[b-hebrew] 'Vocal shwa' had no true/phonemic quality at the time of > LXX. (Garth Grenache)

Garth Grenache garthgrenache at hotmail.com
Sun Jul 4 00:07:51 EDT 2010

Dear Yitzhak and everyone,

Until yesterday I had believed for a substantial time that the shwa marked a non-vowel or a vowel that had been essentially lost, just like there is no vowel between 'sh' and 'l' in Aramaic "shlama".

Today, with the help of Yitzhak, and a bit of reading and research, my understanding has changed.

I now reckon that shwa was not a lost vowel, but instead was a short vowel in an open syllable, just as Yitzhak has said, and that this short status allowed it's quality to be changed depending on its surrounding consonants and vowels, but by no means meant that the perceived vowel quantity disappeared altogether in Biblical or Medieval times.

I propose this development:

1. Following the lengthening of penultimate short syllables (open syllables with short vowels), the antepenultimate short syllable became relatively deemphasized.
2. This deemphasis resulted in an earlier onset of the following consonant, as evidenced by its realisation in Greek writting as a doubled consonant:  
*MeSSias for Aramaic "Masheehaa"
*SaDDoukaios for "Sadookeem"
The original rhythm of the word in 1. being maintained, the earlier onset of the following consonant must be accompanied by a reduction in the preceding short vowel.
3. The deemphasis and reduction of this short vowel made it's pronounced quality difficult to distinguish.
4. Morphophonetic changes occurred to it, such as assimilation of its quality to the quality of the following vowel, or to the openness/closeness of the surrounding consonants.
5. By the time of the Tiberian pointing, the quality of the vowel was usually discernable when it followed a gutteral consonant (which can be pronounced without any necessary openness or closeness of the mouth), but difficult to discernable (or disputable) when following other consonants which affect the closure of the mouth.  Hence the Tiberian tradition: simple shewa was used for non-gutterals,  compound shewas for gutterals.
6. The more commonly perceived qualities of simple shewa in various situations became standardized by rules, which could then be applied to cases where the quality of shewa was indiscernable or disputable.

Does that seem to be a reasonable suggestion?

What convinced me that shewa did retain some length, was the Greek transcriptions in the NT.  When two Greek letters do not usually begin a word, any intervening vowel in a transliteration could be taken as epenthetic.  But when two Greek letters commonly begin words together, such as...
*bl-, but  NT has beliar for b:liyya`al
*sb-, but NT&LXX has sabaoth for s:ba'oth
*sk-, but NT&LXX has suchem for sh:chem/shechem
...the intervening Greek vowel is evidence that that the shewa was a true audible vowel with some length and (various) qualities.

Thanks for your help!

Garth Grenache,

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