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Tiberian Hebrew designates the canonical yet extinct pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh and related documents. This traditional medieval pronunciation was committed to writing by Masoretic scholars based in the Jewish community of Tiberiasmarker in the period ca. 750-950 CE. This written form employed diacritics added to the Hebrew letters: vowel signs and consonant diacritics (nequdot) and the so-called accents (two related systems of cantillation signs or te'amim), which together with the marginal notes (masora magna and masora parva) make up the Tiberian apparatus. (Though the written vowels and accents only came into use ca. 750 CE, the oral tradition they reflect is many centuries older, with ancient roots.)

While the Tiberian systems of vocalization and accentuation for the Hebrew scriptures represented a regional pronunciation, localized to Tiberias, Tiberian Hebrew was universally acknowledged as superior to other reading traditions. For example, the Tiberian tradition made fine distinctions among varieties of /r/, and, crucially, maintained the full range of low vowels.

Two other contemporary regional traditions that gave rise to similar graphic apparatuses are geographically designated as Palestinian and Babylonianmarker. The so-called Palestinian tradition has evolved into contemporary Israeli Hebrew via the intermediate Sephardi Hebrew (although its graphic implementation was abandoned). The Babylonian tradition was dominant in some areas for many centuries; and the pronunciation (though not the graphic system) may survive to this day in the form of Yemenite Hebrew. (These competing systems were "supralinear", placing the diacritics primarily above the letters; whereas the Tiberian places the vowels, for the most part, under the letters.)

As mentioned above, the Tiberian points were designed to reflect a specific oral tradition for reading the Tanakh. Later they were applied to other texts (one of the earliest being the Mishnah), and used widely by Jews in other places with different oral traditions for how to read Hebrew. Thus the Tiberian vowel points and cantillation signs became a common part of Hebrew writing.

Sources

The usual Hebrew Grammar Books do not teach Tiberian Hebrew as described by the early grammarians. As a matter of fact, the prevalent view in some of these grammars is the use of David Qimchi's system of division of the graphic signs into "short" and "long" vowels. The values assigned to the Tiberian vowel signs reveals a Sephardi tradition of pronunciation (the dual quality of qames (אָ) as , ; the pronunciation of simple shwa (אְ) as ).

The phonology of Tiberian Hebrew can be gleaned by the collation of various sources:

  • The Aleppo Codex of the Bible (and other ancient manuscripts of the Tanakh, cited in the margins of early codices), which actually preserves direct evidence of the application of these rules in the Hebrew Bible in a graphic manner, e.g. the widespread use of chateph vowels where one would expect simple shwa, clarifying the color of the vowel thus pronounced under certain circumstances. Most prominent, the use of chateph chireq in five words under a consonant which follows a guttural vocalized with regular chireq, as described by Israel Yeivin. Even the anomalous use of the rafé sign over other letters which do not belong to בגדכפ"ת or א"ה.


  • The explicit statements found in books of grammar near the 10th and 11th Centuries C.E., such as: The Sefer haQoloth of Moshe ben Asher (published by N. Allony), Diqduqé hata'amim of Aaron ben Moses ben Asher; the anonymous works entitled Horayath haQoré (G. Khan and Ilan Eldar attribute it to the Karaite Abu Alfaraj Harun), the Treatise on the Schwa (published by Kurt Levy from a Genizah fragment in 1936), and Ma'amar haschewa (published from Genizah material by Allony); the works of medieval Sephardi grammarians, such as Abraham Ibn Ezra, Judah ben David Hayyuj. In the last two, it is evident that the chain of transmission is already breaking down, or interpreted under the influence of their local tradition.


  • Ancient manuscripts which preserve other similar dialects of Hebrew or Palestinian Aramaic, but vocalized in Tiberian signs in a "vulgar" manner, which reveal a phonetic spelling, rather than a phonemic spelling. This is the case of the so called "Pseudo-Ben Naphtali" or "Palestinian-Sephardi" vocalized manuscripts. These confirm some of the rules enumerated below, for example, the pronunciation of shwa as before consonantal yod, as in בְּיִ.


  • Other vocalization traditions such as: the vocalization of the Land of Israel; and, to a lesser extent, the Babylonianmarker vocalization. Each community (Palestinian, Tiberian, and Babylonian) developed systems of notation of pronunciation phenomena in each dialect, and some of them are common among these traditions. In one it is graphically represented, while in some other, we have to rely on other sources for explicit statements.


  • The transcriptions of the Biblical text made by the members of the Karaite community into Arabic characters, and vocalized with Tiberian signs, help us get a glimpse of the pronunciation of Tiberian Hebrew. This is especially true with regards to syllable structure, and vowel length (which is marked in Arabic by matres lectionis, and the sign sukun).


  • Various oral traditions, especially the oral tradition of Yemenite Hebrew pronunciation, and the Karaite tradition. Both have preserved old features which correspond to Tiberian tradition, such as the pronunciation of schewa according to its proximity to gutturals or yod.


Consonants

Tiberian Hebrew has 22 consonantal phonemes represented by 22 letters. The Shin with dot on the left (שׂ) was pronounced the same as the letter Samekh. The letters בגדכפ"ת had two values each - plosive and fricative.

Tiberian Hebrew consonant phonemes
  Labial Inter-

dental
Dental/Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyn-
geal
Glottal
plain emphatic
Nasal (מ ם)   (נ ן)          
Stop voiceless (פּ ףּ)   (תּ) (ט)   (כּ ךּ) (ק)   (א)
voiced (בּ)   (דּ)   (גּ)      
Fricative voiceless (פ ף) (ת) (ס, שׂ) (צ ץ) (שׁ) (כ ך)   (ח) (ה)
voiced (ב, ו) (ד) (ז)   (ג)   (ע)  
Trill           (ר)    
Approximant     (ל) (י)        


The most salient characteristics of the Tiberian Hebrew consonantal pronunciation are:

  • Waw conjunctive was read, before פמ"ב, as אוּ , rather than וֻ (as is the case in some eastern reading traditions). Its pronunciation was identical with that of "soft" beth, that is, fully consonantal instead of a semivowel . Thus, it does not follow the rule which shwa follows after yodh.


  • The threefold pronunciation of Resh. Even though there is no agreement as to how it was pronounced, the rules of distribution of such pronunciation is given in Horayath haQoré:


a) "Normal" Resh pronounced thus (according to Eldar, as a uvular sound ) in all other instances (except for the circumstances described below). Example: אוֹר

b) The "peculiar" resh before or after Lamed or Nun, any of the three being vocalized with simple shwa; and Resh after Zayin, Daleth, Sin / Samekh, Taw, Tzadi, Teth, any of them punctuated with simple shwa. Example: יִשְׂרָאֵל , עָרְלָה . Given the proximity of a dental consonant, it is likely that this form of resh was pronounced as an alveolar trill, like resh in Sephardi Hebrew.

c) There is still another pronunciation, affected by the addition of a dagesh in the Resh in certain words in the Bible, which indicates it was doubled . Example: הַרְּאִיתֶם As can be seen, this pronunciation has to do with the progressive increase in length of this consonant. It was preserved only by the population of Ma'azya which is in Tiberias.

  • A possible threefold pronunciation of Taw. There are three words in the Torah, Prophets and Writings of which is said that "the Taw is pronounced harder than usual". It is said that this pronunciation was half way between the soft Taw and the hard Taw . Example: וַיְשִׂימֶהָ תֵּל


Vowels

Chart of Tiberian Hebrew Vowels


Full vowels

Tiberian Hebrew distinguishes seven vocalic qualities (regardless of length), whose symbols are phonetically logical, in that the extension of a sign downward indicates the flattening or retraction of a vowel sound, while its extension to the left indicates broadening:

אֻ
אִ
אֵ
אֶ
אַ
אָ
אֹ


"Chateph" vowels

There are four special signs to denote ultrashort vowels, whose phonemic value is אֳ אֲ אֱ. Simple shwa (אְ) when mobile was originally pronounced and thus, was identical to chateph pathach.

Mobile Shwa = Shwa na'

The simple shwa sign changes its pronunciation depending on its position in the word (mobile/vocal or quiescent/zero), as well as due to its proximity to certain consonants.

In the examples given below, it has been preferred to show one found precisely in the Bible which represents each phenomenon in a graphic manner (i.e. a chateph vowel), although these rules still apply when there is only simple shwa (depending on the manuscript or edition used).

When the simple shwa appears in any of the following positions, it is regarded as mobile:

  • At the beginning of a word. This includes the shwa (originally the first of the word) following the attached particles bi-,ki-,li- and u- and preceded by metheg (the vertical line placed to the left of the vowel sign, which stands for either secondary stress, or its lengthening). Examples: וּזֲהַב Genesis 2:12; בִּסֲבָךְ Psalms 74:5. But is not pronounced if there is no metheg, that is, they form a closed syllable.


  • The shwa following these three vowels , except for known types of closed syllables (and preceded or not, by metheg). Examples: נֵלֲכָה-נָּא Exodus 3:18; אֵלֲכָה נָּא Exodus 4:18.


  • The second of two adjacent shwas, when both appear under different consonants. Examples: אֶכְתֲּבֶנּוּ Jeremiah 31:33; וָאֶשְׁקֲלָה-לֹּו Jeremiah 32:9 (except for at the end of a word, אָמַרְתְּ ).


  • The shwa under the first of two identical consonants, preceded by metheg. Examples: בְּחַצֲצֹן Gen. 14:17; צָלֲלוּ Exodus: 15:10.


  • The shwa under a consonant with dagesh forte or lene. Examples: סֻבֳּלוֹ Isaiah 9:3; אֶשְׁתֳּלֶנּוּ Ezekiel 17:23.


  • The shwa under a consonant which expects gemination, but is not marked thus, for example, the one found under ר. And sometimes even מ when preceded by the article. Examples: מְבָרֲכֶיךָ Genesis 12:3; הַמֲדַבְּרִים 2 Chronicles 33:18.


  • In case a quiescent shwa was followed either by a guttural or yodh, it would turn into mobile according to the rules given below, if preceded by a metheg. Ancient manuscripts support this view. Examples: נִבֳהָל Proverbs 28:22; שִׁבֲעַת Job 1:3.


  • Any shwa with the sign metheg attached to it, would change an ultrashort vowel to a short, or normal length vowel. For this, only ancient, reliable manuscripts can give us a clear picture, since, with time, later vocalizers added to the number of methegs found in the Bible.


The gutturals (אהח"ע), and yodh (י), affect the pronunciation of the shwa preceding them. It follows these two rules:

  • It would change its sound to imitate that of the following guttural. וּקֳהָת Numbers 3:17; וְנִזְרֳעָה Numbers 5:28.


  • It would be pronounced as chireq before consonantal yodh. Examples: יִרְמִיָהוּ Jeremiah 21:1; עִנִייָן in Maimonides' autograph in his commentary to the Mishnah.


It must be said that, even though there are no special signs apart to denote the full range of furtive vowels, these remaining four ( ) are represented by simple shwa (Chateph chireq (אְִ) in the Aleppo Codex is a scribal oddity, and certainly not regular in Hebrew manuscripts with Tiberian vocalization).

Quiescent Shwa = Shwa nakh

All other cases should be treated as zero vowel (quiescent), including the double final shwa (double initial shwa does not exist in this Hebrew dialect), and the shewa in the word שְׁתַּיִם ("two", feminine), read by the Tiberian Masoretes as אֶשְׁתַּיִם . This last case has similitudes with phenomena occurring in the Samaritan Pronunciation and the Phoenician language.

Syllable structure

  • Closed syllables tend to have short vowels. If accented, the vowel is long.


  • Open syllables always have long vowels.


  • Any shwa sign is an ultrashort vowel, and therefore, cannot be taken into account as a syllable by itself.


  • Depending on the school of pronunciation (and relying on musical grounds, perhaps), the metheg sign served to change some closed syllables into open ones, and therefore, changing the vowel from short to long, and the quiescent shwa, into a mobile one.


(The terms "short" and "long" refer to vowel length, or duration, not to the artificial division of the graphic signs into these two categories.)

Hebrew Bible editions today

Some time after the close of the Masoretic Era, many of these old features were corrected in manuscripts, or never even marked graphically, and eventually forgotten, since no Jewish community continued the Tiberian tradition to the last detail (to tell the truth, each community had its own tradition of pronunciation and assigned its phonetic values to the Tiberian signs). This is even more noticeable in our days, where new editions of the Hebrew Bible (except for those based on reliable, ancient manuscripts as diplomatic texts) have changed all of these features of ancient orthography and vocalization for the sake of spelling consistency and to adhere to Jewish Law. Since those days, Israeli Hebrew and traditions such as the Sephardi and Ashkenazic pronounce shwa na' in a uniform fashion, as or , or omit it altogether.

Bibliography

  • C.D. Ginsburg, Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible (1897).
  • Z. B. Hayyim, Studies in the Traditions of the Hebrew Language (1954).
  • A. Dotan, The Diqduqe Hatte'amim of Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher (1967).
  • D. M. Golomb, Working with no Data: Semitic and Egyptian Studies presented to Thomas O. Lambdin (1987).
  • I. Eldar, The Art of Correct Reading of the Bible (1994).
  • M. Bar-Asher, Scripta Hierosolymitana Volume XXXVII Studies in Mishnaic Hebrew (1998).
  • Joseph L. Malone, Tiberian Hebrew phonology (1993). Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns.


Endnotes




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