The House of David

"dawnbreak in the west"

Friday, January 06, 2017

How to speak the Syriac emphatic-state suffix

Last week I bought RK Harrison's Teach-Yourself book Biblical Hebrew. I'm pausing to discuss spelling in the alphabetic Semitic languages generally. "Orthography In Transcription", if I were writing a thesis on this instead of a self-defensive blog post.

By the way I bought this book used. For two dollars. Which I'm now, I guess, bragging about. Er. I'll wait here whilst the alt-right segment of my audience cracks the obvious jokes...

Anyway, since then, I've been allowing the terlit hobo to comment about this or that aspect of this Jewish language, over at the HQ. Usually I'm comparing it to the Semitic language I pretend to know something about, which is (Safaitic-era) Arabic. My main aim here has been to learn to spell Hebrew particularly the post-begadkepat Aramaised Hebrew of the Talmud era, which Hebrew will be that which the qurrâ' overheard. I'm also hoping that Hebrew grammar and vocabulary will illumine the rules I've learnt for Arabic.

One thing I've learnt already: vowels are more of a thing in Hebrew, especially in this post-Aramaic stage. Arabic has only the vowels A, I, and U - we'll get to the alif-maqsura below. If you lengthen a vowel you just do it with an additional marker. I notice that older scholars will circumflex the long vowels (â); more recent scholars have been dropping a solid line over them (ā). I never saw the point and have found it easier to hold the ALT key and type my 130, 141, 151.

Based on what I'm reading in Harrison on the Hebrew vowel, I should blame the Jews for the Arabist shift to ā. Hebrew orthography demands a difference between ā, which is not marked with an Arabic-style lengthening pseudo-consonant, and â which is - here, by the Hê. Hebrew is also touchy about the various ways to pronounce a long e: ê would be marked with the Yod(h). Down at the short vowel farm, true short vowels are distinguished against various sorts of schwa. So transcribed Hebrew short e usually gets written ĕ. All this complicates reading Hebrew in Latin-script, to the point of distraction.

So: now we get to Syriac. This is the last classical phase of Aramaic. It remained the language of scholarship under the Umayyads, and after that it survived as the language of Near Eastern Christianity until, well, now. Ibn Warraq's books introduced me to some Syriac literature and among these texts I read names like "Bar Penkaye". But now we are told to write such names "Bar Penkaya".

In Syriac, as copied, the scribes put the emphatic-state suffix (i.e., the definite article) as aleph. See it for yourself in the Aramaic of Daniel 2:4f: emphatic-state masculine plural nouns with yodh-alif. However... I am unsure how much weight to give to the moderns' pronunciation of this "aleph". Especially across dialects; Syriac and other Aramaics were spoken over a wide area. Especially especially when we consider a case like hkymy' or, later, "Penkayay" where nobody wants to sketch out a double yodh - it just looks retarded, even in Latin-script. ("Ayyayay!!")

I prefer to read this suffix as like the Arabs' alif-maqsura. This is a final yod that, our teachers of Modern Standard tell us, is pronounced like it were alif. But the Greeks, first Indo-Europeans to transliterate the language, tell us otherwise. (Later Arabic grammarians have retroactively declared this a solecism, "imâla".) Keep in mind: the "Hebrew" alphabet by this time was, in reality, the Imperial Aramaic alphabet that spawned both the Syriac and the Arabic alphabets (btw, the Arabs lost their own original, Safaitic, alphabet in this process). And when the Jews wrote the yodh suffix, and didn't intend î, they intended ê. It's likely the Arabs who adopted that alphabet thought the same. Aramaic itself didn't go that way, but they had a vowel for an emphatic suffix which their neighbour Semites didn't.

So I cannot follow the modern scholars in "Penkayâ"; I can't rule out "Penkayey". Also I like to mark this suffix as... er, special. So I've been staying with good ol' early-twentieth-century "Penkayé". What can I say; I'm a reactionary.

I should probably do the same with the alif-maqsura where I read it in Umayyad-era texts... like the Qur'an. But here I'll wait to catch up with the scholars.


posted by Zimri on 20:12 | link | 0 comments

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