[b-hebrew] Using an unpointed text

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Fri Aug 24 10:13:32 EDT 2007

On 8/24/07, JAMES CHRISTIAN READ wrote:

> YL: And while
> it is true that by the time of the Masoretes nobody had been a "native"
> speaker of Biblical Hebrew for a thousand years (well, let's not argue about
> the dates), there was an unbroken tradition of how to read the text and what
> it meant. Now "unbroken" does not mean that the Masoretes pronounced every
> word exactly as Isaiah would have, and of course there are mistakes and
> corruptions in the Masoretic tradition, but it does mean that they had a
> whole lot of knowledge, which our just throwing out the window would be
> foolish.
> JCR: Nobody is suggesting throwing it out of the
> window. It certainly has its place as a reference
> point for a workable model of pronunciation matters
> but it has no role in helping students gain the
> instinctive level of understanding a native Hebrew had.

Consider a person learning French -- but he has no native speakers of French
with whom to consult, or, in fact, has no idea how to pronounce the words he
reads.  While he may be able to figure out how to read French by reading
line by line, he will not be able to speak it properly.  Now, imagine that we
strip all the words in the texts that he reads of the vowels.  He has no hope of
ever getting close at reading the words properly, and now he will also have
some problems understanding grammatical forms.  If we limit the texts at his
disposal to some group of preselected texts, with as many possible translations
-- most of these by people who also have had poor exposure to the language --
and only so many words or sentences in the French language that he has to
read, these problems of understanding grammatical forms will become more
serious.  We can say the same for English, in fact, although in French the
differences between spoken and written language are more acute.  The
instinctive level of understanding of a native Judaean was acquired through
learning the language from his parents in his village from infancy.  90% of
these native Judaeans, to take a rather safe estimate, were illiterate anyway.
The amount of forms they learned from their parents was quite large and by
far exceeds the amount we have in the Bible.  For all these reasons, using
the vocalization in the Bible is necessary if one wants to understand the
language.  Even if one would want to doubt some places of the vocalization
one must become adept at the vocalization to be able to recognize all
grammatical forms.  One does not have to use a grammar book for this --
he can work with a vocalized and translated text and learn it line by line
by reading.  (This is what I suggested Karl do with Aramaic way back).
To get a better understanding of the grammar and possible forms which
were used in the Bible but lost by the time of the Massoretes, one has to
refer to additional related languages, the most important of which are
Amarna Canaanite, Phoenician, Ugaritic, and Aramaic (Old, Official,
Biblical, and Galilean).  Learning Hebrew without vocalization will not
get you closer to your goal of this instinctive understanding -- it will only
draw you further away.

Yitzhak Sapir

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