[b-hebrew] Masoretic transmission of pronuncation

Kevin Riley klriley100 at tpg.com.au
Mon Jul 15 19:27:47 EDT 2013

The evidence seems to suggest that, where there is a 'classical' form of 
the language (Greek, Latin, Arabic, and if used loosely, Icelandic and 
Irish) that the tendency was/is to use the current pronunciation rather 
than some 'preserved' pronunciation.  I know in the case of Irish that 
this went as far as 'updating' the spelling when manuscripts were copied 
- but how much depended on the individual scribe, and, as in Greek, 
there were also periods of 'archaising' as well when spellings and forms 
(although probably not pronunciation) of former periods were 
introduced.  It is, of course, impossible to prove, but I suspect that 
'classical' forms of a language are viewed by native speakers more as a 
dialect or register of their language rather than as a 'foreign' 
language, so why would they have a special pronunciation? The quest for 
'historical accuracy' seems to be largely a modern academic concern.  
Today we insist on portraying Biblical or historical characters in 
'correct' costume, but until a few centuries ago, almost every depiction 
in European art depicts these characters in contemporary clothing, and 
usually with contemporary backgrounds.  I believe the language would 
have been treated similarly.

Combined with the evidence from Hebrew manuscripts 
(Babylonian/Tiberian/Palestinian pointing, as well as the Samaritan 
manuscripts) and the pronunciations of contemporary communities 
(Sephardi, Ashkenazi, Yemenite and the other scattered groups from 
Morocco to Iran) all of which show the influence of surrounding 
languages, I believe it is unlikely that Hebrew was different to other 
languages in this regard.  I don't believe a case can be made for the 
Masoretic pointing preserving the exact pronunciation of 'biblical' 
Hebrew, but I also would hesitate to say it is any more 'wrong' than any 
other.  Together, they reveal a fairly clear picture of the history of 
Hebrew pronunciation, even if we have some difficulty with assigning 
exact dates to changes.  If the Masoretic pointing is more a 'snapshot' 
of a Hebrew pronunciation that equates to Medieval (or Ecclesiastical) 
Latin rather than providing us with the exact pronunciation used by 
Isaiah or other speakers of 'classical' Hebrew, what have we lost that 
we would have had if the 'classical' pronunciation had been preserved?

Kevin Riley

On 15/07/2013 9:47 PM, Barry H. wrote:
> On 7/14/2013 8:08 PM, Jerry Shepherd wrote:
>   > Hi Barry,
>   > Thanks for this.  But allow me to press a distinction I'm thinking of in
>   > asking the question.  In your last sentence you said, "I have no doubt
>   > that an 11th century French speaker would  have pronounced Latin
>   > filtered through medieval French."
>   > I agree with this to a large extent, and understand that, for
>   > example, Latin words would have been "Frenchized" in normal
>   > conversation, sermons, and even liturgy.  But it also seems to me that
>   > this would have been less true for the professional academics who were
>   > working with the Latin texts, copying them, and doing hermeneutical and
>   > commentary work on them.  So, going back to Will's example, a scholar
>   > may have well "Frenchized an original Iulius to Julius in normal
>   > conversation, but would still have recognized that the actual
>   > pronunciation was I rather than J, and would have used the more accurate
>   > pronunciation in a more scholarly context.  But maybe I'm out to lunch.
>   > Thanks and blessings,
> Jerry, with regard to Latin, I just don't think this is true. Now, I'm
> not anywhere near an expert in Latin manuscript copying and
> transmission, but one way to check this would be through copyist errors.
> I seem vaguely to remember reading or hearing in a lecture that there
> was some actual evidence of this sort, but have no idea of the details
> anymore. If you have any actual evidence that "professional academics"
> during the medieval period actually pronounced Latin differently than
> their local languages and dialects, I'd very much like to see it.
> And, of course, the The Masoretic context could be quite different.
> Wasn't a deliberate effort made to preserve proper pronunciation? When
> did that start? But even today, Sephardic and Ashkenazi often sound
> quite different.
> Enjoy your lunch...

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