Archive for the ‘Orthography’ category

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.


Aronoff, Mark, “Orthography and Linguistic Theory: The Syntactic Basis of Masoretic Hebrew Punctuation,” Language Vol 61 no 1 1985.

January 19, 2008

Aronoff begins by noting that modern linguistics tends to view spoken language as “true” language, while written language is a by-product. Still, the study of written language has often dominated the field. Aronoff argues that “written language is a product of linguistic awareness… any orthography must therefore involve a linguistic system.” In this article he examines the linguistic system of Masoretic accentuation – “A complete unlabeled binary phrase-structure analysis of every verse, based on a single parsing system.” The Masoretic system divided the text into verses, marked all the segmental phonological properties not marked by the consonantal text (vowels, dagesh, etc), and marked accents.

Aronoff describes Biblical Hebrew as a typical Greenberg V(erb)S(ubject)O(bject) language. VSO is the normal order, but the initial position is emphatic and SVO, OVS, and SOV also occur. Modifiers generally follow the VSO core. BH also has prepositions rather than postpositions; genitives, adjectives and demonstratives follow the words they modify; adverbs follow adjectives; WH-words are sentence initial; and relative clauses follow their head nouns.

Besides marking the position of stress, the accents also function as punctuation (Wickes 1881, 1887 is still the standard description of their use). Accents are either disjunctive or conjunctive. Each verse of the Bible is divided into two halves which can in turn be subdivided into halves and so on until no group of more than two words remains. Each accent clause is thus arranged into a hierarchical structure. Note that the Masoretes were not formally syntacticians, but they were interested in showing the sense of the text by marking the relationships among all the words in a verse.

Most interesting from his analysis is the separation of a topicalized element from the rest of the sentence by a major syntactical break. However, not all pre-verbal elements are treated as topicalized. For instance, when a subject pronoun precedes the verb it may or may not be separated from the sentence as topicalized. In nominal sentences the accentuation may also vary depending on if the first element is seen as topicalized. A further point of interest is that phrases introducing direct speech seem to be subordinated similar to adverbial phrases.

Lastly, Aronoff suggests that the Masoretic system does not seem to be based on recitation of the text, but rather the recitation must have become based on the accent system. This can be seen in the case where a word ending with a vowel is followed by a word beginning with a bgdkpt letter. Whether or not the letter is softened does not seem to follow the prosody of the phrase, but the hierarchical accentuation.If there is a conjunctive accent the letter is softened, if it is a disjunctive letter it remains hard. For instance, in both Judges 1:1 and 1:8 are sentences of the same syntactic pattern: V( S PP.

‏וַֽיִּשְׁאֲלוּ֙ בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל בַּיהוָ֖ה‎ Jd 1:1b

‏וַיִּלָּחֲמ֤וּ בְנֵֽי־יְהוּדָה֙ בִּיר֣וּשָׁלִַ֔ם‎ Jd 1:8a 

In the second  case, בְנֵֽי־יְהוּדָה֙ is joined with a maqqef and thus there is no disjunctive accent between subject and verb, hence ב is softened. However, בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל must be treated as two words. Therefore there is a disjunction between subject and verb, and ב remains hard. Aronoff gives other interesting examples as well.

Kaufman, Stephen A, “Paragogic nun in Biblical Hebrew: Hypercorrection as a clue to a Lost Scribal Practice,” in Solving Riddles and Untying Knots: Biblical, Epigraphic, and Semitic Studies in Honor of Jonas C. Greenfield. ed. Ziony Zevit, Seymour Gitin, and Michael Sokoloff (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1995), 95-99.

January 9, 2008

In Biblical Hebrew prose the imperfect forms that end with a long vowel (2fs, 2mp, and 3mp) sometimes occur with an extra nun on the end – the so-called paragogic nun. However, an explanation of why these forms appear has eluded Hebrew grammarians. The forms appear most frequently in older texts where they occur most frequently in pause. The appearance of a final nun also corresponds to the Aramaic/Arabic forms of the imperfect indicative יִכְתְּבוּן (yiktebūn) which contrast with the shorter jussive/preterite form יִכְתְּבוּ (yiktebū).

In Semitic languages it is common for a nun to be assimilated to the following consonant in the prosody of speech. Thus in the majority of cases, except where the verb occurred in a clause final position (as in pause) or before a consonant which cannot be doubled, the final nun would be lost to assimilation. Over time the imperfect form was reanalyzed as יִכְתְּבוּ and therefore, as occurred in later colloquial Arabic, the two forms would have fallen together in normal Biblical Hebrew prose so that the contrast between יִכְתְּבוּן and יִכְתְּבוּ no longer marked the difference between the imperfect (also called the long form) and the jussive/preterite (the short form).

This explains why a majority of the forms with paragogic nun are preserved in pause, however this is not the case with all of the forms. Further, in a few cases the paragogic nun occurs on a form other than an imperfect indicative such as the imperfect consecutive (which should be a preservation of the short preterite form) and even the perfect. Dr Kaufman suggests that the variation can be explained by hypercorrection and is evidence of a scribal tradition rather than a living linguistic phenomenon.

Hypercorrection is often the result of tension between a higher formal dialect and a lower colloquial dialect where a speaker applies a feature in the higher dialect by analogy to a situation where it should not occur, betraying the author’s lack of experience in the higher dialect. For instance, in English we have lost the use of a “case system” except for some personal pronouns. The 1cs nominative pronoun is “I” while the oblique case is “me.” Children often mistakenly use “me” as a nominative, “Me and Jack are going to the store.” Adults, however, weary of being corrected as children for using phrases such as “Me and Jack”, often misunderstand the rule as applying to compounds and tend to hypercorrect the pronouns in oblique cases where “me” is indeed the proper use, “Bob came with Jack and I.”

In Biblical Hebrew the situation arose where the higher formal dialect pronounced the final nun on 2fs, 2mp, and 3mp imperfect indicatives in situations where the nun could not assimilate such as contextual positions (such as pause). However,  over time the lower dialect no longer pronounced the final nun at all. Scribes copying older texts in whose literary dialect final nuns were still included in the orthography would have to learn a set of rules for their use and non-use. By examining the scribal errors we can deduce the rules.

Dr Kaufman notes first that all of the “errors” are found in the books of Deuteronomy and Judges, perhaps reflecting a shared scribal history. In Deuteronomy 1:22, 4:11, 5:23, and Judges 8:1 and 11:18 the paragogic nun occurs on an imperfect consecutive. In Deuteronomy 8:3 and 8:16 the nun occurs on a perfect form (though both cases are the פ’’י verb ידע whose consonantal form may have been misinterpreted as an imperfect). What is significant is that in five of these seven cases the paragogic nun is followed by a word beginning with aleph. Thus it seems that the scribe was concentrating so hard to remember to use a paragogic nun when it cannot be assimilated to the following word that he forgot that it should only be applied to imperfect indicatives.

Blau, Joshua. On Pseudo-Correction in some Semitic Languages. Publications of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, 1970.

August 30, 2007

Blau analyzes an interesting feature of language contact resulting from the tension between “higher” and “lower” forms, whether between different spoken dialects or between spoken and literary dialects. Pseudo-correction is the application of a feature in the higher dialect by analogy to a form where it does not occur, betraying the author’s lack of experience in the higher dialect. The existence of pseudo-corrections in a text may be a clue as to whether it reflects living language or literary idiom, but unfortunately our knowledge of ancient dialects is too scarce in most cases to distinguish the two. Unambiguous cases of pseudo-correction in ancient texts are therefore rare. One example of hyper-correction is seen in Aramaic orthography which used z to spell proto-Semitic /ð/ even after it had merged with /d/. However, even /d/ which went back to proto-Semitic /d/ was spelled with z at times.

Blau, Joshua. On Polyphony in Biblical Hebrew. Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 6/2. Jerusalem, 1982.

August 30, 2007

Polyphony is the phenomenon in orthography where one character is used to represent more than one phoneme. Blau begins his study by stating “a borrowed alphabet in which phonemes of the borrowing language are lacking tends to become polyphonic”. He takes up the case of Hebrew by examining several cases of possible polyphony. The main cases are ayin and . In the LXX, ayin is transliterated as either zero/vowel mutation or gamma. This may reflect that the articulation of ayin to Greek ears was somewhere between the two or that the letter ayin was polyphonic, used both for the pharyngeal fricative ayin and the uvular trill grayin. Blau argues for the latter claiming that /ġ/ had been lost in spoken Hebrew, but was preserved in the literary dialect which was followed in the Synagogue reading.

Jackson, Kent, “The Language of the Mesha Inscription”, in Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab ed Andrew Dearman. Atlanta: Scholars, 1989, 96-130.

August 30, 2007

In this essay Jackson gives special attention to the orthography of the Mesha Inscription. He begins by explaining the distinction between historical spelling and vowel-letters, arguing that historical spelling of contracted diphthongs was probably the impetus for the use of vowel letters by analogy. The Mesha Inscription reflects a transitional point between historical spelling and intentional use of matres lectionis. Against Cross and Freedman, Jackson argues that there are some forms in the inscription where final vowels are not marked. However, all final 1cs suffixes are marked with yod, in contrast to the contemporary Phoenician, as are the endings of 1cs perfects.

Andersen, Francis I. and Forbes, A. Dean. Spelling in the Hebrew Bible. Biblica et Orientalia 41; Rome: Biblical Institute, 1986.

August 28, 2007

The work of Cross and Freedman on early Hebrew orthography analyzed Northwest Semitic inscriptions in an attempt to describe the introduction and use of matres lectionis in Hebrew spelling. Using this basic typology, Anderson and Forbes have attempted to statistically analyze spelling in the Hebrew Bible in order to draw historical conclusions on the transmission of the Hebrew text. They conclude that the text in general reflects the spelling practice of the Exilic and Persian periods (600-300 BCE). The Pentateuch stands out from the rest as being uniform and conservative in orthography. The basic assumption is that the more archaic the spelling of a book, the earlier it was “canonized”. The Primary History seems to have been canonized in the 6th century BCE, whereas the other books were written or edited after the Exile.