[b-hebrew] Tiberian Hebrew Phonology

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Sat Oct 7 16:11:27 EDT 2006

The recent topic which was brought up quite accidentally by me ended up in
me looking up an article for Peter Kirk just so that I can back up that qamats
is considered today by linguists to have been pronounced consistently as a
sort of "o" sound rather than an "a" sound.  Then I read the rest of
the article,
for the first time, and realized essentially that a lot of research has been
going on in the field of Tiberian phonology in recent years, making use of a
lot of new evidence that is available mainly from the Genizah but I suppose
also from other places.  A review of these sources of evidence is available
here in another article by Geoffrey Khan (2002), p. 68 (18 of the pdf) and on:


The article itself makes some of the following claims:
1) The Massoretes recognized seven qualities of vowels, denoted by the
seven vowel symbols.
2) The Massoretes were mostly concerned with denoting these qualities
and the stress of the words, and somewhat with the syllable structure
(is a syllable open or closed), but not with the lengths of the vowels.
3) Only in one case does a vowel length distinguished meanings of words,
and this was a qamats, which is illustrated by a minimal pair such as
do-mi: "silence" vs do:-mi: "my blood".  The first was spelled with a hataf
qamats.  Even this case is not completely clear but he gives quite a bit
of evidence for it.
4) Many allophones were recognized, not just of bgdkpt, and shin/sin,
but also of vav and resh.  The resh is particularly significant since it
allows us to learn about the syllable structure.
5) Because vowel lengths are not a concern of the Massoretes, a significant
source is the Arabic transliterations which do use Arabic matres lectionis
to denote vowel lengths.
6) The Massoretes and Latin transcriptions are not at odds with regards to
the bgdkpt letters.  Specifically, the kpt letters were aspirated when not
fricative, and the Greek/Latin transcriptions did not distinguish aspirated
from fricative letters.

This system solves various problems with the generally referenced standard
system.  One may debate whether the Massoretic system is right or wrong,
an invention or not, but one cannot do so without investigating the evidence,
including the new evidence that has been used in recent years in the study
of Tiberian phonology.

The original article was "Tiberian Hebrew Phonology" by Geoffrey Khan,
in a book titled "Phonologies of Asia and Africa".  A review is here:

I wanted to go Friday to read some of the articles he cites, but the
Bar Ilan library was closed.

Yitzhak Sapir

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