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HEBRAIC GRAMMAR

 

 

CHAPTER II.

 

SIGNS CONSIDERED AS CHARACTERS.

 

§I.

 

HEBRAIC ALPHABET: ITS VOWELS: ITS ORIGIN.

 Before examining what the signification of the characters which we have just laid down can be, it is well to see what is their relative value. The first division which is established here is that which distinguishes them as vowels and as consonants. I would have much to do if I related in detail all that has been said, for and against the existence of the Hebraic vowels. These insipid questions might have been solved long ago, if those who had raised them had taken the trouble to examine seriously the object of their dispute. But that was the thing concerning which they thought the least. Some had only a scholastic erudition which took cognizance of the material of the tongue; others, who had a critical faculty and a philosophic mind were often ignorant even of the form of the Oriental characters.

I ask in all good faith, how the alphabet of the Hebrews could have lacked the proper characters to designate the vowels, since it is known that the Egyptians who were their masters in all the sciences, possessed these characters and made use of them, according to the report of Demetrius of Phalereus, to note their music and to solmizate it; since it is known, by the account of Horus-Apollonius. that there were seven of these characters [1]; since it is known that the Phoenicians, close neighbours of the Hebrews, used these vocal characters to designate the seven planets [2]. Porphyry testifies positively to this in his Commentary upon the grammarian Dionysius Thrax [3], which confirms unquestionably, the inscription found at Milet, and concerning which we possess a learned dissertation by Barthelemy [4]. This inscription includes invocations addressed to the seven planetary spirits. Each spirit is designated by a name composed of seven vowels and beginning with the vowel especially consecrated to the planet which it governs.

Let us hesitate no longer to say that the Hebrew alphabet has characters whose primitive purpose was to distinguish the vowels; these characters are seven in number.

  a  soft vowel, represented by a.

  h  stronger vowel, represented by e, h.

  x  very strong pectoral vowel, represented by e, h, ch.

  W  indistinct, dark vowel, represented by ou, u, y.

  A  brilliant vowel, represented by o.

  y  hard vowel, represented by i.

  [  deep and guttural vowel, represented by ho, who.

Besides these vocal characters, it is further necessary to know that the Hebrew alphabet admits a vowel which I shall call consonantal or vague, because it is inherent in the consonant, goes with it, is not distinguishable, and attaches to it a sound always implied. This sound is indifferently a, e, o, for we ought not to believe that the vocal sound which accompanies the consonants has been as fixed in the ancient tongues of the Orient as it has become in the modern tongues of Europe.

The word  %lm  which signifies a king, is pronounced indifferently malach, melech, moloch, and even milich; with a faint sound of the voice. This indifference in the vocal sound would not have existed if a written vowel had been inserted between the consonants which compose it; then the sound would have become fixed and striking, but often the sense would also have been changed. Thus, for example, the word  %lm  receiving the mother vowel  a  as in  %alm   signifies no longer simply a king, but a divine, eternal emanation; an eon, an angel.

When it was said that the Hebrew words were written without vowels, it was not understood, and Boulanger who has committed this mistake in his encyclopedic article, proves to me by this alone, that he was ignorant of the tongue of which he wrote. All Hebrew words have vowels expressed or implied, that is to say, mother vowels or consonantal vowels. In the origin of this tongue, or rather in the origin of the Egyptian tongue from which it is derived, the sages who created the alphabet which it has inherited, attached a vocal sound to each consonant, a sound nearly always faint, without aspiration, and passing from the a to the o, or from the a to the e, without the least difficulty; they reserved the written characters for expressing the sounds more fixed, aspirate or striking. This literal alphabet, whose antiquity is unknown, has no doubt come down to us as far as its material characters are concerned; but as to its spirit, it has come down in sundry imitations that have been transmitted to us by the Samaritans, Chaldeans, Syrians and even the Arabs.

The Hebraic alphabet is that of the Chaldeans. The characters are remarkable for their elegance of form and their clearness. The Samaritan much more diffuse, much less easy to read, is obviously anterior and belongs to a more rude people. The savants who have doubted the anteriority of the Samaritan character had not examined it with sufficient attention. They have feared besides, that if once they granted the priority of the character, they would be forced to grant the priority of the text; but this is a foolish fear. The Samaritan text, although its alphabet may be anterior to the Chaldaic alphabet, is nevertheless only a simple copy of the Sepher of Moses, which the politics of the kings of Assyria caused to pass into Samaria, as I have already said in my Dissertation; if this copy differs it is because the priest who was charged with it, as one reads in the Book of Kings [5], either conformed to the ideas of the Samaritans with whom he wished to keep up the schism, or he consulted manuscripts by no means accurate. It would be ridiculous to say with Leclerc [6], that this priest was the author of the entire Sepher; but there is not the least absurdity in thinking that he was the author of the principal different readings which are encountered there; for the interest of the court of Assyria which sent him was, that he should estrange as much as possible the Samaritans and the Jews, and that he should stir up their mutual animosity by all manner of means.

It is therefore absolutely impossible to deny the Chaldean origin of the characters of which the Hebraic alphabet is composed today. The very name of this alphabet demonstrates it sufficiently. This name written thus  tyrWva   hbytk  (chathibah ashourith) signifies, Assyrian writing: an epithet known to all the rabbis, and to which following the genius of the Hebraic tongue, nothing prevents adding the formative and local sign  m  to obtain  tyrWvam   hbytk  (chathibah mashourith), writing in the Assyrian style. This is the quite simple denomination of this alphabet; a denomination in which, through a very singular abuse of words, this same Elijah Levita, of whom I have had occasion to speak, insisted on seeing the Masorites of Tiberias; thus confusing beyond any criticism, the ancient Mashorah with the modern Masorah, and the origin of the vowel points with rules infinitely newer, that are followed in the synagogues relative to their employment [7].

NOTES

[1] Hyeroglyph. L. II. 29.

[2] Cedren. p. 169.

[3] Mém. de Gotting. T. I. p. 251. sur l’ouvrage de Démétrius de Phal. (greek font).

[4] Mém. de l’Acad. des Belles-Lettres, T. XLI. p. 514.

[5] Kings L. II. ch. 17. v. 27.

[6] Leclerc: Sentimens dc quelq. theol. de Hollande. L. VI.

[7] No one is ignorant of the famous disputes which were raised among the savants of the last centuries concerning the origin of the vowel points. These points had always been considered as contemporaries of the Hebraic characters and belonging to the same inventors; when suddenly, about the middle of the sixteenth century, Elijah Levita attacked their antiquity and attributed the invention to the rabbis of the school of Tiberias who flourished about the fifth century of our era. The entire synagogue rose in rebellion against him, and regarded him as a blasphemer. His system would have remained buried in obscurity, if Louis Cappell, pastor of the Protestant Church at Saumur, after having passed thirty-six years of his life noting down the different readings of the Hebraic text, disheartened at being unable to understand it, had not changed his idea concerning these same points which had caused him so much trouble and had not taken to heart the opinion of Elijah Levita.

Buxtorf, who had just made a grammar, opposed both Elijah Levita and Cappell, and started a war in which all the Hebrew scholars have taken part during the last two centuries, never asking themselves, in their disputes for or against the points, what was the real point of question. Now, this is the real point. Elijah Levita did not understand Hebrew, or if he did understand it, he was very glad to profit by an equivocal word of that tongue to start the war which drew attention to him. The word  yrwva  (ashouri), signifies In Hebrew, as In Chaldaic, Assyrian, that which belongs to Assyria, Its root  rv  or  rwv  indicates all that which tends to rule, to be lifted up; all that which emanates from an original principle of force, of grandeur and of éclat. The alphabet of which Esdras made use in transcribing the Sepher, was called  tyrWva   hbytk  Assyrian writing, or in a figurative sense, sovereign, primordial, original writing. The addition of the sign  m  having reference to the intensive verbal form, only gives more force to the expression.  tyrWvam   hbytk  signifies therefore, writing in the manner of the Assyrian, or writing emanated from the sovereign radiant principle. This is the origin of the first mashorah, the real mashorah to which both the Hebraic characters and vowel points which accompany them must be related.

But the word  rwsa  assour, signifies all that which is bound, obliged and subject to rules,  trysa  a college, a convention, a thing which receives or which gives certain laws in certain circumstances. This is the origin of the second Masorah. This latter does not invent the vowel points; but it fixes the manner of using them; it treats of everything which pertains to the rules that regulate the orthography as well as the reading of the Sepher. These Masorites enter, as I have said, into the minutest details of the division of the chapters, and the number of verses, words and letters which compose them. They know, for example, that in the first book of the Sepher called Bereshith, the Parshioth, or great sections, are twelve in number; those named Sedarim or orders, forty-three in number; that there are in all one thousand five hundred and thirty-four verses, twenty thousand seven hundred and thirteen words, seventy-eight thousand, one hundred letters; and finally, that the middle of this book is at chapter 27, v. 40, at the centre of these words:  hyxt  %brx  l[w  “And by thy sword (extermination) shalt thou live.”


 

§II.

 

ORIGIN OF THE VOWEL POINTS.

 Thus therefore, the Hebraic alphabet, whatever might have been the form of its characters at the very remote epoch when Moses wrote his work, had seven written vowels:  a   h   x   W   A   y   [   besides a vague vowel attached to each consonant which I have called on account of this, consonantal vowel. But by a series of events which hold to principles too far from my subject to be explained here, the sound of the written vowels became altered, materialized, hardened as it were, and changed in such a way that the characters which expressed them were confused with the other consonants. The vowels  a   h  and  x  offered only an aspiration more or less strong, being deprived of all vocal sound;  W  and  A  became the consonants v and w;  y  was pronounced ji, and  [  took a raucous and nasal accent [8].

If, as has very well been said by the ancients, the vowels are the soul and the consonants the body of the words [9], the Hebraic writing and all which, generally speaking, belonged to the same primitive stock, became by this slow revolution a kind of body, if not dead, at least in a state of lethargy wherein remained only a vague, transitory spirit giving forth only uncertain lights. At this time the meaning of the words tended to be materialized like the sound of the vowels and few of the readers were capable of grasping it. New ideas changed the meaning as new habits had changed the form. Nevertheless, certain sages among the Assyrians, called Chaldeans, a lettered and savant caste which has been inappropriately confused with the corps of the nation [10]; certain Chaldean sages, I say, having perceived the successive change which had taken place in their tongue, and fearing justly that notwithstanding the oral tradition which they strove to transmit from one to the other, the meaning of the ancient books would become lost entirely, they sought a means to fix the value of the vocal characters, and particularly to give to the implied consonantal vowel, a determined sound which would prevent the word from fluctuating at hazard among several significations.

For it had come to pass that at the same time that the mother vowels, that is to say, those which were designated by the written characters, had become consonantal, the consonants, so to speak, had become vocalized by means of the vague vowel which united them. The many ideas which were successively attached to the same root, had brought about a concourse of vowels that it was no longer possible to blend as formerly with the spoken language, and as the written language afforded no assistance in this regard, the books became from day to day more difficult to understand. I beg the readers but little familiar with the tongues of the Orient, to permit me to draw an example from the French. Let us suppose that we have in this tongue, a root composed of two consonants BL, to which we attach an idea of roundness. If we conceive trifling objects under this form, we say indifferently bal, bel, bil, bol, bul, boul; but in proportion as we distinguish the individuals from the species in general, we would know that a bale is neither a bille, nor a boule; we would be careful not to confuse the bol of an apothecary, with the bol which is used for liquors, nor the bill of the English parliament with a bulle of the pope; in short, we make a great difference between this last bulle and a bulle of soap and a balle of merchandize, etc.

Now it is in this manner that the Chaldeans thought to obviate the ever growing confusion which was born of the deviation of the mother vowels and of the fixation of the vague vowels. They invented a certain number of small accents, called today vowel points, by means of which they were able to give to the characters of the alphabet under which they placed them, the sound that these characters had in the spoken language. This invention, quite ingenious, had the double advantage of preserving the writing of the ancient books, without working any change in the arrangement of the literal characters, and of permitting the noting of its pronunciation such as usage had introduced. Here is the form, value and name of these points, which I have placed under the consonant  b  solely for the purpose of serving as example; for these points can be placed under all the literal characters, consonants as well as vowels.