[b-hebrew] reading unpointed Hebrew

Isaac Fried if at math.bu.edu
Sun Nov 26 21:35:22 EST 2006

Two short comments on reading unpointed Hebrew.
It is true that “different meanings for the same spellings are almost always
resolved by context”. But this is true because Hebrew prose writers are
conscious of this acute danger and tend to arrange their words and sentences
so as to minimize it. Every person frequenting a Jewish synagogue knows that
even a highly experienced ‘baal kore’, a public reader of the unpointed
Torah scroll, makes occasional reading mistakes, that are loudly protested
and corrected by an attentive public looking at a pointed text.
The example I brought before of לבנים, which under the same pronunciation,
may mean ‘whites’ or ‘to boys’ is doubly interesting and I wish to expound
on it. 
It is common knowledge that a shwa under a first letter of a Hebrew word is
nominally a ‘shwa mobile’ yet it is fully ignored by native speakers of
Hebrew if this first letter is radical. For example, ברוש, ‘cypress tree’ is
pronounced BROSH. On the other hand, if the first letter is not radical but
is rather one of the prefixed בכ"ל auxiliary letters, then an e sound is
intuitively inserted for distinction. For example, בראש, ‘with a head’ is
pronounced BeROSH, practically: BE ROSH. This is a common practice even with
the public Torah readers.
Yet, if the first letter of a Hebrew word is one of the למנ"ר (LMNR)
letters, then for some phonetic exigency the initial shwa is instinctively
replaced by a thin e sound, even in the radical case. Thus, לבנים is in any
event LeVANIM. Now the Hebrew speaker finds another subterfuge. Having
affected the severance LeVANIM->LE VANIM he feels free to ignore the rules
of the ‘dagesh forte’ and goes on to pronounce LE BANIM, ‘to boys’, with
BANIM as the isolated plural form of BEN, ‘son, boy’.
Isaac Fried         

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