[b-hebrew] Masoretic transmission of pronuncation

Will Parsons wbparsons at alum.mit.edu
Fri Jul 12 18:10:20 EDT 2013

On Thu, 11 Jul 2013 21:32:57 -0600, Jerry Shepherd <jshepherd53 at gmail.com> wrote:
> Hi Will,
> You said:

>> "As I mentioned above, Biblical texts were written over a period of
>> centuries, and the language surely underwent changes during that
>> time.  Taking the language of the last book (by which time there was
>> most likely strong Aramaic influence) and the beginning of the work of
>> the Masoretes is somewhat misleading as to the total time of the
>> transformation of language we're considering."

> Jerry: See Chavoux's post and also my post to Karl.  I believe that
> there was not only development in the Hebrew language, but also
> development in the biblical texts; older texts were edited and
> updated in a number of ways, including orthographically.

I have no issue with that, but that's rather a different matter than
the development of internal (i.e., outside of the consonantal text)

> You said:

>> ". . . the Hebrew as pronounced using a 'Masoretic' pronunciation
>> would sound considerably different than that used by Jeremiah, let
>> alone David, let alone Moses."

> Jerry: Agreed, but, as I mentioned above, the post-exilic editions
> of those texts would be different as well, on account of editorial
> work, including an updating process.

>> You said: "I don't follow your reasoning here at all."

> Jerry: See my post to Karl on this; but what I'm arguing is that if
> Hebrew ceased to be the regular spoken language among Jewish
> communities, and was pretty much reserved for liturgical and
> academic purposes, that would have helped to preserve the text as
> well as the pronunciation of the text.  If the Hebrews was spoken
> primarily by the religious officials, that would have helped to
> "freeze" the text and its pronunciation.  Admittedly, this is
> speculative, because we just don't know when Hebrew ceased to be a
> commonly spoken language.  But it is one plausible scenario.

OK - let's consider the matter of "freezing" the text and its
pronunciation.  In another reply in the "hiph`il" thread (I can't
rembember if was to you or someone else), Karl brought up the example
of Latin, and I'd like to expand on that because I think it provides a
relevant comparison.

In particular, let's compare the situation of Hebrew vs. Aramaic in
the period when Hebrew had been replaced by Aramaic as a mother
tongue, and Latin vs. Old French (by which time, of course, Latin had
been replaced by various Romance dialects as a mother tongue).  True,
the two situations are not entirely parallel: Hebrew and Aramaic are
sister languages, rather than one being the daughter of the other.
But they are similar in that the language pairs are closely related,
and in both cases, one language provides the language of ordinary
discourse, while the other remains in use for "higher" purposes.

It should be noted that neither Hebrew nor Latin were relegated to
purely religious use after they ceased be mother tongues, but
continued to be actively used well past that point (indeed, to the
present time).

So, here's a question:  How was the Latin name "Julius" pronounced in
Latin in 11th century France?  (Let's just confine ourselves to the
pronunciation of the initial J [or more correctly, consonantal I].)
Lacking a time machine we cannot be absolutely sure, but we can
reconstruct this with a fair degree of confidence.

And the answer is:  Latin J (consonantal I) was pronounced in 11th
French like an English J.  Why?  Because that's how it was pronounced
in French at that time.  (That's why English J has the value it has,
because following the Norman Conquests French spelling conventions
were imposed upon English.)  But how did French J (or consonantal I)
get that value?  Because it was a normal phonological development in
the evolution of Latin into Old French.  But the important thing to
note here is that as the pronunciation of French changed, the
pronunciation of Latin changed with it.  Indeed, the pronunciation of
Latin continued to follow the host language until quite recent times.

Let's return to your idea a "freezing" the language.  Latin was
somewhat "frozen" in that the written form resisted major changes, the
traditional spelling served to impede transformations that took place
in the spoken language.  But pronunciation changes that did not affect
the written form readily took place (e.g., not only the pronunciation
of J noted above, but the pronunciation of Latin "ae" as [e], and "u"
as [y]).  From the point of view of the person speaking both Old
French and Latin, it could hardly be otherwise.

And likewise, it could hardly be otherwise in the case of Aramaic and
Hebrew.  Yes, the Hebrew written forms were somewhat "frozen" in that
they resisted major changes, but they did not provide a brake on
changes to the internal vocalization.  (Indeed, even less so than in
the case of Latin, since Latin represented vowels whereas Hebrew did
not regularly do so.)  From the point of view of the person speaking
both Aramaic and Hebrew, changes in the pronunciation of Aramaic would
most likely affect Hebew pronunciation also.

Not completely, of course.  It would easy enough to internalize that
whereas in normal speach one pronounced כתב/KTB as [kəθ'av] (or
[kəθ'aβ]), when speaking Hebrew, it was pronounced [kɔ:θ'av].  But it
would be pretty hard to maintain an independent Hebrew phonology in
such circumstances.

Will Parsons
μὴ φαίνεσθαι, ἀλλ' εἶναι.

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