Archive for February 2009

3 weeks to comps

February 26, 2009

My comprehensive exams are now three weeks away. I have pretty much made it through the most important things on my reading list (at least for Bible and Semitics, History on the other hand…)  and am now in synthesis and memorization mode. Accordingly, you probably won’t see many posts for the next month and a half.  After that I plan to try and reorganize this blog so that things are easier to find since I’m getting close to 100 entries in my bibliography.


Rainey, A.F. “The Prefix Conjugation Patterns of Early Northwest Semitic.” Pages 407-420 in Lingering over Words: Studies in Ancient Near Eastern Literature in Honor of William L. Moran. Ed. by T. Abusch, J. Huehnergard, P. Steinkeller. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990.

February 24, 2009

The Amarna letters give important information about the West Semitic verbal system in the 14th century BCE as reflected in the Canaanite scribes’ use of West Semitic prefixes and suffixes on Akkadian verbal stems. Moran was the first to apply a rigorous analysis and produce a clear picture of the system at work. Rainey has followed in Moran’s footprints and suggests that the verbal morphology discerns two modes – indicative and “injunctive” (volitive) – each with three parallel forms (-û forms indicate the plural):

  Indicative   Injunctive
Preterite yaqtul, -û Jussive yaqtul, -û
Imperfect yaqtulu, -ûna Volitive yaqtula, -û
Energic yaqtulun(n)a Energic yaqtulan(n)a

I. The indicative mode

The yaqtul preterite is rare in the Byblos texts that Moran analyzed since the suffix conjugation seems to have largely taken over the past tense function as in later Phoenician. However, Rainey finds more preterite forms in the letters outside of Byblos, especially southern Canaan, which were contrasted with the long prefix forms following the opposition preterite :: present/future continuous.

The yaqtul preterite is evidently preserved in Ugaritic poetry, but the script makes it hard to discern. However, the ubiquitous III-weak ˤnh seems to be a preterite in short forms such as wˤn aliyn bˤl “and mighty Baal answered”. In everyday prose it seems that the suffix form qtl has taken over the past tense function as in later Phoenician and contemporary Byblos. Biblical Hebrew employs the preterite yaqtul in poetry and as the narrative tense wayyiqtol. The distinction of the short and long forms can also be seen in Hebrew weak verbs and the Hifil. 

Besides its function as present-future, Moran also isolated many cases where the long yaqtulu form was used to express continuous action in the past. This function is hard to discern in Ugaritic, but it is well known in Biblical Hebrew as well. 

The Amarna yiparras form does not seem to represent a Canaanite conjugation pattern but the Canaanite affixes on a geminated stem. Akkadian iparras and West Semitic yaqtulu are mutually exclusive, and attempts to find a yaqattal pattern in Ugaritic or Hebrew have failed. Goetze was the primary proponent of yaqattal in Ugaritic, but he was refuted by Ginsberg and Fenton. 

Rainey argues that the opposition of yaqtulu to the simple tense form yaqtul shows that system is not aspectual and that tenses were distinguished, even though yaqtulu itself can be used in past, present, and future contexts (note my post here and the discussion following this post on Rainey’s insistence that the West Semitic verbal system indicates tense rather than aspect).   

The energic is a “strengthening” of the imperfect, and is practically always used in questions (which Kaufman argues suggests that it is not a “strengthening” but a “softening”). The energic seems to be indicated in Ugaritic by the unusual spelling with double alef signs: yraun aliyn bˤl (presumably yîraˀunnû ˀAlˀiyânu Baˤalu) “Mighty Baal fears him” (KTU 1.5 II 6).

The only survival of the energic in biblical Hebrew is the nun used to attach 3s and 2ms suffixes to the verb. These nuns occur only on indicative forms, not jussives or narrative preterites (except for scribal errors). Thus these suffixed forms provide an additional diagnostic for distinguishing the yaqtulu from the yaqtul form. 

II. The injunctive mode 

Moran’s other contribution was demonstrating the existence of a yaqtul jussive and yaqtula subjunctive in the Amarna letters. Note that both forms have the same plural in , in contrast to the imperfect in –ûna. By the 14th century both forms were also fulfilling the same syntactic function, and there is an obvious correspondence to the biblical Hebrew jussive and cohortative forms. The main categories are expressions of volition, purpose, and condition. A first person volative can also be used as a polite form indicating submission to the will of the speaker or someone else. The Arabic grammarians picked up on this inherent idea of subordination, whether in a subordinate clause or as a polite form, and noticed that the –a ending is the accusative suffix, while the indicative yaqtulu has the nominative suffix. 

The jussive and yaqtula volitive are also found in Ugaritic. In biblical Hebrew the yaqtula form has survived mainly as the first person cohortative. though the volitive morpheme –a also appears with the imperative.

There is one example from the Byblos letters of an injunctive energic in a negative purpose clause: pal-ha-ti LÚ.MEŠ hu-up-ši-ia ul ti-ma-ha-ṣa-na-ni “I am afraid of my tenant farmers lest they smite me.”

It is also attested at Ugaritic. In biblical Hebrew the 3s suffixes attach to the cohortative like in Ps 119:34 wəˀešmərennā “that I might observe it”. Here it might be tempting to see an energic form, but Rainey thinks it more likely that we merely have a later development of the longer suffixed forms with nun being attracted to the cohortative. In later passages where the cohortative is (mis)used for the narrative preterite, the suffix forms with nun are not used (see Hos 11:1).

Morag, Shelomo, “Qumran Hebrew: Some Typological Observations,” Vetus Testamentum 38.2 (1988): 148-164

February 23, 2009

The discovery of Qumran was obviously quite revolutionary. In particular, the corpus of Qumran texts provided evidence of Hebrew language (QH) from the period between Biblical Hebrew (BH) and Mishnaic Hebrew (MH). But what were the relationships between the three?  Some scholars consider QH a direct continuation of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), others an artificial literary language based on an attempt to revive Biblical Hebrew, or perhaps it consists of LBH features mixed with lines of archaization. In this essay, Morag argues that typological features of QH suggest that it is the result of natural changes in a living, spoken language. However it is not simply a continuation of LBH, but reflects earlier dialectal diversity.

The literature composed at Qumran roughly spans the period of the beginning of the first century BCE to the end of the first century CE. Morag does not list which documents he includes in this corpus, which he labels General Qumran Hebrew (GQH), but I assume he follows something similar to Diamant. He does specifically exclude the Copper Scroll and 4QMMT which show features of a dialect closer to MH. For his study he lists the ten most significant features of GQH, finding only one in common with BH (no 1) and two in common with MH (nos 5 and 10a):

1. Preference of ˀašer to š- as relative marker.

2. Contraction of –aw in final position.

3. Dissimilation of CC to nC.

4. wˀqtlh (cohortative) form used for 1cs waw-consecutive

5. Occurance of pausal forms in non-pausal positions, ie yqtwlw for yqtlw.

6. Imperfect pron suff for 3ms: yqwtlhw.

7. Long-form of 3ms/3fs pronoun: hw’h and hy’h.

8. –hw­ and –w as pronominal suffix for word ending with ī.

9. –mh ending for 2mp perfect, 2mp pronoun (‘tmh) and 2mp/3mp suffix (-kmh and –(h)mh)

10. Syntactic features:

            a. Use of composite verbal forms hyh (yhyh / lhywt) + participle

            b. usage of prepositions such as b varies from standard use

He finds that to describe GQH as merely a continuation of LBH does not do it justice. There are several prominent features that are not continuations of LBH, but instead may be a continuation of older dialectal variations. The features shared by both GQH and MH can be divided into two categories:

 a. Features reflecting stress patterns different from those of BH (TH), specifically 5 and 6.

b. Syntactic features such as periphrastic use of the participle (10a).

Thus GQH contains both LBH and non-LBH features, some of which reflect older dialectal variation. Diachronic components such as stress shift and Aramaic influence should also be taken into account. However, most interesting is that many of the features that differ from LBH are phonological, reflections not of a literary tradition but of a living language. Thus GQH must reflect living dialects of Hebrew.


Alexander, Philip S, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?” Pages 71-89 in Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda. Edited by W. Horbury. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999.

February 16, 2009

Mishnaic Hebrew seems to have been finally supplanted as a spoken language by Aramaic in the 2nd century CE., after which it was maintained as a literary and liturgical language. Thus the mother tongue of a Rabbinic scholar living after this time period would be Aramaic, yet he would be expected to have command of two large and linguistically diverse Hebrew corpora – the biblical text and the collections of Mishnayot. As modern learners we have recourse to dictionaries and grammars as well as theories of second language acquisition, but in this essay Alexander asks, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?”

Rote learning by reading large amounts of text over and over may have played a part, but such students seem to reach a ceiling quite quickly. They may recognize forms easily, but they are unable to move towards active comprehension and use of the second language. The Rabbis most likely did not attain competency through everyday use since their were no ‘native’ speakers left. Further, the level of the literature they were studying is much different than street language. Quite often people who live in foreign countries can master the vernacular through everyday use, but never move into the higher registers of the language. 

There is no evidence that the Rabbis ever undertook a systematic study of the grammar of the language. Thus we know of no aids for learning such as grammars, dictionaries, etc. By the 2nd century CE grammatical analysis of Greek was well established, but the Rabbis did not seem interested in such an approach. Rather, their interests seem to have been a somewhat quirky aggadic approach to words, etymologies, and some syntactic structures. They did not classify the parts of speech or attempt to analyze the triliteral root, etc. 

The scientific study of Hebrew only begins in the Middle Ages with the Karaites, who applied the sophisticated contemporary theories of Arabic grammar to Hebrew. The medieval Rabbinate scholars on the other hand did not immediately accept such an approach to the ‘holy tongue’, which they felt was unique and incomparable. Even a scholar such as Menahem ben Jacog ibn Saruq, who accepted the principle of linguistic analysis, avoided the comparisons between Hebrew and Arabic other grammarians made.

However, a ubiquitous feature of scholarship in the ancient world was the creation of lists, and we do find linguistic items regularly itemized in early Rabbinic literature such as concordances, statistics of the frequency of words used in the Bible, etc. It should also be noted that the lack of grammatical understanding of the workings of Hebrew in no way hinders the Rabbis competency in the language.

Hebrew was acquired in the Jewish school system, and schools were widespread in Jewish communities of Palestine from late Second Temple times into the Talmudic period. The elementary level was the Bet Sefer (ages 6 – 9) followed by the Bet Talmud (9-13). After this a student could continue to the Bet Midrash if his family could afford it. The sole purpose of the Bet Sefer was to teach the children to read Hebrew, with no ‘practical’ training at all. This includes learning to read the text, learning how to pronounce it properly, and probably learning the targum along with it to aid in understanding. In fact, Alexander suggests that the Bet Sefer may have been the original setting for the targum, and only later was it incorporated into the synagogue. This also fits the nature of the targum as a word for word translation. The student could line up the Aramaic word with its Hebrew counterpart as a learning aid.

This method of using a translation to learn a foreign language seems to have been standard in the Graeco-Roman world during the time of the Rabbis. Their are a number of Latin-Greek papyri from Egypt, for instance of Virgil’s Aeneid, which seem to have been used in teaching Latin. The Greek translation of Aquila may serve the same purpose. The peculiarity of the translation is its hyper-literalness, despite the fact that Aquila seems to have a firm command of the language. This characteristic begins to make sense if it is viewed as a crib for students to learn Hebrew rather than a free-standing translation. Extrapolating from the Rabbinic tradition, Aquila was most likely prepared under Rabbinic guidance in Palestine in the early 2nd century CE. 

The Mishna was possibly taught in the Bet Talmud, and definitely in the Bet Midrash. Here Alexander also suspects that some translation in Aramaic must have been used to aid with the massive vocabulary. Of course, in the later Amoraic schools Aramaic was most certainly the language of instruction.

Kutscher, EY. The Language and Linguistic Background of the Isaiah Scroll (I Q Isaa), Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 6. Leiden: Brill, 1974.

February 12, 2009

Among the original scrolls found at Qumran, the Isaiah scroll 1QIsaa may have been the most remarkable. This scroll, containing all 66 chapters of Isaiah (along with a fragmentary version 1QIsab) dates from the last few centuries before the Common Era, while the earliest known manuscripts of the Prophets were from 916 and 895 CE. Thus there was considerable enthusiasm that a text much earlier than the MT had been found. Kutscher, however, argues that a comprehensive linguistic analysis of the scroll shows that it is actually of a later text type than that reflected in the MT. Analyzing the linguistic anomalies in the scroll, Kutscher concludes that they reflect the Hebrew and Aramaic spoken in Palestine towards the end of the Second Commonwealth. From this he suggests that the Isaiah Scroll is actually a popularized text whose language has been emended for the semi-literate masses. Further, this language seems to reflect a situation of diglossia in the Hebrew of this time period, where a “standard” dialect used for liturgical reading coexisted with a “substandard” dialect reflecting more colloquial use.

The first clues that the text is of a later type than the MT come from the orthography. One indicator is the spelling of proper names. For example, Damascus is always spelled דרמשק in the scroll, in contrast to דמשק in the MT. External sources confirm that the MT spelling is the more ancient, while the scroll’s spelling can date no earlier than the last few centuries BCE. A second indicator of a late date is the increase of plene spelling with ו and to a lesser extent י.

In this period knowledge of Hebrew seems to have been decreasing as Aramaic became the colloquial language in Palestine. Knowledge of Classical Hebrew had already begun to wane at the beginning of the Second Temple period as reflected in the language of the later biblical books and the complaint by Nehemiah (13:24) that “their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language…” In its place a new dialect was developing which by the 2nd century CE had become Mishnaic Hebrew.

Aramaic seems to have been the lingua franca of the Ancient Near East from an early point, however based on 2 Kg 18:26 (= Is 36:11) in the 8th century Aramaic was not yet understood by the average Judaean. Over time, Aramaic influence grew and ultimately it became the official language of the Persian Empire. In Syria and Palestine, Aramaic seems to have also become the language of the common people, displacing Hebrew and the other local dialects. This dialect is not Imperial Aramaic, however, but Middle Western Aramaic, which branched into Galilean Aramaic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, and Samaritan Aramaic. Aramaic seems to have finally replaced Hebrew as the common tongue by the days of R. Judah the Prince (2nd century CE). Mishnaic Hebrew seems to continue as a spoken language during this period, but it had already become a “classical” language. The period of the Dead Sea Scrolls must reflect a time in which Hebrew and Aramaic were still competing for supremacy as the common tongue.

This situation seems to be reflected in the language of the scroll. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the scribe has updated the classical language to reflect the contemporary Hebrew dialect by replacing rare words and archaic forms. The plene spelling seems to be used to aid pronunciation, especially by differentiating Hebrew from Aramaic when confusion might arise. At the same time, heavy influence of Aramaic can still be detected. Thus the scroll seems to have been produced for an audience who still had some knowledge of Hebrew, but whose primary language was Aramaic.

The scribe seems to have often substituted more familiar roots for rare words. Kutscher acknowledges that in some cases the Scroll’s reading may be superior to the MT, but in general the comparative evidence suggests that the MT is most often the earlier. For instance, in Is 13:10 he emends הלל to אור ‘shine’. The root הלל is not known in either Aramaic or Mishnaic Hebrew with the meaning ‘to shine’. In Is 33:7 and 42:2 the root צעק is amended to זעק. This is somewhat surprising since both appear in the Bible with relatively the same frequency, but their distribution is not equal. While in the Pentateuch צעק is used almost exclusively, in Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Esther, it is זעק which is much more common. Thus זעק seems to have been much more common during the Second Temple Period.

The scribe also avoids archaic morphological forms. For instance in Is 22:2 the form הַחֹ֣מֹתַ֔יִם occurs with both a feminine and dual ending which the scribe emends to simply חומות. In Is 41:2 the nifal participle נִדָּ֖ף “driven away” is emended to נודף, the more common form in Mishnaic Hebrew for פ”נ verbs. The scribe often writes the hiphil infinitive without ה, as is common in Qumran Hebrew, such as לחיות for MT להחיות in Is 57:15. All the later dialects tend to substitute /o/ for /a/ in the imperfect forms of intransitive verbs, thus we have אפעולה for MT אֶפְעַ֖ל “I will work” (Is 43:13). This form also reflects the spread of the lengthened form of the imperfect from being strictly a cohortative to being used as a normal imperfect. This seems to have begun already in the later books such as Ezra, Daniel, and Nehemiah. Note, however, that this form did not continue into Mishnaic Hebrew.

The greatest difference between Mishnaic and Biblical Hebrew is the simplification of the verbal system. Mishnaic Hebrew no longer uses the infinitive absolute, and the infinitive construct is only used when preceded by ל. Accordingly, there is a marked tendency in the scroll to add ל to infinitives. Further, in Mishnaic Hebrew the preterite יקטל form as well as the wayyiqtol and weqatal forms have disappeared. Instead the יקטל form serves as modal and subjunctive, the קטל as the perfect, and the participle is used for the present and future. The language of Chronicles seems to already reflect this development. Note that literary Hebrew, however, preserved the waw-consecutive as late as the Maccabean Era.

Accordingly, in the scroll we often see the later verbal system. For instance, in Is 11:8 the MT וְשִֽׁעֲשַׁ֥ע יוֹנֵ֖ק is emended to וישעשע יונק, the weqatal being replaced by waw + imperfect. In Is 12:2 וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י is emended to היהא לי, the wayyiqtol being replaced by the perfect. Sometimes the so-called prophetic perfect is emended with an imperfect as in Is 11:9 where כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ is changed to כי תמלאה הארץ. Is 6:4 contains an imperfect to indicate continued concomitant action, but the first part of the verse establishes the time reference as past, וַיָּנֻ֙עוּ֙ אַמּ֣וֹת הַסִּפִּ֔ים מִקּ֖וֹל הַקּוֹרֵ֑א וְהַבַּ֖יִת יִמָּלֵ֥א עָשָֽׁן “Then the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of the one calling, while the house filled with smoke”. Here the scroll uses a nifal perfect והבית נמלא עשן.

While the language is updated, the scribe also seems to have attempted to avoid ambiguity between Hebrew and Aramaic features in order to aid the reader. For instance, we constantly find the spelling לוא rather than לא for the negative particle to emphasize the Hebrew // against Aramaic //. Similarly is the spelling יואמר to indicate Hebrew /yōmar/ against Aramaic /yēmar/, etc. We also find cases where the scribe seems to have avoided genuinely Hebrew roots because of their similarity to Aramaic roots. For example, in Hebrew both הן and הנה are presentative particles, but in Aramaic הן = אם ‘if’. Thus the scribe has consciously avoided the use of הן to limit confusion.

However, the influence of Aramaic on the language is impossible to avoid completely. Aramaic influence is particularly strong with nouns and pronouns. For example עלוהי for עליו “upon him”, and Aramaic גופן /guwpnā/ for Hebrew גפן /gεfεn/ “vine”. Influence is also seen in the verbs, for example מהסיר for Hebrew מסיר reflects Imperial Aramaic in which the ה of the hafel appeared in the participle.

Another example is the 2fs form קטלתי instead of קטלת. This form appears in the Bible as a Ketib and perhaps once in the Song of Deborah where it is usually taken as an archaism. Kutscher argues, however, that here the form is an Aramaism. In fact, it occurs primarily in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, two late books under Aramaic influence. This seems to be an interesting phenomenon that is somewhat regular, early forms that were common to Hebrew and Aramaic have fallen out of Hebrew, only to be reintroduced at a later stage from Aramaic, where they have been conserved. This seems to hold true for the 2fs pronominal suffix כי- as well.

Lastly, there are several features which suggest a situation of diglossia in the Hebrew of the time period. A higher “standard” dialect seems to have been maintained for the liturgical reading concurrent with a colloquial “substandard” dialect. For instance, the scroll has several cases of the imperfect pausal form when the position in the clause does not warrant it, such as אכרותה for וְאֶכְרֹת in Is 37:24, etc. Such “pausal” forms are also found in good Rabbinical manuscripts as well as the transliterations of Origen and Hieronymus, and Palestinian Christian Aramaic where it must be a result of Hebrew influence. This suggests that forms such as תקתולו were actually accented penultimately in the colloquial Hebrew of the Second Temple period. Thus, while the synagogue readings retained the ultimate accent, it was gradually replaced by penultimate in the colloquial speech.

Along these same lines are the form of the 2ms perfect and 2ms pronominal suffix. The transcriptions in Origen’s Secunda reflect the Hebrew forms קָטַלְתְּ and דִּבָרָךְ in contrast to the MT forms קָטַלְתָּ and דִּבָרֶךָ. Kahle argued that the former are the original Palestinian forms, the latter the creation of the Tiberian Masoretes under Arabic influence. However, Bergsträsser pointed out that we must differentiate between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew in this regard, as the suffix /-āk/ is only found in Mishnaic texts. Kutscher suggests that the two types of Hebrew existed side by side. The standard form was /-kā/ which was carefully preserved in the liturgy, while the colloquial form was /-āk/ (apparently influenced by Aramaic). Like Qumran Hebrew in general, the scroll shows many cases of the כה- personal suffix and תה- verbal ending, demonstrating its age. It would not be surprising, however, that the Jews who read for Origen’s transcription did not use (and perhaps did not even know) the standard pronunciation.

A final example comes from the segholates, particularly the *qutl forms which become qitol in Tiberian Hebrew. The LXX transliterations reflect either qotel or qotol, which also seems to be the pronunciation in the scribe’s dialect. In contrast, the Secunda (3rd century CE) reflects the form qotl exclusively without an epenthetic vowel, while Hieronymus (4th -5th century CE) reflects only a form qotel. The chain qutl > qotol > qotl > qotel hardly seems possible. In fact, the Secunda form qotl is barely different than the original *qutl. Thus Kutscher suggests that again we are dealing with different dialects. The form in the Secunda is more ancient than that in the LXX, even though it is chronologically later. It is hard to tell which was the standard form, but most likely it was the LXX – Hieronymus – TH form qotel > qitol.

The linguistic structure of the scroll clearly points to the end of the Second Temple Period. The most telling characteristic is the use of ה in the hifil participle. Since this is a feature of Imperial Aramaic that has fallen out of use in all the later dialects the scroll seems to date no later than the 1st Century BCE. Since the main purpose of the plene spelling seems to be differentiating the Hebrew pronunciation and forms for an audience who primarily spoke Aramaic, and since this seems to be the overall character of the scroll, Kutscher suggests that this is a “popular” version of Isaiah meant for the semi-literate masses. As such, it must date from a time when Hebrew was still more or less understood by said masses, which best fits the period before the destruction of the Second Temple. Interestingly, the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint also seem to be “popular” texts.

How then can the MT, a much later text, be superior to the LXX, Sam P, and Isaiah Scroll? Kutscher argues that the same distinction is found between the Greek papyrii found in Egypt and the Medieval manuscripts. The difference is between popular texts used for home study and the standard text carefully preserved in the Temple and centers of learning. The MT is a descendent of the standard text in contrast to these popularized versions.

Malone, Joseph L., “Wave theory, rule ordering and Hebrew-Aramaic segolation,” Journal of the American Oriental Society 91 (1971): 44-66

February 9, 2009

The so-called segholates developed from mono-syllabic nouns ending with a consonant cluster that resulted from the loss of final short vowels sometime during the late second millennium in common NWS. Interestingly, Hebrew and Aramaic form segholates differently. The Hebrew pattern is qVtVl (with stress on the first syllable) while the Aramaic pattern is qətVl (with stress on the final syllable). For instance:

*káspu > Heb kέsεf but BA kəsáf

*sípru > Heb séfer but BA səfár

*rúgzu > Heb róγεz but BA rəgáz

Malone suggests that the different patterns may be explained by differences in sequencing, namely the order of epenthesis and stress shift in the two languages.

It should be noted that there are also some deviations to these patterns in individual words. For instance, *šákmu ‘shoulder’ > Heb šəkέm, and *hílmu ‘dream’ > BA hélεm. Further, in Hebrew the pattern qətVl seems to dominate in nouns II-ˀ and III-y such as *diˀbu ‘wolf’ > zəˀév and *gadyu ‘kid’ > gəḏí

Based on comparative evidence and internal reconstruction, the following stages may be reconstructed for Hebrew segholate formation:

a) Final short vowels are apocopated.  

b) Stress shifts to the final syllable.

c) Final consonant clusters are broken by an epenthetic vowel  (usually e, but a if preceding consonant is a guttural).

d) Post-vocalic non-geminate non-pharyngealized consonants are spirantized (ie bgdkpt letters).

f) Unstressed e lowers to ε.

g) Stressed vowels undergo certain changes in quality: á umlauts to έ when separated by one consonant from following ε (á > έ /_xCε) while í and ú lower to é and ó respectively.

h) Closed-syllable ε lowers and backs to a when immediately followed by a guttural.

Following are some examples:

*sípru > sípr (a) > síper (c) > sífer (d) > sífεr (f) > séfεr (g) 

*báˤlu > báˤl (a) > báˤal (c) 

*pátḥu > pátḥ (a) > páteḥ (c) > páθeḥ (d) > páθεḥ (f) > pέθεḥ (g) > pέθaḥ (h)

Biblical Aramaic, however, follows a different sequence:

a) Final vowels apocopated.

b) Final consonant clusters broken by epenthesis (usually e, but o when following vowel is u).

c) Stress shifts to final syllable.

d) Spirantization of post-vocalic bgdkpt.

e) Open-syllable short vowels reduced to ə in pretonic position.

f) a lowers and backs to ă when preceded by a guttural.

h) Segholate é lowers and backs to á when a guttural or r immediately follows.

For example:

*gábru ‘man’ > gábr (a) > gáber (b) > gabér (c) > gavér (d) > gəvér (e) > gəvár (h)

*qúšṭu ‘truth’ > qúšṭ (a) > qúšoṭ (b) > qušóṭ (c) > qəšóṭ (e) 

Comparison with other Aramaic dialects suggests that changes a-e belong to the Common Aramaic phase of the language. For instance, in Jewish Palestinian Aramaic (JPA) the changes are similar to Biblical Aramaic except that stage h is modified:

j) Segholate é is replaced by á, unless a guttural immediately precedes. Segholate ó tends to be replaced by á.

For example:

*rúgzu > rúgz (a) > rúgoz (b) > rugóz (c) > ruγóz (d) > rəγóz (e) > rəγáz (j)

In Christian Palestinian Aramaic (CPA) there is no evidence of the vowel changes in steps f, g, or h. In Syriac, different vowel changes occur in stages f and h:

f) In word-initial ˀə the ə is replaced by u when the following vowel is u, otherwise it is replaced by e or a. Further, word-initial > ī.

h) Segholate é or ó lower to á when followed by a guttural or r.

For example:

*yárḥu > yárḥ (a) > yáreḥ (b) > yaréḥ (c) > yəréḥ (e) > īréḥ (f) > īráḥ (h)

Mandaic follows the same stages as Syriac a-f, shares Biblical Aramaic stage h, and then has several peculiarly Mandaic developments. 

When we compare Hebrew stages a-h with Aramaic, it is evident that they are very similar. Stages a and d are identical, while Hebrew stage b is identical to Aramaic stage c and vice-versa. Thus the difference between the two is the order of epenthesis and stress-shift. It seems likely that both languages are sharing in the same process of sound change, otherwise it is difficult to explain how the same changes could have occurred independently in the two languages. But how could stages b and c be reversed in the two languages?

It seems impossible if we conceive of each change as an instantaneous event, but not if it is conceived as a process through time. The common Northwest Semitic speech community was relatively unified for a time, but overlapping pre-Aramaic and pre-Hebrew groups may have begun to form. The apocopation of final vowels seems to be a common change to all dialects, but if stress shift began in the pre-Hebrew area (probably centering in the South) and epenthesis in the pre-Aramaic area (probably centering in the North), then by the time stress-shift reaches Aramaic, epenthesis will already have occurred, and by the time epenthesis reaches Hebrew, stress-shift will already have occurred. 

Thus we have an example of the wave theory of language change. This theory also helps explain the deviations noted at the beginning. The Hebrew qətVl forms can be explained as forms in which epenthesis preceded the stress shift. These forms then follow a process augmented by the Aramaic stages e-h, along with Hebrew stage g. For instance:

*gábru > gábr (a) > gáber (c) > gabér (b) > gavér (d) > gəvér (e) > gəvár (h)

Similarly, the Biblical Aramaic qVtVl forms can be explained as forms in which stress shift has preceded epenthesis. These forms then follow a process augmented by the Hebrew stages f and g . For instance:

*ṣálmu > ṣálm (a) > ṣálm (c) > ṣálem (b) > ṣálεm (f) > ṣέlεm (g)

With such a wave model, it is not unexpected that these features would reach peripheral dialects at different times, if at all. Thus it is interesting to note that many of Hebrew qətVl forms seem to have a rural provenance: dəváš ‘honey’, səváḥ ‘thicket’, šəlɔẃ ‘quail’, etc.

Finally, the II-ˀ and III-y forms can also be explained by a switch in the order of epenthesis and stress shift. Linguistic change often originates sporadically, becomes conditionally regular, and then unconditionally regular. These special forms may represent the first phases of the process, when only some word final clusters (namely ˀC and Cy) were subject to epenthesis. At this point, stress shift had not yet become regular. In addition, the nature of the epenthetic vowel seems to have differed from the later stage.

Gibson, John CL, “Stress and Vocalic Change in Hebrew,” Journal of Linguistics 2 (1966): 35-56

February 7, 2009

In this article, Gibson traces the relationship between stress placement and vowel quality/quantity through the history of Hebrew. He begins by dividing Hebrew into three main stages: proto-Hebrew (PH), Biblical Hebrew (BH), and Masoretic Hebrew dealing primarily with Tiberian Hebrew (TH). Jakobson and Halle have argued that vowel quantity and stress tend not to both have phonemic status at the same time in a language. Gibson’s thesis is that it was vowel quantity that  was phonemic in PH, but that the situation was reversed by BH with stress becoming phonemic instead. This results in quality replacing quantity as the more distinctive feature of vowels.

Gibson draws evidence for Biblical Hebrew from the first millennium until the first few centuries of the Christian era. This includes the consonantal text of the Hebrew Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the various Hebrew transcriptions in Greek and Latin. Masoretic Hebrew is represented by the vocalized manuscripts from the medieval period. These texts preserve the consonantal structure of the biblical text, but reflect a pronunciation maintained in the academy centuries after Hebrew has ceased to be spoken. Proto-Hebrew must be reconstructed on the basis of common Northwest Semitic from the second millennium as represented by Ugaritic, Amorite, and Amarna Canaanite. Gibson assumes that NWS was a relative unity during this period and that the division of Canaanite and Aramaic cannot be traced back beyond 1000 BCE.

The consonantal phonemes of BH and TH were identical, though gemination must have had phonemic status in BH as shown by the minimal pair kabed (Qal pf 3ms) : kabbed (Piel pf 3ms). PH can be reconstructed with six vowel qualities: /a/, /i/, /u/, /e/, /o/, and a second long a-vowel /a2/. This a2 seems to be somewhere in between an open back and open front a. The /e/ and /o/ vowels merge with the reduced diphthongs from /ay/ and /aw/ respectively, and /o/ also merges with the result of the Canaanite shift /ā/ > /ō/.  BH seems to have the same inventory of vowels. However, in TH there are nine vowel qualities. The seven full vowels are /a/, /ε/, /i/, /ɔ/, /o/, and /u/. Thus TH has added /ε/, and /a2/ has opened to /ɔ/. TH also adds the shewa /ə/ and the hateph-qamets. the other reduced vowels seem to be allophonic.

A general stress shift seems to have occurred in the transition period c1300-1000 BCE. This seems to have been a time of great phonological and grammatical change in NWS, most notably the loss of final short vowels. In PH stress seems to have followed Arabic pattern with vowel length being an important factor in determining stress placement. A long vowel attracted the stress when in the penultimate or some previous syllable. If there are only short vowels, then stress moves to the beginning of the word. For example, the change of PH *ˤa2lamu > TH ˤolam indicates that stress must have been on the first syllable during the Canaanite shift. In contrast *ˀata2 ‘you’ > ˀatɔ, suggesting that unstressed /a2/ did not participate in the Canaanite shift. 

With the drop of final short vowels and the resulting changes, the main stress was freed from vowel quantity. It now fell on the ultimate or penultimate syllable without regard for the vowel length or the type of syllable. The separation of stress from vowel quantity began the process of switching stress to a phonemic status instead of vowel quality. This also began a process of changes in vowel qualities as the prosody changed.

There seem to be two systems of vowel changes. In both /i/ > /e/ and /u/ > /o/. The difference is whether /a/ > /a2/ or not. In nouns like *dabaru, the loss of the final vowel closes the final syllable and the stress shifts to the ultimate so that /a/ > /a2/, *dábaru > dabá2r. However, in nouns like ˀiṣbaˤu where the first syllable is closed or contains a long vowel, generally /a/ does not shift even though the stress shifts to the ultimate, *ˀíṣbaˤu > ˀiṣbáˤ ‘finger’. 

In closed syllables, stressed short vowels seem to have been retained in BH, at least in the dialect underlying the Secunda: PH gabru > BH gabr (Sec γαβρ). However, Qumran orthography suggests a change in quality of /u/ and perhaps /i/ had already begun, as in שוחוד ‘bribe’ (1QIsaa 38:20) which suggests *šuḥdu > šuḥd > šəḥod or šoḥəd

Forms that ended with a geminate consonant lost the gemination when the final vowel elided. Here also /a/ does not shift to /a2/,  thus PH *libbu > BH leb, but PH *rabbu > BH rab. Based on Ugaritic, final /w/ or /y/ had already assimilated to the following short vowel at the PH stage.  Again, /a/ does not shift, thus PH pírī > BH péri > TH pərí, while PH gádī > BH gádi > TH gədí.  

Short vowels in open syllables preceding the newly shifted stress underwent no change from PH to BH. However, in TH /a/ and /i/ followed the normal path of development, /a/ > /a2/ > /ɔ/ and /i/ > /e/. Short vowels in propretonic positions reduced to zero in BH and thus /ə/ in TH. A /u/ in these positions is extremely rare, but seems to have gone unchanged. 

The verbal system is also quite complicated. Gibson reconstructs six verbal forms in PH: yiqáttal, yáqtulu, yáqtula, yáqtul, qtúl, and qátala. The first form, yiqáttal, seems to have merged with yáqtulu during the PH stage (note that scholars now generally reject a yiqáttal form for common NWS, see Terry Fenton, “The Absence of a Verbal Formation *yaqattal from Ugaritic and North-west Semitic,” JSS 15 (1970): 31-41). 

When the short vowels dropped, yáqtulu and yáqtula merged with yáqtul. The resulting verb had the semantic range of present-future (imperfect) indicative, past indicative, subjunctive, and jussive. The qátala form also has a bivalence between past indicative and future indicative in certain contexts. This seems like unbelievable multivalence for single verb forms, but fortunately, in BH and TH, stress often helps differentiate between the past and future meanings. Gibson suggests that this is some of the strongest evidence that stress has indeed become phonemic in BH and TH.

In the regular verb, the inflected forms had stress on the penultimate syllable when it was closed, and it remained there in BH and TH. One would expect the following short vowels to drop when in an open syllable, but in the majority of cases they did not. For instance PH *qátalta (2ms) > TH qɔ´taltɔ (orthographically קטלת). But in BH we have forms in the Secunda such as αφαχθ  suggesting qátalt while from Qumran we have אמרתה suggesting qátalta2. Gibson suggests that this reflects dialectal differences from PH, thus there was a PH qátalta and a qátalta2 form. Similarly he suggests a qátalti and a qátaltī (2fs), etc.  The forms with short vowels dropped, while the other vowels shifted /a/ > /a2/ and /ī/ > /i/, etc.

In the other forms, stress shifted to the penultimate syllable accompanied by the loss of final short vowels. Thus PH *qátala > BH qatál and PH *qátalat > BH qatála2. In TH, stress shifts to the ultimate for forms with final vowels, and the previously stressed vowels reduce to shewa, thus BH qatála2 > TH qɔtəlɔ´. 

Returning to the bi-valence of PH yaqtul(u) and qatala, the past value of yiqtol and future value of qɔtal is only maintained in the so-called waw consecutive constructions. Note that the wa-yiqtól form already disrupts the stress pattern by maintaining the full vowel on the copula, which the Masoretes also note by adding a dagesh to the following consonant. This should be considered a case of internal juncture. With the weqɔtál form, however, the waw is joined as usual. 

In the weqɔtál form, stress is distinguished in only two cases, the 2ms weqɔtaltɔ´, and the 1cs weqɔtaltí. The movement of stress has not left any perceptible changes in the vowel quality, and thus it seems that this movement of stress to the final syllable is a late innovation of the Masoretic period. In the wa-yiqtól form stress distinguishes I-y verbs as well as those of the form  sɔbab (> sab) and qɔm. Thus PH yéšib(u) > BH/TH yéšeb, but PH wa-yéšib(u) > BH wa-yéšib > TH wa-yéšεb. Also PH yáqum > BH yáqom > TH yɔ´qom, but PH wáyaqum > BH wa-yá2qum > TH wa-yɔ´qɔm.