[b-hebrew] phonological syllables

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Sat Oct 28 22:55:17 EDT 2006

On 10/29/06, omar nshea wrote:
> I am reading Geoffrey Khan's article on Vowel Length and Syllable Structure
> and have come across the notion of phonological syllables. I would be
> grateful if one of you could clarify the meaning of this for me. I have
> tried but alas, no joy. Many thanks.

Dear Omar,

First, he has another article:
'The syllabic nature of Tiberian Hebrew vocalization' in A. S. Kaye ed.,
Semitic Studies in Honor of Wolf Leslau I, Wiesbaden , 1991, 850-865.

This article apparently attempts to set straight some of his claims in the
earlier article.  In the summary he defines a phonological syllable as one
that is taken into account by some rules relating to stress, and which is
of two morae.

I am not a linguist.  I have read a few of Khan's articles now.  I think by
phonological syllable he has identified an earlier stage of the Hebrew
syllable structure.  Thus, if we look at the following comparisons:

yi$mo:r  - ya:(amo:d
yi$maru: - ya:(amdu:

(By the way, one needs only to compare these two forms to see that
hataf-patah and patah are indeed relatively equivalent and the main
difference between them is that the first is an open and the second a
closed syllable).

We see in these examples essentially two changes.  First, the Ayin
changes the preceding vowel into an "a", a similar (and probably the
same) sound change as in the furtive patah.  Thus, *yi(mod -> *ya(mod.
In a second sound change, the Ayin further weakens and apparently
shifts to a midpoint in the "a" vowel: *ya(mod -> *ya(amod.  The same
thing happens in *yi(madu -> *ya(madu -> *ya(amadu.  But now, the
short a that follows the m drops, perhaps because two short open
vowels are precluded by the Hebrew syllable structure.  This leaves,
ya(amdu.  According to the syllable structure then, the word is
divided: ya(am-du.  However, some stress rules (mainly nesiga) deal
with the word as if it was *ya(madu or *yi(madu.  This suggests to me
that the nesiga stress placements were fixed by tradition at this time,
after which the later sound change whereby the Ayin shifted to the
midpoint of the "a" vowel changed the effective syllable  structure, but
did not change the results of the nesiga, since that was fixed by
tradition already.  As similar idea (of the early nature of the nesiga) is
detailed on p. 52 where he writes that nesiga apparently first occurred
at a period when the vowel in the closed final stressed syllable of verbal
forms was short.  However, in my opinion, here, because tradition had
not entirely fixed the nesiga stress placements before the lengthening
of those vowels, only some examples remain.

I think explaining the nesiga rules this way is much simpler than
the more complex explanation that he calls "phonological
syllable."  Further, this way,  the "phonological syllable" is
explained as being a part of an earlier stage of the Hebrew
syllable structure.

Yitzhak Sapir

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