[b-hebrew] Age of consonantal text, vocalization, and cantillation

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Tue Dec 11 19:06:04 EST 2007

On Dec 11, 2007 1:37 AM, Ken Penner wrote:
> Yitzhak Sapir wrote:
> > I
> > am not sure how you go about deciding that the vocalization
> > tradition is somehow not as earlier as the consonantal text.
> I would think such things as perpetual Qere, the vocalization of the
> Tetragrammaton, and the vocalization of Qal Passives as Puals would
> indicate the vowel points are not as ancient as the consonantal text. My
> work with Qumran texts has increased my confidence in the antiquity of
> the consonants of the MT and decreased my confidence in the antiquity
> of the vowels.

Hi Ken,

It is reasonable that the Tetragrammaton was vocalized earlier according
to its consonants, although the process of its replacement may have
already begun during the Qumran period.  This was a normal linguistic
development during the course of Hebrew as a spoken language.

The vocalization of Qal Passives as Puals is also reasonably explained
as a normal linguistic development.  For example, (basing myself mainly
on Saenz-Badillos), RH lost the Piel as well as the Qal passive.  It is
reasonable that in such a situation, the Pual and Qal passive would have
been maintained only in archaic use.  In such a situation, it is easier to
understand how the differences between them were neutralized -- keeping
the archaic use, but maintaining only one form in such use.

Furthermore, based on the comparison of lq+ in the Bible vs lq+ in the
Torah, if it works for other verbs as well, there may have been a tendency
to reallocate Qal verbs to the Piel.  If indeed this was the case, for those
verbs, a Pual may have been likewise formed competing with the earlier
Qal passive.  This competition may have also led to the elimination of
other Qal passives in general in favor of the Pual.

These are all linguistic developments.  They affected in this case the
vowels, but they could have easily affected the consonants as well,
especially matres lectionis.  Let me give an example.  During the
Second Temple period, final -n and -m were neutralized.  We see this
in the rise of Rabbinic Hebrew -n plural endings, as well as in such
words as ?dn "man" in the Bar Kokhba letters.  It is also present in
the 4th cent BCE ostracon I quoted a few weeks back 'kkrn' loaves of
bread.  I believe this neutralization is a result of a mass borrowing of
words from Aramaic, that led to a competing plural ending -n in Hebrew
alongside -m.  This was analyzed by speakers as an allophone and so
was extended to other words as well.  Another word that was apparently
also affected was &+n "to be at enmity with."  But unlike other words, in
this case, apparently the allophone &+m (compare Gen 27:41) led to
a new verb that had -m- even in non final positions.  Compare Psalms
38:21 vs 55:4.  Now, it seems to me clear that probably most cases
of &+m must have been spelled originally &+n, and were changed
later.  But to what date do we assign this shift in the text?  (This is
one of the most fascinating examples of this I found, and I am now
wondering about other possible examples -- so if someone has such
I'd love to hear them)

In contrast, most nouns end in -m, not -n, in the Bible.  This is to
be understood as a feature of the written language, that was based
on the spoken language before the -m / -n neutralization, but that did
not adapt as quickly as the spoken language.  In that sense, yes,
the consonantal text may be older due to historical spellings.  (The
&tm / &tn development apparently went in because it modified non-
final -n).

But this is not a consistent feature of all consonants.  It is not possible
to analyze, at least not in the state of knowledge today, how often
the consonantal text represents historical spellings, and how often
the vocalization represents historical vowels.  I am not taking into
consideration here obvious changes in phonology due to regular
sound change, because it is clear to me that both changed, and
that the vocalization was more susceptible to this.   More significant
to me are natural linguistic developments not due to sound change.
I do not know to say for a word, how likely it is that its vocalization
changed vs. how likely it is that its consonantal representation
changed due to non-sound change linguistic developments.  As a
result, the basic assumption cannot be considered except as a
guiding principle, and in a specific case of a proposed correction
does not have any weight in deciding the likelihood of that

To sum up, I can accept that written manuscripts could have exerted
a conservative influence in that regard so that the content of
written manuscripts would have been preserved longer.  But I do
not think that that influence is sufficiently dependable to allow us
to favor a correction simply or even partly because it is only in
the vowels.  I also think that changes in matres lectionis were
ongoing so that matres lectionis are even less dependable than
other consonants.

Yitzhak Sapir

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