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Pronunciation — Hebrew — Part 1: Introduction

February 26, 2012

Introduction

Just as before proceeding to talk about writing systems in general, I first described the writing systems of Japanese, so also before venturing to discuss pronunciation in general I will turn my attention to an example– specifically Hebrew. In terms of grammar, vocabulary and most other matters in this blog, I will treat ancient and modern forms of a language as effectively distinct languages but I plan often to make an exception in this regard for pronunciation. Doing so will simply be often useful or interesting.

Boy reading from the Torah according to Sephar...

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A discussion of the philological context of Hebrew would require its own post. For now, I will simply note that Hebrew is a language of the Semitic branch of the Afro-Asiatic family of languages like Aramaic and Arabic. While others have used and do use the language to varying degrees as well, Hebrew is primarily the language of the Jewish people throughout our history. (As will be relevant shortly, I am a Jew of the Sephardic tradition living in Israel.) Of course pronunciation is inextricably linked to a language’s history. Here I follow the Orthodox Jewish view of the history not only because of my own religion but because philologically it well explains what we know. The Torah which is the main document for Hebrew in its most ancient form was written shortly before our people conquered the Land of Israel, during the period when the Jewish people were fused into a nation in the wastelands. This writing of the Torah marks the first stage of ancient Hebrew to be discussed. During the next few centuries within the Land, local accents developed (as shown in the account of the war with Efraim in TN”K where the members of the tribe of Ephraim are identified by their distinct pronunciation of the letter shin ש) and generally the language evolved normally. Because of this natural evolution, the language had changed by the time those taken captive to Babylon began to return to Israel. One of the leaders of those people who rebuilt Jerusalem at that time was Ezra the Scribe, who is credited with developing the system of niqqudot or of pointing marks to indicate vowels and other aspects of pronunciation, including the cantillation marks. (The specific form of the system has changed over time, but he is said to have introduced the system itself.) He is also credited with noting those instances in the Torah where the word was no longer pronounced as written. This introduction of diacritical marks marks the second stage of ancient Hebrew I will discuss. In the lists in the Parts of this discussion which follow, ancient pronunciations are prefixed by the abbreviation Anc. and where a distinction between the two is needed, the former pronunciation is termed early and the latter late. Modern traditional pronunciations developed directly and naturally from these ancient pronunciations as Jews also spread throughout the world. Those pronunciations are largely classed into two groups based on the two main centers of Jewish learning in Europe of a few hundred years ago, Ashkenazic and Sephardic. Respectively, these refer to Germany and Spain, deriving from the Hebrew names for each, but by no means were all Jews ever in Europe nor even outside of Israel. Those areas were simply prominent and relatively close together while each following a different tradition of pronunciation. In the lists in Parts to follow, the respective abbreviations prefixing the discussion of pronunciation are Ash. and Sf., the latter derived from Sfardic, an alternate spelling. When Ben-Yehuda and his followers revived Hebrew as a spoken language for ordinary usage, they modified traditional pronunciation, using elements of both Ashkenazic and Sephardic traditions (as well as some minor adaptations) to develop what has become Israeli pronunciation, and that pronunciation has in turn begun evolving naturally as well. That pronunciation in the lists hereafter will be treated after the abbreviation Is.

The Ten Commandments, In SVG

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Each pronunciation is just as “correct” as any of the others. Secular scholars and Christians interested in ancient Hebrew typically use the pronunciation from antiquity, especially the later one. Religious Jews will normally follow the traditional pronunciation with which their customs and religious rulings are associated. Those using modern Hebrew and a few Hebrew speaking religious Jews (especially in Israel) will use Israeli pronunciation. Language learners should determine which pronunciation best suits their individual needs and use that system consistently.

A knowledge of ancient pronunciation will often prove enlightening to those using one of the modern systems of pronunciation however. Phonology and morphology are always linked to varying degrees, and so ancient pronunciation does influence fine points of grammar at times. The general rule is that in the earlier ancient form (again that used in the wastelands) each letter had one and only one pronunciation, that pronunciation was unique and the letters were all always pronounced. Thus for example, in verse 12 of the first chapter of Bereishit (Genesis) the letter ה which would otherwise occur at the end of the word וירא is elided since the following word (a Name of G-d) begins with an alef א; since this elision occurs, the letter ה then is not written. At this stage of the language, virtually all Hebrew letters had a slight aspirate quality to them. In latter antiquity, this aspect of pronunciation diminished (especially initially within syllables) and a number of letters diverged into two pronunciations distinguished by the addition of a dot in the center (termed a dagesh) for those letters which had lost the aspirate quality.

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