Tiberian Hebrew

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia
Jump to: navigation, search
Closeup of Aleppo Codex, Joshua 1:1

Tiberian Hebrew is the canonical pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh committed to writing by Masoretic scholars living in the Jewish community of Tiberias in ancient Judea c. 750–950 CE. They wrote in the form of Tiberian vocalization,[1] which employed diacritics added to the Hebrew letters: vowel signs and consonant diacritics (nequdot) and the so-called accents (two related systems of cantillation signs or te'amim). These together with the marginal notes masora magna and masora parva make up the Tiberian apparatus.

Though the written vowels and accents came into use only c. 750 CE, the oral tradition they reflect is many centuries older, with ancient roots. Although not in common use today, the Tiberian pronunciation of Hebrew is considered by textual scholars[which?] to most accurately reproduce the original Semitic consonantal and vowel sounds of ancient Hebrew.


Page from Aleppo Codex, Deuteronomy

Today's Hebrew grammar books do not teach the Tiberian Hebrew described by the early grammarians. The prevailing view is that of David Qimchi's system of dividing the graphic signs into "short" and "long" vowels. The values assigned to the Tiberian vowel signs reveals a Sephardi tradition of pronunciation (the dual quality of qames (אָ) as /a/, /o/; the pronunciation of simple sheva (אְ) as /ɛ̆/).

The phonology of Tiberian Hebrew can be gleaned from the collation of various sources:

  • The Aleppo Codex of the Hebrew Bible and ancient manuscripts of the Tanakh cited in the margins of early codices, all which preserve direct evidence in a graphic manner of the application of vocalization rules—e.g. the widespread use of chateph vowels where one would expect simple sheva, thus clarifying the color of the vowel pronounced under certain circumstances. Most prominent are the use of chateph chireq in five words under a consonant that follows a guttural vocalized with regular chireq (as described by Israel Yeivin); and even the anomalous use of the raphe sign over letters that do not belong to בגדכפ"ת or א"ה.
  • The explicit statements found in grammars of the 10th and 11th centuries C.E., including: the Sefer haQoloth of Moshe ben Asher (published by N. Allony); the Sefer Dikdukei ha-Te'amim (Grammar or Analysis of the Accents) of Aaron ben Moses ben Asher; the anonymous works entitled Horayath haQoré (G. Khan and Ilan Eldar attribute it to the Karaite Abu Alfaraj Harun); the Treatise on the Schwa (published by Kurt Levy from a Genizah fragment in 1936), and Ma'amar haschewa (published from Genizah material by Allony); the works of medieval Sephardi grammarians including Abraham Ibn Ezra and Judah ben David Hayyuj.

In the last two it is evident that the chain of transmission is breaking down, or that their interpretations are influenced by local tradition.

  • Ancient manuscripts that preserve similar dialects of Hebrew or Palestinian Aramaic, but which are vocalized in Tiberian signs in a "vulgar" manner, and which reveal a phonetic spelling rather than a phonemic spelling. These include the so-called "pseudo-Ben Naphtali" or "Palestinian-Sephardi" vocalized manuscripts, which generally conform to the rules enumerated below—for example pronouncing sheva as /ĭ/ before consonantal yod, as in /bĭji/ בְּיִ.
  • Other traditions such as the vocalization of the Land of Israel and (to a lesser extent) the Babylonian vocalization. Each community (Palestinian, Tiberian, Babylonian) developed systems of notation for pronunciation in each dialect, some of which are common among these traditions.
  • Transcriptions of Biblical text into Arabic characters and then vocalized with Tiberian signs (by members of the Karaite community); these provide an aid to pronouncing Tiberian Hebrew, especially for syllable structure and vowel length (which is marked in Arabic by matres lectionis and the sign sukun).
  • Various oral traditions, especially that of Yemenite Hebrew pronunciation and the Karaite tradition; both have preserved old features that correspond to Tiberian tradition, such as the pronunciation of schwa according to its proximity to gutturals or yod.



Tiberian Hebrew has 29 consonantal phonemes represented by 22 letters. The sin dot distinguishes between the two values of ש‎, with a dot on the left (שׂ‎) being pronounced the same as the letter Samekh. The letters בגדכפת‎ (begadkefat) had two values each: plosive and fricative.

Labial Interdental Alveolar Palatal Velar Uvular Pharyngeal Glottal
Plain Emphatic
Nasal m n
Stop Voiceless p t k q ʔ
Voiced b d ɡ
Fricative Voiceless f θ s ʃ x ħ h
Voiced v ð z ɣ ʕ
Trill r ʀ
Approximant w l j

The most salient characteristics of the Tiberian Hebrew consonantal pronunciation are:

  • Waw ו conjunctive was read, before פמ"ב, as אוּ /ʔu/, rather than וֻ /wu/ (as is the case in some eastern reading traditions).
  • The threefold pronunciation of Resh ר. Even though there is no agreement as to how it was pronounced, the rules of distribution of such pronunciation is given in Horayath haQoré:
a) "Normal" Resh /ʀ/ pronounced thus (according to Eldar, as a uvular sound [ʀ]) in all other instances (except for the circumstances described below). Example: אוֹר [ʔoːʀ]
b) The "peculiar" resh [r] before or after Lamed or Nun, any of the three being vocalized with simple sheva; and Resh after Zayin, Daleth, Sin / Samekh, Taw, Tzadi, Teth, any of them punctuated with simple sheva. Example: יִשְׂרָאֵל [jisrɔːˈʔeːl], עָרְלָה [ʕɔrˈlɔː]. Given the proximity of a dental consonant, it is likely that this form of resh was pronounced as an alveolar trill, like resh in Sephardi Hebrew.
c) There is still another pronunciation, affected by the addition of a dagesh in the Resh in certain words in the Bible, which indicates it was doubled [ʀː]. Example: הַרְּאִיתֶם [haʀːĭʔiːˈθɛːm]. As can be seen, this pronunciation has to do with the progressive increase in length of this consonant. It was preserved only by the population of Ma'azya, which is in Tiberias.
  • A possible threefold pronunciation of Taw. There are three words in the Torah, Prophets and Writings of which is said that "the Taw is pronounced harder than usual". It is said that this pronunciation was halfway between the soft Taw /θ/ and the hard Taw /t/. Example: וַיְשִׂימֶהָ תֵּל [wajsiːˈmɛːhɔθ teːl]


Figurines holding Tiberian vowel diacritics. Limestone and basalt artwork at the shore in Tiberias.
Tiberian Hebrew phonemic vowels[2]
Front Back
Close i u
Close-mid e o
Open-mid ɛ ɔ
Open a
Reduced ă ɔ̆ (ɛ̆)1
  1. marginal

The vowel qualities /a e i ɔ o u/ have phonemic status: viz. אשָם הוא אשֹם אשַם (Lev. 5:19) and אשֵם 'guilty', אִם 'when' and אֵם 'mother'.[3] /ɛ/ has phonemic value in final stressed position: רעֶה רעִי רעָה, מקנֶה מקנֵה, קנֶה קנָה קנֹה, but in other positions it may reflect loss of the opposition /a/ : /i/.[3] By the Tiberian time, all short vowels in stressed syllables had lengthened, making vowel length allophonic.[4][nb 1] Vowels in open or stressed syllables had allophonic length (e.g. /a/ in יְרַחֵם, which was previously short).[5][nb 2]

The Tiberian tradition possesses three reduced (ultrashort, hatuf) vowels /ă ɔ̆ ɛ̆/ of which /ɛ̆/ has questionable phonemicity.[6][7][nb 3] /ă/ under a non-guttural letter was pronounced as an ultrashort copy of the following vowel before a guttural, e.g. וּבָקְעָה [uvɔqɔ̆ˈʕɔ], and as [ĭ] preceding /j/, e.g. תְדַמְּיוּנִי [θăðammĭˈjuːni], but was always pronounced as [ă] under gutturals, e.g. חֲיִי [ħăˈji].[8][9]


Tiberian Hebrew has phonemic stress, e.g. בָּנוּ֫ /bɔˈnu/ 'they built' vs. בָּ֫נוּ /ˈbɔnu/ 'in us'; stress is most commonly ultimate, less commonly penultimate, and antipenultimate stress exists marginally, e.g. הָאֹ֫הֱלָה /hɔˈʔohɛ̆lɔ/ 'into the tent'.[10][nb 4]


As described above, vowel length was dependent on syllable structure. Open syllables must take long or ultrashort vowels, stressed closed syllables take long vowels, and unstressed closed syllables take short vowels. Traditional Hebrew philology considers ultrashort vowels not to constitute syllable nuclei.


transliteration ʾ b g d h w z y k l m n s ʿ p q r š, ś t
letter א ב ג ד ה ו ז ח ט י כך ל מם נן ס ע פף צץ ק ר ש ת
pronunciation (Modern) [ʔ] [b]
[ɡ] [d] [h] [v] [z] [χ] [t] [j] [k]
[l] [m] [n] [s] [ʔ] [p]
[ts] [k] [ʁ] [ʃ]
pronunciation (Yemenite) [ʔ] [b]
[h] [w] [z] [ħ] [] [j] [k]
[l] [m] [n] [s] [ʕ] [p]
[] [g] [r] [ʃ]
pronunciation (Tiberian) [ʔ] [b]
[h] [w] [z] [ħ] [] [j] [k]
[l] [m] [n] [s] [ʕ] [p]
[] [q] [r] [ʃ]
niqqud with א אַ אֶ אֵ אִ אָ אֹ אֻ אוּ
name patah segol tzere hiriq qamatz holam qubutz shuruq
value /a/ /ɛ/ /e/ /i/ /ɔ/ /o/ /u/
niqqud with א אְ אֲ אֱ אֳ
name shva hataf patah hataf segol hataf qamatz
value /ă/, ⌀ /ă/ /ɛ̆/ /ɔ̆/

The simple sheva sign changes its pronunciation depending on its position in the word (mobile/vocal or quiescent/zero), as well as due to its proximity to certain consonants.

In the examples given below, it has been preferred to show one found precisely in the Bible which represents each phenomenon in a graphic manner (i.e. a chateph vowel), although these rules still apply when there is only simple sheva (depending on the manuscript or edition used).

When the simple sheva appears in any of the following positions, it is regarded as mobile (na):

  • At the beginning of a word. This includes the sheva (originally the first of the word) following the attached particles bi-,ki-,li- and u- and preceded by metheg (the vertical line placed to the left of the vowel sign, which stands for either secondary stress, or its lengthening). Examples: וּזֲהַב /ˌʔuːzăˈhaːv/ Genesis 2:12; בִּסֲבָךְ /ˈbiːsăvɔx/ Psalms 74:5. But is not pronounced if there is no metheg; that is, they form a closed syllable.
  • The sheva following these three vowels /e/, /ɔ/, /o/, except for known types of closed syllables (and preceded or not, by metheg). Examples: נֵלֲכָה-נָּא /ˌneːlăxɔˈnːɔː/ Exodus 3:18; אֵלֲכָה נָּא /ˈʔeːlăxɔː ˈnɔː/ Exodus 4:18.
  • The second of two adjacent shevas, when both appear under different consonants. Examples: אֶכְתֲּבֶנּוּ /ʔɛxtăˈvɛːnːuː/ Jeremiah 31:33; וָאֶשְׁקֲלָה-לֹּו /wɔːʔɛʃqălɔˈlːoː/ Jeremiah 32:9 (except for at the end of a word, אָמַרְתְּ /ʔɔːˈmaːrt/).
  • The sheva under the first of two identical consonants, preceded by metheg. Examples: בְּחַצֲצֹן /băˌћaːsˤăˈsˤoːn/ Gen. 14:17; צָלֲלוּ /sˤɔːlăˈluː/ Exodus: 15:10.
  • The sheva under a consonant with dagesh forte or lene. Examples: סֻבֳּלוֹ /suɓbɔ̆ˈloː/ Isaiah 9:3; אֶשְׁתֳּלֶנּוּ /ʔɛʃtăˈlɛːnːuː/ Ezekiel 17:23.
  • The sheva under a consonant which expects gemination, but is not marked thus, for example, the one found under ר. And sometimes even מ when preceded by the article. Examples: מְבָרֲכֶיךָ /măvɔːʀăˈxɛːxɔː/ Genesis 12:3; הַמֲדַבְּרִים /haːmăðaɓbăˈʀiːm/ 2 Chronicles 33:18.
  • In case a quiescent sheva was followed either by a guttural or yodh, it would turn into mobile according to the rules given below, if preceded by a metheg. Ancient manuscripts support this view. Examples: נִבֳהָל /niːvɔ̆ˈhɔːl/ Proverbs 28:22; שִׁבֲעַת /ʃiːvăˈʕaːθ/ Job 1:3.
  • Any sheva with the sign metheg attached to it, would change an ultrashort vowel to a short, or normal length vowel. For this, only ancient, reliable manuscripts can give us a clear picture, since, with time, later vocalizers added to the number of methegs found in the Bible.

The gutturals (אהח"ע), and yodh (י), affect the pronunciation of the sheva preceding them. The allophones of the phoneme /ă/ follow these two rules:

  • It would change its sound to imitate that of the following guttural. וּקֳהָת /ˌʔuːqɔ̆ˈhɔːθ/ Numbers 3:17; וְנִזְרֳעָה /wănizrɔ̆ˈʕɔː/ Numbers 5:28.
  • It would be pronounced as ḥireq before consonantal yodh. Examples: יִרְמִיָהוּ /jiʀmĭˈjɔːhuː/ Jeremiah 21:1; עִנִייָן /ʕiːnĭˈjɔːn/ in Maimonides' autograph in his commentary to the Mishnah.[nb 5]

It must be said that, even though there are no special signs apart /ɛ̆/, /ă/, /ɔ̆/ to denote the full range of furtive vowels, these remaining four (/u/, /i/, /e/, /o/) are represented by simple sheva (chateph chireq (אְִ) in the Aleppo Codex is a scribal oddity, and certainly not regular in Hebrew manuscripts with Tiberian vocalization).

All other cases should be treated as zero vowel (quiescent, nah), including the double final sheva (double initial sheva does not exist in this Hebrew dialect), and the sheva in the word שְׁתַּיִם /ˈʃtaːjim/, read by the Tiberian Masoretes as אֶשְׁתַּיִם /ʔɛʃˈtaːjim/. This last case has similarities with phenomena occurring in the Samaritan pronunciation and the Phoenician language.

Depending on the school of pronunciation (and relying on musical grounds, perhaps), the metheg sign served to change some closed syllables into open ones, and therefore, changing the vowel from short to long, and the quiescent sheva, into a mobile one.


  1. ^ In fact, first all stressed vowels were lengthened in pause, see Janssens (1982:58–59). This can be seen by forms like Tiberian כַּף /kaf/ < */kaf/, pausal כָּף /kɔf/ < */kɔːf/ < */kaːf/ < */kaf/. The shift in Tiberian Hebrew of */aː/ > */ɔː/ occurred after this lengthening, but before the loss of phonemicity of length (since words like ירחם with allophonically long [aː] don't show this shift).
  2. ^ This is attested to by the testimony of Rabbi Joseph Qimḥi (12th century) and by medieval Arabic transcriptions, see Janssens (1982:54–56). There is also possible evidence from the cantillation marks' behavior and Babylonian pataḥ, see Blau (2010:82).
  3. ^ See אֳנִי /ʔɔ̆ˈni/ 'ships' אֲנִי /ʔăˈni/ 'I', חֳלִי /ħɔ̆ˈli/ 'sickness' חֲלִי /ħăˈli/ 'ornament', עֲלִי /ʕăˈli/ 'ascend!' (Num 21:17) and בַּעֱלִי /baʕɛ̆ˈli/ '(with the) pestle' (Prov 27:22). Blau (2010:117–118) /ɛ̆/ alternates with /ă/ frequently and rarely contrasts with it, e.g. אֱדוֹם /ʔɛ̆ˈðom/ 'Edom' versus אֲדֹמִי /ʔăðoˈmi/ 'Edomite'. Blau (2010:117–118) /ɔ̆/ is clearly phonemic but bears minimal functional load. Sáenz-Badillos (1993:110) /ă/ is written both with mobile šwaְ⟩ and hataf patahֲ⟩. Blau (2010:117)
  4. ^ In fact, it is not clear that a reduced vowel should be considered as comprising a whole syllable. Note for example that the rule whereby a word's stress shifts to a preceding open syllable to avoid being adjacent to another stressed syllable skips over ultrashort vowels, e.g. עִם־יוֹ֫רְדֵי בוֹר /ʕimˈjorăðe vor/ 'with those who go down into the pit' מְטֹ֫עֲנֵי חָ֫רֶב /măˈtˤoʕăne ˈħɔrɛv/ 'pierced with a sword'. See Blau (2010:143–144)
  5. ^ These two rules, as well as the rule that metheg changes sheva from an ultrashort to a normal vowel, are recorded by Solomon Almoli in his Halichot Sheva (Constantinople 1519), though he states that these differences are dying out and that in most places vocal sheva is pronounced like segol. In Oriental communities such as the Syrians, these rules continued to be recorded by grammarians into the 1900s (e.g. Sethon, Menasheh, Kelale Diqduq ha-qeriah, Aleppo 1914), though they were not normally reflected in actual pronunciation. The rules about yodh and metheg, though not the rule about gutturals, is still observed by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews of Amsterdam: Rodrigues Pereira, Martin, 'Hochmat Shelomoh.



  • Bar-Asher, M. (1998). Scripta Hierosolymitana Volume XXXVII Studies in Mishnaic Hebrew. 
  • Blau, Joshua (2010). Phonology and Morphology of Biblical Hebrew. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. ISBN 1-57506-129-5. 
  • Dotan, A. (1967). The Diqduqe Hatte'amim of Aharon ben Moshe ben Asher. 
  • Eldar, I. (1994). The Art of Correct Reading of the Bible. 
  • Ginsburg, C.D. (1897). Introduction to the Massoretico-Critical Edition of the Hebrew Bible. 
  • Golomb, D. M. (1987). Working with no Data: Semitic and Egyptian Studies presented to Thomas O. Lambdin. 
  • Hayyim, Z. B. (1954). Studies in the Traditions of the Hebrew Language. 
  • Malone, Joseph L. (1993). Tiberian Hebrew phonology. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns. 
  • Sáenz-Badillos, Angel (1993). A History of the Hebrew Language. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55634-1. 
  • Steiner, Richard C. (1997), "Ancient Hebrew", in Hetzron, Robert, The Semitic Languages, Routledge, pp. 145–173, ISBN 0-415-05767-1 
  • Yeivin, Israel (1980). Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah. Scholars Press. ISBN 0-89130-373-1.