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The Tiberian Pronunciation Tradition of Biblical Hebrew. Volume I

Geoffrey Khan


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1The term ‘Biblical Hebrew’ is generally used to refer to the form of the language that appears in the printed editions of the Hebrew Bible and it is this form that it is presented to students in grammatical textbooks and reference grammars. The form of Biblical Hebrew that is presented in printed editions, with vocalization and accent signs, has its origin in medieval manuscripts of the Bible. The vocalization and accent signs are notation systems that were created in Tiberias in the early Islamic period by scholars known as the Tiberian Masoretes. The text of the Bible that appears in the medieval Tiberian manuscripts and has been reproduced in modern printed editions is known as the Tiberian Masoretic Text or simply the Masoretic Text.

2The opening sections of modern textbooks and grammars describe the pronunciation of the consonants and the vocalization signs in a matter-of-fact way. The grammatical textbooks and reference grammars in use today are heirs to centuries of tradition of grammatical works on Biblical Hebrew in Europe, which can be traced back to the Middle Ages. The paradox is that this European tradition of Biblical Hebrew grammar, even in its earliest stages in eleventh-century Spain, did not have direct access to the way the Tiberian Masoretes were pronouncing Biblical Hebrew. The descriptions of the pronunciation that we find in textbooks and grammars, therefore, do not correspond to the pronunciation of the Tiberian Masoretes, neither their pronunciation of the consonants nor their pronunciation of the vowels, which the vocalization sign system originally represented. Rather, they are descriptions of other traditions of pronouncing Hebrew, which originate in traditions existing in Jewish communities, academic traditions of Christian Hebraists, or a combination of the two.

3In the last few decades, research of a variety of manuscript sources from the medieval Middle East, some of them only recently discovered, has made it possible to reconstruct with considerable accuracy the pronunciation of the Tiberian Masoretes, which has come to be known as the ‘Tiberian pronunciation tradition’ or the ‘Tiberian reading tradition’. It has emerged from this research that the pronunciation of the Tiberian Masoretes differed in numerous ways from the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew that is described in modern textbooks and reference grammars.

4In this book, my intention is to present the current state of knowledge of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition of Biblical Hebrew based on the extant medieval sources. It is hoped that this will help to break the mould of current grammatical descriptions of Biblical Hebrew and form a bridge between modern traditions of grammar and the school of the Masoretes of Tiberias. The main focus of the book is on the synchronic state of the Tiberian pronunciation when it was a living tradition in the early Islamic period. Some comparisons with other traditions of Hebrew from different periods are, nevertheless, made where this is thought to be appropriate.

5The book is divided into two volumes. The introductory section of the first volume discusses the background of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition, with particular attention to its historical depth, its prestigious status and its relationship with other medieval reading traditions. It also describes the various extant medieval sources that are used in the book to reconstruct the pronunciation. Chapter 1 describes the pronunciation of the consonants. Chapter 2 presents a description of the pronunciation of the vowels and shewa, as well as an analysis of the syllabification and metrical structure of words. Chapter 3 describes the function of the diacritical signs known as dagesh and rafe. Chapter 4 examines various hybrid types of pronunciation, which arose due to imperfect learning of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition in the Middle Ages. Chapter 5 presents a summary of the reconstructed pronunciation and sample transcriptions of some Biblical passages. It is recommended that readers who would like a quick overview of the Tiberian pronunciation should look at chapter 5 first. It contains links to oral performances of the sample transcriptions by Alex Foreman.

6The second volume presents a critical edition and English translation of the sections on consonants and vowels in the Judaeo-Arabic Masoretic treatise Hidāyat al-Qāriʾ (‘Guide for the Reader’) by the Karaite grammarian ʾAbū al-Faraj Hārūn (eleventh century C.E.). Hidāyat al-Qāriʾ is one of the key medieval sources for our knowledge of the Tiberian pronunciation tradition and constant reference is made to it in the various chapters of this book. Since no complete edition and English translation of the sections on the consonants and vowels so far exists, it was decided to prepare such an edition and translation as a complement to the descriptive and analytical chapters of volume one.

7This book is a spinoff from a larger project on Biblical Hebrew to revise Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. I am working on this project in collaboration with various other scholars, including Aaron Hornkohl, Shai Heijmans and Ben Kantor, who are co-authors. I cite some of their contributions to the Gesenius grammar project in this book with due acknowledgement. I am grateful to Aaron, Shai and Ben for their help with the preparation of the book in various ways. Shai created the attractive Arabic font with Hebrew vowels and accents, which I use for the Karaite transcriptions of Hebrew. Ben skilfully laid out my edition of Hidāyat al-Qāriʾ in the Classical Text Editor programme, which aligned text and translation, and carefully proofread the text and translation. Many thanks also to my graduate student Estara Arrant, who drew my attention to a variety of examples of Non-Standard Tiberian vocalization in Genizah manuscripts from the database she has created for her Ph.D. research project. I am very grateful to my graduate student Joseph Habib for his help with the proofreading of the book. I also greatly appreciate the comments and corrections sent to me by Aaron Rubin and Ben Outhwaite, who read an earlier version of the book. Finally, I am very grateful to Alex Foreman, who made an impressive oral performance of the sample transcriptions.

8Some aspects of the work that forms the basis of this book were funded by research grants. A British Academy small research grant supported my investigation of manuscripts of Hidāyat al-Qāriʾ. A grant from the Leverhulme Trust (2013–2016) supported the posts of Aaron Hornkohl and Shai Heijmans when they were gathering material for the revision of Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. I acknowledge here with gratitude the support of these institutions.


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