Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Biblical Hebrew Lessons -- Intro

I promised that I would post a Hebrew lesson every week.  If you do one every time you read a post on the FACT-CHECKING thread, by the time that thread ends, you should be able to read the Torah in Hebrew and at some point, be able to answer questions for yourself.
Here’s a description, which has some terms you need to know, so read this part even if you stop at the end of it.

The Hebrew alphabet is really a syllabary.  Each letter is thought of, by default, as a consonant plus “a” as in “father”.  Except for two letters which have no sound of their own.

Somebody I know who read some ancient book on Hebrew thought these two letters represented glottal stops.  Not in spoken Hebrew they don’t.  Not even in the traditional chant used to read Torah on Sabbath in the synagogue.  They are a matter of spelling, not a matter of pronunciation.

There has been some speculation that one of them originally had a sort of glided sound in the throat like the Greek gamma, and that was used to explain why the Septuagint (Greek) version of the Torah has “Gomorrah” when in Hebrew it’s pronounced “Amorah.”  The cursive Hebrew letter even looks like a Greek gamma.

It doesn’t have that sound now, so don’t sweat it.  I just included that factoid because you might hear about it some time.

Sofit    This is a description of some Hebrew letters which have two shapes, one of which only appears at the end of a word.  Count yourself lucky.  Arabic has four shapes for some letters, and so does its descendant Syriac.

One letter does have four forms, if you want to count it that way: one plain with the “kh” sound back in your throat; one with a dot in it that is “k”; one at the end of a word with a vowel that makes it “kha” which is a masculine gender ending; and one at the end of a word with a shva in it that makes it “kh” again, a feminine gender ending.

Dagesh  This is a dot in the middle of some letters.  It changes the sound of some of them.  It is part of the spelling rules and all you care about is to recognize when you have to say a letter differently because of dagesh.  Some letters never take dagesh and I’ll point them out.

Shva  is two vertically placed dots under a letter.  This is also a spelling rule, but sometimes shva has a sound you may have been taught about in school, the schwa e, which is kind of a half-vowel sound.  Schwa is a German version of shva. 

A little orientation.

Hebrew is a Semitic language.  It is a northwest Semitic language from the same sub-family as K'naani/Ugaritic, from which it gets its original alphabet and letter forms.  The ancient Mesopotamian language Akkadian is a northeast Semitic language closely related to Aramaic.

The northwest Semitic languages began splitting from Akkadian about 2000 BCE.  Ugaritic had a written form by 1300 BCE and notes in its writing system appear on tablets in Egypt from the reign of Akhenaten.

Written Hebrew with a distinct letter form from Ugaritic developed by 800 BCE.  One tablet from 1000 BCE is probably also Hebrew. 

Hebrew letters double as numbers, in a base-10 system.

Somebody once suggested to me that since there are no letters in Hebrew that always represent vowels, a given set of Hebrew letters can represent almost any word.  That's not true.  If you wrote down a sentence in English without the vowels, after some puzzling you could make out what it means.

Writing is only a record of words already known from a spoken language.  Before developing a system of writing, a spoken language develops a grammar, a syntax, a set of idioms, and a morphological system that represents things like tense, mood, number, person, whether a verb is reflexive, whether a noun changes according to its use in the sentence, all the things that writing records but only in oral form.  The only exception I can think of is Esperanto, an artificial human language developed to be perfectly regular.  I don’t know how many people speak it.

By the time writing develops, it has to record the spoken language, not make the language up, and people who know how to read understand when the sentence should have a past tense verb or when a noun should be in the instrumental case.  It's not free form at all.

You've probably heard about variants in the Bible that scholars tabulated.  I did some statistics on that for Torah, which you probably call the Pentateuch.  The scholars worked in the 800s CE; the Torah was first put into writing about 12 centuries before that.  It was written without vowel marks, but the scholars worked on a written text that did have vowels.  They marked every word that varied from what it was supposed to be.  Only 6% of the 5845 verses in Torah are marked; 5% are marked as having spelling errors and 1% are marked as being written in a way that varies from their pronunciation.

So the variants were not an alternative form of Hebrew, it’s just that the copy the scholars worked from had mistakes in it.  They marked them and moved on.  None of the mistakes made any difference to Jewish culture.  Judaism ran by a set of laws that was based on the oral reading of Torah, not on the spelling in that particular copy of Torah. 

All right.  That's a lot of words but hopefully you now understand that the written form of Hebrew, even without vowel marks, means what it means because it records the same words used in speaking Hebrew.  Next, the picture that is worth a thousand words.

© Patricia Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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