July 18, 2008

Chapter 3 - Linguistic Background & Field Notes

• learning syllabification

Here is the first example and explanation I was given for dividing a word into syllables. The word was [midbar]. The syllabification process was outlined like this:

1. Start at the end of the word.
2. Note that the word ends with a consonant. Therefore, the last syllable must be closed.
3. Because syllables begin with a consonant and contain one vowel, this syllable must begin with the "B" and be [bar].
4. Keep going "backwards" (this word confused me at a point where I was still getting accustomed to reading right-to-left rather than left-to-right).
5. Note that the "next" letter has a shewa.
6. Determine that this shewa is a silent shewa (it wasn't clear how to reach this conclusion).
7. Recall that a silent shewa occurs at the end of a closed syllable.
8. Conclude that the "D" with the shewa closes the syllable.
9. Because syllables begin with a consonant and contain one vowel, this syllable must be [mid].
10. Conclude that this word has two syllables, with the second accented: [mid]|[bar]'
11. (Move on the the next word and repeat this process.)

(Parsons gives similar breakdowns that are slightly simpler since they make syllabification mainly a function of vowel length. But even that approach has layers of complexity, and presupposes memorization of which vowels are long and short.)

I struggled with this kind of approach, because:
• It's long.
• It seemed "backwards" to start at the end of the word.
• The relationships among numerous syllabification factors--vowel length, accent, distance from tonic syllable, vocal or silent shewa--wasn't clear.
• The reasoning seemed circular: is it a silent shewa because the syllable is closed, or is it a closed syllable because the shewa is silent?
• It made it sound as though there was one precise correct way to pronounce this word.

At this point I was lost, but grimly determined to get all of the rules straight in my mind before going forward. But when I consulted with a former Hebrew student, she gave me a liberating piece of advice: don't try to master syllabification yet. Just start going through the lessons and after a while you'll get a feel for the words. In short, she was recommending the inductive approach over the deductive. This was a lifeline, and I was able to get through the first few lessons with less pressure on myself and more willingness to tolerate uncertainties. I didn't get the "feel" for syllabification as soon as she said I would, but for me, this was the only way I could have gone forward.

• learning shewa

Parsons helpfully says that the number of syllables in a word is equal to the number of vowels in the word. This helped simplify things, but I still got stuck on how to count the shewas. (I don't think he says it outright, but I later concluded that you count the vocal shewas but don't count the silent shewas.) You can't syllabify without knowing the difference between the two shewas.

Most explanations of vocal and silent shewas suffer from many of the same problems on the list above; they're long, multilayered, seemingly circular at times, and hyper-precise. After finally sitting down and listing the five main questions textbooks give for the shewa, I'm starting to get the hang of it, but I'm still not sure how the rules relate to each other--which one you should start with, which ones rule out the other ones (all I have is that the end-of-the-word silent shewa rules out the second-of-two vocal shewa in cases such as [katabt]).

But ultimately the biggest cloud cast over conventional treatments of the shewa comes from historical linguistics. Joel Hoffman, in his notably accessible and provocative In the Beginning, concludes startlingly that the shewa could only have had one function for the Masoretes. Among his arguments:

• The claim that the shewa in the word [shema] is vocal conflicts with the claim that the word [shema] is monosyllabic; but these claims are sometimes made by the same textbook author. This shows how incoherent the traditional two-shewa theory can be.
• The Masoretes would be unlikely to represent two different sounds with the same symbol.
• Most significantly, the rule of the vocal shewa occurring under beged-kephet letters is based on a linguistic fallacy about vowel behavior as governed by "triggers" from proximate consonants.
• The sole purpose of the shewa could only have been to indicate the lack of a vowel.

Confusingly, Hoffman then proceeds to discuss whether the shewa, with this sole purpose, was pronounced; his conclusion seems muddled and barely distinguishable from the two-shewa theory he has just rejected: "As a guess, we can assume that the shewa was pronounced [by the Masoretes] whenever it had to be, and only then."

I could only conclude that there were serious historical question marks about the shewa's original function and sound in Masoretic times.

Then I came to realize another question mark about the shewa: how do you NOT pronounce a silent shewa? How do you produce no sound in moving between consonants? (I think this pertains to adjoining labials and coronals, but it could apply to others sounds as well.) Take [katabt]. From my mouth that tends to come out as something like "ka-tab-uh-tuh," with tiny little "uh" vowels after the ending B and T. I can shrink them, but I can't make them disappear. So in many cases, the difference between a silent shewa and a vocal shewa is phonetically negligible. If so, then all the energy spent on silencing the shewa in, say, [hokmah] (which is additionally dubious in that it's supposed to be silent because the vowel is qamets hatuph, but Hoffman's criticisms of the two-shewa theory could also apply to the two-qamets theory) is misplaced, and needlessly overwhelming to beginning students.

So what are textbooks supposed to do--pull the rug out from under the rules they're trying to teach? Isn't it simpler just to teach the rules rather than try to question them via historical linguistics and phonetics?

I'd say the traditional rules are worth teaching exactly--and only--because they're just that: traditional. They give us the systematic interpretation of the Masoretes' work that has guided all students and scholars of biblical Hebrew for the last several centuries. Additionally, Masoretic markings give us a method for rhythmically reading or chanting the Hebrew text aloud, which has some liturgical use. The rules are worth learning for those reasons.

But not for other reasons. Not because these rules give us the one correct reconstructed pronunciation of ancient Israel (which is not only elusive, but also impossible given the dialects and natural change throughout ancient Hebrew's history). Not because the Masoretes have the best guess as to what Hebrew sounded like (I think their guesses were good in a lot of ways, but not magically perfect). Not because Hebrew cannot be read aloud intelligibly without mastery of these rules (because the difference between a silent and vocal shewa is often negligible). Not because this is the most likely and sensible system ancient Hebrew speakers must have followed (says who?)

With these strides toward a clearer purpose for learning syllabification--and the qualifiers that this system is product of tradition and not beyond debate--I believe would have had more confidence and less frustration in learning syllabification as a beginning Hebrew student.


Joel M. Hoffman said...

Joel Hoffman here, author of In the Beginning. In spite of your confusion ("Confusingly, Hoffman...."), you have understood the situation perfectly. There are two issues to consider:

1. Whether or not there is a vowel.

2 How one pronounces the lack of a vowel.

The shva indicates the lack of a vowel. Period. It's not that complicated.

A little more complicated is how to pronounce that lack of a vowel, and this depends on dialect as well as language. Some languages (Greek, say), allow words that start "pt---" to be pronounced with no vowel between those consonants. Other, like English, require a vowel in that circumstance. But English does allow "sp---," which, in turn, Spanish does not. The question is how Masoretic Hebrew behaved.

Perhaps the confusion comes because "vowel" at once refers to something in the word and to something in the pronunciation of it.

The apostrophe in English works exactly the same as the Masoretic shva: the apostrophe is pronounced when it has to be. So in "Mike'll see you tomorrow" the apostrophe is silent, while in "Bill'll see you tomorrow" the aposrophe has a sound.

Similarly, in Hebrew, the shva in "dabru" ("speak!") is silent, while in "hal'lu" it is not.

Incidentally, readers of this blog may enjoy my biweekly column in the Jerusalem Post, also available on line.


Nathan said...

Ah, that's helpful. Thanks!

Paul Isaiah said...

Thank you so much for this post. I am a beginning student that got stuck on exactly the same circular reasoning problem in chapter 3 on vocal/silent shewa vs short-long/open-closed syllables.

I still don't know what to do with a shewa after an accented short syllable. This confusion has repeatedly tripped me up for half of the book now. So I take it that the answer is, basically, don't worry about it?