Glamour of Grammar: First things first

There's a class of words in Hebrew whose pronunciation, even when spelled with all of the vowels, is potentially unclear.

January 29, 2009 12:38
3 minute read.
Glamour of Grammar: First things first

Hebrew Hear-Say logo. (photo credit: )


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There's a class of words in Hebrew whose pronunciation, even when spelled with all of the vowels, is potentially unclear. Can you think of what it is? Before getting to the answer, let's take a step back. In antiquity, Hebrew was written with only what we now think of as the Hebrew letters, 'alef' through 'tav'. As I've described extensively elsewhere, three of those letters ('yud', 'heh' and 'vav'), and then eventually a fourth ('alef'), did double duty, representing not only consonantal sounds but also vocalic sounds. Because spelling was a matter of opinion in antiquity, sometimes a scribe would use those three (or four) letters only when he thought there otherwise might be some confusion. Toward the end of the first millennium CE in and around Tiberias, a group of people called the Masoretes devised the set of dots and dashes that we now call "the vowels." The goal behind the system was to eliminate the ambiguity of the older spellings without actually changing those spellings. So, for example, the masculine and feminine forms of "to you" ('l'cha' and 'lach', respectively) were originally spelled the same way, presumably because there was unlikely to be any confusion between the two words when they were used in context. (This is basically why, in English, we don't mind using "lead" to mean a kind of metal and to mean performing an act of leadership.) But for the Masoretes that wasn't good enough, and they invented symbols to eliminate every last bit of ambiguity. In the case of 'l'cha' and 'lach', their T-vowel for /a/ and colon-like vowel for no-sound always let readers know how to pronounce "to you." But in one particular case they had a bit of difficulty. The Masoretes used a dot (now called a 'holam haser') at the upper-right part of a letter to indicate that the vowel /o/ came before that letter. For example, in the word 'tohu' in Genesis 1:2, a dot appeared over the 'heh' to indicate the /o/ sound. The Masoretes also used a dot at the upper-right of a 'shin' when it made the sound /sh/, and at its upper-left when it made the sound /s/. However, this created a potential conflict, because the dot that was to distinguish a 'shin' from a 'sin' appeared in the same place as the dot for /o/. When the two appeared together, for example, in the word 'hoshech' (darkness), the Masoretes put one dot at the upper-right of the 'shin' and a second at the upper-middle part of the letter. This was when manuscripts were handwritten. Then along came printing, and the 'holam haser' got moved slightly rightward to the space between letters. So 'tohu' was printed with a dot between the 'tav' and the 'heh', not over the 'heh'. In what the printers thought was a lovely bit of cleverness, when a 'holam haser' came before a 'shin', they used one dot. Printers knew that there could be no ambiguity. If a vowel symbol appeared under the letter before the 'shin', there was clearly no 'holam haser', because there can be only one vowel sound per letter. If there was no apparent vowel symbol before the 'shin', the dot on the 'shin' clearly incorporated a 'holam haser', because between every two letters there must be a vowel. Alas, there's one case the printers didn't think of, and now we come to the answer to this week's puzzle. The letter 'alef' is usually a barely heard consonant but sometimes it's totally silent. So if an 'alef' comes before a 'shin', and if the 'alef' doesn't have a vowel under it, there are two possibilities. Either it's a consonant followed by a 'holam haser' and then a 'shin', or it's silent followed immediately by a 'shin'. A 'shin' after a 'holam haser' isn't all that common, and rarer still is a silent 'alef', so one might think that the printers could be forgiven for not taking this seemingly obscure phenomenon into account. The words 'rishon', 'rishona', 'barishona', etc., are all potentially problematic, because the 'alef' in those words precedes a 'shin' and is silent. For all a naive reader of Hebrew knows, rishona could be 'ri'-'o'-'shona'. (It's not.) Even with these words, the printers who devised the two-dots-in-one convention might be forgiven. But there's another confusing word: 'bresheet' (and not 'bre'-'o'-'sheet'). All that work on clarity, and the very first word of the Bible is ambiguous. The writer teaches at HUC-JIR in New York City.

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