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.

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.

Explore posts in the same categories: Accents and Vocalization, Khan, Geoffrey, Phonology

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