January 20, 2012
Cook, Edward M. “The Orthography of Final Unstressed Long Vowels in Old and Imperial Aramaic.” Maarav 5-6 (Spring 1990): 1–15.

Question: Do the forms in Old and Imperial Aramaic without a mater lack a final vowel, or are they simply written defectively?

Thesis: Final unstressed long vowels in Old and Imperial Aramaic, could be, and often were, written defectively. This is especially true of final -; only in the Middle Aramaic period do we have full orthographic evidence for the existence of these vowels.

Since F. M. Cross and D. N. Freedman published their Early Hebrew Orthography in 1952, the prevailing view of Old Aramaic orthography is that “the spelling of these inscriptions is characterized by the regular use of matres lectionis to indicate final vowels, the absence of medial vowel letters …, and the consistent representation of diphthongs by their consonantal element.” However, Klaus Beyer suggests that final long vowels were written consistently only when stressed. This essay is devoted to examining some typical Aramaic forms in the light of Beyer’s suggestion.

A prominent set of unstressed final long vowels in Aramaic is the array of pronominal suffixes occurring after a long syllable. The 3rd masc. sg. pronominal suffix attached to masc. pl. endings is spelled -wh in Old Aramaic texts, -why in Imperial Aramaic and its daughter Standard Literary Aramaic, and vocalized [-ōhī] (<*awhī) in Biblical Aramaic and in the Onqelos and Jonathan Targums. Thus, the evidence from later dialects indicates that the quality of the final vowel was long. Given, then, that the later dialects all testify to the presence of [-hī] as the masc. suffix after a long vowel/diphthong, the interpretation of Old Aramaic -h in that environment as representing [-h] (without the long vowel) is improbable. Another example of the masc. sing. suffix which was probably written defectively in Old Aramaic is the suffix -h occurring on the “energic” forms of the imperfect. Beyer posits for Imperial Aramaic two energic forms, parallel to the two Arabic energic forms: [-an] on imperfects without sufformatives and [-nn(a)] on forms with sufformatives. He suggests that in the 3rd century B.C.E. the short vowel series was leveled throughout, accounting for the vocalization of Biblical and Targumic Aramaic.

With respect to all the suffixes (3rd, 2nd, and 1st person), the pattern of evidence from later dialects suggests that final unstressed vowels were written defectively in the early texts and plene in the Middle Aramaic texts; in Late Aramaic the final unstressed long vowel disappeared. The only way to avoid this conclusion is to posit some kind of dialect levelling in the Persian period based on Imperial Aramaic. It is likely that the influence of Imperial Aramaic didlead to some kind of dialect levelling, but there is no evidence that a preservation or restoration of final unstressed long vowels was among the features levelled through.

Therefore, the main “problem” for those who argue against defectively written long vowels in Old Aramaic is their appearrance in later dialects, particularly the 3rd person masculine singular suffix on a masculine plural noun (-wh) and the 1st person plural perfect sufformative (-n), which are followed by long vowels in later Aramaic (-ōhī and -nā respectively). If long vowels are reconstructed in these positions for Proto-Aramaic, and they also appear as long in later Aramaic dialects, then why should we not assume they were there in Old Aramaic?

Unstressed final long vowels could be written defectively, particularly if the vowel was because the vowels i and u have homoorganic consonants readily at hand to express them, y and w, respectively. The vowel ā, on the other hand, has no such “natural” consonant to signal it, which may have caused it to be written defectively.

Questions and issues:

  1. Cook argues that it is “surely unlikely” that Old Aramaic dropped the unstressed long vowel like Syriac, but his only argument against it is the time gap between Old Aramaic and later Syriac. However, such a phonological change does not seem to require a close temporal proximity.
  2. Cook’s reasoning that the “the orthography -wh crosses dialect lines, being found far to the south at Tell Deir-‘Alla (ʔlwh, "to him," I:l) and to the east, in Assyrian territory, at Tell Fekherye (mwh, "his water," line 2)” does not prove that the Imperial dialect was not responsible for the later dialects. (1) The identification of the dialect at Deir-‘Alla as Aramaic has been disputed, and it should be used only with reservation. (2) The same can be said of Tel Fekhereye. As he himself acknowledges, the Tell Fekhereye inscription is full of medial matres, setting it apart orthographically from other Old Aramaic inscriptions, and it seems to be more the exception than the rule. Some have argued that it is the closest extant progenitor to Imperial Aramaic, which would actually argue against Cook. (3) The main problem seems to be Cook’s view of Old Aramaic as a monolithic, consistent language-dialect cluster across geographical boundaries (similar to Imperial Aramaic and SLA), which it is not.
  3. Is it not equally likely that the dialect that influenced Imperial Aramaic had a long vowel but the other dialects of Old Aramaic did not?
  4. Cook also seems to assume that orthography is scribal/regional but pronounciation is consistent.

Liked posts on Tumblr: More liked posts »