Of Shins and Sins

A correspondent writes:

It is about the letter(s) shin and sin.  These are usually indicated as the same letter in the Hebrew alphabet. However, they are definitely not interchangeable in a word in the same way a bet and vet are.  They seem to be different letters, but they differ solely because of a dot that didn’t even appear in classical Hebrew.

Can you help me out with my understanding of this?

Dear Reader:

First of all, I must compliment you on the fact that within just a few short phrases you encapsulated a great deal of accurate information. I’m afraid that while I might be able to answer it, I won’t be able to replicate your brevity. Sometimes short questions engender long answers!

As you suggest, a dot can make a difference for the letter בּ in a very different manner than the dot associated with שׁ. And you are again correct that these dots were developed long after the end of the use of Biblical Hebrew as a spoken language.

To the best of our knowledge, both kinds of dot were invented by a somewhat mysterious group of scholars called the Masoretes. These people were engaged for a period of centuries with the task of preserving what they knew of the proper pronunciation of the ancient Hebrew language. We know of them primarily through the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible they have left for us, the earliest of which dates to about the year 850 or 900 CE.

In the case of 6 letters (of the total of 22), the pronunciation preserved by the Masoretes indicate that the passage of air through the mouth results in a slight softening of the sound. You mention the bet which is the first of these letters. The usual pronunication of the bet is a stop whereby the sound is stopped by the lips. The sound is essentially the same as the b in boy. But if a puff of air should precede the bet, the sound softens into the v of very. If you try making these two sounds yourself, you should notice that even though b and v are distant from each other in the order of the English alphabet, still, they are pronounced with the same speech organ, namely the lips.

The Masoretes indicated this difference in pronunciation with a dot (Hebrew: dagesh). This dot is found in five more letters (about which we will speak in greater detail in a later article).

A critical point of all this is that even though one of these six letters is subject to differences in pronunciation, the meaning of the word never changes. Whether the word is pronounced bayit or vayit, it still means house.

With the shin the Masoretes faced a much different dilemma. Long before their time, in the earliest phases of Biblical Hebrew, there were some words which used the sh sound and others which used the s sound. In some dialects of Biblical Hebrew, the speakers were not able to readily distinguish between these two sounds. In fact, this gave rise to the famous story of the word shiboleth which you can find in Judges 12:5-6.

(This is, by the way, one of the few cases of a Hebrew word migrating into English.)

For those (Biblical era) people who recognized a different pronunciation for the letter shin this became a significant difference because a word with shin would have a different meaning from a word with the pronunciation. Unlike the bet there was a possibility for a difference in meaning. But the Biblical Scribes did not recognize the difference. They used the same letter ש to spell both sounds, much as English sure uses the plain s to render the sound sh.

The Masoretes elected to use a dot to help us with this distinction in a similar fashion to the dagesh. They placed a dot to the right of the letter if it should be pronounced in the more common fashion of sh and they put the dot to the left of the letter if they wanted us to pronounce it as an s. Although it is a dot, it is not a dagesh. If this diacritical mark has a name, perhaps some Reader out there can post a reply letting us know its name.

The problem of the shin has led to some difficult aspects for the dictionary writers. How to cope with the fact that the shin and sin are critical to the meanings of words even though they are the same symbol? What you will find is that some authors of dictionaries will actually separate the two forms as if they are indeed separate letters of the Hebrew alphabet. No less an authority than the Brown-Driver-Briggs Biblical lexicon follows this approach. Other dictionary writers elect to intermix the shins and sins as if there was no difference whatsoever. It is your problem, when using a dictionary, to figure out which strategy the authors have followed.

I hope that throws at least some light on your question, and if not, perhaps you’ll ask a follow-up in the reply box offered below.

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