Book Notice: The Development of the Biblical Hebrew Vowels

Benjamin Suchard. The Development of the Biblical Hebrew Vowels: Including a Concise Historical Morphology. Studies in Semitic Languages and Linguistics 99. Leiden: Brill, 2019. 304 pages. $113.00 (hardcover).

Every first-semester Hebrew student knows the labor of memorizing the Hebrew consonants and vowels. Yet, to their shock and horror, the forms often look radically different in the biblical text than they do on the vocabulary card. Some of this confusion arises from changes that occur with the vowels. Students may wonder if there is any rationale to the different forms they see. Unbeknownst to the beginning student, there is a robust body of scholarship on the historical development of these forms. In a published version of his dissertation at Leiden University, Benjamin Suchard, Postdoctoral Researcher at Leiden, makes the latest contribution to this discussion. He argues that the development of the vowel system in biblical Hebrew is the result of regular and phonetically conditioned sound laws. This approach to language is known more broadly in the field of linguistics as the Neogrammarian tradition.

Chapter 1 introduces the discussion and orients the book in the landscape of scholarship. Suchard notes that the Neogrammarian method has been virtually absent from the study of Semitic languages and thus seeks to bring this tradition to bear on the question of the development of biblical Hebrew vowels. The scope of his analysis is the Tiberian vocalization reflected in the Masoretic Text, which he believes can be traced back to “Proto-Hebrew, Proto-Northwest-Semitic and their further ancestors” (23). The chapter concludes with a brief survey of previous approaches to the development of the vowels.

Chapters 2–8 detail specific aspects of the historical development of sound change for nouns and verbs such as phonology and morphology (Chap. 2), the Canaanite Shift (Chap. 3), syllable stress (Chap. 4), Diphthongs and Triphthongs (Chap. 5), Philippi’s Law (Chap. 6), the Law of Attenuation (Chap. 7), and word-final vowels (Chap. 8). Chapter 9 provides a summary and the general conclusions of the argument, as well as a relative chronology with a number of listed examples. An appendix contains a concise historical morphology, applying the conclusions from the previous chapters to various inflected word classes.

While this work is a valuable contribution to the study of historical Hebrew linguistics, the highly technical nature of the book, unfortunately, will render it largely inaccessible to lay persons. Without a firm grasp of comparative Semitic linguistics, the reader will struggle to wade through the data presented. In addition, the price of the volume will prohibit most from purchasing a copy. Nevertheless, those pursuing the academic study of the Semitic languages will benefit from referencing a library copy. The frequent summaries of previous scholarship throughout the book are particularly helpful. While the Neogrammarian hypothesis itself is not without problems, Suchard’s work ably brings this perspective to bear on the text of the Hebrew Bible for scholars in the field.

CBS book notices provide brief descriptive summaries and assessments of new publications in biblical studies and biblical theology. CBS book notices are not full academic book reviews. The present book notice was written by Dr. Andrew King, Assistant Dean of Spurgeon College and Assistant Professor of Biblical Studies at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and Spurgeon College.


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