[b-hebrew] Masoretic invention, was: masorete pointing v's LLX transliterations

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Mon Jul 25 17:54:23 EDT 2005

On 25/07/2005 15:55, Rolf Furuli wrote:

>Dear Peter,
>The Masoretes would not dream of changing anything or invent anything new. 
>aim was to reproduce the consonantal text accurately and to point and
>vocalize the text exactly as they heard it read in the Synagogue. However,
>in one respect they had a problem which can be illustrated with modern Greek
>(I used this example at my defence).  In Greek there are several letters
>that are pronounced as the English "e" is pronounced, in exactly the same
>way. Many errors are the result of this situation when people write down
>what they hear others say, because they must all the time make choices of 
>which letters to write.
>A similar situation existed when the Masorets worked on the text. ...

This seems highly improbable to me. The Masoretes, who invented vowel 
pointing, would not have invented separate signs for the same 
pronunciation. So it is clear that there must have been some distinction 
between sheva and patah (and also hataf patah of course), even if both 
or all three sounded most like "a" to our ears, or to Greek ears. Part 
of the distinction was almost certainly one of length.

>... On the
>basis of transcriptions made by Josephus and Origen we see that the Hebrew
>vowels were consistently transcribed except patah and shewa, and to some
>extent segol. The vowels patah and shewa were both pronounced as an
>"a"-sound in Masoretic times, ...

Well, the only evidence you have suggested for this is from centuries 
earlier, and was inconsistent. Note that only today, in a different 
context, Harold wrote that sheva could be transcribed into Greek as iota 
or epsilon as well as alpha.

>... and by hearing the text recited a distinction
>between the two could have been problematic. These two vowels represent the
>basis for WEQATAL and WAYYIQTOL, and if the Masoretes could not distingish
>between the two vowels when the text was read, they had to choose between 
>them on the basis of
>other means than hearing. ...

No, the Masoretes, if they are not innovators, would surely have been 
entirely consistent in their rendering of these forms unless they heard 
a real distinction. You have also ignored here the significant point 
that in WAYYIQTOL the yod, or tav or nun in other forms of the verb, has 
a dagesh, which for the Masoretes implied a real difference in 
pronunciation - especially for the tav which would sound quite different 
in a WAYYIQTOL form from a WEYIQTOL. Also in 1st person singular forms 
there are very different vowel forms before alef (pointed with segol): 
qamets as "compensatory lengthening" in WAYYIQTOL, but probably hataf 
segol in WEYIQTOL.

>... Narrative texts were probably stressed differently
>from hortatory ones and other texts when they were recited, ...

Is there any evidence of this different stress? If so, it ought to be 
clear from the accents, which record the stress patterns in some detail.

>... and this could
>help the Masoretes. They could also see particular patterns (WAW+YIQTOL used
>for the past and WAW+QATAL used for the future), and on this basis they made
>their choices.
>The basis for the conclusions above is, 1) the fact that there is no
>distinction between WAYYIQTOL, WEYIQTOL, and YIQTOL on the one hand and
>QATAL and WEQATAL on the other before the Masoretes, ...

Not true. WAYYIQTOL forms are consonantally distinct from WEYIQTOL in 
certain verbs such as "lamed-he", where the WAYYIQTOL forms are 
apocopated but WEYIQTOL are not. There is also evidence from the 
transliterated Hebrew in Origen's Hexapla if I remember correctly, 
although its interpretation is debatable.

>... 2) the inconsistency in
>Masoretic pointing if WAYYIQTOL and WEQATAL have one uniform meaning
>respectively, ... 

Presuming you mean WAYYIQTOL and WEYIQTOL here, you certainly need the 
condition. Yes, if you assume that two different forms are in fact 
different spellings of the same form, you get inconsistent spelling. But 
if you assume the consistent spelling which the Masoretes are well known 
for, the implication is that there are two different forms which 
probably have two different meanings. No wonder your external examiner 
was so critical here.

>... 3) the analysis of all verb forms which shows there is no
>semantic difference between YIQTOL and WAYYIQTOL  and between QATAL and

No, your analysis does not show this. It cannot show this, because it 
starts by assuming this. If you assume something and then at the end of 
all kind of study apparently prove the truth of your assumption, by 
simple logic it is impossible that you have really proved your 
assumption. The best that you can hope to prove is that your assumption 
is consistent.

>This is the first example of how Hebrew grammarians can be led astray when
>no distinction is made between semantic and pragmatic factors, when a 
>pragmatic system is interpreted as a semantic one.. But this subject I will 
>not discuss with you, because in this case we live in two
>linguistically different worlds and speak two different languages.

Well, all I will say here is that I don't believe that you have 
demonstrated that the differences are pragmatic rather than semantic. 
You have simply assumed that certain distinctions (which have 
traditionally been considered semantic) are not semantic, and so 
naturally the only way that you can remain consistent is to claim that 
the distinctions are pragmatic.

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

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