Monday, June 05, 2006


זה האלף-בית של השמרים......י......

This is the first in a series of posts dedicated to examining the mysterious Samaritans of Israel. Who are they? Where did they come from? Where are they going? (I got that one from James Stockdale.)

To begin with, I am going to discuss how they pronounce Hebrew and a little bit about their alphabet, with future posts discussing their past, including four theories of origin, how Jews related to them in anquity (and what that might tell us about their origin), how they relate to them today, some more things about their alphabet and one of the most intriguing topics of all: their Torah.

Before I get to pronunciation, I want to mention their name. "Samaritans," obviously, mean "residents of Samaria," with a little Anglo-Latin twist (like how "residents of Naples" are "Neopolitans"). In (Jewish) Hebrew they are called Shomronim, שומרונים, but they do refer to themselves as Shamarim, שמרים. In tribute to them, I spelled out "this is the Samaritan alphabet" in their own script, the paleo-Hebrew script for comparison (the font I used is derived from the Lachish letters) as well as the modern Hebrew (
זה האלף-בית של השמרים) and I wrote שמרים instead of שומרונים as they would describe themselves. The difference is not inconsequential. שומרונים implies that they are or were residents of Samaria, while שמרים implies that they are watchers, observers--however that is to be understood. But that will be discussed in a future post.

Samaritans have a unique dialect of Hebrew (although many or most Samaritans can speak Modern Israel Hebrew as well). They pronounce Hebrew consonants as well as vowels differently from the Jewish traditions. Some broad rules: they do not have two versions of בגדכפת letters. They pronounce all of
them hard, with the exception of פ which is pronounced either as F or B. In addition, they do not pronounce the guttural letter אהחע, not dissimilar to how Ashkenazic Jews do not generally pronounce the א or ע. However, the Samaritans do not pronounce the ה or ח, both of which migrated to zero. Similar movement can be found among the French, who don't pronounce the H sound, or most modern Israelis who do not pronounce the ה. (Try it: ask an Israeli how they're doing, and wait to hear "Baruch Ashem!" I'm not sure what shibolleth to use for a non-religious Israeli though. Maybe "Ello!" The ו is usually pronounced W, but sometimes it is hardened to B. As for ש it is pronounced one way: SH, such that Samaritans call themselves Bani Yishrael.

And interesting practical example of Samaritan pronunciation is how they voice the word לוחות, luhot: for them it is lebut, since the
ח is not pronounced and the first ו is hardened to a B sound.

An interesting feature of Samaritan Hebrew is their inability to pronounce certain unvoweled consonant clusters. Example: try to say the "RT" sound in "ART" without pronouncing ANY vowel before the RT. Can't do it. This phenomenon exists in abundance in many spoken dialects of Arabic. Thus, from the root bn we get ibn. From slam we get islam. Samaritan Hebrew evidently lacks the ability to voice some consonant clusters at the beginning of a word, so a vowel gets added. For a great example, listen to this: A Samaritan reading an Aramaic text. The fourth word,
כתבה, illustrates exactly what I mean. (Be sure to follow along with the text while you listen here (I got the sound clip from Shai's blog, but I uploaded it to another server).

More posts to follow, including some treatment on the vowels.

I will not source everything, because I am following the Rambam. Okay, just kidding. I will not source everything precisely, but here is a list of sources which I am using in these posts:

"The Samaritan Pentateuch and the origin of the Samaritan sect" by James Purvis
"The Torah: Jewish and Samaritan Versions Compared" by Mark Shoulson
"The Samaritans" by James A. Montgomery
"Luzzatto's Introdction to the Pentateuch" in Italian Hebrew Literature by Sabato Morais
Assorted Encyclopedia and scholarly articles
Samaritans themselves
מסכת כותים and various other Talmudic and midrashic sources

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