Joshua Blau, Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew, LSAWS 2, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010.

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.


Explore posts in the same categories: Blau, Joshua, Phonology

One Comment on “Joshua Blau, Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew, LSAWS 2, Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2010.”

  1. Your readers may be inteerested in my detailed review of this book at

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