[b-hebrew] yhwh pronunciation

Rolf Furuli furuli at online.no
Tue Jul 26 10:43:15 EDT 2005

Dear Yitzhak,

Most of your reasonings regarding vowels are well taken; they are balanced 
and sound. Taken together they lead us back to where we started: We do not 
know the vowels in the word YHWH.  There are some clues, as you show. But 
these may be interpreted differently.

(Thank you, Peter, for clearing up two references).

I would like to comment on one issue.  I fully agree that language changes 
through time, and that is true with vowels as well.  Moreover, there can be 
different pronunciations of the same vowel in different localities at the 
same time, and the same word can be pronounced with different vowels.  For 
example, in Norwegian the word for snow is pronounced with three completely 
different vowels in different parts of the country (sne; sny, and snö). In 
Hebrew a change of stress probably has occurred, and that could influence 
vowel quality (there are three three basic theories regarding this stress 

The reason why I believe the Masoretes were extremely faithful copyists and 
that both the consonants and vowels they wrote are very old, is that the 
consonant text is confirmed by the DSS, and the vowels (save patah and 
shewa) are generally confirmed both by Origen and by the DSS. The Masoretes 
did not know the three-consonant nature of Hebrew roots, but in spite of 
that they copied their text as if they knew that.  Moreover, it appears that 
the recitation in the synagogue was done with  utmost care over the 
centuries, and that was the basis for their pointing and vocalization.

Best regards

Rolf Furuli
University of Oslo

----- Original Message ----- 
From: "Yitzhak Sapir" <yitzhaksapir at gmail.com>
To: "Rolf Furuli" <furuli at online.no>
Cc: <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
Sent: Tuesday, July 26, 2005 3:13 AM
Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] yhwh pronunciation

Dear Rolf,

You have written:

> > Could it be that the pointing of the masoretes only show the
> > pronunciation
> > of the period? And that thus we cannot look to them as a good source for
> > archaic vowel pronunciation? And that consequently the older LLX
> > transliterations give a better source for understanding archaic vowel
> > pronunciation? (within their limitations)

> The answer is clearly No. We cannot learn anything regarding the old
> pronunciation of Hebrew from the LXX.  The Masoretes were extremely
> careful
> when they copied the text, and we have every reason to believe that their
> vocalization represented the pronunciation that was used in B.C.E.


> The Masoretes would not dream of changing anything or invent anything new.
> Their 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. 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, and by hearing the text recited a
> distinction
> between the two could have been problematic.

And now:

> >  I interpret this to mean, "Even if the first vowel [of the Babylonian
> > transcription
> > of initial theophoric element Yahwistic names] is an 'a' sound, [and we
> > assume
> > that Yahwistic names use a pronounciation close to the pronounciation of
> > yhwh],
> > that does not necessarily argue in favor of a patah as the first vowel
> > of yhwh,
> > [because] the names Gedalyahu and Gemaryahu both [have] the sign
> > representing GA as their first syllable, [and yet their MT
> > pronounciation has a
> > schwa] and these names have no theophoric elements at the beginning
> > [that
> > might otherwise cause the Massoretes to change the pronounciation for
> > fear of
> > profaning the sacred.]"
> You have understood my arguments correctly. Moreover, the vowels "a" and
> "e"
> can be more open or more closed, to the point where the sounds can
> resemble
> one another.  The Babylonian scribes would naturally choose  the syllable
> with the vowel they would use to pronounce the Jewish names, and this may
> have been more open or more closed that the vowel used by the Jews.
> Please also remember Zadok`s words about the shift from "a" to "o," which
> probably had not yet occurred. So there are many uncertain factors in the
> Babylonian writing.

We have essentially three or four languages here: Babylonian, Hebrew, and
Greek and possibly Latin.  We also have different stages to each language.
Evidently, the Greek of the original LXX must have been somewhat
different from the
Greek of several centuries later.  Late Babylonian must be considered
different from
Neo Babylonian.  And First Temple Hebrew must be considered different from
Massoretic Hebrew.  To this end of determining vocalization, we have
transcription of names, Greek and Latin transliterations, and also
information as preserved at Qumran, apart from the Massoretic
rendering.  Even the
Massoretic rendering cannot be considered independently as there are several
traditions, including Babylonian and Israeli vocalization traditions.
There may be
differences of pronounciation between sects, ie, Tiberian may represent
while Babylonian represents Pharisaic pronounciation.  The Greek and Latin
transliterations as found in Origen and others show transliterations
which may be
considered "later", ie, the 2nd person suffix is written *-ak as in
Mishnaic Hebrew
and not *-ka, but also transcriptions which may be considered earlier
as in "l:(ebed"
(with seghols), which is transliterated "laabd" in Ps 36:1, which
shows no helper
vowel around the guttural or between the /b/ and the /d/.  These would
suggest that
the transliteration is of a variant tradition than the Massoretic.  In
some cases, the
Massoretic is later; in others, the variant tradition behind Origen is
later.  So the
statement that the MT (Tiberian) tradition definitely repesents the
in the years BCE is inaccurate or misleading.  In some cases, it does.
 It is not
necessarily true and actually probably not true that in all cases it
does.  And we
can learn something of the old pronounciation of Hebrew from the LXX and
just like we can learn something from the MT Tiberian and other traditions.
example, we may conclude that a pronounciation absent of the helper vowels
around gutturals or in the case of two ending consonants survived into
the years CE
and therefore spans the entire "Biblical period" (no matter how long
one wants to date
it).  It also seems all linguists believe that the development of
these helper vowels
occured during the Second Temple or Mishnaic period, and therefore in the
Temple period, these vowels were absent in all
traditions/sects/dialects of Hebrew.

The above view, that we can learn nothing from Greek/Latin is apparently
held by
you also in regards to Babylonian transliteration.  In the case of
transcription of names, it is true that there may have been
differences in pronounciation
that affected vowels.  Two factors are present here - one, the
perception of the vowel,
(or consonant) which may have been perceived differently in different
languages, and
two, the encoding.  By perception I mean that a native speaker of Hebrew
speak his name (say "Jehu"), and then a Babylonian native speaker
would "perceive" it.
Hypothetically, even if "patah" was realized the same, the Babylonian
cuneiform may
not have allowed for example a "ia" (yod with patah) and therefore a
"ie" (yod with
seghol) had to be used.  This is what I mean by "encoding."  However,
the Massoretic
Tiberian vocalization is also quite  deficient with respect to First
Temple period names,
since it was put down to writing for the first time over a thousand
years after the First
Temple period ended.  One can choose any language to see that vowels change
drastically over a thousand year period,  to understand that the Babylonian
transliteration, with all its short-comings may be more useful than
the MT for the
purposes of determining pronounciation of vowels in the First Temple period.

Lastly, you seem to be making very little distinction between the
various vowels.
Tiberian distinguishes various vowels which you call "a" (patah vs qamats),
quite a few vowels which you call "e" (seghol, tsere, schwa,
hataf-seghol).  While
in many cases the names of the symbols apparently represent their shape
("seghol" = cluster, "ravia(" = diamond/square), in the case of vowels
they generally
seem to represent their quality: "patah" = open, "tsere" = narrow, "schwa" =
empty, "hataf" = stolen.  It seems to me a little bit odd to claim
that "patah" (open)
could have been "more closed."  In any case, I have consistently argued for
"qamats" under the y of yhwh, but you have downgraded it to a patah and then
apparently argued that it could have been a schwa that was mistaken by
for a patah.  You have also seemed to compared "Jehu"' to names beginning
schwa despite the fact that Jehu has a tsere - a long vowel generally
transliterated as
"ae" and schwa is very very short.

I think the initial vowel in yhwh is most likely a long "a".  This is
based on the
MT independent component "Yah", the MT theophoric element -yahu, the MT
theophoric element -yah, all with qamats, the various Greek
transcriptions that all
give "a" at that location, and the similar Babylonian transcriptions
that also seem
to give "a" (which you say in the case of IA could also represent IE).
 While it may be
that the Babylonian cuneiform used for "ia" could actually also
represent "ie" (and
here I find it odd that if so, Jehu's name, was not transcribed as
ie-u'-wa), I still
find it needing of proof that a schwa would have been transcribed by
as "ie".  If the vowel was a schwa, why did the Babylonians transcribe
"G:" as "ga"?
It rather seems to me that in the case of Gedalyahu and Gemaryahu rather
arguing for differences of vowel quality, the Babylonian transcription
shows that at
this time initial vowels had not yet reduced to a schwa, as they did
in other words
as well such as m:lakim ("kings") (from "*malkim", here with a patah).
 In any case,
while initial vowels may be less stable, the fact that the theophoric
endings -yahu
and -yah have a qamats would seem to argue that the vowel in the thephoric
prefix y:ho- was also initially qamats, as does the prefix yo- (< *yaw).

Yitzhak Sapir

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