A Call for Reconstructing the Pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew

Updated: Sep 21, 2021

The pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew words, which are taught at the Israeli Institute of Biblical Studies, relies heavily on the sound systems found in Indo-European languages rather than Semitic languages.

Take the example of the word for on or upon, על out of thousand other examples. Students at the Israeli Institute of Biblical Studies are taught to pronounce it "aal" just like the preposition אֶל meaning to, and no distinction is made between the two different prepositions in terms of pronunciation. Unlike jews who migrated to Europe, speakers of Arabic or rather the languages commonly associated with Arabic, are still pronouncing the ע sound like it was pronounced thousand of years ago and we are still using the preposition על the way it was pronounced three millennia ago. In Arabic letters it is spelled عل. As far as I know, there is no difference between Modern Standard Hebrew on the one hand and and Biblical Hebrew taught in Israel on the other hand as far as pronunciation or the sound system is concerned. It seems the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew at the Israeli Institute of Biblical Studies was reconstructed according to Modern Standard Hebrew, and this is not a scientific approach in my views.

Many scholars and teachers of Biblical Hebrew justify their reliance on Israeli Modern Hebrew by saying that we have no audio or vidoe recordings of Biblical Hebrew, or that Biblical Hebrew had dialects ityself. However, it is right that we have only a written version of Biblical Hebrew, but we have old and modern Semitic languages which can provide a great help and an Old Semitic language, which is always described as similar to Biblicla Hebrew, has a few letters which represent vowls like 𐎜, 𐎛, and 𐎊. Moreover, there is no excuse for pronouncing a word meaning father in Biblical Hebrew, אָב, using a sound which does not exist in any Semitic language _ V. Given a word like אָב, which means father in Biblical Hebrew, is pronounced "ab" in Old Western Semitic languages like Ugaritic or Phoenician and a Semitic-based language like Arabic so there is no excuse for pronouncing it Av only because the letter ב is pronounced v in Modern Israeli Hebrew as far as there is no dot inside it. What has been mentioned in regard to the consonant B is applied also to the sound represented by the Hebrew letter צ whose equivalent in Phoenician is 𐤑 and in Ugaritic 𐎕. Therefore, a word which is written in the Old Testament using the Babylonian script as follows עֵץ should be pronounced the same way indicated in Ugaritic 𐎓𐎕rather than an s preceded by t which is obtrusive in Germanic languages and never occur in Semitic languages as far as I am familair with the sound systems of old and modern Semitic languages. In addition to v, and ts sounds, there is another sound which is borrowed from Indo-European languages to pronounce a Semitic language like Old Hebrew and that it p. A Biblical Hebrew word like פֶּה is pronounced in Israeli institutions peh rather than pheh which is the case in identical Semitic languages as Ugaritic and Phoenician in which the same word meaning mouth is spelled 𐎔 and 𐤐𐤉 respectively.

Cearly, Biblical Hebrew has to be reconstructed in the light of Old Semitic languages like Ugaritic and Phoenician especillally that those languages were spoken by the neighbors of ancient Israel and Judah.

Rami Ibrahim ©

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