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The Masoretic Accent System
The Tiberian Masoretes invented a complicated system of accent marks to accompany the biblical text. While it is not necessary for most Hebrew students to learn all of the intricacies of the system, there are a few points which can be of immense help in reading and interpreting the Hebrew text. The Masoretes actually made two systems of accents, one for so called poetic texts (Job, Psalms, Proverbs) and another for the rest of the books. However the two systems have many similarities. The basic purpose of these systems is to give musical information for chanting the text (done by the cantor). As a byproduct of this purpose we also can tell where the main stress is for each word as well as some linguistic phrasing of the text. If you think about how we put words to melody in a hymnbook, you can see how the musical phrasing largely overlaps the linguistic phrasing of the words. By linguistic phrasing I mean dividing the words of a text into sentences, clauses, and phrases. The same thing was true of the way the Hebrew Bible was chanted in the synagogue, and it is this correlation between musical phrasing and linguistic phrasing that makes at least certain aspects of the Masoretic system useful for students of biblical Hebrew.1 In either system some of the accents are kings (~ykil'm.) and the rest are servants (~ydib'[]). The kings are disjunctive, that is, they separate between elements, much as punctuation marks separate between clauses and phrases. The servants are conjunctive, joining things together. Exactly how things are joined or separated depends on a particular language, but there are also some universal principles that make for overlap among different languages. Consider the following English sentence: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. (opening line of The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway) A native speaker of English would probably agree that this sentence should be phrased something like this: He was an old man — who fished alone — in a skiff — in the Gulf Stream — and he had gone eighty-four days now — without taking a fish. This phrasing is not arbitrary. The sentence consists of two main clauses joined by the conjunction and. The first clause has as its core, He was an old man, and that core is modified by a complex relative clause, who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream. That is, the basic part of the relative clause, who fished, is modified by three different statements: alone; in a skiff; and in the Gulf Stream. The second main clause has a core subject and verb, he had gone, modified by two additional phrases, eighty-four days now and without taking a fish. While the sentence does not have any punctuation (somewhat stylistic for Hemingway), the usual rules would call for a comma after the word Stream. If the sentence were to be translated 1 The Masoretes apparently did not decide on their own how to phrase the text. The text had already been phrased for the traditional synagogue chant; the Masoretes simply invented a system to represent graphically the phrasing. Again some of the Dead Sea Scrolls already show some inner-verse phrasing through extra spacing (esp. 1QIsaA). See Johannes C. de Moor, “Structure and Redaction: Isaiah 60,1–63,6,” in Studies in the Book of Isaiah (ed. J. van Ruiten and M. Vervenne; BETL 132) 325–346. Cf. also E. J. Revell, “The Oldest Evidence for the Hebrew Accent System,” BJRL 54:1 (1971) 214–222. The Masoretic Accent System, Page 1 of 6 (Dr. Finley) into Masoretic Hebrew, the equivalent Hebrew word (assuming a similar word order) would be provided with a special accent mark called atnach (also athnach). So the atnach (more below) would function very much like a comma, letting the reader know that one thought unit ended at that point and to pause before going on to the next thought unit. Turning to biblical Hebrew, the major units of thought are not exactly sentences, be they simple or complex, but verses. A verse will typically consist of one or more complete sentences (or even part of a sentence), and the last word in the verse will always have a soph pasuq, a mark that resembles a colon, immediately following it. The oldest of our Hebrew codices, Leningradensis (L, late eleventh century), the Allepo Codex (tenth century), and Codex Cairensis (C, late ninth century), mark every verse with the soph pasuq.2 Thus the division of the text into verses was known at least prior to the tenth century, and there is evidence from some of the Qumran manuscripts that units corresponding reasonably well with Masoretic verses were marked by additional space between verses.3 The Main System for the Non-Poetic Books Most every verse of the Hebrew Bible is divided into two parts based on the phrasing of the verse. The first part is marked by placing the atnach ( =) on the stressed syllable of the last word in that part. The second part is bounded, of course, by the soph pasuq (`), but additionally the last word in the verse has a silluq ( *)placed on its stressed syllable. Here is Genesis 1:1 with the atnach, silluq, and soph pasuq. Extra space has been added between the two parts to stress the linguistic phrasing, which separates the compound direct object from the verb with its subject and reference to time. `#r<a")h' taew> ~yIm;V'h; tae ~yhi_l{a/ ar"B' tyviarEB. Often it is possible to guess where the atnach will occur based on the English translation of a verse. For example, “God called the expanse ‘sky.’ And there was evening and there was morning—the second day” (Gen 1:8, NIV). This verse consists of two complete sentences, so it would be natural to expect the atnach to occur with the last word in the first sentence. `ynI)ve ~Ay rq,bo-yhiy>w: br<[,-yhiy>w: ~yIm'_v' [:yqir"l' ~yhil{a/ ar"q.YIw: Actually the second sentence here is compound, consisting of two clauses. However the clauses are also closely related in that both evening and morning are components of the second day. The translators of the KJV recognized this and simplified to: “And the evening and the morning were 2 See Ernst Würthwein (The Text of the Old Testament [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979]) for photographs of a page from each of these manuscripts (plates 20, 21, and 24). 3 Archbishop (of Canterbury) Stephen Langton (1150–1228) is credited with dividing the text of the Old Testament into chapters (Würthwein, The Text of the Old Testament, 21). The Masoretic Accent System, Page 2 of 6 (Dr. Finley) the second day.”4 The Masoretes represented the relationship by supplying the word for evening (br<[,) with a servant or conjunctive accent called mērecha, br,[,î. It can also happen that there will be one or more natural breaks in the first half of a verse and/or in its second half. There are actually eighteen kings or disjunctive accents, and they are arranged in somewhat of a hierarchy, silluq and atnach being the first two kings. There are four other kings that are worth learning. Each of them are for lesser divisions in either the first half or the second half of the verse. 1. Zaqeph (also zaqeph qatan) looks like a shewa but on top of the word. It marks the ~yMi_y: ar"q' ~yIM;h; hwEq.mil.W #r<a,ê hv'B'Y:l; ~yhil{a/ ar"q.YIw: “God called the dry ground ‘land,’ and the gathered waters he called ‘seas.’ And God saw that it was good.” (Gen 1:10, NIV) Notice that the atnach corresponds to a period in the translation, while the zaqeph corresponds to a comma. 2. Zaqeph gadol has a vertical line beside the zaqeph, and it marks the accented syllable. AT+v.ai hW"x;-ta, [d:y" ~d"êa'h'w> `hw")hy>-ta, vyai ytiynIq' rm,aOT§w: !yIq;ê-ta, dl,Tew: rh;T;w: “Now the man had relations with his wife Eve, and she conceived and gave birth to Cain, and she said, ‘I have gotten a manchild with the help of the LORD.’” (Gen 4:1, NASB) The atnach divides between the part of the verse that talks about “the man” and the part that talks about his wife. The zaqeph in the first half brings the man into prominence: “Now as for the man, he had relations with ….” The zaqeph in the second half separates what happened to the woman from how she responded to it, while the zaqeph gadol separates between the narrator’s introduction to her speech and the speech itself. This is a frequent function of zaqeph gadol when the introductory comment consists only of the verb for speaking. 4 The translators of the NLT saw both the close relationship and the complexity of the expression: “And evening passed and morning came, marking the second day.” The Masoretic Accent System, Page 3 of 6 (Dr. Finley) 3. Segolta looks like a segol but above the word. It always occurs at the end of the word regardless of where the stressed syllable is. èhw"hy> ynIa] laer"f.yI-ynE)b.li rmoa/ !kel' ~t'_d"bo[]me ~k,t.a, yTil.C;hiw> ~yIr:êc.mi tl{b.si tx;T;mi ~k,ªt.a, ytiaceAhw> `~yli(doG> ~yjip'v.biW hy"ëWjn> [:Arz>Bi ~k,t.a, yTil.a;g"w> “Say, therefore, to the sons of Israel, ‘I am the LORD, and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will also redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great judgments.’” (Exod 6:6, NASB) The part of the verse with atnach tells what the Lord will do, while the second part tells how He will do it. The English translation recognizes the significant break by using a period. The segolta in the first half separates the phrase “I am the LORD” from the declaration of what He will do as the Lord. The English uses a comma to separate it from the rest of the sentence. The zaqeph in the first half (with ~yIr:êc.mi) separates the two coordinated clauses: “I will bring you out …, and I will deliver you ….” Again the English has a comma at that point. The zaqeph in the second half (with hy"ëWjn>) divides the two parallel parts: “with an outstretched arm” and “with great judgments.” Since no verb is used with the second member of the parallelism the English does not require any punctuation. The first occurrence of ~k,ªt.a, in the verse has a sign that resembles a diamond above its stressed syllable. It is called revia and is discussed next. 4. The revia often divides into two parts a portion marked off by zaqeph, although sometimes it occurs in a part of a verse without a zaqeph. It marks the stressed syllable. !teªnO ynIa]-rv,a] tyrIB.h;-tAa) tazO ~yhiªl{a/ rm,aOYw: ~k,_T.ai rv,a] hY"x; vp,n<-lK' !ybeW ~k,êynEybeW ynIyBe “And God said, ‘This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come:’” (Gen 9:12, NIV) Here the atnach separates between the specific recipients of the covenant from the general recipients of all future generations. The NIV has used a comma at this place, plus it has repeated the word “covenant” to clarify that the covenant is to apply to all generations proceeding from Noah and his family and all living creatures. The first instance of revia separates the narrator’s introduction to the Lord’s speech from the speech itself. The portion governed by zaqeph includes all of the speech that involves Noah and his family as opposed to that part of the speech that applies to the animals. The second revia (with !teªnO) divides the initial statement by the Lord that He will make a covenant from the start of the application to Noah and his family (“between me and you”). The Masoretic Accent System, Page 4 of 6 (Dr. Finley) The System for the Poetic Books (Job, Psalms, and Proverbs) A major difference in the system for the books of Job, Psalms, and Proverbs is that rather than atnach marking the main break, it is marked by ole veyored instead. That consists of two marks, one above the letter preceding the stress and the second below the letter that is part of the stressed syllable. An example is given below: Psalm 3:6 (NIV translation) will illustrate how ole veyored is used: `ynIke(m.s.yI hw"hy> yKi ytiAc+yqih/ hn"v"ïyaiñw") yTib.k;ªv' ynIa] I wake again, because the LORD sustains me. The ole veyored divides the discussion of sleeping from the awakening. A revia separates the two actions of first lying down and then of falling asleep, and an atnach separates the statement about awakening from the reason for it. The silluq marks the stressed syllable of the last word in the verse in both prose and poetic systems. Any of the accents discussed above, but especially silluq and atnach, can cause a word to assume a special “pausal” form. This usually entails a change in a vowel and/or a change in the word stress. Some common examples are listed here: 1. %l'ê yTir>B;DI-rv,a] la, to where I told you (Exod 32:34) Since the Lord here is speaking to Moses it is clear that the form %l'ê must be 2ms, even though%l' is normally 2fs (the 2ms being usually ^l.). The distinction between the 2ms and the 2fs is neutralized when in pause, here marked by the zaqeph. 2. Frequently an expected patach will lengthen to qamets, as in ~yIM'(h; in Genesis 1:2. The expected ~yIM;ñh; has become ~yIM'(h; in pause, marked by silluq. 3. When a verb has an ending where a vowel occurs right next to the base or root, the characteristic or theme vowel should become shewa. However in pause that vowel will not become shewa and the syllable that bears it will be stressed. a. Non-pausal: Wrm.v.yI (e.g., 1 Kings 2:4) b. Pausal: `Wrmo)v.yI (Prov 8:32), the stress syllable marked by silluq 4. In proper names with a segolate noun form, an initial segol tends to become qamets. a. Non-pausal: %m,l,ñ (Lamech; Gen 4:19); tp,y<ñ (Japheth; Gen 10:2); qf,M,ñD; (Damascus; b. Pausal: `%m,l'( (Gen 5:25); tp,y"+w" (Gen 10:1); `qf,M'(d:l. (Gen 14:15) The Masoretic Accent System, Page 5 of 6 (Dr. Finley) Bibliography
The Tiberian accentual system has been discussed in abbreviated (and greatly simplified) form here. The following include works cited above as well as additional resources for further research. Ben-David, Israel. Contextual and Pausal Forms in Biblical Hebrew: Syntax and Accentuation. Jerusalem: Magnes, 1995. [In Hebrew but with English translation of the table of contents and an English summary.] Kelley, Page H. Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, Lieberman, Stephen J. “Toward a Graphemics of the Tiberian Bible.” Pages 255–278 in Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew. Edited by Walter R. Bodine. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1992. Lode, Lars. “A Discourse Perspective on the Significance of the Masoretic Accents.” Pages 155– 172 in Biblical Hebrew and Discourse Linguistics. Edited by Robert D. Bergen. Dallas, TX: Summer Institute of Linguistics, 1994. Moor, Johannes C. “Structure and Redaction: Isaiah 60,1–63,6.” Pages 325–346 in Studies in the Book of Isaiah. Edited by J. van Ruiten and M. Vervenne. BETL 132. Leuven: University of Leuven Press, 1997. Price, James D. The Syntax of Masoretic Accents in the Hebrew Bible. Studies in the Bible and Early Christianity 27. Lewiston, NY: Edwin Mellen, 1990. Revell, E. J. “The Oldest Evidence for the Hebrew Accent System.” Bulletin of the John Rylands Tov, Emmanuel. Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. Minneapolis: Fortress, 1992. Wickes, William. Two Treatises on the Accentuation of the Old Testament. Prolegomenon by Aron Dotan. Library of Biblical Studies. New York: Ktav, 1970. [reprint of 1887 edition] Würthwein, Ernst. The Text of the Old Testament: An Introduction to the Biblia Hebraica. Translated by Errol F. Rhodes. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1979. Yeivin, I. Introduction to the Tiberian Masorah. Translated by E. J. Revell. Chico, CA: Scholars The Masoretic Accent System, Page 6 of 6 (Dr. Finley)

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