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Dotan, Aron, “The Relative Chronology of Hebrew Vocalization and Accentuation,” Proceedings of the American Academy for Jewish Research, Vol. 48. (1981), pp. 87-99.

March 28, 2008

There are three known systems of Hebrew vocalization: the Tiberian, Babylonian, and Palestinian. Interestingly, while we have manuscripts which reflect stages of development in the Babylonian and Palestinian systems, there is no such history for the Tiberian system. At the same time, the Tiberian system achieves a level of uniformity and perfection that far surpasses the other two. In this article, Dotan addresses the question of whether the Tiberian system was invented as a complete system, or whether it was the result of a process of evolution.

Since Wickes’ study, the standard view has been that the vowels and accents were introduced in the 6th or 7th century CE. The points do not seem to have existed before the sealing of the Babylonian Talmud c500 CE, and Jerome mentions that the Jews of his day had no notation for vowels. At the other end, we know of two Masoretes who deal with reading the points from the end of the 8th and early 9th centuries, Pinḥas Rosh HaYeshiva and Asher ben Neḥemiah. Also, Moses ben Asher, from the second half of the 9th century, does not seem to be aware of the origin of the points which implies that they were already rather old.

Dotan suggests that the systems of accentuation and vocalization were originally different systems and that the accent signs preceded the vowel signs. In the Babylonian system, most of the signs are based on small Hebrew letters. For instance, a little ז corresponds to the accent זקף, while a small ו represents the vowel /u/. However, the sign corresponding to דגש, in the Babylonian system דיגשא, is not a small ד, but a small ז. The ד is instead used for the accent דחי, suggesting that the accents were established before the vowel points. There is similar evidence in the Palestinian system which uses dots and strokes, mostly above the line. The vowel signs all consist of two or three dots or strokes, while most of the accent signs are a single dot in various positions around the word again suggesting that the accents were developed first. Further, the earliest Palestinian Bible manuscripts contain mostly accents, with only an occasional vowel sign.

It seems clear then that the accents preceded the vowels in the Babylonian and Palestinian systems. There may also be hints of the same in the Tiberian system. Most of the Tiberian disjunctive accents are supra-linear signs which seem to be a continuation of the Palestinian and Babylonian systems. The Tiberian innovation is the infra-linear system which was introduced with the vowel signs and the conjunctive accent signs (with the exception of קדמא). It stands to reason that in the oral transmission of the text, accents and pauses were harder to preserve than vowels; and therefore, accent signs would have been introduced before vowel signs.

However, if accent signs were introduced before vowel signs, could it be that the it was the vowels which were introduced in the 6th or 7th century CE, but the accents were introduced earlier? Because it has been assumed that the vowels and accents were introduced at the same time, it seems that no one has investigated this question. In fact, both Jerome’s statements and the silence of the Talmuds are related to the נקודות, the vowel points. In fact, the Talmud refers several times to טעמים, the accents, but this was never taken to be written accents.

If indeed the accents are earlier, then Dotan suggests that the relationship between Hebrew and Syriac Masorah should be re-examined. It may not be the case that the Syriac signs are the earlier. Regardless, it is very likely that the Tiberian system was constructed gradually. Not only did the accents precede the vowels, but it seems that the accentuation system itself was developed in several phases.


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