[b-hebrew] Masoretic Pointing and CV-syllables

Peter Bekins pbekins at fuse.net
Sat Aug 18 08:59:21 EDT 2007

First, I would just like to mention that no writing system attempts  
to encode all the phonetic information necessary for correct  
pronunciation. This would obviously be inefficient, not to mention  
that the way any given language is pronounced changes over time and  
varies over geography, between country and city, etc. Therefore, it  
is not specific to Biblical Hebrew that reconstruction of the  
"original" pronunciation requires some educated guesswork. However,  
reading a language aloud has classically been an important part of  
language learning which is why scholars have traditionally  
standardized "pronunciations" for Greek, Latin, etc. Tiberian Hebrew  
is a convenient standard for Biblical Hebrew.

Second, as James Barr argued in his Comparative Philology and the  
Text of the Old Testament, and Morag wrote in "On the Historical  
Validity of the Vocalization of the Hebrew Bible", JAOS 94:3 (1974),  
the Tiberian pointing, while not representing the "original  
pronunciation" is not arbitrary either. It contains some valuable  
historical information. For example, we learn from Dr Comninos  
example that X"+:) "sin" is a qitl type with an i-theme vowel, which  
distinguishes it from other words built from the root X+). The  
interesting question is why wasn't there an epenthetic vowel thrown  
in? There are other lamed-aleph qitl segholates such as DE$E) "grass".

There is a basic three-way alternation in Semitic languages between  
the vowels a-i-u. Tiberian Hebrew also distinguishes e and o classes.  
This is the information we need for analyzing the lexemes and  
morphemes of the language, how exactly they were pronounced is  
secondary but sometimes relevant.

Next, analyzing syllable formation is actually quite complicated for  
something that seems so obvious. Linguists have indeed posited CV- 
only systems, but they allow the vowel to be [null]. Hence, if there  
was originally a final case vowel, Dr Comninos example could be  
analyzed as [X"]-[+:]-[)U], where the silent shwa marks null vowel.

This seems contrary to common sense, but it allows for a simpler  
model in some ways. Why it is interesting for Hebrew is that this  
seems to be the way the canaanite linear scripts work (hence silent  
shwa). Each consonant in the orthography is a potential CV syllable  
with an implied vowel. Syllables cannot begin with a vowel so loan  
words get an ), and if two vowels are next to each other the glide  
(Y, W, ), or H ) between them is analyzed as a consonant. Over time,  
of course, "vowel letters" were introduced based on the glides, but  
that is a whole new topic.

Pete Bekins
Grad Student, Bible and Comparative Semitics
Hebrew Union College, Cincinnati, OH

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