Due to the current COVID-19 situation, our customers may experience some delivery delays. We apologise for any inconvenience this may cause.

Points of Contact: The Shared Intellectual History of Vocalisation in Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew

Nick Posegay

In the first few centuries of Islam, Middle Eastern Christians, Muslims, and Jews alike all faced the challenges of preserving their holy texts in the midst of a changing religious landscape. This situation led Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew scholars to develop new fields of linguistic science in order to better analyse the languages of the Bible and the Qurʾān.

Part of this work dealt with the issue of vocalisation in Semitic scripts, which lacked the letters required to precisely record all the vowels in their languages. Semitic scribes thus developed systems of written vocalisation points to better record vowel sounds, first in Syriac, then soon after in Arabic and Hebrew. These new points opened a new field of linguistic analysis, enabling medieval grammarians to more easily examine vowel phonology and explore the relationships between phonetics and orthography.

Many aspects of this new field of vocalisation crossed the boundaries between religious communities, first with the spread of ‘relative’ vocalisation systems prior to the eighth century, and later with the terminology created to name the discrete vowels of ‘absolute’ vocalisation systems.

This book investigates the theories behind Semitic vocalisation and vowel phonology in the early medieval Middle East, tracing their evolution to identify points of intellectual contact between Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew linguists before the twelfth century.



Points of Contact: The Shared Intellectual History of Vocalisation in Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew
Nick Posegay | Forthcoming
ISBN Paperback: 9781800642966
ISBN Hardback: 9781800642973
ISBN Digital (PDF): 9781800642980
ISBN Digital ebook (epub): 9781800642997
ISBN Digital ebook (mobi): 9781800643000
ISBN Digital (XML): 9781800643017
DOI: 10.11647/OBP.0271
Subject Codes: BIC: CFF (Historical and comparative linguistics), CFP (Translation and interpretation); BISAC: REL006020 (RELIGION / Biblical Biography / General), LAN009010 (LANGUAGE ARTS & DISCIPLINES / Linguistics / Historical & Comparative).

2.1    Sounding it Out: Construction of a Vowel Category

One of the most common ways that medieval Semitic linguists described vowels was with the concept of ‘sounding’ letters. Quite simply, vowels were called ‘sounding’ because they had some inherent sonorous quality, whereas consonants were ‘soundless’ unless accompanied by a vowel. This idea can be traced back to the Greek linguistic tradition but entered Semitic linguistics through the Syriac grammarian Jacob of Edessa (d. 708). Jacob first adapted the Greek concept of sounding letters in order to solve a particularly thorny issue in his career: it was impossible to write a satisfactory grammar with only the rudimentary Syriac diacritic system. As a result, he calqued a Greek concept of vowel letters from Dionysius Thrax’s Technē Grammatikēphōnēenta ‘sounded ones’—into Syriac as qɔlɔnɔyɔtɔ. Jacob’s eighth-century successor, Dawid bar Pawlos (f. c. 770-800), clarified the meaning of this term, and by the tenth century, Hebrew scholars had adopted the concept as well. The word—now calqued into Arabic as muṣawwitāt—appears in phonological contexts in Judaeo-Arabic linguistic texts from this time, including the work of Saadia Gaon (d. 942) and several Masoretic treatises. The division of ‘sounding’ and ‘soundless’ letters is also attested in Ibn Sīnā’s writing (d. 1037), even while his Syriac contemporary, Elias of Ṭirhan (d. 1049), modified Jacob of Edessa’s original qɔlɔnɔyɔtɔ model to fit a different Syriac phonological understanding.

2.2    Vowels as Phonetic Motion

The most common and well-known Arabic term for ‘vowel’ is ḥaraka ‘movement’ (pl. ḥarakāt), which somehow describes the phonetic transition between two consonants which are sākin ‘still’. It appears in the earliest eighth-century Arabic grammatical sources, and continues to see use in grammars of modern Arabic. However, the origins of this term are obscure, and other words that translate to ‘movement’ were used in relation to vowels and recitation in both Greek (kinesis) and Syriac (zawʿɔ/mziʿɔnɔ) prior to the earliest attestations of ḥaraka in Arabic grammar. It is difficult to draw a direct conceptual link between these early terms and the Arabic word, although some scholars have argued for such a connection. Eventually, both Syriac and Hebrew scholars eventually adapted ḥaraka and sākin to describe their own vowels and consonants.

2.3    Duality in the Matres Lectionis

Due to the lack of dedicated vowel letters the Semitic abjad scripts, Arabic, Syriac, and Hebrew scribes all utilised matres lectionis to represent some of the vowels in their languages. Depending on their phonological context, these ‘mothers of reading’—usually the consonants aleph, yod, waw, and heʾ—took on an additional role in Semitic writing systems, occasionally standing as placeholders for vowel sounds. Medieval scholars explained the dual nature of these letters in a variety of ways, with some saying that the matres were inherently silent, sick, or soft in comparison to other consonants. This view was consistently part of the Arabic grammatical tradition, which held that the matres lectionis were the most ephemeral letters. This understanding contrasts the interpretation of ‘sounding’ letters that we have already seen, mainly in the Syriac and Hebrew traditions, which maintained that the vowel letters were more dynamic. Despite these differences, members of all three traditions categorised their vowels by assigning each phoneme to one of the matres lectionis.

3.1    Relative Vocalisation: The Hebrew-Syriac Connection

The Syriac and Hebrew theories of relative vocalisation depend on comparisons between different amounts of phonetic openness and backness during the pronunciation of vowels. These principles appear in the grammatical work of Jacob of Edessa (d. 708), most notably in his tractate On Persons and Tenses, as well as Dawid bar Pawlos’ (f. c. 770-800) fragmentary grammar and his scholion on bgdkt letters. It also appears in early Masoretic homograph lists and the terminology in the Tiberian Masora magna and parva. Remnants of it can even be seen in Judaeo-Arabic Masoretic treatises. Altogether, these sources suggest that there was contact and intellectual exchange between Syriac grammarians and Hebrew Masoretes sometime around the eighth century, just as they began shifting from relative to absolute vocalisation. Their shared principles of relative vocalisation formed the basis of later phonological analyses of vowels and the placement of the vowel points in both Syriac and Hebrew.

3.2    Relative Phonology in Arabic

Using principles similar to the early Syriac and Hebrew descriptions of vowel phonology, the first Arabic linguists also applied a relative system to identify the vowels of their recitation tradition. Like seventh- and eighth-century Jews and Christians, Qurʾānic readers first identified some of their vowels using terms derived from connections of backness with height. The earliest Arabic diacritic dots provide evidence for this relative phonology, as they were placed using the same ‘high’ and ‘low’ phonetic associations as seen in the Syriac dot systems, albeit for consonants rather than vowels. The concept also carried into the invention of the Arabic red-dot vocalisation system, which took shape around the end of the seventh century. Early Arabic grammatical sources, specifically Kitāb Sībawayh and Kitāb al-ʿAyn, also preserve two-way contrastive phonetic terminology that, like in Syriac and Hebrew, linked the back of the mouth to phonetic ‘height’. This early tradition used naṣb ‘standing upright’ and imāla ‘bending down, inclining’ to describe the various allophones of alif in Qurʾānic Arabic, according to their relative points of articulation. Also like Syriac and Hebrew, this two-way comparison of vowels contributed to an absolute naming system during the eighth century.

4.1    Vowel Names in the Arabic Tradition

The Syriac scribal and grammatical traditions influenced Arabic linguistics from the earliest period of Qurʾānic vocalisation in the late seventh and early eighth centuries. While this influence directly affected the introduction of diacritic and vowel points to the Arabic script, it did not introduce absolute vowel names into Arabic linguistic vocabulary. Instead, Arabic grammarians developed absolute vowel names at a time when Syriac grammarians were still using a relative vocalisation system, and most absolute Syriac vowel names are unattested until at least half a century after they first appear in the Arabic tradition. That said, the Arabic set of fatḥa (/a/), ḍamma (/u/), and kasra (/i/) is conceptually similar to earlier Syriac descriptions of ‘wide-and-narrow’ vowels. These Arabic names are attested in the earliest sources, and likely saw use in Qurʾānic pedagogy before the first Arabic grammarians put pen to parchment. Additionally, the meanings of the set of naṣb (/a/), rafʿ (/u/), and khafḍ (/i/) are based on the same principle of phonetic ‘height’ that determined the position of the diacritic dots and the two-way comparisons of imāla and naṣb. These terms were names both for vowel phonemes and for the grammatical cases that those phonemes represent from as early as the first half of the eighth century.

In addition to terms for the cardinal vowels, some Arabic grammarians refined their naming system by introducing terminology for vowels produced in specific morphosyntactic contexts. These refinements include allophones of the cardinal vowels as well as different names related to syllable position and length. Our most concise source for this terminology is a list in the encyclopaedia Mafātīḥ al-ʿUlūm (The Keys to the Sciences) by Muḥammad ibn Aḥmad al-Khwārizmī (d. 997). Many of the terms in this list can be linked to passages in Kitāb al-ʿAyn and Kitāb Sībawayh, but later sources like Ibn Jinnī’s (d. 1002) Sirr Ṣināʿa al-Iʿrāb further clarify their usage, and it seems that al-Khwārizmī’s vowel ‘system’ is somewhat idiosyncratic to him.

4.2    Vowel Names in the Syriac Tradition

In the third chapter of the most recent edition of Robinson’s Paradigms, J. F. Coakley records the Syriac vowel names zqɔpɔ (/ɔ/), ptɔḥɔ (/a/), rbɔṣɔ (/e/), ḥbɔṣɔ (/i/), and ʿṣɔṣɔ (/u/). These names are based on the thirteenth-century terminology of Bar Hebraeus, and some scholars have suggested that they are the sources of Arabic vowel terminology. However, as we have seen, the earliest Syriac grammatical tradition did not have specific names for each vowel, instead describing them in terms of relative openness and backness with terms like ‘wide’ (pte), ‘narrow’ (qaṭṭin), ‘thick’ (ʿbe), and ‘thin’ (nqed). This section traces the development of Syriac vowel names from their conceptual origins in the ‘wide-and-narrow’ language of Jacob of Edessa through to the eleventh-century grammars of the Eliases of Nisibis and Ṭirhan.

4.3    Vowel Names in the Hebrew Tradition

Like in the Syriac grammatical tradition, the first Masoretic vowel names emerged from the comparative context of ‘open-and-closed’ comparisons, with the early relative terms pɔtaḥ and qɔmeṣ eventually stabilising as terms for specific vowels. However, also like in Syriac, this type of comparison did not become the universal principle for defining Hebrew vowels. Masoretes and grammarians referred to the Tiberian vowels /ɛ/, /e/, /i/, /o/, and /u/ by many different names between the ninth and eleventh centuries. Some scholars have suggested that the variation is the result of different ‘schools’ of linguistic thought that maintained different naming conventions, all in use at roughly the same time. Each of these conventions has its roots in the relative naming of pɔtaḥ and qɔmeṣ, but different authors supplemented them with modifications to the relative terminology; descriptions of the number, shape, and position of the vowel points; descriptions of the mouth during articulation; and the addition of Arabic grammatical terms to Masoretic vocabulary.