Saturday, April 18, 2020

Vocalization and pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew

PROF. GEOFFREY KHAN: How Was the Hebrew of the Bible Originally Pronounced? (
Three traditions of pronouncing the Hebrew Bible existed in the first millennium C.E.: Babylonian, Palestinian, and Tiberian, each with its own written vocalization system. From the later Middle Ages on, however, biblical manuscripts have been written almost exclusively with the vowels and cantillation marks of the Tiberian system while paradoxically, the Tiberian pronunciation itself fell into oblivion.
The title of this essay could be clearer. It is really about the pronuciation of the Hebrew Bible in the early Middle Ages (when the vowel points began to be added), perhaps going back to late antiquity.

The original pronunciation of Hebrew in the late Iron Age II (the First Temple Period) is another, even more difficult problem. We have some inscriptions from that period, but they are not vocalized, apart from sparse use of consonantal vowel letters (Matres Lectionis) in the later ones). We have to infer the pronunciation based on them and, mostly, on comparative Semitics and the historical grammar and phonology of Hebrew. Iron Age Hebrew probably sounded quite different from Masoretic Hebrew.

Be that as it may, this is an interesting essay on the first-millennium CE tradition of the vocalization of the Hebrew Bible. It is technical, but illuminating.

Professor Khan mentions his open-access book on the Tiberian tradition of the pronuciation of Biblical Hebrew. I also noted another book he published on the subject in 2012.

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