQTOL

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Thu Mar 18 19:30:55 EST 2004

On 18/03/2004 14:05, Karl Randolph wrote:

>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.
Phonemes are theoretical constructs defined by linguists. If you are 
going to use such constructs, I suggest that you do so in the ways that 
linguists use them, and so don't reject as you do the work of 
professional linguists on comparative Semitic languages.

What sort of statistical analysis do you have in mind? The best method I 
can suggest for distinguishing phonemes is looking for minimal pairs. 
There are many minimal pairs between sin and shin, which makes it 
incontrovertible that sin and shin are separate phonemes in the Hebrew 
represented by the Masoretes. But of course if you don't accept the 
Masoretic pointing you have no data for your analysis.

In English the two pronunciations of th are in fact separate phonemes. 
There are not many minimal pairs, but "thigh" vs. "thy" is a clear one, 
also "teeth" vs. "teethe" and "thou" (1/1000 inch) vs. "thou" (you). You 
should easily find similar minimal pairs between sin and shin.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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