Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Hebrew Word Structure: Its Rendering in Pointing and in Latin Conversion

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

Hebrew Word Structure: Its Rendering in Pointing and in Latin Conversion

Article excerpt

In an earlier article (1) I noted that the conversion system of the Standards Institute of Israel--SII--(FDIS ISO 259-3) is more precise than the pointed Hebrew version, even if it does not include a visible distinction between short and long vowels, and even if it has no special sign for hatap's.

This statement calls for explanation and proof, which I propose to provide in this article. It details the drawbacks of pointing and the advantages of phonemic conversion in the elucidation of Hebrew word structure. (2)


Originally, Hebrew script had only letters meant to designate consonants. Consequent to changes in pronunciation over time certain consonants became mute, and some fused with their attached vowels. As a result, some letters now appeared in script that occasionally were taken as vowel signs. These were mainly the letters yod and waw. Generations later these letters began to be used to designate vowels that did not arise from fusion processes. This was the stage of development of Hebrew script when the sanctity of the Hebrew Bible was established: It was forbidden to alter even a single letter. In just a few generations after the Arab conquest in the seventh century C.E., Arabic had become the principal language--sometimes even the only language--of all dwellers of the ancient lands. Probably young Jews too were fluent in it; with Arabic being their first language. What could the leaders of the Jewish community do to ensure that subsequent generations could read the holy book in the pronunciation and intonation of their forefathers?

By now Hebrew script contained letters denoting consonants, and also letters serving to mark some vowels. In the eighth century, this skeletal script was augmented by points. These signs served mainly to indicate vowel sounds but also other elements of vocal expression. The small Christian communities used similar pointing metods in their holy books. (3) Both Christians and Jews invented--separately--detailed systems of slender and light marks, through which were expressed vocal elements or indicators from the domain of pronunciation that were not denoted in the letters themselves. The marks they added had to be modest and small so as not to overshadow the letters, which might not be altered. The Hebrew pointed script then created thus contained both consonant symbols and the detailed vowel symbols, in order to properly reflect the correct reading of the words in the sacred book. The separate system of intonation marks provided the required chant, and incidentally reinforced the intent of the pointing. Accordingly, pointing seemed the perfect and complete method to portray not only the pronunciation of these words, but also their structure. The question whether pointing does in fact give a faithful picture of Hebrew word structure is our central concern in this article.

We begin with a description of the details of pointed script that impair understanding word structure (section 2). In section 3, we clarify ways to connect the phonetic marks with the word structure. Section 4 presents a survey of the conversion rules devised by the Academy of the Hebrew Language in 1957 and the background of these rules. We see in section 5 that neither transliteration nor transcription are suited to a reliable conversion of Hebrew, and in section 6 we set out the principles of "structure conversion," which satisfies these two accepted approaches. Conclusions come at 7, and in the appendix (section 8), we present the rules of structure conversion in detail. (4)


2.1 Existence of Several Channels

Pointing was added to an existing skeletal script, which could not be changed. When communal leaders felt a need to simplify the reading and introduce pointing into the written language, the script that was created was not analogous to speech. In speech, the entire word is spoken, sound after sound, along a single channel, but the pointed word in script is not an analogous graphic expression, parallel to the sounded word, for the elements of the written Hebrew word with pointing are not transmitted--as they are in speech--in a single channel. …

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