Edition 3.1

3 February 2012


To print use PDF file here

Biblical Hebrew Poetry and Word Play

Reconstructing the Original Oral, Aural and Visual Experience

By David Steinberg


Home page http://www.houseofdavid.ca/

Return to Table of Contents

A Few Introductory Words

I The Purpose of this Web Page

Box 1 - Sense and Nonsense from Robert Alter

Box 2 - Wordplay in the Hebrew Bible

Box 3 - The Functions of Puns

Box 4 - The Three Orthographic Elements in the Masoretic Text

II The Pronunciation of Hebrew Changed Substantially Between EBHP and the Time of the 8th-11th CE Masoretes Who Vocalized the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible

1. Biblical Skeleton, Changing Script and Orthography, Medieval Vowel Signs, Modern Pronunciation

2. The Problem of Music

3. Phases of Biblical Hebrew and its Antecedents (BHA) and the Development of the Biblical Hebrew Reading Tradition of the Tiberian Masoretes

Table 1 - Changes in the Noun from PH to TH - General Case

Table 2 - Changes in the Noun from PH to TH - Possible Special Cases

Table 3 - Change in Case Ending Vowel (ms. noun) with Attached Pronominal Suffix

Table 4 - Phase 3 *EBHP (*/EBHP/+ *[EBHP]) Imperfect, Jussive and Preterite

Table 5 - Phase 4 *LBHP (*/LBHP/ *[LBHP]) Imperfect, Jussive and Preterite

Table 6 - End of Phase 5 TH (/TH/+ *[TH]) Imperfect, Jussive and Preterite

A Few Introductory Words

“It’s not just a question of what the theatre practices were like at the time… I feel that you can, if you wanted to, reconstruct everything except the audience. And the real exciting thing in the theatre is how you bridge the gap between what’s happening on the stage and what’s happening in the audience  - because we only do it for the audience.”

 William Christie in a talk accompanying the DVD of the Rameau’s opera - Les Boreades


William Christie made this statement in regard to French Baroque opera, on which he is a leading expert, supporting the use of modern dance techniques to act as a cultural interpreter within his production of Les Boreades.  The modern opera-goer has grown up in a society whose values, structures, cultural and linguistic associations and assumptions are totally different from that of the mid-eighteenth century courtiers who were Rameau’s audience. In addition their life experiences, how they are maintained, life expectancies, sanitation and a thousand other factors were very different from the modern audience. Indeed, the use of familiar words, apparently analogous events etc. may be faux amis leading the viewer even further astray.  For Baroque Opera, we can compensate for this problem by learning relevant socio-cultural information that would have been in the bones of the original audience but must be studied, as one studies the values and literature of an extinct civilization, by the modern opera-goer. We can do this because scholars have examined and digested masses of official and unofficial documents, historical and philosophical writings, music, paintings, clothing, buildings etc. from the period and social context that produced French Baroque opera. Thus, properly prepped, we can understand, intellectually if not viscerally, cultural allusions, linguistic nuances etc. as they were understood by the original audience.

Even the cultural products much closer to our period require this sort of treatment. For example, the attitudes to women displayed by Verdi and Dickens have more in common with the following famous song from Oliver Goldsmith's The Vicar of Wakefield (1766) than they have with attitudes in our own society.

When lovely woman stoops to folly,
And finds too late that men betray,
What charm can sooth her melancholy,
What art can wash her guilt away?
The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom--is to die.

Unlike the society of eighteenth century France, we have only miniscule sources of information about the societies of ancient Israel and Judah that produced the earlier texts in the Hebrew Bible. Our few sources of information – the biblical text, a handful of inscriptions, archaeology - are not only sparse but ambiguous and reflect the reality or hopes of different groups, in different situations at different periods. In addition, all of the earlier texts underwent a change of script and orthography and possibly some degree of editing in later periods.

It is interesting to consider the interpretations likely placed on the following quotes from the Psalms (adapted from the New Revised Standard Version):

Ř Between the Assyrian siege that failed to capture Jerusalem (c. 701 BCE) and the first Neo-Babylonian conquest of the city (c. 597 BCE). During this period the Kingdom of Judah remained the sole Israelite state under the seemingly divinely guaranteed rule of the ancient Davidic dynasty;

Ř In the 597-586 BCE when a king of the Davidic dynasty, selected by the king of Babylon, was still enthroned in a Jerusalem conquered, controlled and partially depopulated by the Babylonians;

Ř In the Babylonian Exile (c. 586-516 BCE) when longing for a restoration of Zion (see Ps. 126);

Ř In the early Second Temple period (c. 516-400 BCE) when descendents of the Davidic dynasty were still in evidence and there remained hope for their restoration to power;

Ř In the late Second Temple period (c. 200 BCE-70 CE) when it was no longer remembered who was descended from the Davidic dynasty and messianic ideas were rife many of which involved a political liberation from foreign rule under a scion of the House of David and some of which (see War of the Sons of Light Against the Sons of Darkness) were apocalyptic;

Ř In the early post-Second Temple period (c. 70-200 CE) when messianic ideas were fundamental to Jewish eschatology.

Psalms 48

Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised in the city of our God. His holy mountain, beautiful in elevation, is the joy of all the earth, Mount Zion, in the far north, the city of the great King. Within its citadels God has shown himself a sure defense. Then the kings assembled, they came on together. As soon as they saw it, they were astounded; they were in panic, they took to flight, trembling took hold of them there, pains as of a woman in labor ….  As we have heard, so have we seen in the city of the LORD of hosts, in the city of our God, which God establishes forever….


Psalms 2

Why do the nations conspire, and the peoples plot in vain?  The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and his anointed, saying,  "Let us burst their bonds asunder, and cast their cords from us."  He who sits in the heavens laughs; the LORD has them in derision.  Then he will speak to them in his wrath, and terrify them in his fury, saying,  "I have set my king on Zion, my holy hill."  I will tell of the decree of the LORD: He said to me, "You are my son; today I have begotten you.  Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.  You shall break them with a rod of iron, and dash them in pieces like a potter's vessel." Now therefore, O kings, be wise; be warned, O rulers of the earth….


I The Purpose of this Web Page (detailed explanation below)

To enable advanced students of Biblical Hebrew to recover, as closely as possible, the pronunciation that a scribe in Jerusalem 700-600 BCE would have used in reading poetry to upper class Judeans or members of the king’s court with the aim of better appreciating Biblical Hebrew poetry and wordplay whose effectiveness depends on similarities of sound[1].


Box 1 - Sense and Nonsense from Robert Alter

In his justly influential book The Art of Biblical Poetry, Robert Alter correctly writes -

“…even where there are doubts about the poem's meaning, it may exhibit perfectly perceptible formal patterns that tell us something about the operations of the underlying poetic system.”[2]

Equally the following is justified -

"The actual sound of biblical poetry will remain at least to some extent a matter of conjecture. Certain distinctions among consonants have shifted or blurred over the centuries, and what is worse, we cannot be entirely sure we know where accents originally fell, what the original system of vowels and syllabification was, or whether there were audible changes in these phonetic features during the several hundred years spanned by biblical poetry. (The indications of stress and vocalization of the Masoretic text were codified well over a millennium after the composition of most of the poems and centuries after Hebrew had ceased to be the vernacular.) On the level of meaning, although comparative Semitic philology in a remarkable age of archaeological discovery has done heroic work in restoring the original sense of poorly understood words, it would be foolhardy to imagine that we can always recover the real nuances of biblical terms, or the relation between poetic diction and colloquial diction (of which there is no record) or between poetic diction and other specialized usages of the ancient language." [3]

However, he goes on from there to use a transcription system based on the vowels and some of the consonants (eg. waw  transcribed as v ) of current Israeli pronunciation which we have every reason to believe are substantially different from the pronunciation of biblical Hebrew at the time of writing ([EBHP] and [LBHP].  It is as if we were to say: (1) we cannot know exactly how Geoffrey Chaucer would have pronounced his poetry; therefore, (2) we will read it as if it were educated New York English of today!

An example of the result is found at the foot of p. 5 (Gen. 4:23-24)

Robert Alter's transcription -

ʿaˈdah vetziˈlah sheˈmaʿan qoˈli

neˈšei ˈlemekh haʾˈzena ʾimraˈti

ki ˈʾish haˈragti lefitzˈʿi

veˈyeled leḥaburaˈti

ki šivʿaˈtayim ˈyuqam ˈqayin

veˈlemekh shivˈʿim veshivˈʿah

The following would be my attempt to approach much closer to the original pronunciation -


Step 1 */EBHP/[4]

Step 2 *[EBHP] [5]

caˈdâ wailˈlâ šˈmacn qōˈlî

naˌšay ˈlamk haʾˈzinna(ː) ʾimraˈtî

ˌkiː ˈʾš haˈragti(ː) lpiˈcî

wˈyald lạḥabbūraˈtî

ˌkiː šibcaˈtaym yuqˈqam ˈqayn

wˈlamk šibˈcīm wɐšibˈcâ


ʕɐˈdɐː ɪlˈlɐː ʃɐ̆ˈmɐʕn oːˈliː

nɐʃˌɛy ˈlɐmk hɐʔˈzɪnnɐˑ ʔɪɐˈtiː

ˌkiː ˈʔʃ hɐˈɾɐgtiˑ lɐpɪˈʕiː

wɐˈyɐld lɐħɐbbuːɾɐˈtiː

ˌkiː ʃɪbʕɐˈtɐymˈɐm ˈɐyn

wɐˈlɐmk ʃɪbˈʕiːm wɐʃɪbˈʕɐː


See Short Poems of the Hebrew Bible

You will note that Alter's transcription eliminates vowel and consonant length - a very prominent feature of Ancient Hebrew. It is interesting to hear how the three major reconstructions of this originally oral poem compare.




[BHIH] based on
Alter's Transcription

ʕɐˈdɐː ɪlˈlɐː ʃɐ̆ˈmɐʕn oːˈliː
nɐʃˌɛy ˈlɐmk hɐʔˈzɪnnɐˑ ʔɪɐˈtiː

ʕɔːˈđɔː wəilˈː ʃәˈmɐːʕɐn oːˈliː
ʃˌẹː ˈlɛːmɛx hɐʔˈzːnnɔː  ʔiɔːˈθiː

ɐˈdɐ vәtziˈlɐ ʃәˈmɐ.ɐn koˈli
ʃˌẹ ˈlɛmɛx haʾˈznɐ imrɐˈti

ˌkiː ˈʔʃ hɐˈɾɐgtiˑ lɐpɪˈʕiː
wɐˈyɐld lɐħɐbbuːɾɐˈtiː

ˌkiː ˈʔʃ hɔːˈɾɐːɣtiː lәfiˈʕiː
ˈyɛːlɛđ ħɐbbuːɾɔːˈθiː

ki ʾiʃ hɐˈrɐgti lәfitz.ˈi
vәˈyɛlɛd lәɐburɐˈti

ˌkiː ʃɪbʕɐˈtɐymˈɐm ˈɐyn
wɐˈlɐmk ʃɪbˈʕiːm wɐʃɪˈbʕɐː

ˌkiː ʃivʕɔːˈθɐːyim yukˁkˁɐm- ˈɔːyin
ˈlɛːmɛx ʃivˈʕiːm ʃivˈʕɔː

ki šiv.ɐˈtɐyim ˈyukɐm ˈkɐyin
vәˈlɛmɛx ʃiv.ˈim vәʃiv.ˈɐ


sound file


sound file


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The underlying assumption is that a clear understanding of the probable approximate pronunciation of the Hebrew of the Bible, at time of its writing[6], is vital to appreciating the rhythm of biblical poetry[7] and to detecting word play[8] etc.  

Word Play – See Bibliography on Word Play in the Hebrew Bible and Other Ancient Near Eastern Literature


Box 2 - Wordplay in the Hebrew Bible

“…the biblical authors consistently opted for word play, especially the alliterative type, whenever the opportunity arose. When a choice of synonyms was available, the writers typically chose the word that produced the greater alliterative effect. This can be seen especially in the case of rare words, even hapax legomena.”[9]

As stated by the Encyclopedia Judaica

“Within this framework of rhythmical parallelism there is a whole gamut of sound repetition and sound patterns, freely distributed, but clearly embellishing the text.” All of these can be vitally effected by changes in pronunciation.

(1) Alliteration based on sounds that were heard as similar by the author not necessarily by the modern reader. E.g. the biblical writer could play off חן חסד and חבה against each other because, in each case, he would have pronounced the ח as ḥ [ħ]. He could similarly play off החביא and נוח against each other because, in each case he would have pronounced the ח as // = kh [x]. However, to his ear /ḫ/ [x] may have more closely resembled /k/ [k] = than it would have resembled /ḥ/ [ħ]. Likewise, to the biblical writer /ḥ/ [ħ] may have more closely resembled /h/ [h] = ה than it would have resembled /ḫ/ [x].

(2) Puns on similar sounding words requires and understanding of what did, and what did not sound the same.  = /ś/ [ɬ] clearly sounded similar to both  צ= /ṣ/ [] and ס = /s/ [s] and eventually merged into the latter. E.g. שׂחק = צחק and סתם = שׂתם but never שׂחק = שׁחק.  Thus we should watch out for these similarities in looking for word play.

(3) General resemblances of words. Due to the distortion of modern pronunciation one might think that there is a play on words between word וְאֵיבָה “hostility” (Gen. 3:15) and חַוָּה “Eve”. However, that this is not the case is shown by the fact that in EBHP, ואיבה would probably have been pronounced something like /waʾayˈbâ/ [wɐʔɐyˈbɐː] or [wɐʔɛyˈbɐː] with only the final vowel in common with /ḥawˈwâ/ [ħɐwˈwɐː] “Eve”. The development of the pronunciation of ואיבה would have been something like /waʾayˈbâ/ (EBHP) > /waʾˈbâ/, which might have been completed as early as the 6th century BCE, which developed into TH /wәʾẹˈba/ [ʾːˈvɐː] by the ninth century CE. The development of the pronunciation of חוה from [ħɐwˈwɔː] [TH] to [xɐˈvɔ], and ואיבה from
ːˈvɐː] [TH] to [wәʾˈvɐ],would have taken place in Europe in the Middle Ages at least 1,500 years later.

(4) Assumption for common root meaning.

a) There were two roots, both spelled עלם but pronounced distinctively differently in the First Temple period.

עלם (see) ġlm – root meaning = to be agitated, strong. This is probably the root of the nouns עלם/עלמה = boy/girl.

עלם = clm – root meaning = to conceal

Although one might postulate, on the basis of TH and modern pronunciation, that all children are devious and conceal what they can, this would have no basis in historical linguistics.

b) בָּחוּר occurs in Eccl. 11:9 with the meaning of 'young man' and in Ps. 89:20 as the passive participle meaning 'chosen'. One might think that there was an association i.e. that בָּחוּר in Eccl. 11:9 refers to a select or favored youth. However,  it is probable that the two are unrelated and would have constituted a Minimal Pair in pre-exilic Hebrew i.e. */baˈūr/ : */baˈḥūr/ meaning respectively youth and chosen[10].

c) In the Hebrew Bible נַחֲלָה = “inalienable, hereditary property”, נַחַל = “stream, wadi”, and possibly date palms”. Given the fundamental importance of water for fertility one might associate the two words. However, historically they were unrelated. In EBHP the first was pronounced /naḥaˈ/ [nɐħɐˈlɐː] and the second /ˈnal/ [ˈnɐxl] or [ˈnɐxәl].

Box 3

The Functions of Puns

The literary impact of a pun is based on its perception as a linguistic anomaly. On account of its striking phonetic or semantic characteristics the pun stands out against the coherence of the "main" text, attracts the attention of the audience, and itself becomes a medium of communication A pun, therefore, is a menace to the textual coherence of the “grammatical” text (the main text) on the one hand, but may generate a new text on the other. The coherence of this new text is based on the kind of pun, whether of the semantic or phonetic type[11]. With regard to the intention of the utterance, this text competes with the grammatical text. In some cases, the sense of the "pun-text" even may superimpose the sense of the grammatical text.

 The following functions of puns can be distinguished: (1) emphatic; (2) exegetic; and (3) symbolic. In the first case—the emphatic function—the pun is arbitrary and only underlines the sense of the main text in which it is embedded. In the second case—the exegetic function—the pun creates a new semantic level. In the third case—the symbolic function—the pun-text is the symbol of a non-linguistic phenomenon.

  …the emphatic pun is a literary device used to shape the "main text." The exegetic pun, by contrast, creates a second literary level, a new text, which competes with the main text. The textuality, of this pun-text is created by distinctive semantic or phonetic features that appear as deviations from the norm of the main text. These deviations separate the pun-text from the main ("grammatical") text and constitute the pun-text as an independent text.

  The sense of the pun-text does not follow the rules of a grammatical text, namely the rules of syntax, but is founded only on phonetic links (in the case of sound-based puns) or on semantic links (in the case of sense-based puns). It seems clear, that the possibilities of such links normally are much fewer than the possibilities of creating a grammatical text.

Quoted from "Between Science and Magic: The Function and Roots of Paronomasia" in The Prophetic Books of the Hebrew Bible by Stefan Schorch[12] pp. 206, 207, 211.


II The Pronunciation of Hebrew Changed Substantially Between EBHP and the Time of the 8th-11th CE Masoretes Who Vocalized the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible

1. Biblical Skeleton, Changing Script and Orthography, Medieval Vowel Signs, Modern Pronunciation

Box 4

The Three Orthographic Elements in the Masoretic Text

"Of the three distinct orthographic elements in the MT. the consonantal text (including graphemes for consonants which quiesced in the course of time), the m.l., and the vowel points, the third was the last to he added to the text. While the first two elements were certainly combined by the 3rd century B.C.E., as evidenced by the proto-Masso­retic text types found at Qumran[13],- the vowel points were not added before the 6th century C.E.[14]  The relative lateness of these signs does not indicate that the tradition of pronunciation which they were intended to record and preserve originated in the period of the Massoretes themselves. The text without vowel signs was read orally long before the diacritical marks were invented to indicate vowels. The vowel signs were intended to guide readers in the correct pronunciation of the words according to traditions known to the different schools of Massoretes. As A. Dotan indicates (Masorah, cols 1401-82, Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 16, Keter, Jerusalem, 1971: ref. is to col. 1409)[15]:

… the notes concerning the text of the Bible and the instructions for its proper pronunciation and its exact copying were handed down orally from generation to generation before they were set down in writing. It may be assumed that these comments could be written down and were committed to writing ... apparently in the sixth or seventh century C.E. Therefore, one must differentiate quite clearly between the oral Masorah which is endless and cannot be defined even though there are allusions to it and evidence thereof, and between the written Masorah whose notations were written in the margins of the codices and which is simply called "the Masorah."

This of course does not imply that the massoretic traditions accurately reflect the manner in which these texts were pronounced by their authors. Nevertheless, the traditions do reflect an archaic phonology. Investigations of Qumranic and Mish­naic Hebrew (ca. 50 B.C.E.-200 C.E.) indicate that postbiblical Hebrew phonology was different than that of biblical Hebrew; e.g., the laryngeals ’ and h and the pharyngeals  c and became weakened (Kutscher 1974: 505-7; 1971: cols. 1586, 1595-96).  Massoretic vocalisation indicates that these were not weakened or leveled in the reading tradition, but that they were preserved (Kutscher 1974: 510-11)."

Quoted from Zevit 1980, p. 9.

See also Did the Tiberian Masoretes Simply Encode Tradition of Did they "Do Grammar"?


When dealing with vocalized texts from the past, though occasionally historic spellings cause complications, scholars normally have graphemes representing both consonants and vowels from the same period. This is true whether we are referring to texts in Old and Middle English, Old and Middle French etc. When studying these languages, scholars will use the texts, and any other relevant information, to reconstruct a synchronic consonantal and vowel phonology of a given dialect in a given period.

With Biblical Hebrew, the traditional approach is quite different and when you think about it, rather bizarre.  The printed text of the Hebrew Bible consists of -

(a) The consonantal skeleton of Biblical Hebrew (c. 850-550 BCE) i.e. letters representing consonants and some vowels (PMT) written in a script and, more importantly, an orthography[16] different from that used when the texts were originally written down. (See Phonemic Structure of Hebrew).

(b) The superimposed pointing of the Tiberian Masoretic tradition i.e. the vowel signs and the cantillation signs, which indicate syllabic word stress, of the Masoretic Text. These represent the extinct pronunciation tradition of the Masoretes of Tiberias (c. 850 C.E.) which they used in reading the biblical text. It must be pointed out that the Jewish scribes, who presumably maintained the traditions of pronunciation of this ancient form of Hebrew, during the millennium and a half up to the time of the Masoretes, were always familiar with various forms of Aramaic and for most or all of this period had an evolving Western (Palestinian) Jewish Aramaic as their native tongue. An evolving, and highly Aramaicized, form of Hebrew was still spoken by some elements of the Judean peasantry until the mid second century CE. The most prominent scholar of this form of Hebrew has written -

… Aramaic had a far-reaching impact and left its mark on all facets of the language, namely, orthography, phonetics and phonology, morphology including inflection, syntax, and vocabulary. There is room for investigation as to whether Mishnaic Hebrew was a Hebrew-Aramaic mixed language. This question may be posed owing to the fact that A(ramaic) had a pervading influence in all spheres of the language, including inflection, which is generally considered to be impenetrable to foreign influence….

Thus, the pointed Hebrew Bible imposes on a mid-first millennium BCE consonantal structure a vocalization system, influenced by Aramaic, of about 1,500 years later!

The reason that this strange arrangement is maintained is that, though the Tiberian pointing is the latest of the sources of information regarding the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, it alone provides a complete transcription of its vowel phonemic system as well as enough additional information to reconstruct its phonetic system (*[TH]) with some certainty. In addition, the superbly crafted and comprehensive nature of the Tiberian masoretic system, in many cases preserves evidence of early pronunciations lost in the various non-Tiberian traditions[17].

However, the strange approach does not end there. The conventional scholarly transcription of TH (THCST/THSBL) does not, in fact reflect the known pronuncition of the Tiberian Masoretes (/TH/ *[TH]) and the actual pronunciation of the text by scholars ([BHIH] or [THCSP IS-ENG]) reflects modern pronunciations quite at variance with BH (*EBHP/*LBHP), TH and THCST/THSBL. [BHIH] and [THCSP IS-ENG] are particularly problematic in that, effectively, most English and German speaking learners approach Biblical Hebrew through the pronunciation of Israeli Hebrew. However, aspects of the pronunciation of pre-exilic Hebrew had more in common with English and especially German that it has with Israeli Hebrew. In particular Biblical Hebrew, as did Akkadian, and as does German, Arabic, and to a lesser extent English, maintained phonetic and phonemic distinctions of vowel length. This sharply contrasts with Israeli Hebrew (see Vowel System - Modern Israeli Hebrew) in which vowels of a given quality do not significantly vary in length. The patterning of long and short vowels and consonants, a characteristic going back to proto-Semitic would have been important in the language's sound structure and rhythm. Nb. the distinction between long and short vowels and consonants is a clear requirement if we are to fully appreciate biblical poetry word play.


2. The Problem of Music

Harper's Bible Dictionary[18] states -

Music - Instrumental and vocal sounds having rhythm, melody, or harmony. Secular and sacred music played no less a role in the lives of the people of biblical times than it does in our own day. It added to the pomp of national celebrations, bolstered the soldier's courage, enlivened work and play, lent comfort in times of sadness, and provided inspiration in religious expression. The sound of early ear Eastern music would seem less strange to the modern ear than previously thought. Though we are not informed about ancient rhythms and tempos, we do know that heptatonic, diatonic scales, familiar to us from Western music, also existed in antiquity. A number of stringed instruments would have produced sounds similar to modern small harps, lyres, and lutes. Other instruments, notably woodwind, percussion, and the simpler stringed instruments, were merely less sophisticated forms of modern orchestral or folk instruments, and some are still in use in the traditional cultures of the contemporary Near East.

Much of the biblical poetry was probably intended to be sung or chanted to the accompaniment of instruments. This is clearest with the Psalms -

In addition to the titles used for the Book of Psalms there are numerous musical terms in the book which indicate that the Psalms were written to be sung. The words “psalm” (Heb. mizmor, used 57 times) and “song” (Heb. šir, found in the heading of 30 Psalms, frequently with mizmor) are both musical terms.32 In 55 Psalms there is a reference to the “choir director.”33 Various musical instruments are mentioned in the Psalms, both stringed (e.g. Pss. 4,6,54,55), wind instruments, such as the flute (Ps. 5), and perhaps the harp (Pss. 8,81,84).34 Some of the musical terms in the superscriptions are difficult to interpret. These terms may be instructions to the various sections of the choir, such as the sopranos and the basses.35 In Psalms 45 and 69 it is possible, if not probable, that the reference to “the Lilies” is the name of a well-known tune, to which the words of the song were to be sung (cf. the superscription in the NIV).[19]


As stated by Watson[20] -

Our knowledge of the extent to which musical accompaniment was a feature of ancient oral poetry is derived by inference from ... field studies[21]...  and from indications in Greek poetry. Yugoslav poets sing to the sound of the gusle (a one-stringed violin); in ancient Greece the kitharis (a harp) was used. Such instruments were used (a) to mark the accentual stresses in a line of verse; (b) to fill out the line, especially at the beginning or end; (c) to provide emphasis at important points, and (d) to hide the poet's hesitation as he improvised, allowing him time to think.

In the Second Temple the Levitical choir of men and boys sung psalms. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia " Singing seems to have been the principal feature of their art, the instruments being used by the singers for their self-accompaniment only ."

One would expect that the musical accompaniment probably was founded on stress patterns and/or syllabic structure. Beyond that it is impossible to say much. We have to be aware that this represents a major lacuna in any attempt to recover the sound of Biblical Hebrew poetry.


3. Phases of Biblical Hebrew and its Antecedents (BHA) and the Development of the Biblical Hebrew Reading Tradition of the Tiberian Masoretes[22]

(For more detail see the examples in Excursus 2 and Excursus 3. For various opinions see Linguistic Changes Affecting the Pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew 2000 B.C.E. - 850 C.E. According to Various Scholars)


1. BHA Phase 1 - *Proto-Northwest Semitic

Sources - Egyptian transliterations particularly the Execration Texts (20th-18th centuries BCE)[23]; Amarna Letters (early to mid 14th centuries BCE); the (mostly undeciphered) Proto-Canaanite inscriptions (c. 1500 BCE[24]); and, comparative Semitic linguistics[25].

Time Period - Commenced c. 2000 BCE when the dialects that would develop into the Canaanite languages and Aramaic languages underwent the sound shift of word-initial [w] > [y] which distinguishes them from the other Semitic languages. Phase 1 ended c. 1200 BCE with the establishment of a uniform penultimate word stress. Middle-Late Bronze Age.

Geographical Coverage - Southern Levant.

Languages/Dialects in Contact - Egyptian in extreme south, proto-Arabian in east, non-Semitic languages in extreme north, Akkadian in extreme northeast. In the Canaanite heartland the only foreign language heard would have been that of the Egyptian administrators and soldiers. Akkadian familiar to chancery scribes (see Amarna Letters).

Political Situation - many city states. No large political units which could have crystallized one or more widely used standard literary language(s). Egyptian dominance in the center and south, Mittanian and then Hittite dominance in the north. Akkadian used as language of diplomatic correspondence (see Amarna Letters).

Stress - This is the earliest period for which stress patterns can be deduced. There are two views regarding stress in this period:

1. Stress was on the penultimate syllable, if it was long closed (CvC) or containing a long vowel or was the first syllable of the word. Otherwise on the antepenult.[26] OR,

2. If:

(a) a word contained one or more long vowels, then the stress was on the long vowel most closely preceding the case and mood endings; OR,

(b) if the word contained only short vowels, then the syllable preceding the case or mood ending is stressed.[27]

Phonemic System  - During this period vowel and consonant quality and length were phonemic. N.b. a convenient way to learn to hear and articulate vowel length is to listen carefully to: (a) recordings of a couple of spoken Arabic dialects; or, (b) recordings of Akkadian poetry. Since it was the presence or absence of long vowels or long syllables, and if present, the location of the final long vowel or syllable of the word, that determined stress, the place of stress was not phonological. These conditions still pertain to most varieties of colloquial Arabic today.

Important Linguistic  Developments -

- Canaanite shift [28] (Here is the song, "The Canaanite Shift.")-  There are two views:

1. Stressed [aː] shifts to [oː] (This continued into phase 2.)[29].

2. Irrespective of stress, [aː] shifts to [oː]. [30]

This is the isogloss that separates proto-Canaanite (including proto-Hebrew) from proto-Aramaic).

N.b. We have very little evidence regarding this phase of the language. Some of the linguistic developments listed under phase 2 may have taken place or commenced in phase 1.


b) BHA Phase 2 - *Proto-Hebrew (PH)[31]

Sources - Largely reconstructed on the bases of phase 1 and phase 3 with assistance from comparative Semitic linguistics.

Time Period - c. 1200 - c. 1000 BCE. Iron Age 1

Geographical Coverage - Territory of the future kingdoms of Israel and Judah, particularly the highland area from the Negev desert to the Valley of Jezreel.

Languages/Dialects in Contact - Similar to the following phase - see the table Linguistic Influences on the Regions of Judah and Israel.

Political Situation - Israelite highland settlement with declining Late Bronze Age Canaanite city states in the lowlands. Residual Egyptian military presence early in this era.

Stress - Phase 2 commenced with the establishment of a uniform penultimate word stress[32]. Phase 2 ended with the loss of most or all word-final short vowels which occurred in three stages:

§                     Nouns in the construct state dropped their final short case ending[33] vowels; then,

§                     verbs; and finally,

§                     nouns (including participles) in the absolute state. In the words of Blau[34] -

As for the dropping of the final short vowels, it took place ap­parently in three stages. At first, nouns in status constructus dropped their final short vowels[35] …, then verbs[36] and at last nouns (including participles) in status absolutus.[37] Owing to the elision of short final vowels in the status absolutus, short vowels in the preceding open syllable which now had become closed, were compensatorily lengthened (viz. a to ā, i  to ē, and u to ō; as ˈdagu > דָּג (ˈdĺg) "fish" [Cf. Harris 1939 pp. 60-62] (as against ˈqallu > קַל "light", because it was originally closed); yaˈšinu  > יָֹשֵן (ˈšēn) "sleeping"; yaˈguru > יָגוֹר "being afraid"). This compensatory lengthening did not take place during the dropping of the final short vowels from the status constructus and verbs, and since during its operation these word classes already exhibited closed final syllables, they were not lengthened at all (therefore:־ דַּג; שָמַר "he kept", with final short vowels, viz, pataḥ. Since the ṣere and ḥolem in יָשֵן "he slept" and יָגוֹר "he was afraid" correspond to pataḥ, they have to be considered short as well, whereas the same words when serving as participles contain long ṣere and ḥolem; similarly נִשְמַר qţl as against the participle נִשְמָר, הֻבְדַּל/ יֻבְדַּל qţl/yqţl against the participle מֻבְדָּל).


1. In the case of a verbal form being used as a name the stressed vowel undergoes compensatory lengthening[38]. E.g.

<ycqb> (/EBHP/): /yicˈqub/ "he over reaches etc."; /yicˈqoːb/ "Jacob" both derived from BHA phase 2  /yacˈqubu/

<ntn> (/EBHP/): /naˈtan/ "he gave"; /naˈtaːn/ "Nathan" both derived from BHA phase 2  /naˈtana/

2. In some cases, if the preceding syllable was closed or when open contained an unchangeable long, vowel, /a/ remained short though in similar situations /u/ lengthened to /oː/ and /i/ to /eː/. Egs.
PH */
ʾiˈbacu/ > /EBHP/ /ʾiˈbac/ 'finger', PH */šuːˈšanu/ > /EBHP/ /šuːˈšan/ 'lily', PH */mapˈtiu/ >
/EBHP/ /mapˈteː/ 'key', PH */ša:ˈpiu/ > /EBHP/ /šoːˈpeː / 'judge', PH */ipˈpuru/ > /EBHP/  /ipˈpoːr/ 'bird',
PH */'mutu/ >
/EBHP/  */ˈmoːt/ 'man'. However, in many cases, the EBHP form assimilated to the /da'ba:r/ class, i.e. the stressed /a/ lengthened to /a/. Egs. PH */miqˈdašu/ > /EBHP/ /miqˈda:š/ 'sanctuary', PH */ca:ˈlamu/ > /EBHP/ /coːˈla:m/ 'world, age'.[39]


Table 1 - Changes in the Noun from PH to TH - General Case




(c. 1200 BCE)


*/EBHP/+ *[EBHP]

(c. 850-550 BCE)


*/PTH/+ *[PTH]

 (c. 400 CE)


/TH/+ *[TH]

(c. 850 CE)

דבר  'word'


















*/dabaˈrūma/ */dabaˈma/[45]








constr. s.










constr. du.




*[dɐbɐˌɾɐy] or *[dɐbɐˌɾɛy]






constr. pl.