The Early Poetry of Israel in Its Physical and Social Origins

By George Adam Smith | Go to book overview

THE EARLY POETRY OF ISRAEL IN ITS PHYSICAL AND SOCIAL ORIGINS

LECTURE I
LANGUAGE, STRUCTURE AND RHYTHMS

1. LANGUAGE.

IN appreciating the Hebrew language as a vehicle for poetry, we must first reckon with the fact, already mentioned, that its alphabet is somewhat different from our own. The differences consist (1) in the use of consonants, and of varieties of consonants, strange to our ears and difficult to our organs of speech; along with the prevalence of several consonants, especially gutturals, which we count among the less musical; (2) in the absence of some combinations of consonants, which to us are melodious and dear; and (3) in the peculiar relation to. the consonants of the vowels, which are not integral to the root as in Aryan languages, which were not marked in the earlier script, and the tradition of which was therefore far less certain than that of our own.

Of our gutturals Hebrew bad all except the composite kw or qu, the velar or shrouded guttural, and x, a composite guttural and sibilant. But in addition to ours the alphabet contains the light breathing, 'Aleph ('), inaudible at the beginning of a word, and sensible in the middle only when it breaks between two vowels; 'Ayin ('), formed by a curious and difficult check on the breath at the bottom of the windpipe, with probably (as in Arabic but under the same sign) a variation approaching the gr of some Frenchmen; Qoph or the deeper k (k); at least two and possibly three degrees of the letter h.

As in other Semitic languages so in Hebrew the gutturals prevail to an extent which is as harsh to our ear as the lavish sibilants of English to an Italian. Here are three instances taken at random, lines of ordinary words into which there has been no intentional intrusion of gutturals. The vowels printed above the line are very fugitive sounds. Final h is not sounded except when it has a point beneath it, and h after b, g, d, k, p, and t simply indicates the softer forms of these letters. In Hebrew the accent is nearly always on the last syllable.

Gen. xxvii. 27, 29, from Isaac Blessing of Jacob --

Re'eh reabeKereah sadheli male' 'Ashěr berakhō Yahweh Heweh ghebhīr le'ăḥěkha 'Orarěkha 'arūr umebharakhěkha barukh.

-1-

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