Archive for the ‘Phonology’ 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.


Moran, William L. “The Hebrew language in its Northwest Semitic background.” Pages 53-72 in The Bible and the Ancient Near East. Essays in Honor of William Foxwell Albright, ed. G. Ernest Wright. New York: Garden City, 1961.

November 17, 2008

In this classic article, Moran summarizes some of the contributions of other West Semitic languages to our understanding of the history and development of Hebrew before the biblical period. He primarily concentrates on Ugaritic and the Amarna letters from Byblos, as well as West Semitic personal names.

1. Sources for pre-Biblical Hebrew

1.1. Personal Names.  For the period 1900-1700 BCE, most evidence comes from personal names.  Theo Bauer collected all West Semitic personal and geographic names found in Old Babylonian documents. From various Egyptian documents, we also have around 150 names from Syria and Palestine during the period. 

Until its destruction by Hammurapi, Mari was ruled by a dynasty with a West Semitic dialect. There are some 500 personal and geographic names in the Mari texts which are relevant to reconstruction of early Northwest Semitic. Alalakh supplies about 100 names from the period contemporary with the First Dynasty of Babylon. There are also names from this period at Chagar Bazar. 

1.2. Peripheral Akkadian. The Amarna letters (14th Century BCE) were written in Akkadian by Canaanite scribes. They include many Canaanite glosses to Akkadian words as well as forms and idioms which betray the speech of their authors. To a lesser extent, the Mari tablets also contain reflections of the local West Semitic dialect. However, scholars must be careful since not every non-Babylonian feature is necessarily Canaanite or West Semitic.

1.3. Ugaritic. The discovery of alphabetic texts at Ugarit on the northern Syrian coast has affected all areas of Biblical Studies. These texts are in a Northwest Semitic dialect, though there was (and continues to be) disagreement over whether it should be deemed a “Canaanite” language. 

2. Phonology. 

2.1. Consonants. Proto-Hebrew and other early Northwest Semitic dialects possessed about 25 to 27 consonants. It seems that c. 1400 is the terminus post quem for the developments which led to the 22 consonant Hebrew alphabet, following the Ugaritic ABC tablet which reflects a 27 consonant alphabet (presumably borrowed from Canaanite speakers to the south as it follows the same order as the later Phoenician and Hebrew alphabets, with three uniquely Ugaritic graphemes added to the end).  

2.2. Vowels. In most Canaanite groups to the south of Ugarit, /ā/ became /ō/ during the period 1700-1375 BCE. After the Amarna period, short final vowels were generally lost, including the case endings of the noun (-u, -i, -a). Diphthongs were contracted before the Amarna period (au > ō, ai > ē) from Ugarit up to Jerusalem, which retained the diphthongs. This reflects a divergence from the northern dialect. 

3. Morphology and Syntax

3.1. Remnants of Case Endings. The existence of forms such as šmmh “heavenward’ in Ugaritic suggests that the so-called he-locale is not a remnant of the earlier accusative ending -a, but represents an adverbial particle -h. Similarly, the hireq compaginis which occurs chiefly in poetry (as in Ex 15:6a, יְמִֽינְךָ֣ יְהוָ֔ה נֶאְדָּרִ֖י בַּכֹּ֑חַ “your right hand, O Lord, is fearful (ne’dārî) in strength”) was thought to be a remnant of the genitive case -i. However, it may be better seen as an archaic infinitive absolute with an -i ending (ne’dōrî), a form found in both the Jerusalem and Byblos Amarna letters.

3.2. Particles. Ugaritic, along with Amarna and Amorite, has clarified several Hebrew particles. Most important is enclitic mem. Compare Dt 33:11 מָתְנַ֧יִם קָמָ֛יו “the loins of his adversaries” to Ugaritic ṯkmm hmt “the top of the wall” where enclitic mem interrupts the construct chain. Other particles are asseverative l-, as “indeed”, and hm(h) as a deictic rather than conditional particle.

3.3. Pronouns. Ugaritic has demonstrated an indefinite interrogative mn, the use of אשר as a relative pronoun, and the archaic use of the demonstrative as a relative pronoun similar to the Biblical Hebrew  expression ze Sînai “the one of Sinai”, paralleled by the Ugaritic d p’id “the one of Mercy” as an epithet of El. 

3.4. Verb. The verb is one of the most debated areas in Hebrew grammar. There are several areas where comparative studies have helped clarify the debate.

3.4.1. Infinitive Absolute. As mentioned above, Moran argues that in Ex 15:6 the so-called hireq compaginis should probably rather be taken as an infinitive absolute which is being used in place of a finite verb, the -i being an archaic ending of the infinitive which is found in both Ugaritic and Amarna. This use of the infinitive in place of a finite verb is also paralleled by the Phoenician inscriptions where the infinitive absolute is used as a narrative tense.

The more common paronomastic use of the infinitive absolute is found also in Amarna. Combined with the -i ending, this may explain Genesis 30:8,  נַפְתּוּלֵ֨י אֱלֹהִ֧ים ׀ נִפְתַּ֛לְתִּי. The first word is pointed as a noun, but a naqtûl noun pattern is otherwise unknown in Biblical Hebrew. Re-pointing the first word not as a plural noun, but an infinitive absolute, niptôlî, may make more sense, “Greatly, O God, have I contended…” 

3.4.2. Prefixes of Piel and Causative. In Ugaritic the prefix is ya- for both the Piel and causative, in contrast to yu- for the Piel in Arabic and Akkadian. The Amorite names also reflect a ya- prefix, for example Ia-ki-in and Ia-ri-im. Amorite also shows evidence of the antiquity of the mē- prefix for causative participles of hollow verbs, for example Me-ki-in from Alalakh and Me-ki-nu-um from Mari, compare Hebrew mēkîn

3.4.3. taqtulû(na) 3mp form. Alongside yaqtulû(na), a 3mp form taqtulû(na) is found in 14th century Canaanite. It is difficult to tell if the form is used in Biblical Hebrew, as most instances could also be explained as a 3fs form with plural subject taken as a collective. However, Moran suggests that it is highly probable that the form occurs in archaizing texts. 

3.4.4. Indicative yaqtulu. In the Amarna texts from Byblos, two primary uses of the indicative yaqtulu can be discerned: a present-future and a past iterative. There is no reason why Byblian usage should not be comparable to the Hebrew of the time. Thus, by the 14th century this usage was already well established in the verbal system.

3.4.5. Cohortative. The Amarna letters contain a subjunctive yaqtula, corresponding to the Arabic subjunctive form, which seems to explain the origin of the Hebrew cohortative ending in .  

3.4.6. weqatal. In the Byblos letters, there are 33 occasions where the perfect is used with future time reference. In 24 of these cases it is preceded by the conjunction u, and is therefore comparable to the Hebrew so-called ‘waw-conversive’ with the perfect. Of the remaining cases, eight occur in the protasis of a conditional clause, and the ninth is a temporal clause. On the other hand, there are also cases where the perfect preceded by the conjunction u refers to past time and is therefore “unconverted”. Moran concludes that the data from Byblos reflects an early period of development for the Hebrew waw-conversive. The use of perfects in conditional sentences also seems to corroborate Ginsberg’s insight that the weqatal developed out of the earlier optative or precative function of the perfect.

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.

Fox, Samuel Ethan, “The Relationships of the Eastern Neo-Aramaic Dialects,” JAOS Vol. 114, No. 2 (Apr. – Jun., 1994): 154-162.

August 15, 2008

The Northeast Neo-Aramaic (NENA) dialects were spoken by the minority population of Jews and Christians in the area covering southeast Turkey, northern Iraq, and western Iran. The Muslim population of this same area spoke Arabic, Turkish, and Kurdish. Unfortunately, since 1915 these NENA speakers have been uprooted and dispersed. NENA is not a descendent of Syriac, but a sister dialect. Since there is no attestation of the proto-NENA dialects, it is analyzed in respect to three earlier dialects of Eastern Aramaic: Syriac, Babylonian Talmudic (BT), and classical Mandaic. However, Aramaic was the dominant dialect of Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Syria before the Arab conquest, thus there must have been a large continuum of dialects about which we know nothing. This article explores whether the NENA dialects should be taken as a single unit with a single source, or whether they may represent the early spectrum of dialectal diversity.

For the comparison, Fox selects 11 dialects: Hertevin, a Christian Anatolian dialect and the most western of the group; Zakho Jewish, a Jewish dialect from northern Iraq; Aradhin, a Christian dialect from northern Iraq; Tisqopa, a Christian dialect from the plain of Mosul; Jilu, from southeast Turkey; Tkhuma, also from southeast Turkey, Sanandaj Christian, a Christian dialect from Iranian Kurdistan; Urmi, the dialect of the Christians from Urmi; Koy Sanjaq, the language of Jews from Koy Sanjaq who now reside in Israel; Azerbaijan, the language of Jews from Azerbaijan; Halabja, a Jewish dialect on the Iran-Iraq border. Fox also compares these to the eastern Aramaic dialects of Turoyo and Mandaic. The analysis is based on 24 phonological, morphological, morpho-lexical, and lexical features.

For instance, in the case of phonology Fox notes that the alternation of plosive/fricative t/θ, conditioned by a preceding vowel, is no longer regular. Rather, the form has been lexicalized so that one or the other spreads through the whole paradigm of a verb. Further, the phoneme θ has undergone further shifts in some dialects to s, l, or even h. For instance, the word for house occurs as be:θa (Tkhuma), biya (Jilu, θ > h, which becomes a glide y), belá (Halabja), and bēsa (Sanandaj Christian).

The development of the verbal systems is also quite interesting. First, NENA has dropped the passive -t- forms and reduced the three base stems of Syriac – peal (G-stem), pael (D-stem), and aphel (C-stem) – into two. Stem I is descended from the peal and follows the pattern CCaC- (e.g. Urmia ptaxa ‘to open’). Stem II collapses the pael and afel following the pattern CaCoC- (e.g. Urmia šadure ‘to send’). However, in some dialects (Jewish Azerbaijani, Halabja, and possibly Koy Sandjaq) the choice of Stem I or Stem II no longer follows historically from the lexical meaning of the verb, but depends on its consonantal shape. Strong verbs use Stem II, while middle-weak verbs use Stem I.

Second, Syriac, BT, and Classical Mandaic all developed a form for the past tense using the passive participle followed by the preposition l with a pronominal suffix agreeing with the agent, eg šmy’ lh ‘it was heard by him’ = ‘he heard’. In all the NENA dialects, this has become the normal preterite, displacing the old suffix conjugation. In fact, it is even used for intransitive verbs such as qimli ‘I stood up’. However, in Halabja intransitive verbs are distinguished from transitive in that they attach a different set of pronominal suffixes directly to the participle, qīmna ‘I stood up’. Hertevin goes a step further, using both constructions. The form attaching the pronominal suffix directly to the participle conveys the relevance of the action to the present. Thus, qímat ‘you (f.s.) have risen’, but qimlxun ‘you (c.p.) rose’.

Lastly, the affix -wa (from hwā ‘he was’) is used generally to add a past meaning. For instance, it shifts the general present to past continuous and the perfect to pluperfect. Thus from Aradhin ipalxin ‘I work’ but ipalxinwa ‘I worked (durative)’. Also, plixli ‘I worked’ but plixwāli ‘I had worked’. The future is expressed generally with the prefix b-, bāmir ‘he will say’. The general present is also expressed by a prefix, either k- on all verbs, k- on some forms, or i- on all forms.

Fox concludes that the dialects of NENA form a ‘strikingly coherent group’ and share many distinctive features against Turoyo and Mandaic. Thus, they seem to be derived from a single dialect or a group of closely related dialects. The article ends with a helpful chart of all the features by dialect.

Khan, Geoffrey, “Some parallels in linguistic development between Biblical Hebrew and neo-Aramaic,” Pages 84-105 in Semitic Studies in Honor of Edward Ullendorff. Edited by Geoffrey Khan. Leiden: Brill, 2005.

August 13, 2008

The neo-Semitic languages are interesting because they provide many historically documented examples of developments that parallel those in the classical Semitic languages. Even if these parallels are only typological, Khan argues that they have heuristic value for understanding the history of classical Semitic since we so often must appeal to hypothetical reconstructions. In this article he gives examples of such parallels between Biblical Hebrew and neo-Aramaic.

He begins with the issue of the BGDKPT consonants. There are many exceptions to the general rule that these letters are plosives after consonants, but fricatives after vowels. Some of these exceptions can be accounted for by general rules. For instance, in the case where the preceding word ends in a vowel, a BGDKPT letter beginning a word is plosive if the preceding word is marked with a disjunctive accent (Gen 12:11 וַיְהִ֕י כַּאֲשֶׁ֥ר), but fricative if it is marked with a conjunctive accent (Neh 4:1 וַיְהִ֣י כַאֲשֶׁ֣ר). However, what of cases such as מַלְכֵ֥י (Gen 17:16) and שִׁכְבַ֣ת (Ex 16:13), where a fricative occurs after a silent shewa? Conversely, there are cases where a plosive occurs after a vowel such as the 2fs perfect of final guttural vowels like לָקַ֣חַתְּ.

Khan suggests that this reflects that the ‘rule’ of BGDKPT is no longer operating in the phase of Tiberian pronunciation that is reflected in the Masoretic vocalisation. Where a vowel has elided before a consonant after the rule stopped working, the consonant generally remains a fricative. In a living language, further developments would occur to resolve the problem. For instance, it is possible that the fricative and plosive allophones would obtain independent phonemic status. Indeed there may be a few minimal pairs to suggest that this was beginning to happen, such as לָקַ֣חַתְּ, ‘you (2fs) took’, versus לָקַ֣חַת, ‘to take (inf)’.

In Aramaic there is a similar development. The distinction between fricative and plosive was originally conditioned by the preceding vowel, but eventually this rule ceased to operate. In literary dialects such as Syriac there is evidence that the two allophones began to attain phonemic status, such as garḇā ‘scabies’ but qarbā ‘scabious’. In neo-Aramaic this has come to its logical conclusion so that the variants have become independent phonemes which contrast in many minimal pairs: šāta ‘year’ – šāṯa ‘fever’; marta ‘saying’ – marṯa ‘mistress’ (don’t mix that one up! There was this marṯa I used to know…). Further, in verbal roots the plosive and fricative realizations of a root consonant no longer vary among the various inflections, but one is chosen which occurs consistently. For example, kṯw ‘to write’ (< *ktb): kaṯwa ‘she writes’, makṯōwə ‘to register’, kṯāwa ‘book’.

After next discussing the gutturals, Khan moves to issues related to vowel length. In Tiberian Hebrew, there was a tendency to lengthen vowels in stressed syllables. There seem to be two historical periods of lengthening, and between these two periods various changes in quality occurred such as the shift from ā to a rounded back vowel å. In the first period, a in an open syllable was also lengthened. Thus (disregarding the phenomenon of pre-tonic lengthening):

*dabáru > *dābāŕu > *dāḇāŕ

Next is the shift in quality:

*dāḇāŕ > *dåḇåŕ

On the other hand, the vowel of a segholate was not lengthened since it was in a closed syllable, and therefore did not undergo the shift of quality. However, after the epenthetic vowel was inserted, the first syllable was opened. Therefore the vowel was lengthened during the second period, but after the change in quality had already occurred. Thus:

*náˁru > *náˁr > *nāˁar

Parallels to these developments can also be found in neo-Aramaic dialects where an a vowel in an open stressed syllable was similarly lengthened. However, if an originally closed syllable becomes opened, the a does not immediately lengthen.

Khan also addresses the question of why there is a pataḥ in the final stressed syllable of the 3ms perfect קָטַל, but a qameṣ in the final stressed syllable of a noun דָּבָר. Should they not have followed the same pattern of development? That is:

*qaṭála > *qāṭāĺa > *qåṭåĺ

Somehow the usual rule of vowel lengthening was blocked in the verbal form *qaṭála. Some have suggested that this is because the final vowel of verbs was elided before the final vowel of nouns, thus the last syllable would be closed rather than open. However, from neo-Aramaic, Khan suggests that the short vowel comes from analogy to the rest of the paradigm. For instance, in neo-Aramaic the present verb is built on the participle qāṭil, which is inflected with a series of suffixes expressing the pronominal subject. Most of these suffixes begin with a vowel, which causes the vowel in the second syllable to be elided, closing the first syllable and shortening the long ā. For example:

qāṭǝl + a > qaṭla ‘she kills’
qāṭǝl + i > qaṭli ‘they kill’

What is interesting is that in some dialects such as Jewish Arbel, the long ā in the base 3ms form qāṭǝl is also short: qaṭǝl. There is no historical reason for this vowel to be short except for analogy. Thus, in Hebrew the the vowel in the second syllable of the 3ms perfect may also have remained short by analogy to the rest of the paradigm.

Goetze, Albrecht, “Accent and Vocalism in Hebrew,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 59/4 (Dec, 1939), 431-459.

March 8, 2008

In this classic article, Goetze explores the relationship between Masoretic accentuation and vocalism. The standard approach had assumed that the accentuation of the MT was responsible for its vocalization (ie, whether a given vowel is lengthened, reduced, or even syncopated). However, Goetze suggests that over time the position of the accent has shifted so that some vowels may in fact be remnants of an older system.

The Masoretic system is interesting because it records phonetic information to aid in the pronunciation of the text when read aloud. That is, it preserves something of the prosody and phrasing of the spoken language. There are two important parameters that affect the quantity (and sometimes quality) of the vowel: 1) The position of the respective vowel in relation to the main stress of the word, and 2) The structure of the respective syllable – whether it is open or closed.

Goetze summarizes the basic system in the following table:


syllable-type initial open medial open closed
stressed ā ē ō ā ē ō a a1 o
pre-tonic ā ē ō ā ē ō a/i i o
2 b/f accent ə a/i i o
3 b/f accent ə a/i i o

However, there are a number of examples which cannot be explained by these rules:

1) A short vowel is reduced in a syllable occurring between the main and secondary stress, thus *dabarikā > BĀrəKĀ2. But why does *dabarakumū > barKΕΜ, with the vowel syncopated?

2) A short vowel is reduced in the pre-tonic syllable if it follows a “heavy” syllable, thus *siprakumū > sipKEM. But why does *malkatiya > malkāTĪ with the vowel lengthened? 

3) A short vowel in the pre-tonic syllable is syncopated internally after an open syllable, thus *dabarakumū > dəbarKEM and *damakumū > dimKEM. But why does *dabarikā > dəbārəKĀ and *damikā > daməKĀ with the vowel only reduced?

4) A short vowel is reduced in a word-initial pre-tonic syllable, thus zəRŌa(, but why is the vowel lengthened in šāLŌM?

5) How can the forms *dabaru and *qatalu yield BĀR with a long vowel in the stressed syllable, but qāTAL with a short vowel?

Allophonic changes in vowel length (and sometimes quality) often accompany stress. If the earlier patterns of accentuation were different than the Masoretic system, then it is possible that a given vowel may have been lengthened or reduced under the influence of an earlier accent. As the accent shifted positions, this new form would be the base for analysis under the Masoretic system proposed above rather than the original form. For example: *daBArīma > *dəBĀrim > bāRĪM.

This would also suggest that there is no such phenomenon as pre-tonic lengthening. That is, a pre-tonic short vowel is not lengthened under the influence of a following stressed syllable, but rather the length is a remnant of an earlier stress which has now shifted one syllable later.

The shift in stress was probably a gradual process of several shifts rather than a single sweeping change. Goetze identifies three main trends: 1) The main accent shifts one syllable toward the end of the word 2) In a word with a final secondary stress, the secondary stress and primary stress trade position such as *dəBĀrəkā > bārəKĀ 3) After the stress shift, the newly accented vowel lengthened in nouns such as *DĀbar > BĀR. However, in verbs the newly accented syllable remains short such as *QĀtal > qāTAL. This may be explained by the fact that the verb is typically followed by its subject with the two being treated together as a unit, preventing lengthening.

Using clues from the Amarna letters and early Hebrew orthography, Goetze proposes the following sequence of sound changes:

1) Before the Amarna period, syncope and early vowel reduction such as *baraKAtiyā > *barəKAtiyā

2) After the Amarna period, Philippi’s law (i > aíCCv) such as *littu > *lattu

3) Loss of short final vowels

4) Feminine ending -at > ah

5) -ah > ah(off-glide)

6a) Loss of certain long final vowels *LAhā > *LAH

6b) Stress shift to preserve other long final vowels *LAkā > *laKĀ

7) Simplification of diphthong -ah > ā

8) Switch of primary and secondary stress *BĀrəkā > bārəKĀ

9) General stress shift toward end of word



1. Shift of i > a here reflects Philippi’s Law

2. I have used Latin transliteration to better represent phonetics. Capital letters represent a stressed syllable. A macron (ā) indicates a long vowel. The reduced vowel, shewa, is represented as ə. Lastly, spirantized consonants are marked with an underline.


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