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Bible Lexicons

Gesenius Hebrew Grammer

Part 26

§26. Syllable-formation[1] and its Influence on the Quantity of Vowels.

Apart from the unchangeable vowels (§25), the use of short or long vowels, i.e. their lengthening, shortening, or change into vocal Še, depends on the theory of syllable-formation. The initial and final syllables especially require consideration.

1. The initial syllable. A syllable regularly begins with a consonant, or, in the case of initial ו‎ and י‎ (cf. note on §5b), a consonantal vowel.[2] The copula is a standing exception to this rule. According to the Tiberian pronunciation וְ‎ and is resolved into the corresponding vowel וּ‎ before Še, and the labials, e.g. וּדְבַר‎, וּמֶ֫לֶךְ‎; the Babylonian punctuation in the latter cases writes וֿ‎, i.e. וְ‎ before a full vowel.

2. The final syllable. A syllable may end—

(a) With a vowel, and is then called an open or simple syllable, e.g. in קָטַ֫לְתָּ‎ where the first and last are open. See below, e.

(b) With one consonant, and is then called a simple closed or compound syllable, as the second in קָטַל‎, לֵבָב‎. See below, o, p. Such are also the syllables ending in a strengthened consonant, as the first in קַטֵּל‎ qaṭ-ṭēl. See below, q.

(c) With two consonants, a doubly closed syllable, as קשְׁטְ‎ qōšṭ, קָטַ֫לְתְּ‎. Cf. below, r, and §10ii.

3. Open or simple syllables have a long vowel, whether they have the tone as in בְּךָ֫‎ in thee, יֵ֫לֶךְ‎ he goes, or are toneless as in קָטַ֫ל‎, עֵנָ֫ב‎ a bunch of grapes.[3] A long vowel (Qameṣ, less frequently Ṣere) is especially common in an open syllable before the tone (pretonic vowel), e.g. לָהֶ֫ם‎, יָק֫וּם‎, קָטַ֫ל‎, לֵבָ֫ב‎.[4]

Short vowels in open syllables occur:

(a) In apparently dissyllabic words formed by means of a helping vowel from monosyllables, as נַ֫חַל‎ brook, בַּ֫יִת‎ house, יִרֶ֫ב‎ let him increase, from naḥl, bayt, yirb; cf. also ־ַ֫יִם‎ the ending of the dual (§88). But see §28e.

(b) In the verbal suffix of the 1st pers. sing. (־ַ֫נִי‎ me), e.g. קְטָלַ֫נִי‎ (Arab. qătălănĭ). The uncommon form ־ַ֫נִּי‎, however (Genesis 30:6, cf. §59f), proves that the tone-bearing Pathaḥ produces a sharpening of the following sonant, and thus virtually stands in a closed syllable, even when the Nun is not expressly written with Dageš. In cases like וַֽאדֹנָי‎ (§102m) Pathaḥ is retained in the counter-tone after the א‎ has become quiescent.

(c) Sometimes before the toneless ־ָה‎ local (§90c), e.g. מִדְבַּ֫רָה‎ towards the wilderness; only, however, in the constr. state (1 Kings 19:15), since the toneless suffix ־ָה‎ does not affect the character of the form (especially when rapidly pronounced in close connexion); otherwise it is מִדְבָּ֫רָה‎.

In all these cases the short vowel is also supported by the tone, either the principal tone of the word, or (as in h) by the secondary tone in the constr. st., or by the counter-tone with Metheg, as in וַאֽדֹנָי‎ above, g; cf. the effect of the arsis on the short vowel in classical prosody.

(d) In the combinations ־ַֽ־ֲ‎, ־ֶֽ־ֱ‎, ־ָֽ־ֳ‎, e.g. נַֽעֲרוֹ‎ his boy, יֶֽאֱסֹר‎ he will bind, פָּֽעֳלוֹ‎ his deed. In all these cases the syllable was at first really closed, and it was only when the guttural took a Ḥaṭeph that it became in consequence open (but cf. e.g. יֶאְסֹר‎ and יֶֽאֱסֹר‎). The same vowel sequence arises wherever a preposition בְּ‎, כְּ‍‎, לְ‎, or ו‎ copulative is prefixed to an initial syllable which has a Ḥaṭeph, since the former then takes the vowel contained in the Ḥaṭeph (see §102d and §104d). To the same category belong also the cases where these prepositions with Ḥireq stand before a consonant with simple Šewâ mobile, e.g. בִּדְבַר‎, כִּדְבַּר‎, &c.

(e) In forms like יֶֽחֶזְקוּ‎ yäḥä-ze-qû (they are strong), פָּֽעָלְךָ‎ pŏʿŏlekhā (thy deed). These again are cases of the subsequent opening of closed syllables (hence, e.g. יֶחְזְקוּ‎ also occurs); פָּֽעָלְךָ‎ is properly pŏʿlekhā; cf. generally §22m, end, and §28c.

Such cases as הַחֹ֫דֶשׁ‎, אַחִים‎ (§96), הַֽחִתֹּ֫תָ‎ (§67w) do not come under this head, since they all have ă in a virtually sharpened syllable; nor does the tone-bearing Seghôl in suffixes (e.g. דְּבָרֶ֫ךָ‎), nor Seghôl for ă before a guttural with Qameṣ (§22c). On שָֽׁרָשִׁים‎ and קָֽדָשִׁים‎, see §9v.

4. The independent syllables with a firm vowel which have been described above, are frequently preceded by a single consonant with vocal Šewâ, simple or compound. Such a consonant with vocal Šewâ never has the value of an independent syllable, but rather attaches itself so closely to the following syllable that it forms practically one syllable with it, e.g. לְחִי‎ (cheek) leḥî; חֳלִי‎ (sickness) o; יִלְמְדוּ‎ yil-medhû. This concerns especially the prefixes וְ‎, בְ‎, כְ‍‎, לְ‎. See §102.

The Šewâ mobile is no doubt in all such eases weakened from an original full vowel (e.g. יִקְטְלוּ‎ Arab. yaqtŭlû, בְּךָ‎ Arab. bĭkă, &c.); from this, however, it cannot be inferred that the Masoretes regarded it as forming a kind of open syllable, for this would be even more directly opposed to their fundamental law (viz. that a long vowel should stand in an open syllable), than are the exceptions cited above, fk. Even the use of Metheg with Šewâ in special cases (see §16f) is no proof of such a view on the part of the Masoretes.

5. Closed syllables ending with one consonant, when without the tone, necessarily have short vowels, whether at the beginning or at the end of words,[5] e.g. מַלְכָּה‎ queen, חֶשְׁבּוֹן‎ understanding, חָכְמָה‎ wisdom, וַיָּ֫סַר‎ and he turned back, וַיָּ֫קֶם‎, וַיָּ֫קָם‎ (wayyāqǒm).

A tone-bearing closed syllable may have either a long or short vowel, but if the latter, it must as a rule be either Pathaḥ or Seghôl.[6] The tone-bearing closed penultima admits, of the long vowels, only the tone-long ā, ē, ō, not the longest î, ê, ô, û; of the short vowels, only ă, ĕ, not ĭ, ŭ, ŏ (but on ĭ and ŭ, see §29g). Thus יַקְטִ֫ילוּ‎‎ (3rd pl. masc. Imperf. Hiph.) but תַּקְטֵ֫לְנָה‎‎ 3rd pl. fem., and קוּ֫מוּ‎ (and pl. masc. Imperat. Qal) but קֹ֫מְנָה‎ fem. 6. A special kind of closed syllables are the sharpened, i.e. those which end in the same (strengthened) consonant with which the following syllable begins, e.g. אִמִּי‎ ʾĭm-mî, כֻּלּוֹ‎ kŭl-lô. If without the tone, they have, like the rest, short vowels; but, if bearing the tone, either short vowels as קַ֫לּוּ‎, הִנֶּ֫נּוּ‎, or long, as שָׁ֫מָּה‎, הֵ֫מָּה‎.

On the omission of the strengthening of a consonant at the end of a word, see §20l.

7. Syllables ending with two consonants occur only at the end of words, and have most naturally short vowels, קָטַלְתְּ‎, וַיִּשְׁבְּ‎; but sometimes Ṣere, as נֵרְדְּ‎, וַיֵּבְדְּ‎, or Ḥolem, תּוֹסְףְּ קשְׁטְ‎. Cf., however, §10i. Usually the harshness of pronunciation is avoided by the use of a helping vowel (§28e).

  1. Cf. C. H. Toy, ‘The Syllable in Hebrew,’ Amer. Journal of Philol., 1884, p. 494 ff.; H. Strack, ‘The Syllables in the Hebrew Language,’ Hebraica, Oct. 1884, p. 73 ff.
  2. We are not taking account here of the few eases in which initial Yodh is represented as simple i, by being written אִי‎ or אִ‎, see §24e, and especially §47b, note; nor of certain other eases in which א‎ with an initial vowel has only a graphic purpose, though it is indispensable in an unpointed text.
  3. In opposition to this fundamental law in Hebrew (a long vowel in an open syllable), the original short vowel is found always in Arabic, and sometimes in the other Semitic languages, except of course in the case of naturally long vowels. The above examples are pronounced in Arabic bĭkă, qătălă, ʿĭnăb. Although it is certain therefore that in Hebrew also, at an earlier period, short vowels were pronounced in open syllables, it may still be doubted whether the present pronunciation is due merely to an artificial practice followed in the solemn recitation of the O.T. text. On this hypothesis we should have still to explain, e.g. the undoubtedly very old lengthening of ĭ and ŭ in an open syllable into ē and ō.
  4. That these pretonic vowels are really long is shown by Brockelmann, ZA. xiv. 343 f., from the transcription of Hebrew proper names in the Nestorian (Syriac) punctuation, and e.g. from the Arabic ʾIbrâhîm=אַבְרָהָם‎. He regards their lengthening in the syllable before the tone as a means adopted by the Masoretes to preserve the pronunciation of the traditional vowels. This explanation of the pretonic vowels as due to a precaution against their disappearing, is certainly right; as to whether the precaution can be ascribed to the Masoretes, see the previous note. For the pretonic vowel the Arabic regularly has a short vowel (lăhŭm, yăqŭm, &c.), the Aramaic simply a vocal Še (לְהוֹן‎, יְקוּם‎, קְטַל‎, לְבַב‎); and even in Hebrew, when the tone is thrown forward the pretonic vowel almost always becomes Še, see §27. It would, however, be incorrect to assume from this that the pretonic vowel has taken the place of Še only on account of the following tone-syllable. It always arises from an original short vowel, since such a vowel is mostly lengthened in an open syllable before the tone, but when the tone is moved forward it becomes Še.
  5. In exceptions such as שָֽׁת־לִי‎ Genesis 4:25 (where šāt is required by the character of the form, although the closed syllable has lost the tone owing to the following Maqqeph), Metheg is used to guard against a wrong pronunciation; similarly ē is sometimes retained before Maqqeph, e.g. שֵֽׁם־‎ Genesis 2:13; עֵֽץ־‎ Genesis 2:16.
  6. See §9e, f. ĭ occurs thus only in the particles אִם‎, עִם‎, מִן‎; but these usually (מִן‎ always) are rendered toneless by a following Maqqeph. Cf. also such forms as וַיִּשְׁבְּ‎ §26r and §75q.
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