Aronoff begins by noting that modern linguistics tends to view spoken language as “true” language, while written language is a by-product. Still, the study of written language has often dominated the field. Aronoff argues that “written language is a product of linguistic awareness… any orthography must therefore involve a linguistic system.” In this article he examines the linguistic system of Masoretic accentuation – “A complete unlabeled binary phrase-structure analysis of every verse, based on a single parsing system.” The Masoretic system divided the text into verses, marked all the segmental phonological properties not marked by the consonantal text (vowels, dagesh, etc), and marked accents.
Aronoff describes Biblical Hebrew as a typical Greenberg V(erb)S(ubject)O(bject) language. VSO is the normal order, but the initial position is emphatic and SVO, OVS, and SOV also occur. Modifiers generally follow the VSO core. BH also has prepositions rather than postpositions; genitives, adjectives and demonstratives follow the words they modify; adverbs follow adjectives; WH-words are sentence initial; and relative clauses follow their head nouns.
Besides marking the position of stress, the accents also function as punctuation (Wickes 1881, 1887 is still the standard description of their use). Accents are either disjunctive or conjunctive. Each verse of the Bible is divided into two halves which can in turn be subdivided into halves and so on until no group of more than two words remains. Each accent clause is thus arranged into a hierarchical structure. Note that the Masoretes were not formally syntacticians, but they were interested in showing the sense of the text by marking the relationships among all the words in a verse.
Most interesting from his analysis is the separation of a topicalized element from the rest of the sentence by a major syntactical break. However, not all pre-verbal elements are treated as topicalized. For instance, when a subject pronoun precedes the verb it may or may not be separated from the sentence as topicalized. In nominal sentences the accentuation may also vary depending on if the first element is seen as topicalized. A further point of interest is that phrases introducing direct speech seem to be subordinated similar to adverbial phrases.
Lastly, Aronoff suggests that the Masoretic system does not seem to be based on recitation of the text, but rather the recitation must have become based on the accent system. This can be seen in the case where a word ending with a vowel is followed by a word beginning with a bgdkpt letter. Whether or not the letter is softened does not seem to follow the prosody of the phrase, but the hierarchical accentuation.If there is a conjunctive accent the letter is softened, if it is a disjunctive letter it remains hard. For instance, in both Judges 1:1 and 1:8 are sentences of the same syntactic pattern: V(m.pl.) S PP.
וַֽיִּשְׁאֲלוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בַּיהוָ֖ה Jd 1:1b
וַיִּלָּחֲמ֤וּ בְנֵֽי־יְהוּדָה֙ בִּיר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם Jd 1:8a
In the second case, בְנֵֽי־יְהוּדָה֙ is joined with a maqqef and thus there is no disjunctive accent between subject and verb, hence ב is softened. However, בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל must be treated as two words. Therefore there is a disjunction between subject and verb, and ב remains hard. Aronoff gives other interesting examples as well.