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

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Accents and Vocalization, Goetze, Albrecht, Phonology

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

  1. John Hobbins Says:

    Thanks for this, Pete. I think the orthography of biblical Hebrew reflects a stage of the language in which 6b) had not yet occurred. I concur that 9) took place at a late stage, possibly not before the Greco-Roman period or even later. 8) is new to me; I would have thought *debarAka on the analogy of pre 6b).

    For a taste of stress and vocalism as I would reconstruct it for Lamentations, see the text index on my site under Lam 1:1ff. It makes for a fascinating rhythm.

  2. Peter Bekins Says:


    I read your Lamentations paper once and agree with many things. However, it is quite dense and may take me another couple of reads before I follow completely.

    As for rule 8), Goetze gives a second example: *QAtalā > qatəLĀ. Notice that it also contains three open syllables and a word-final long vowel. Thus he proposes the following rule (p440), “When in Early Hebrew the main stress was followed by two open syllables, the final vowel acquires in Masoretic Hebrew the main stress, while the original stress is retained as a secondary stress.”

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