Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How a recent Hirhurim ("Hereurim") post reminded me of Francois Masclef's method of reading Hebrew without nekkudot.

Gil reviewed the new Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society. One article is called Correcting the Ba'al Koreh: Punctilious Performance vs. Public Embarrassment by R. Moshe Rosenberg. While calling it "a fantastic discussion," he also makes the cryptic remark that "R. Rosenberg seems to get way too much joy from this whole subject, there's enthusiasm bouncing out of every page of this article." That comment could only remind me of the following quote from Francois Masclef (in English translation, below, by Michele de la Roche):

Masclef (1662-1728), by the way, was a foremost proponent of the "Hebrew without points" movement of the late 17th-18th century. He devised a method for reading Hebrew without nekkudot that sounds quite wacky (and is; but is also not as wacky as you'd think). Basically, his problem was twofold. One, he personally had a very difficult time learning to read and understand Hebrew. It's not hard to learn 22 consonants, but add dots and dashes and you get all kinds of confusion, unless you are 3 years old. The second is that fact that in innumerable instances the ancient versions (Septuagint, Targums, Origen, New Testament quotations, etc.) flat out disagree with the Hebrew of the masoretic text. This could be seen not only in words, but also in proper names, where the question is merely one of pronunciation and not meaning. Thus disagreement with the Hebrew means really that there is disagreement with the points. Quite often if you just take out the points and revowel the consonants in the Hebrew, there is full agreement with one or more of the versions.

Feeling certain that the vowels points are only a commentary on the Bible, and a late and non-Christian one at that, he felt that there is absolutely no reason to pay any heed to them at all. This left the problem of how, practically speaking, to pronounce the Hebrew. He felt that it really didn't matter one way or another. By analogy, we also don't have a completely accurate, faithful to the ancient, pronunciation of Greek or Latin, but what does it matter? We understand those languages anyway. Still, reading Hebrew is a practical matter, so he came up with the following system: 1) place a vowel in between any two consonants, 2) treat אהו and י as the consonants a, e, o and i, 3) lacking those vowel letters, supply the sound of the vowel between consonants, so it should follow the sound of the vowel in the name of the Hebrew consonant. Thus, take a random Hebrew word like שמש shemesh, or the sun. Since ש is pronounced shin, מ is mem, and the final ש has no consonant after it, the word may as well be pronounced shimesh. Or the word שלום; shin is i, lamed is ah, ו is u, and mem has nothing after it, so it yields shilaum (instead of shalom). A quirk of the system is that when שלום is spelled defective as שלם, then instead of shilaum you'd read shilam.

By the way, in case you were already scoffing at his relying on the traditional, basically masoretic pronunciation of the names of the consonants, a tradition passed on by the Masoretes, this didn't matter to him. In fact, he designates his system the "Artificial Prounciation," which makes sense since his point was only to have a practical way to read Hebrew in a consistent way, while rejecting the points. The point was to have a practical, not historically true, pronunciation. His contention was that the masoretic pronunciation was not historically true, meaning ancient, either. In addition, he actually rejected the masoretic pronunciation of the consonants. While retaining most of them, being they are never contested anyway (d for ד, etc.) he absolutely rejected the concept of the כפולים as being entirely groundless. Thus, for him ב is always b, פ is always ph, ת is always th, and is ש always sh (or ss). In defense of this, he cited the ancient versions which he believed justified this as much as any other way of pronouncing them.

Masclef found that using this system he was able to read Hebrew comfortably in 15 minutes! This, in contrast to the years required to learn to read with points. What about the meaning of the words? In most cases it was not in question, no matter how it is voweled. Where there was a question, he felt that was a cue to consult the witnesses of the versions, which anyway was a normal feature of biblical scholarship. The advantage of his system, he believed, was that it did away with the difficulty of learning to read with nekkudos, and it also forcefully expelled the intrusive authority of the Masoretes!

Anticipating the question, what then did this do to the understanding of Hebrew grammar, being that some of the conjugations are identical without points? He scoffed at the tedium of grammatical exactitude, as in the quoted passage above. But he also claims to have found that in most conjugations this presented no problems. However:

Finally, he felt the proper approach to Hebrew grammar was to follow the grammar books, but simply ignore the sections on points!

Interestingly, in his review of Hebrew grammarians in the first part of his Prolegomeni, Shadal catches an interesting absurdity in Masclef's system. Since none of the Hebrew letters--except for one--employ the חולם, and he used ו for u, his Hebrew lacks the o. Absurd enough for Semitic languages (for Masclef extended his method to reading Aramaic and Syriac), but he also renamed the letter קוֹף kuph. (I imagine Shadal would be very annoyed if he by chance sat in on our yingelach being taught the Aleph-Beis; then again, this applies to the names we use for half the letters anyway).

In any case, Shadal continues to point out the absurdities, such as that in Masclef's method the Aramaic word for buying, זְבַן, and selling, זַבֵּן, must be identical! Finally, he conjectures that Masclef was influenced by the 1650 Arabic grammar by Antonio dell'Aquila who recommends beginners a similar method to reading Arabic without points, and to employ consistent vowels instead. However, writes Shadal, dell'Aquila modifies this rule with others which partly correct the imperfections causes by it, "concluding that everything must be subordinate to the use of the language," (Rubin trans., pg 50).

Here is Masclef's table for pronouncing Hebrew letters:

Finally, as an example of the kind of reaction this work could get, below is a note scrawled on the side of Masclef's book as digitized by Google:

Now I don't know if this notation is nearly as old as the book (printed in 1716, and appearing to have been owned by a "G. [or P.] Solier, L.H.B.") but it gives you an idea of the strong such a work was able to provoke.

(Let me know if you know what L.H.B. stands for, or can identify the following person, which might actually be a "P." as in "Père" and who therefore might be a French priest who lived in that time named François Solier.)

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