Archive for the ‘Blau, Joshua’ category

Joshua Blau, Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew, LSAWS 2, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010.

January 1, 2011

I have the utmost respect for Professor Blau and was very excited to receive his Phonology and Morphology for Christmas. As I have progressed in my studies/career (when does that transition officially occur?), I have begun to realize the benefit of sitting in class with a great scholar. Published works often represent only a random sampling of knowledge, and they particularly lack synthesis of the field as a whole. Blau’s book is the next best thing to being there. It is like having access to someone’s edited class notes (and even better the bibliography was updated by the late Michael P. O’Connor).

At the beginning Blau gives a very helpful introduction to comparative and historical linguistics, situating Biblical Hebrew within its Semitic context. The book then moves into sections on phonology and morphology. At the beginning of each he provides a short orientation towards phonetics/phonology and morphology. These introductions are very much in the spirit of what I have tried to provide in the sidebar (and remarkably similar in both form and content).

In each section, Blau moves through the standard list of issues, giving concise yet informative summaries of the various viewpoints before giving his synthesis or alternative explanation. For instance, in the section on pretonic lengthening ( he presents two main views explaining the phenomenon. The first follows Goetze and Poebel and argues that the length was due to the existence of stress on the pretonic syllable in some earlier stage of the language. Blau rejects this since pretonic lengthening also occurs on the conjunction in a phrase such as יוֹם‭ ‬וָלַיְלָה‭ ‬ (Gen 8:2), and it is unlikely that the conjunction ever carried stress. The second view follows Brockelman and argues that pretonic lengthening is a result of the influence of Aramaic on the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew after the former had replaced the latter as the spoken tongue. Aramaic speakers could not pronounce short vowels in open unstressed syllables, in an attempt to better preserve Hebrew pronunciation, these vowels would be lengthened when read aloud in the synagogue. Blau’s counter argument is a form such asשָׁמְרוּ‭ ‬ ‘they preserved’. In this case, the long vowel in the first syllable is best explained as a result of pre-tonic lengthening from a stage of the language when the stress resided on the second syllable (c.f. pausal form שָׁמָרוּ). Therefore, pre-tonic lengthening must have existed while Biblical Hebrew was still a spoken language. Blau adapts Brockelman’s explanation, but argues, in effect, that pretonic lengthening is a socio-linguistic phenomenon related to competition with Aramaic during the period in which Biblical Hebrew was still spoken. In order to emphasize the contrast with Aramaic, Hebrew speakers lengthened short pre-tonic vowels which Aramaic speakers would have reduced.

This project was begun in 2002 as a translation of earlier work in Modern Hebrew. After significant delays, including the unfortunate passing of Dr O’Connor, you may rightfully be concerned whether the book is sufficiently up to date. I noticed a few places where this may be an issue, though it must also be remembered that Dr Blau is somewhat “Old School” which is one of the reasons I appreciate him. For instance, he presents the standard threefold chronological division of Archaic Biblical Hebrew, Standard Biblical Hebrew, and Late Biblical Hebrew with no acknowledgement of recent discussion of chronology and typology. Dr. Blau also categorizes Arabic with South Arabian and Ethiopic as Southwest Semitic, rather than with Hebrew and Aramaic as Central Semitic, though he does briefly defend this decision. Most puzzling, in the last section (5.2) he discusses the “conversive wāw, which converts past to future and future to past.” This sentence is odd, since I am pretty sure from his writings on the verbal system that Blau rejects the “conversive” explanation, and to be fair, he is only interested in the morphology of the conjunction in this very brief section and not its function.

Frankly, though, when reading through the rest of the book, I was struck by just how out-of-date “phonology and morphology” are. Though Dr O’Connor updated the bibliography, rarely is a work cited from the late 1990′s, much less the 2000′s. Indeed, though my dissertation focuses on both the object markerאת‭ ‬ and the definite article, I am completely uninterested in discussing either the phonology or morphology of either. Much more interesting to me (and my generation, I would assume) are studies in syntax, semantics, and pragmatics. Unfortunately, the classical order of phonology, morphology, and then syntax seems to prevent anyone from ever getting there.


Blau, Joshua, “The historical periods of the Hebrew language”. Pages 1-13 in Jewish Languages, Theme and Variations. Edited by Herbert Paper. Cambridge, Mass: Association for Jewish Studies, 1978.

October 28, 2008

In this short conference paper, Blau gives a summary of the historical periods of the Hebrew language with special attention to those features which have become the primary constituents of Modern Hebrew.

1. Pre-Biblical Hebrew (roughly 20th – 12th century BCE) is not well understood. Our only evidence is indirect in Akkadian and Egyptian documents. Even then, it is difficult to distinguish true “Hebrew” from “Canaanite”. 

2. Biblical Hebrew is attested predominately in the Bible, but also in some inscriptions and transcriptions (ie the Hexapla). The inscriptional evidence is limited by the use of a consonantal script, but we can make some inferences. For example, the spelling ין (presumably yēn) instead of יין (yayin) for ‘wine’ in northern ostraca suggests that monophthongization of /ay/ was more widespread in northern dialects than in Judea.

2.1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew is preserved mainly in poetry. It is marked by several features:

- long forms of prepositions (אלי elē, עלי alē, עדי adē)

- less frequent use of the definite article and the object marker את

- less frequent use of relative אשר 

- the ending / on nouns in the construct

- the pronominal suffix מו- -mō ‘their/them’

- the use of the construct form before prepositions

- the use of the shortened imperfect (preterite) as in Dt 32:8:

בְּהַנְחֵ֤ל עֶלְיוֹן֙ גּוֹיִ֔ם בְּהַפְרִיד֖וֹ בְּנֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם
יַצֵּב֙ גְּבֻלֹ֣ת עַמִּ֔ים לְמִסְפַּ֖ר בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, 
he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.”

2.2. Pre-exilic Classical Hebrew prose is the standard language of Biblical Hebrew.

2.3. Post-exilic prose shares features with Middle Hebrew and Aramaic. 

- preference for אני ‘I’ instead of אנכי.

- the attachment of pronominal suffixes to the object marker את instead of directly to the verb

- more frequent use of the participle in the verbal system

Note, however, that in a broader perspective, the differences in language within the Bible are quite slight. Blau attributes this to two things. First, Biblical Hebrew had a status as a standardized literary language. Second, in the transmission of the text, later hands have leveled out the language.  

The Masoretic text has three levels: the consonantal text, the vowel letters (matres lectionis), and the diacritical marks for vocalization and cantillation. Even the consonantal text underwent updating by the scribes such as the replacement of śīn by samek and the replacement of antiquated forms (for instance, the older תַּחְתֵּ֑נִי in 2 Sam 22:37, 40, 48 but תַחְתָּ֑י in the corresponding verses from Ps 18).

In the vocalization of the text, it seems that the Masoretes have tried to eliminate the older qal passive where possible. For instance, שרף ‘to burn’ normally occurs in the qal. However, when context demands a passive meaning, as a perfect it is vocalized as a pual שֹׂרָ֑ף while as an imperfect it is vocalized as nifal יִשָּׂרֵֽף.

Thus it is interesting that in morphology and phonology, Biblical Hebrew represents a late stage of the language (when compared to corresponding structures in Modern Arabic dialects in reference to Classical Arabic), but in syntax Biblical Hebrew is quite archaic (for instance, Blau points to the comparatively rare use of subordinated clauses). The implication is that the phonology and morphology were able to develop while the syntax was tied to the consonantal text.

3. Middle Hebrew (or Mishnaic Hebrew) seems to have developed from the vernacular of Judea after it was resettled in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. In the rest of Erets Israel it seems that Aramaic was the vernacular at this time. After the Bar Kokheba revolt (132-135 CE), the rabbis moved to Galilee, bringing MH with them. However, as a spoken language it died out within one to two generations. Thus, the language of the Tannaim was based on spoken language, while that of the Amoraim is from a period when MH is no longer living and influenced more by Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew.

4. Modern Hebrew draws on both Middle Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew. Most of the phonological deviations in Middle Hebrew from Biblical Hebrew were leveled by copyists and printers in the Middle Ages so that they had little influence on Modern Hebrew. However, Middle Hebrew has influenced the morphology and syntax of Modern Hebrew such as in the lack of so-called waw-consecutive forms, the lack of the infinitive absolute and use of the infinitive construct only with prepositions, predominately -ל. Some Middle Hebrew features seem to prevail in Modern Hebrew because they are simpler, such as the use of של for the genitive which reduces the number of special construct forms that must be remembered. Both Middle and Biblical Hebrew vocabulary is used, sometimes with synonyms split for more specialized meanings. For instance, Biblical Hebrew יֶלֶד is maintained for ‘child’ and Middle Hebrew תינוק tīnōq, originally ‘child’ as well, is used for ‘baby’. 

This also highlights an interesting feature of Modern Hebrew. As a spoken language develops ‘naturally’, the various layers of the literary dialect become stratified chronologically. There is no reaching back into the older strata to derive new forms. However, because there is an almost eighteen hundred year gap between Modern and Ancient Hebrew as a spoken language, the older layers are stratified side-by-side and are all available for derivation. Thus none of the old forms are ever really dead. Of course, they are fused into a new unity and extended by new derivational patterns.

Blau, Joshua, “Short philological notes on the inscription of Meša’”, Maarav 2/2 (1979-80), 143-157.

September 6, 2007

Blau makes several comments on interesting linguistic features from the Mesha inscription. On the use of the direct object marker ‘t Blau suggests an original form *’iyyāt to account for the consonantal y in Phoenician ‘yt and the doubled y in Arabic ‘iyyā-. In Hebrew and Moabite the y elided despite its doubling, which is not unexpected for a grammatical marker. Blau also analyzes the usage of ‘t, describing it as “facultative”. It is clear that the common Mesha construction ‘nk plus perfect is never followed by ‘t which seems to be a stylistic feature. In contrast, ‘t is attested after the perfect which appears alone in lines 18-19: wmlk.yśr’l.bnh ’t | yhṣ. Blau tentatively suggests that ‘t is only used preceding persons as a direct object with the purpose of distinguishing subject from object, since persons are more naturally subjects. This tendency is seen in Biblical Aramaic where l as a rule introduces determinate personal objects. In the Mesha inscription this also includes place names. Interestingly, this suggests that the enigmatic ‘r’l dwdh from lines 12-13 most likely refers to a person and not an object since it is marked with ‘t. If this thesis is correct, it would also corroborate the assumption that the case endings had dropped since this would be the prerequisite for ambiguity between subjects and personal objects.

Blau, Joshua, “On some Arabic dialectal features paralleled by Hebrew and Aramaic”, The Jewish Quarterly Review, 76 no 1 (1985), 5-12.

September 5, 2007

In this article Blau traces the development of certain linguistic features in Arabic to suggest possible explanations for similar developments in Hebrew and Aramaic. On the reasons for the loss of the determining force of the definite article in Eastern Aramaic, Blau adduces examples from the Arabic dialect of Daragozu and the modern Western Aramaic dialects of the anti-Lebanon. In these dialects it is the subject and not the object in which the determinate noun is not differentiated from the indeterminate. This seems to follow from the fact that the determination of the subject is based mostly on context and does not need to be marked for the purpose of communication. More important is the distinction between subject and object. Since subjects are naturally definite, it is definite objects which are most likely to be mistaken for subjects. Thus Daragozu maintains the definite article only with definite objects, but indefinite objects and all subjects are left unmarked. In the Anti-Lebanon definite objects are marked by a special form of the verb. In Eastern Aramaic the use of le and/or an anticipatory pronoun to mark definite objects allows ambiguity of the emphatic state.

Blau, Joshua. On Pseudo-Correction in some Semitic Languages. Publications of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, 1970.

August 30, 2007

Blau analyzes an interesting feature of language contact resulting from the tension between “higher” and “lower” forms, whether between different spoken dialects or between spoken and literary dialects. Pseudo-correction is the application of a feature in the higher dialect by analogy to a form where it does not occur, betraying the author’s lack of experience in the higher dialect. The existence of pseudo-corrections in a text may be a clue as to whether it reflects living language or literary idiom, but unfortunately our knowledge of ancient dialects is too scarce in most cases to distinguish the two. Unambiguous cases of pseudo-correction in ancient texts are therefore rare. One example of hyper-correction is seen in Aramaic orthography which used z to spell proto-Semitic /ð/ even after it had merged with /d/. However, even /d/ which went back to proto-Semitic /d/ was spelled with z at times.

Blau, Joshua. On Polyphony in Biblical Hebrew. Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 6/2. Jerusalem, 1982.

August 30, 2007

Polyphony is the phenomenon in orthography where one character is used to represent more than one phoneme. Blau begins his study by stating “a borrowed alphabet in which phonemes of the borrowing language are lacking tends to become polyphonic”. He takes up the case of Hebrew by examining several cases of possible polyphony. The main cases are ayin and . In the LXX, ayin is transliterated as either zero/vowel mutation or gamma. This may reflect that the articulation of ayin to Greek ears was somewhere between the two or that the letter ayin was polyphonic, used both for the pharyngeal fricative ayin and the uvular trill grayin. Blau argues for the latter claiming that /ġ/ had been lost in spoken Hebrew, but was preserved in the literary dialect which was followed in the Synagogue reading.


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