[b-hebrew] vowel length

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Mon Nov 6 17:43:12 EST 2006

On 11/6/06, omar nshea wrote:
> hiya everyone,
> i keep coming across the reference that the tiberian masoretic vowel signs
> show only the quality of vowel to choose from but not
> the quantity of that vowel.  this is  and seems to have been accepted
> acorss the board in modern philology and linguistics.

I wouldn't say it is across the board but it definitely seems to me that
Khan has mounted a real challenge to the standard understanding,
using solid evidence.

> does anybody know where the idea stems from?

Since you've read some of Geoffrey Khan's articles on the subject, I
assumed you would be aware of the evidence: early treatises on the
Hebrew grammar by various Jewish and Karaite scholars, Karaite
transliterations of the Bible into Arabic script, Arabic texts in Jewish
script with vocalization.

> does it turn up in the  medieval sources anywhere?

Yes.  Aharon Ben-Asher apparently even explicitly claims this in his
own grammatical treatise, Diqduqe Hate(amim.

> also, why is it that prepositions have one type of vowel when standing
> independently (e.g. segol) and then change when inflected,
> (e.g. sere) and then change even furthur when they are heavily affixed (e.g.
> hateph)? is that not evidence of length of vowel?

No.  The Massoretes were aware of vowel length.  But vowel length,
at least in most cases, was not phonemic.  Vowel length was a product
of the history of the Hebrew language, but due to the development of
the Hebrew language, it so happened that given a particular syllable
and stress structure, the vowel lengths of the various syllables in the
word were fixed.  That is, open and stress vowels were lengthened
during this development and long unstressed vowels took on
secondary stress or shortened.  Some open vowels remained short but
these lost their independent syllabic status and their own quality and
their quality was determined by the following syllable as they themselves
were considered part of that syllable.  For example, in the English word
octopus, the "to" forms a syllable, but because it has a schwa, many
people might view it as related to the following syllable.  This is
essentially the Massoretic point of view.   In the Massoretic system,
hataf- and mobile schewa signified short open vowels, so in the case
of the hatafim the short vowels are explicitly marked.

In the preposition )el, we see the aleph take a segol when the vowel
is closed, and when open, a tsere or hataf patah.  There really isn't
"strongly affixed" or "inflected."  Both are inflected, and in both cases
the vowel is open.  It's just a question of which pronoun is suffixed
to ")el."  When suffixed the plural second or third person pronouns,
the hataf patah is used.  Probably, originally, the vowel was a short
*i which developed to a short tsere.  When all open vowels
lengthened, so did the tseres.  After this, the short tseres changed
quality to short segols.  This led to the situation you see where
the vowel of the aleph is tsere when the vowel is open and segol
when it is closed.  In the cases of the second and third person
plural suffixed pronouns, the open vowel apparently lost its
independent status before the vowels lengthened.  It remained
short, but it lost its independent tsere quality.

The pronoun )el is actually a contraction of the longer )ele.
Thus, the suffixed forms are actually suffixed to this longer form.
In a few cases the longer form remained in independent status,
and this explains the )ele form.

In some cases, Khan eventually concludes that vowel length
was phonemic.  Thus, the example of do:-mi: ("my blood") vs
do-mi ("silence"), where "o" is qamats.  In these cases, a
hataf qamats or hataf segol is used to indicate the vowel
length difference from the normal qamats or segol.  This
would be the case in the world )ele, where the e is short
even though the vowel is open.  The short tsere still became
segol which is why the vowel is hataf-segol.  It did not
lengthen apparently because the vowel was midway between
short and long -- not long enough to be lengthened, but not
short enough to lose its independent quality and syllabic

While segol in many cases is a product of the quality change
whereby short tsere became short segol, it is not always so.
Thus, if you compare the words kElEb and sepEr (capital E =
segol, lowercase e = tsere) you see that both the segol on
the kE and the tsere on the se are the same quantity (long,
because the vowels are open).  The second segol in these
words is short because that syllable is closed and
unstressed.  Most likely, it was very short.  In Massoretic
Hebrew, then, a segol can be both short and long, and also
as long as a tsere.  A tsere can only be long but this is only
a result of the late change of all short tseres to short segols.

Up until now, I have described Geoffrey Khan's conclusions,
and I hope accurately.  In my personal opinion, some stressed
vowels could be very long.  A rabia( cantillation mark plausibly
signified a four-fold vowel breakup because of the associated
musical tune which had four notes or stages.  Thus, the word
"and he separated" in Gen 1:7 is plausibly realized as
[vay-yav-'de:-e:-e:-el], and this only serves to underscore
the point that in Massoretic Hebrew vowel length was a
tool used by the cantillation and vocalization system and was
not, in general, phonemic.  It even appears to me that when
Hebrew ceased to be a spoken language after the early
centuries CE, that vowel length was gradually lost as the
reading tradition developed Hebrew in ways more suitable for
the cantillation of the liturgical reading.

As for your other question, why didn't the Tiberians choose to
consistently represent vowel length if the Arabic texts do, the
reason is probably that the Tiberians chose to mark only those
elements of the words which would have had phonemic
consequences.  Since vowel length did not, in most cases,
they did not mark vowel length in most cases.

Yitzhak Sapir

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list