‘f Y’ Cn Rd Ths Y’ Cn Lrn Bblcl Hbrw!

Why should anyone care about this topic?

One of the more difficult aspects of mastering  Semitic literature is the simple fact that most original Semitic writing systems encode only the consonantal sounds. Vowels were an afterthought and often entirely unrecognized in writing. How to explain to beginning Classical Hebrew students that they could overcome this quirk of the written language?

One day I had one of those little epiphanies that often spell the difference between success or failure in communicating a critical concept. For some reason I recalled sitting on a New York City subway car looking at the ads posted opposite. One of those ads always tickled me–it said something to the effect “”F Y’ CN RD THS Y’ CN LRN STNGRPHY!” I worked this into my very first lesson where we introduce the 22 consonants that compose the Hebrew aleph-bet, adjusting the phrase to “‘F Y’ CN RD THS Y’ CN RD BBLCL HBRW!”

Purists can find all sorts of things to fault in this lesson, but I contend that not only is it good enough, it can be an excellent tool for explaining a number of difficult topics in the study of both Hebrew and English orthography.

First a note on what Pete Seeger calls “scholargok.” Why did I use the word orthography rather than the more readily understandable term spelling? The answer is that in a discussion of writing systems I think it is important to realize that there are more clues to reading a word, phrase or sentence than just the consonants and vowels. In English and most modern languages there are a variety of accent marks, punctuation signs and other indicators for the proper pronunciation and interpretation of the words. When we speak, we provide many of these indicators by the way we pronounce the words, where we put the stress (accent) on the word and the pauses between words and phrases. The term orthography encompasses all these signs and indicators. It means “the way we write a language.”

My goal is to clarify rather than confuse, so I’ll make an effort to explain any technical terms (aka scholargok) I use. Please let me know via the communication tools provided at the end of this article if there’s anything you think needed more clarity or better explanation.

The original NorthWest Semitic writing system

Unvoweled, no word separation, bidirectional

The essence of the issues discussed here go back about 3000 or even more years as several civilizations grappled with creating writing systems. Many great civilizations focused their efforts on pictures to communicate, and these famously include Egyptian hieroglyphics and Chinese characters along with lesser known systems from the Hittites and the Americas. Of these, as far as I know, only the Chinese system continues in widespread use.

About the same time that Egyptian hieroglyphics flowered, the ancient civilization of Sumer took a different approach. Scribes there created symbols for sounds rather than pictures and these symbols became the earliest form of sonically (the preferred term is phonetically) representing a language. This is an important issue so it’s worth taking some time to explain. Consider trying to convey the idea of a house. It is pretty easy to make a simple drawing that looks like a house. The advantage of a pictographic symbol is that one doesn’t really need to know the language at all! The ancient Egyptian drew a house and presumably pronounced the word in Egyptian which means house. But an American would say the word house. A Spanish speaking person would look at the symbol and pronounce it casa. A German would say Haus.

In the Sumerian system, the symbols would not look anything like a house. Instead, there would be one symbol for the initial sound of the word and then another symbol for each new syllable.

You might imagine that picture systems could be more universal, but the inventors soon realized that a large portion of human thought cannot easily be rendered into pictures. So they began to add symbols and signs that represented abstract ideas or instructed the reader that the next sign was of a certain nature. This added great complexity to picture systems and while some systems have survived the long term, the overwhelming majority of the world’s peoples have adopted phonetic systems.

The Sumerian system was transmitted to the people who followed them in Babylonia, the Akkadians. The wedge shaped symbols they developed have been given the name cuneiform by modern scholars.

Although cuneiform is easier to learn than hieroglyphics, it is still quite complex. The symbols represented syllables. So there is one sign for “ka” and another for “ko” and another for “kee”–the total runs to about 1000 signs (more or less, depending on the particular cuneiform system being studied).

At some point, perhaps a thousand or so years later than the origin of hieroglyphics and cuneiform, we find the first signs of alphabetic writing in the Near East. The Hebrews were among the first peoples to adopt an alphabet.

The advantage of the alphabet is that it reduces the number of signs that a student has to learn to a manageable few. The ancient Semitic alphabets contain about 22 letters which adequately cover each of the consonantal sounds used in languages such as Hebrew, Arabic, and Aramaic.

The creators of the alphabetic system did not seem to have any notion that the vowel sounds need to be represented. Those could be deduced from the consonants of a word. As we saw above, especially in context, the signs BBLCL will easily be deciphered to Biblical by most readers adept at English reading and writing.

Indeed, the earliest records of Semitic alphabetic writing shows that initially the scribes had not yet developed a number of concepts that would later be added to the orthography of their language. For example, that a space between words would enhance readability. Or even that the direction of writing was important–we have a number of inscriptions that begin in one direction (say right to left) and then just continue on the next line in the opposite direction!

The Evolution of the Semitic Writing System

Migration from Proto-Hebrew to the Aramaic square forms

One fact that usually surprises my first year students is that the alphabet that they have always associated with Hebrew and the alphabet in use today in Torah scrolls, Bibles and the latest edition of Israel’s newspapers  was not originally a Hebrew alphabet at all!

The original Hebrew alphabet which must have been used to record our Hebrew Bible is found in inscriptions dating as early as the tenth century BCE. Among the most famous of these is the inscription that was found on Hezekiah’s water tunnel which was dug to provide water to the city during the Assyrian siege in the era when the prophet Isaiah was proclaiming his prophesies.

The words of Hezekiah’s engineers are inscribed in the original Hebrew alphabet sometimes (incorrectly) described as “proto Hebrew”. These shapes are related to today’s forms, but the relationship is so distant no one could be expected to read original Hebrew without significant study. Indeed, the first letter (aleph) in original Hebrew looks far more like the English letter A than it does the current form of the aleph!

So if this ancient alphabet of our Biblical ancestors is not the alphabet we use today, then where did the alphabet we use today come from? The answer is very simple: Babylonia.

The alphabetic writing system was used throughout the coastal regions of Israel and Lebanon most famously at the city of Byblos (in modern Lebanon) which provided the name of our scriptures in English: the Bible. The alphabetic system was also used to the north and the east spreading through the areas we call Syria, Iraq and Iran today.

Among the adopters of the alphabet in these lands were many who spoke a Semitic language called Aramaic. Aramaic has some similarity in structure and vocabulary to Hebrew, but it is a clearly distinct language–no Hebrew speaker can understand Aramaic without significant study and vice versa. Although the people of the dominant culture of Babylon in the fifth century BCE spoke Babylonian (an eastern Semitic language related to the ancient Akkadian), Aramaic was so widely spoken that it was acceptable in much of the Babylonian ruled territory.

Speakers of Aramaic had adopted the original Canaanite signs also used by the Hebrews but gradually changed them into the characters that are essentially identical to the alphabetic forms in use for Hebrew to this day. When the Babylonians conquered Israel (circa 586 BCE) and many Jews were either deported or voluntarily migrated east to Babylon, they shed their original Hebrew alphabet and began writing their language using the Aramaic forms. They also, of course, began speaking Aramaic as their primary language. Judging by the later books of the Bible, for the most part they continued writing their stories in Hebrew, but here and there Aramaic began to intrude. One of the latest of our Biblical books, Daniel, was composed in both Hebrew and Aramaic with Aramaic representing about half the book.

In the days of Ezra the Scribe (circa 450 BCE), Jews began returning in large numbers to their homeland. Many of them spoke Aramaic rather than Hebrew and most if not all of them wrote Hebrew using Aramaic letters. That Aramaic alphabet has been retained by Jews for 2500 years. One of the interesting ironies of this is that the Aramaeans went on to further morph their alphabet to the point where it no longer bears any significant resemblance to their original forms. So Hebrew speakers today use Aramaic letters which Aramaic speakers cannot read without being taught. And no one uses the original Hebrew alphabet.

First Stirrings of Vowels in the Ancient Period

One of the most common errors in common circulation is that the Hebrew of the Bible was written entirely without vowels. Over the course of time, Hebrew orthography has consistently moved towards greater degrees of vowel expression. What do I mean by this?

It appears that in the most ancient period–the oldest inscriptions (writing carved into stone monuments)  and ostraka (potsherds which were used as a sort of notepad) words were written almost entirely without vowels. But already by the time of our oldest Biblical literature, scribes had begun to use some of the 22 consonants for additional duty–to represent vowel sounds as well as consonants.

The four consonants which developed into vowel signs are the aleph, heh, vav (originally waw) and yod (א ה ו י). Many people call this group of letters “ah-hoo-ee” after a common way to pronounce the letters, but I’m sure there are other candidates. The important point is that while originally the yod, for example, was pronounced “y” as in yellow, the Scribes noticed that in some words the pronunciation morphed to  “ee” and they began to use it that way even if the word did not originally have a yod.

Grammarians sometimes refer to these four letters as the matres lectionis. This is a Latin term which means “the mothers of pronunciation.” Although the term is perhaps a little obscure for beginning students, the intent is:  these letters are critical for the successful pronunciation of a word.

The easiest way for most speakers of English to understand this is to compare a similar phenomenon in our own language. Think about that letter “y” in English. When it is found at the beginning of a word or a syllable, it has the consonantal sound of the “y”. For example, as we just saw above, yellow. Also: you. How about Yo-Yo? But when the “y” is found at the end of a word, it is rarely pronounced as a consonant. Think about the word very. You could write it as “veree” and pronounce it correctly. This explains why many American school kids learn a little ditty that goes something like “The vowels are a, e, I, o, u and sometimes y.”

Another Hebrew letter with similar development to an English vowel sign is the vav. In Biblical times (and considerably afterward depending on the location of the speaker) this consonant was actually pronounced like the English letter “w”. And just like the w it sometimes morphs into a vowel. For example, the w is a consonant in water. It is a consonant in winter. But what is its function in below? Or yellow? Most English teachers try to simplify things by telling us that the w in these words is “silent.” But that’s not really the case. The truth is that the w is part of the vowel combination ow. As is so often the case in English, there isn’t even a single pronunciation for this combination. While it is like the o in hole for below and yellow, notice that it has a very different sound in the words now or how.

Something similar happened with the Biblical Hebrew pronunciation of the vav (or more accurately, the waw, pronounced like the English word “Wow!”). The correct pronunciation of the ubiquitous word in Hebrew that translates as “and” is w’. The apostrophe means just a slight little slurred e sound. For example, the Biblical Hebrew word וְשָׁנִֽים should be pronounced w’shanim. In modern Hebrew, the waw has morphed to vav and this word is pronounced v’shanim. But the important point is that the symbol is a consonant in these examples, not a vowel.

Just above we saw that in English we often find the w in combination with a vowel  so that you might say that the w can sometimes be a good marker for the sounds o as in hole and u as in roof. I realize that this can be a difficult concept to grasp, so let me try one more angle. Think about the following series of words: below, snow, crow, low. In every case you could say that the w is silent. But what if English never invented the sign o? These words might be written like this: : belw, snw, crw, lw. Then, you could be taught as part of your English reading class “When a word ends in w the w is pronounced” (and the teacher would then say the vowel o out loud). See how the consonant w could evolve into the vowel o? This is exactly what happened in Hebrew. Sometimes the vav retains its consonantal pronunciation (which was originally w as in water but is now v as in very). But more often than not, it will be read by the Hebrew speaker as either o as in hole or u as in rule.

And so it was that these four “ah-hoo-ee” letters began to be used by scribes to spell out the vowels of words where no vowel had been used before. Let’s look at a concrete example of this!

In Genesis 7:21 we find the Hebrew participle הָֽרֹמֵ֣שׂ pronounced ha-ro-meis. This word means “crawls” and is part of the phrase “every flesh (kind of animal) that crawls on the earth.” Notice that the vowel “o” is not reflected in the consonants–we’ll talk about the Masoretic diacritical signs soon, but if you did not know these vowel pointers, you would have to guess at the vowel. This is clearly the way that Biblical Hebrew was conventionally spelled in its earliest period. But in Genesis 1:30, we find the very same word written as רוֹמֵ֣שׂ. It is pronounced exactly the same, but in this case we have the vowel marker waw (the second letter in the word reading from right to left).

The point is that very early in the history of the Hebrew language, scribes recognized that readers could use some help with vowels, and they developed systems to hint at those vowels. Notice that even in the same book, and not very far from one another, a given word could be spelled both ways, with or without the vowel letter helper.

This does raise an important issue for Jewish theology, by the way. As you can see, Biblical spelling not only could be, but often was, flexible and therefore inconsistent. This created problems for later scribes who were trying to preserve the text with fidelity and also religious teachers who tried to base parts of their theology either on spelling points or numerical equivalents of the letters.

As time went on, scribes increased their reliance on these vowel letters so that it became normal for any word with the vowel “ee” to be written with a yod regardless of whether that was the more traditional spelling–and this often did violence to the etymology of the word. In Modern Hebrew, in addition to the yod and waw (vav), the aleph and heh and many punctuation signs are used to aid the reader in pronouncing the written text.

Today, grammarians refer to the more laconic Biblical style of writing as k’tiv haser which means “writing that lacks (vowels).” Spelling that includes a generous sprinkling of the vowel letters (a-hoo-ee) is called k’tiv malei which means “full writing.” From our study here you should understand that to truly see k’tiv haser you would need to examine extra-Biblical ancient writing. Although Biblical Hebrew is far less “full” than later Hebrew, there will likely be examples of vowel-letters in just about any verse taken from any Biblical source over the 1000 year history of Biblical writing.

Modern Hebrew did not stop with extending the use of the matres lectionis. Most books and newspapers in Israel feature a variety of diacritical marks that help readers figure out how to pronounce words–especially those of non-Hebrew origin. For example you might see the symbol gimel (always a hard “g” in Modern Hebrew) spelled like this:  ‘ג. To the Modern Hebrew reader, this helps to indicate that the word should be pronounced with the soft “g”–one example from my time in Israel struggling to read the newspaper should suffice: קיסינג’ר indicated (Secretary of State Henry) Kissinger. Notice that both of the letters “I” are written with yods in addition to the apostrophe that tells you to pronounce the “g” as in “giraffe.”

To summarize: In the most ancient period of Hebrew, scribes wrote with a purely consonantal spelling system. Vowels were rarely, if ever, indicated. In the early Biblical period, scribes began to use a few letters that originally had purely consonantal pronunciation to spell out the vowels in a word. This practice became increasingly popular. In the period of Middle Hebrew (the long period from the close of Biblical Hebrew to the dawn of the modern language), writers sprinkled the a-hoo-ee letters more and more liberally through their writings. Modern Hebrew not only uses this convention, but adds other symbols drawn from European languages to indicate pronunciation, especially in loan words and foreign names.

The Masoretes: Perfecting vocalization over many centuries

The study of the history of Biblical manuscripts is hobbled by the absence of evidence over a period of about a thousand years. With the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS), which contained fragments of every Old Testament book except Esther, we have an excellent view of  how at least one (and probably several) group of scribes was writing and preserving the Biblical text. Most of the texts closely resemble either the form of the Bible we have preserved in the Hebrew (Masoretic) tradition, or the version which was preserved in the Greek translation of the Bible (Septuagint, often abbreviated as LXX). Of course we can only settle issues of spelling with the Hebrew text, so we have to limit this particular discussion to those passages which closely parallel our Hebrew text (usually referred to as the Masoretic text for reasons I will provide below).

When we next see a Hebrew manuscript of the Bible, about a thousand years have elapsed. At some point in the early middle ages, Hebrew scribes began writing the text in books instead of scrolls. We assume that the text of many Hebrew books (especially the first five books called the Torah and several smaller books that were used liturgically)  continued to be written in the form of scrolls, but none of these has survived–the oldest scrolls we have today are centuries more recent than the oldest codices. The oldest Torah scroll is believed to date from about 1400 CE. Bibles found in book form are termed by scholars codices (singular: codex). The oldest of the Biblical codices date to around the tenth century CE (meaning, between 900 and 1000 CE). This means that the oldest books (codices) of the Torah predate the oldest scroll by over 500 years!

At Least Three Complete Systems

Students today learn Hebrew via a unified standard of pronunciation symbols. I’ll explain the nature of these symbols shortly, but for now I want to stress that in the early Middle Ages we know of three different systems of vocalization (the term we apply to the pronunciation symbols that help us sound out or vocalize the words).

The system we use today, which consists of signs placed above, below and even in the middle of the pre-existing consonantal text  is called the Tiberian system and was widely adopted by Jews in the Land of Israel and in the West. In the East, the Babylonian Jews seem to have preferred a system in which vowel signs were written exclusively above the pre-existing consonants.

Finally, a third system is represented primarily by a few fragments found in the Cairo Geniza. We know very little about this system, but some scholars refer to it as the Palestinian vocalization system.

The reason it is important to note that these symbols were added to the pre-existing text is because the text itself was regarded as sacred. After the Hebrew Bible went through a process of canonization, that is, setting a standard form for the text, no additional letters could be inserted into that text or removed from it. These three systems all allowed readers to clearly distinguish the canonical text from the pronunciation marks.

The Masoretes expand on the earlier vocalization system

We term the people who lavished their time on these system the Masoretes. The name comes from the Hebrew word masar which means to transmit. The Masoretes are those people who were committed to the accurate transmission of the Hebrew Bible. They not only developed the vowel signs, but also most of the punctuation and chanting (musical) symbols. When a person learns the complete set of Masoretic symbols, they have the keys to the accurate pronunciation of the word, the location of the stress, and even the musical rendition of the word.

This does not mean that everyone now pronounces all the words in every Biblical book the same way. Note that I mentioned that there were three complete systems in circulation at one time. It is clear from looking at texts in these three systems that the words were being pronounced and chanted a little differently in each system. In addition, there were regional differences of pronunciation throughout Jewish history.

The mere fact that the written symbols might not have agreed with the way that a given region pronounced their texts does not mean that people were inclined to change their traditional pronunciations. For example, the Tiberian Masoretes clearly pronounced the vowel qamatz (the vowel under the aleph): אָ differently from the patah: אַ –otherwise, why write them differently? But in Israel today, most people pronounce both symbols the same: a as in father. This is the tradition of Spanish Jewish population and seems to be consistent with the symbols in the Babylonian system.

The Jews we call Ashkenazim (Jews of Eastern European descent) clearly distinguish the two sounds. And interestingly enough, the Yemeni Jews–the population among the most distant from Ashkenaz–agree with them. So whatever the signs originally meant, we can no longer be certain that we are pronouncing the words in the ways that a specific group of Masoretes may have intended.

Modern Hebrew: fully vocalized without Masoretic signs

But we are far from finished with the development of the Hebrew written language! The diacritical signs that we have been discussing are used today in Bibles, poetry and dictionaries but not in newspapers, novels, and general writing. But Modern Hebrew is hardly written in k’tiv haser (the form of writing we discussed above in which there is little or no indication of vowel sounds).

I hope you haven’t forgotten the matres lectionis. These “mothers of pronunciation” (also called the a-hoo-ee letters) were introduced already by Biblical scribes to help readers narrow down the choices conceivable for a given set of letters. Modern Hebrew typesetters simply expanded on a practice already common in the Classical era. They inserted the letter yod for almost every ee sound, and the letter vav for either the vowels o or u.

Modern typesetters can also use a variety of symbols to help readers with sounds that are not used in Modern Hebrew. For example, the g of George can be written in an Israeli newspaper: ‘ג. The small stroke after the gimel tells the reader that this is not the Hebrew hard g sound.

So this makes it all a lot easier for a student to figure out a mysterious word like “Secretary of State Henry Kissinger” which becomes קיסינג’ר — still not a walk in the park for a beginner, but far easier to determine than קסנגר.

The critical point to understand here is that Modern Hebrew is not “unvocalized” (written without vowels). It is not as easy to pronounce as many highly phonetic alphabets (Greek, Latin, Spanish and most Romance derivatives), but it quite a bit easier to learn than–just for example–English. That is the subject of the next language history lesson.

Meanwhile, Back in the West

The Greeks steal the alphabet

There is ample evidence of extended commerce among the lands of the Eastern Mediterranean. Ships and shipwrecks, pottery, and even written sources going back before the year 1000 BCE provide this attestation. The trade included Greece, Anatolia (Turkey), Lebanon, Phoenicia, Philistia, Cyprus, Rhodes and Egypt. Egypt and a few other regions already had long-standing writing systems which their professional scribes would have been loath to relinquish. But when the sea peoples plied their trade, they had the opportunity to judge what might be easier to learn: hieroglyphics (Egyptian and Hittite) or syllabaries (the coastal towns from Lebanon to the Sinai), it probably dawned on them rather quickly that syllabaries were easier to learn.

Some of the Greeks actually had their own writing systems which predated the Classical period. These are known as Linear A and B. Scholars, perhaps most famously Cyrus Gordon, have wrestled with interpreting these systems for decades and mostly to little effect. Hieroglyphics and other pictographic systems are very difficult even if they eventually evolve into standardized or more limited character systems. Of course a couple billion Chinese still employ a modified pictographic system, so we can’t claim that learning such systems is impossible. But despite this fact of modern linguistic life, I believe that even most Chinese speakers would concede that learning to write the Latin alphabet is much easier for adult learners than any of the Chinese systems.

Whatever the reasons, it is clear that by the mid-sixth century BCE the Greeks had borrowed and with some modification, promulgated the syllabary they found in widespread use in Canaanite lands (especially the Phoenicians). The syllabary they borrowed seems to be identical to the one in use by the Hebrews prior to their adoption of the Aramaic-style alphabet.

The Greeks came up with an improvement on the Canaanite system. It appears that it was the Greeks who developed the idea of representing vowels as well as consonants–perhaps all they did was extrapolate from ideas that were already permeating Hebrew. As we have seen, at a relatively early time the Hebrew scribes were using the consonant yod to indicate the “ee” vowel along with the older consonantal value of the y in yellow. The Greeks called the letter iota and used it freely as the vowel i. In one of those historical oddities, the Spanish later imported the letter y into their alphabet and Spanish schoolchildren are taught that this is y griega–the Greek Y!

The Greeks either didn’t understand or had no use for the very first letter of the Canaanite alphabet (at this point we can start calling it an alphabet rather than syllabary because, as we’ve pointed out, by this time the Hebrews and others were already using some of the letters for vowels as well as consonants). So they turned the Canaanite letter aleph into their alpha and it became the sign we know today as an A. (Note: purists will point out that the Greek name alpha was not a Greek name but rather the name of letter as they heard it from the scribes of whatever Semitic language became their model–perhaps Aramaic.)

Greek does not have sounds like the Semitic rasped H (het) or the deep laryngeal letter `ayin, so they turned those signs into their vowels E and O respectively. In addition, the Greeks did not have the w sound of window so they turned the waw into the vowel u. It is interesting that at some time (probably in the early Middle Ages), part of the Jewish population also lost the ancient pronunciation of the waw. These Jews converted the sound into the v of very. The original w sound was retained in Hebrew wherever Jews spoke Arabic as their first language.

Phonetic orthography: Greek, Latin, Spanish; even German and French

So the Greeks adopted the Semitic syllabary and enhanced it by changing or adding symbols that instructed readers how to pronounce vowels as well as consonants. In that sense, the Greek writing system became perhaps our earliest example of a true alphabet. The difference between an alphabet and a syllabary is exactly this notion of representing vowels as well as consonants.

The Romans also adopted the alphabet at a very early time, almost certainly from the Greeks. But it is also fun to speculate about  their extensive commercial relations with Carthage, a major African trading city settled by the Phoenicians who (of course) used their Canaanite syllabary which was essentially identical to the Hebrew and Aramaic systems. Like the Greeks (or more probably borrowed from the Greeks) they inserted several vowel letters into their Latin alphabet. And like Greek, Latin has a highly predictable, phonetic pronunciation. The beginning student of either Latin or Greek has very little difficulty mastering the alphabets of those languages.

This does not mean, by the way, that there is universal acceptance of a single pronunciation for either Latin or Greek words. Dialectical pronunciation differences do  occur in both languages. In addition, modern students of Latin or Greek learn distinct pronunciations based on different scholastic traditions. The German student learns a different pronunciation of the Latin alphabet than does the American because of tradition, but in each case the pronunciation is consistent and locked into the alphabet. The American or German student reads and pronounces a Latin word each to his own tradition, but each is certain that they are pronouncing the word “correctly.”

Other languages derived from Latin (often termed the Romance languages) may have altered the pronunciation of consonants to conform to their specific needs but retained the idea of a phonetic pronunciation. For example, Spanish and Italian are relatively easy for learners to master and even French, which departs more than others from the Latin pronunciation demonstrates a consistent approach to the written language and is therefore not very difficult for someone to learn if they understand any of the other alphabetic writing systems.

English, Not So Much

Likewise German. Although not considered among the Romance languages and with a vocabulary and set of consonants that departs in a major way from the Romance languages, German nevertheless displays a fairly consistent approach to their alphabet (also borrowed from the Romans) and beginning students usually master German reading at a fairly early stage of any instructional program.

But English is another story.

Pronunciation in English

At first it may seem strange to be told that in Hebrew the vowel sounds are either haphazardly written (Classical period) or open to some interpretation (Modern period). If your native language is Latin or Spanish you could be forgiven for feeling that this is absurd–after all, these languages are very easy to sound out with minimal instruction. But we should be very familiar with this problem if we are native readers and speakers of English since English behaves so much like Hebrew in this regard.

Before I explain this in detail, I should note that the examples that follow presume a pronunciation using a standard American dialect. This is the pronunciation widely found on the US west coast and the upper Midwest and favored by teachers of American English and TV news readers –probably the most widely recognized English pronunciation, at least in America. If you hale from London (England) or Sydney (Australia) or even Boston or New York City within America, you might have to work a little harder to understand these examples, but I think they’ll make sense regardless of your particular accent.

As most of us have learned in elementary school, English has five vowel letters plus one consonant often used as a vowel: a, e, i, o, u and sometimes y. Each of the five main vowels occurs in what are often termed “long” and “short” sounds, which means that effectively we start with ten vowels, although only five symbols–so from the get-go we have to figure out which one of two possible sounds a given letter intends. Since my goal here is not to teach English I’m not going to illustrate every vowel, but here are a couple of examples.

The first vowel letter is a. It can be short as in hat or long as in hate.

The second vowel letter is e. It can be short as in bed, or long as the first e in cede. And so on for each.

Just when the new idea of choosing between two utterly different sounds is settling in, the student new to English will discover that it is all a sham. Let’s keep going with our example of that seemingly simple vowel a. As noted just above, a has a normal “short” (whatever that really means) sound in words like cat, hat, rat, slap.

You might imagine that this is the same sound as the word want. But you’d be wrong. If you don’t believe me, try rhyming want with any of the other words I’ve cited. Now say the word can’t out loud. That doesn’t sound like either want or hat! Can’t is not only different, it’s very common so you can’t (forgive me) avoid learning it. And lest you think that can’t is just some sort of weird “exception”, think again: rant all you like, this a is not that unusual. Also, stand, command, oh–and that word that started this paragraph: sham.

But wait, there’s more! Here’s another common word a student new to English can hardly avoid: many. Guess what–this word’s a is closer to the e in bed than it is the a of hat or want or can’t.

Okay, so the short a is hard to describe. What about other vowel letters?

Let’s take a look at the vowel letter I. It can be short, as in the words rid, skid, discipline. It can be long as in the words ride, slide, and disciple. But that short I doesn’t always sound the same. How about the first I in the word liaison? Okay, some of my English teaching friends will cry foul here because liaison is, after all a word borrowed from French. Okay, how about the first I in pronunciation? I won’t comment on the second I because that one is part of a combination of vowels the discussion of which would take us even farther afield.

But as long as I’ve mentioned vowel combinations, let me conclude with another example of the difficulties of English pronunciation. Consider the combination ei in the word receipt. Just how do we reconcile that with the same vowel letter combination in the word freight?

There are whys and wherefores to explain all of these issues. English is a language which has, first of all, developed  not only in the ways that a language would develop if the people speaking it were relatively isolated, but it was also heavily influenced by invaders. At its core, English is one of the Teutonic or Germanic languages. That explains its core vocabulary and its strong and weak verb conjugations.

But England was invaded by Rome in the first century BCE. The long Roman domination was eventually weakened, but in the year 1066 the Norman Conquest assured a French speaking upper class for centuries to come. These two facts explain the injection of an enormous number of Romance language words into English. But that doesn’t explain why English spelling is so peculiar. After all, we could just spell English phonetically! Or we could add a few extra signs into the language to clarify pronunciation–that is essentially what we’ve done in our dictionaries to show people the proper pronunciation of each dictionary entry.

There are, in my opinion, two essential facts in control here. First, those who have created our English writing traditions have chosen more often than not to retain archaic spellings. An excellent example of this is the gh in night. Many readers here will know (the k in know, by the way is another example of this phenomenon) that this consonant combination harks back to our Teutonic origins when we pronounced the word not so differently from the German word nacht. That’s the soft guttural sound, not the other English ch of say, chess or even Chicago.

The second fact is that dictionaries have made a difference. Dictionaries record the spelling of words and when literate people learn to rely on dictionaries, they tend to propagate the spellings listed there no matter how far the pronunciation of a word may have strayed from its origin. The English were among the first compilers of dictionaries, and the printing press made dictionaries widely available. In some sense then, our spelling has become frozen to the forms of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Colloquialisms and advertising slogans can have an effect (most of us recognize lite for light just fine, but it is interesting that in literate writing the vast majority adhere to light even though lite might make more sense).

Now that I have taken you on a journey which may have convinced you that English is simply impossible to pronounce based on its spelling, let me take it down a notch. The fact is that while spelling may be a horrible chore in English, the vast majority of us manage to read our words out loud from these atrocious spellings with little or no  effort. And English is widely and successfully taught all over the world.  How do people cope? Is it just brute, rote, memorization?

No, actually it’s not that bad at all!

As you saw, the letter a can be problematic. I demonstrated the variety of vowel sounds (and it probably wasn’t complete) that a single letter a could represent. But so what? Most of the time a short a is pronounced exactly the way you would expect–like the a in hat. Rat, sat, cat, lap, trap. Most of the time, the long a is pronounced like the a in cake: lake, take, make, rate. Now one of those exceptions might be sale–the  a is a bit different in the standard American dialect than, say, trade. But it’s close enough that if you don’t quite make the right a sound, no one would have any trouble understanding you.

I’m not an English orthographer so I can’t say whether the case of variation of sounds represented by the letter a is the worst case, but my sense is that It is. The other four vowels all have their peculiarities, but most of us have little or no trouble reading them correctly out loud. And even the letter a has its limitations. A letter a, for example, would never be pronounced I as in ride. Or o as in hole. And this brings me to the critical point.

Even though English spelling is far from phonetic, each of the vowel letters narrows the choices. An I will usually be either short as in spit, or long as in spite. But it will never be confused with the o in hole or the u of rule. Once you know that a word is spelled with I you can narrow the choices down to a small enough set of choices that, provided you have a reasonable command of English vocabulary, you are going to find the correct pronunciation without too much sweat.

And that’s why I contend that English is actually just like Hebrew!

Let’s review the history of Hebrew spelling we began this discussion with. Originally, Hebrew was written with signs for consonants alone, no vowels. While still in the Biblical era, this system slowly evolved to include vowels. A yod would often indicate the vowel sound “ee”. The vav (originally waw) would be used for either o as in hole or u as in rule. The letter heh, especially at the end of a word, was used to indicate the sound a as in father (Israeli and most Spanish and Arabic Jewish heritage populations, the Eastern European Jews pronounced this vowel aw as in craw).

The first letter of the alphabet, the aleph could represent many vowels, but its presence made sure that the reader knew that there was a vowel present at that point. Each of these letters also had their original consonantal role to play, but a reader and speaker of Hebrew could easily learn to differentiate these sounds much as we figure out the story in our whacky world of English spelling.

So at last we get back to the ditty at the beginning of our story. ‘f y’ cn rd ths, y’ cn lrn bblicl hbrw!

Now, believe it or not, even though this little ditty was crafted for your amusement, there are actually some serious points to be made here.

First, take a look at the spelling of the first word: ‘f. Notice that if we were sticking strictly to consonants, we would spell the word: f. But even in the earliest recorded inscriptions of Hebrew, a word which sounded like if would not have been written with a single consonant. As we understand through the full English spelling, there is a sound before the consonant f. In Hebrew, this would have been indicated by preceding the f with a sign which is actually the very first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, the aleph which of course became the alpha of the Greeks (and the A of the Romans).

Explaining the true function of the aleph would take us too far afield for this essay, but rest assured I will explain it fully in another place. The important point for now is that the aleph allows us to know that this word does not start with f but rather has some sort of sound preceding it. So, in my ditty, I wrote the aleph using a stroke:’. For most English speakers, this is all the hint you need to figure out that the word is if.

So the ditty expressed as above is actually a pretty good approximation of the earliest and most vowel free period of Hebrew! As I have explained here, this is not how most of Biblical Hebrew is written. Already in the Biblical Hebrew period, scribes began to indicate vowels using the a-hoo-ee system. Suppose  you knew that the English letter combination oo should be pronounced u as in roof. One more. Let’s agree that the sign ee will be pronounced ee as in teeth. Even though we’re now going to insert some letters, this would still be perfectly acceptable as proximate to Biblical Hebrew:

‘f yoo cn reed ths, yoo cn reed bblcl heebroo!

Looks a little funny, but I’m guessing that even those among us who couldn’t figure out the ditty at first would be able to now.  Modern Hebrew goes even farther, using vowel letters where no Biblical scribe would have bothered and adding punctuation  and other diacritical marks. For example, the g of giraffe has no modern Hebrew equivalent. So the modern Hebrew typesetter compensates for this by writing the Hebrew equivalent of a g with a an apostrophe. The apostrophe tells the modern reader to use the soft g rather than the hard g pronunciation: ‘ג.

‘f yoo cn cope wth ths, yoo cn mn’g too lrn ‘nythng yoo st yoor mind too doo!

‘Nuf said, go study.

I want to acknowledge and thank Annette Weinshank for her careful and multiple readings of this article resulting in dozens of corrections and improvements. Thanks also to Steve Rayburn for comments and critique.

©Jacob Love 2011

In this way lies madness…

I began writing my first textbook of Classical Hebrew around 1980. At that time text processing was just beginning to impinge on my consciousness. As in many other things, I owed my first inklings of what might be in the future to Frank Olken who tutored me in so many ways. Frank assured me that soon I’d be able to do word processing not only in English, but also in Hebrew. Alas, although Frank was a visionary, I was working in the trenches.

So for me, the height of technical sophistication was the “ball” of the IBM Selectric typewriter. And the height of sophistication in graphics was the Pilot fine point pen.

Now, there are probably already people reading this blog who are vague on what I might mean by the IBM Selectric Typewriter. In fact, it is increasingly the case that people don’t even know what a typewriter is. So for the benefit of these folks, let me elaborate just a bit. A typewriter is a mechanical device for transferring letters (“type”) to paper. Most typewriters functioned by having a set of letters at the end of levers which would be activated by a key to strike an ink ribbon which then imprinted the paper. From relatively early times it was possible to purchase typewriters manufactured for the Israeli market that could type in Hebrew.

The great advance of the IBM Selectric was to allow the user to print in variable typefaces. This was accomplished by putting the letters on a spherical removable surface. If  I remember correctly, IBM referred to these things as “elements” but they inevitably became  referred to as balls. Just about the time that I was seeking some method to draft my book, IBM provided not one but two balls for the Israeli Hebrew market. The significance of stating that these were produced for the Israeli market is that only the 22 Hebrew consonants (those used in Modern Hebrew) were represented. The vowel points and other punctuation signs familiar to students of the Classical language were not included.

If you purchased a typewriter in Israel, you could get one that typed right to left. An Israeli IBM Selectric could then use either of the new “balls” to produce Hebrew text. But these machines could not type effectively in a European (left to right) language.

As I worked through the problems of creating text in both English and Hebrew. I realized first that it was more important for me to have effective left to right editing capability even if I was concerned with a right to left language. The reason for this is that since I was communicating with English speakers, all my explanatory materials and notes would be in English, and as much Hebrew as there might be, all of it would have to be translated and some transliterated into English. So I didn’t have much choice but to consider this book to be primarily in English but with significant Hebrew interpolation.

So there was no need for an Israeli typewriter. I used an American typewriter and typed in English until I needed to insert some Hebrew. At that point, I would remove the English ball and snap in the Hebrew ball (an action which eventually I could  accomplish in just a second or two). But then I had to press the space bar or tab key to create enough space for the Hebrew. Finally, I would have to type the Hebrew letters. The right to left motion was simulated by pressing the backspace key twice after printing each letter. The keyboard was in English, so I had to memorize the locations of the Hebrew letters.

Students of Hebrew, especially the classical language, usually learn what is called the vocalized version of the text. This is a version that includes special signs that tell the student how to pronounce the vowels in the text. (Although a bit of an oversimplification, for the purposes of this discussion, you can think of the regular Hebrew language as one that represents only the consonants, not the vowels.)

These vowels are indicated by dots and lines that are drawn above, in the middle of and below the consonants. And the IBM Selectric ball did not include these signs. That’s where the Pilot Fine Point pen came into play. With the Pilot, I could draw in the vowels in a way that student had no trouble reading the consonant/vowel point combinations.

So the process for producing a page was: compose and write the English, insert the Hebrew consonants, then pull the page out of the typewriter and hand ink the vowels. Correction fluid was essential.

All that is the background for my current dilemma. Whatever admiration you might have for my battle to produce useful text in the technological backwaters of 1980, you would probably think “So with modern multilingual word processors, advances such as Unicode, etc you should be able to easily recreate your text now. Why is this taking so long?”

It started with Chapter 1, the Hebrew Aleph-Bet. Using a Hebrew-English word processing package (in this case DavkaWriter, www.davka.com), I began writing the text explaining how to read and pronounce each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. In my first book, I created a list for learning how to write the letters by drawing each letter as a large graphic, then adding small arrows and numbers (as in, step 1, step 2, etc) to show the student how to draw each letter.

DavkaWriter has no such capability (for now), so I had to learn how to use a product such as Microsoft Paint or Adobe Illustrator to accomplish the same sort of thing. Then there was the question of the best way to display this on a Web page.

Within a short period of time, I began to think that rather than having a static Web page showing the letters, I should really have some sort of animation that would replicate how I really teach the alphabet to students–namely, drawing each character stroke by stroke. As many of you will say, but that should be easy–use an animated GIF or use Flash!

Of course, that results in buying an 800 page book called something like “Learn Flash in 2500 Easy Lessons”. Which leads to learning Perl, PHP, and a few other ancillary technologies. So, about 5 years after writing my first pages for the new version of my Learn Classical Hebrew textbook, I’m still figuring it out.

Relating these things to my good friend Ken Cohen, he looked at me with the twinkle he always has in his eye and said “In this way lies madness.”

The Pronoun הִוא in Classical Hebrew

I should start by acknowledging that those of you who have heard about this phenomenon will be disappointed with the answer I will provide, or lack thereof. In the Torah (and this phenomenon seems to occur only in the Torah) in all but 5 places, the pronoun which הִוא means she is spelled with a vav (purists will prefer the representation waw, ו) rather than a yod (י, הִיא) which is the way it is spelled those 5 times and everywhere else in the Bible and after the Bible.

In an effort to pronounce what they see, I have occasionally heard people say “heeve” when they come across the word in the Torah. We know from our Masoretic tradition that this is incorrect. It should be pronounced “hee” just as if it were spelled the more usual way (at least outside the Torah).

It looks as if the author(s) of the Torah pronounced the word “hoo” regardless of whether the pronoun referred to “he” or “she” (I’m not claiming that this is how they actually pronounced the word, only that it was spelled that way.)  I am not aware of any tradition that suggests we should pronounce it “hoo” when it refers to “she.”

How do I know that the Masoretic tradition demands the pronunciation “hee”? Well, that’s what the vowel point is that is included in all the Masoretic manuscripts. The Masoretes never change a consonant in the text (although they may add variants), but they use the vowel pointing system to teach us how they believe the word should be pronounced.

One more pronunciation note to those who might be tempted to pronounce this word “heev”. Originally (and by originally I mean in all periods of classical Hebrew) the vav was pronounced “w”–therefore scholars occasionally refer to the letter as “waw” rather than the “vav” of later Hebrew. A trailing “w” will always have a faint pronunciation because of the phonetics of the letter. So at best we are speaking of the difference between “hoow” and “heew”.

Getting back to the accepted traditional pronunciation (“hee” rather than “hoo”), this is a particular case of the more general phenomeon of Q’ri and K’tiv. The Q’ri (what should be read out loud) is “hee”, the K’tiv (what is written) is “hoo”. At a future time I hope to return in greater detail to a discussion of the Q’ri-K’tiv issue.

Ultimately most Hebrew students want to know “Why this is?”  Why should “hee” be written “hoo” and why do we see this phenomenon only in the Torah. That is the disappointment I mentioned at the beginning of this article. No one knows. At least I have never heard a theory that satisfactorily explains this. If you have, perhaps you’ll comment here.

Abraham ibn Ezra and Chaim Citron and Me

My journey with Abraham ibn Ezra began on Sproul Plaza of the University of California. You might think I would have begun my studies of ibn Ezra in my first year of study in Israel. No. Perhaps when I began studying with Jacob Milgrom or Baruch Bokser. No. It began on a grey autumn day in Sproul Plaza on the Berkeley campus.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Sproul Plaza is one of those quintissential college locations. Organizations created by and for students set up their tables and did their best to snag anyone passing by and convince them of the hard and vast truth of their opinions. Chaim Citron’s “Encounter With Chabad” table stood out for the reason of its quietude. Day after day, Chaim would sit reading a book and chat with anyone who cared to chat with him.

At some point I discovered that Chaim was no ordinary Chabadnik. Actually, he wasn’t a Chabadnik at all, if by that term one means a person born and raised in the Lubavitch community. Chaim was a child of the same part of the world from which I hailed, the Bronx. If I remember correctly he was from the somewhat nicer sections of the North Bronx than the South which was my lot in early life. His education was traditionally Jewish, but not Lubavitch–he attended a synagogue and Yeshiva affiliated with the Young Israel movement. While to outsiders Young Israel might look like the ultra-Orthodox, they are better thought of as the moderate branch of Orthodoxy.

I can’t recall how Chaim decided to sign up with Chabad, but he did and somehow he drew the Berkeley portfolio. And so it was that he was sitting at a table in Sproul Plaza as I wandered by on my way to or from a class on rabbinic Judaism or Classical Greek. He had a table near Sather Gate draped with a banner that read “Encounter With Chabad.” Between visitors he would while away the hours reading, usually some exotic-looking Hebrew text. Normally I preferred to keep away from these tables, but there was something about Chaim I found enchanting–it was 1975 and so it is anachronistic to say–but he resembled Dumbledore. At some point we struck up a conversation, and then it became a friendship. For a while, I even attended services at Chabad House. (Eventually, my strong pro-feminist feelings made it too uncomfortable for me to continue doing so, but I never tired of talking to Chaim.)

One gray day in the late Autumn, as I passed by Chaim’s table I noticed him chuckling. I wandered over to see what was so funny and I saw that he was studying a page in the Miqra’ot G’dolot (the great Rabbinic Bible which includes the text of the Bible, translations into Aramaic, and a variety of commentators). “Care to share the joke?” I said. Chaim replied (and it is almost 40 years ago, so you’ll have to forgive the paraphrase), “I’ve read ibn Ezra’s comment to this verse in Genesis many times, but I think I understand it now!” What follows is my recollection of what we learned, slightly embellished to make things a little more plain for a general audience.

The verse is Genesis 29:17, and the story regards Jacob’s apprenticeship with his uncle Laban. Jacob fell in love with Laban’s daughter Rachel and asked for her hand. Laban agreed, but when the marriage was performed, Jacob found himself wed to the older daughter, Leah. The question of why Laban did this is easy to answer–he insisted that the older daughter had to be married first (and readers must recall that this was a polygamous society, so marrying Leah would be no obstacle to an additional marriage to Rachel). But why did Jacob not care for Leah to begin with? The author supplies the answer: “The eyes of Leah were rakot (רַכּ֑וֹת)”. I left the word in Hebrew because that is the crux–we know that the word rakh means “soft.” But what is the implication of “soft eyes”?

Various interpretations over the milennia have sought to explain the text. Even without Hebrew knowledge, you can test this by looking in some common English translations of this text. The oldest English translation in common use (the King James Version) says: “Leah was tender eyed, but Rachel was beautiful.” Why is tender not beautiful? The original version of the Jewish Publication Society (1917) says “And Leah’s eyes were weak but Rachel was of beautiful form.” This version seems to explain the Hebrew term as conveying a physical impairment which might explain why Jacob would have been uninterested. This is as good an explanation as any, but I am personally dissatisfied. Among other reasons, I don’t find anything in all the stories about the remainder of Leah’s life with Jacob to suggest that she has such an impairment. The revised JPS (1962) keeps the rendering weak. The American Revised Standard Version (RSV, 1952) also adopts the reading of weak.

The original version of the New English Bible–in my opinion one of the most innovative and interesting of modern translations reads the verse “Leah was dull-eyed, but Rachel was graceful and beautiful.” Still, what does “dull-eyed” mean?

By this point you may be getting impatient. So what is the correct answer? What was wrong with Leah’s eyes? And what does any of this have to do with Abraham ibn Ezra?

It turns out that a medieval commentator named ben Ephraim thought he had the answer. Ben Ephraim wrote a commentary on Genesis and at 29:17 he wrote haser aleph. We wouldn’t have heard of ben Ephraim if it weren’t for ibn Ezra, because ibn Ezra quotes from his commentary, but no full edition of ben Ephraim’s commentary has survived. ibn Ezra cites ben Ephraim, and then replies “v’hu hayah haser aleph.” What does this mean?

ibn Ezra goes on to explain that ben Ephraim was suggesting that the text was incorrect. Instead of rakot one should add back the missing aleph and read it arukhot (ארכות). arukhot means long. So ben Ephraim emends the text. Whatever you might think about the idea of emending the Biblical text, you have to ask, how does “long eyes” improve the meaning of the text? ibn Ezra’s caustic retort plainly says that it doesn’t. But what did ibn Ezra mean? That was the reason why Chaim Citron was chuckling–he figured it out.

v’hu hayah haser aleph roughly translates to: “And he was lacking aleph.” In Hebrew, the term “was lacking” can be rendered “he should have been lacking”. Just as ben Ephraim was suggesting that we should add an aleph into the text, ibn Ezra suggests that we remove an aleph from ben Ephraim. What happens when you remove the aleph? You get “ben Parim”, which translates to son of bulls. To get the full flavor of this in English, (and please forgive the crudity), ibn Ezra was saying, “and ben Ephraim was a bullshitter.” This may also convey something of the reasons why ibn Ezra led a peripatetic life in his last few decades. A more gentle explanation, by the way, is that “haser aleph” means “lacking an education” as the term aleph-bet is commonly used as an indication of learning.

So, you might ask, what was ibn Ezra’s explanation for rakot? He says simply, “It means what it means.” (k’mashme`o). In other words, it means soft. If you want to know what soft means, look at other instances of the word in the Bible. But the important lesson here is that whatever it means, ibn Ezra was a consummate grammarian and whether or not he would be open to the notion of emending the text, he certainly didn’t think it worth emending one difficult text to make it even more difficult!

Without intending to disparage my professorial mentors at Berkeley, I have to say that the lesson I learned at the side of Rabbi Chaim Citron that day had more of an intellectual impact on me than any classroom Bible lesson I can easily recall. The sparkle in his eye and the simple delight of getting a joke written a milennium ago was priceless.

Qametz Qaton

This is the first in a series of articles related to Hebrew Grammar, so I’m going to use it as the “guinea pig” for a number of issues such as testing my ability to get Hebrew characters into this blog.

One of the issues that bedevils not only new students of Hebrew but veterans as well is pronouncing words which contain the Hebrew vowel qametz qaton. The overwhelming majority of instances of the vowel qametz are pronounced a as in father. But a small percentage (less than 10%) are pronounced o as in hole. One well understood example of this is the Hebrew word כָּל which is pronounced kol (to rhyme with hole). This word means all or everything and and is common enough for most people to remember.

The Hebrew word כָּל is not in its most basic state, which for nouns is often termed the absolute state. Take a look at how the word is spelled in the absolute state: כֹּל. So if כָּל is not in the absolute state, what state is it in? The answer to that is the construct state. If you don’t know enough Hebrew grammar to understand this yet, no worries, its not relevant to to this article. If you know a little English or other European language grammar, it might help to know that the Hebrew construct state is similar to what we call the genitive case. But, again, there is no reason to worry about this now. I use the example because the word is so common that if you have had any experience with Biblical or any other period of Hebrew, you have probably seen this word.

The point is this–the absolute state of the word shows its base level pronunciation, and the vowel is clearly o as in hole. When a word is put into the construct state, the effect is to slightly hurry the pronunciation. Theoretically this means that the vowel of כָּל should be pronounced a bit more hurriedly, slightly slurred from the longer כֹּל, but in practice, most Hebrew speakers do not audibly differentiate the two sounds.

You might by this time be wondering what, if anything, is the difference in meaning between כֹּל and כָּל. You can get a better understanding of this in the article explaining construct state (not wrtitten yet–the italics will turn into a link when I write it). For now, all you need to know is that כֹּל means all or each or every (depending on context) while כָּל means all of or each of or every (also depending on context). Some examples should help this along:

  • He created everything בָּרָא אֵת הַכֹּל
  • All of the land כָּל הָאָרֶץ
  • Every person in the country כָּל אָדָם בָּאָרֶץ

(Sorry, I have to figure out how to format colums before the above will look right.)

(Future article: what is the relationship of these vowel signs to other Masoretic systems and pronunciations?)

This illustrates that there is some relationship between the vowel holem and the vowel qametz. Many other examples could be provided. When the vowel qametz is pronounced o as in hole it is referred to as qametz qaton (the small or short qametz). In most books which feature vocalized Hebrew (dictionaries, Bibles, etc) there is no difference in the printing of the qametz regardless of whether the normally pronounced (a as in father) or the o pronunciation. However, especially in prayer books, there has been a gradual movement to identify the qametz qaton by drawing it differently from the ordinary qametz. In the case of the first prayer books typeset in Israel (Siddur Rinat Yisrael) and in several American versions, the qametz qaton is printed with a large descender (a little counter-intuitive givent that it indicates the “small” qametz). I have also seen a few versions that identify the qametz qaton by drawing it as a patah with a dot below. This is an interesting round trip because the original Masoretic sign qametz (any qametz) was exactly that—a patah with point below. This was gradually morphed into the t shaped vowel we are familiar with today. But in case you’re getting lost, the important point (so to speak) here is that what the printers are trying to do is make the qametz qaton stand out so the reader will easily recognize it.

One more point about the pronunciation of the qametz qaton before I proceed to explain the rule. The audible distinction between the ordinary qametz and the qametz qaton has been preserved only in the Sephardic side of the Jewish population. In the Ashkenazi pronunciation, both are the same: aw as in claw. Although I’m not certain of the dating, I believe the decision to use the Sephardic differentiation in Modern (Israeli) Hebrew goes back to Eliezer ben Yehuda and a deliberate effort to de-emphasize Ashkenazi (Eastern European) culture in the Jewish revivalist circles of Turkish, Mandate and post-Mandate Palestine.

At long last it is time to give you the rule so that you will know exactly when to pronounce the qametz as a and when to pronounce it o.

A qametz (אָ) which is contained within a closed, unaccented syllable is regarded (and pronounced) as a qametz qaton.

(printed here with the consonant אָ until I can figure out how to position a qametz below a dash.)

That’s the whole rule. Of course, as they say, “the devil is in the details.” How do you know what is a closed syllable and what is an open syllable, and how do you know whether the syllable is accented or not? For Classical (Biblical and some Rabbinic) Hebrew, some of the guesswork is removed by the full vocalization (both vowel marks and accent marks) of the text. If you are using a fully vocalized text, then the Masoretes indicated every accented syllable. There are a few quirks to their system (better suited for an article on the accentuation system), but by and large you will be able to identify an unaccented syllable by the lack of an accent sign in the syllable.

The notion of closed or open sylables is related to the tendency of Hebrew to have logical syllables formed by either a consonant/vowel (open) or consonant/vowel/consonant (closed). Lets take a look at our previous example: כָּל. This is a monosyllabic word which consists of consonant/vowel/consonant. So it is not just a word, but also a closed syllable. From the rule I stated above, you should conclude that the qametz would be normal and pronounced a as in father. But, in fact, whenever this word is written in the Hebrew Bible (unless it is the word כֹּלwhich we have explained is the same word in the absolute state), it is written with the Masorete’s version of a hyphen, a sign called a maqef. Thus, you will see this type of construction:


The accent, or trope mark, will appear in the word אָדָם and there will be no accent mark in the word כָּל, so by this means you can see that כָּל is a closed, unaccented syllable and the qametz is qaton and pronounced o as in hole.

Hapax Legomenon

The term hapax legomenon stems from the Greek, hapax one and legomenon, said. Put it together and you have “said once”. This is applied to vocabulary which occurs so few times that defining or translating the word or phrase is complicated by the lack of contexts. You might think that the term should be kept strictly to words or phrases that can be found only once in a given language space–for example, the Hebrew Bible. But if a term happens to occur just twice and with the same context for both occurrences, the linguistic features remain the same.