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How were ת & ט pronounced historically?

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In Sephardi or Israeli Hebrew today, ט and ת are pronounced the same, at least to my non-native ear, something like /t/. In Ashkenazi Hebrew, on the other hand, sometimes ת is pronounced like ס (samech), /s/. Was there a pre-modern time when they were pronounced differently? If so, how?

I'm wondering whether there was a different original pronunciation of ת, one that was different from ט and from ס, that none of these groups preserved, or if it was always a variation (multiple pronunciations were used historically), or if it is a more recent regional variation.

This question is one aspect of a broader "how did Sephardi and Ashkenazi variations develop?" question, but I thought that would be too broad. If I'm wrong about that, I'm happy to accept a broader answer and adjust the question to suit.

I'm aware that some people also pronounce ת like the soft "th" in English, /θ/. I have the impression that's newer but might be wrong.

Why should this post be closed?

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I don't know if my use of the historical-linguistics tag is correct here. (I was looking for "history" and that came up.) ‭Monica Cellio‭ about 1 month ago

1 answer

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Geoffrey Khan's (open access!) book, "The Tiberian Pronunciation Tradition of Biblical Hebrew"1, discusses the pronunciation of Hebrew according to the Masoretes of Tiberias, who were active about a millennium ago; section I.0.4 gives some history. The author notes in the preface, however, that the pronunciation described in modern textbooks does "not correspond to the pronunciation of the Tiberian Masoretes."

Section I.1.9 is on the pronunciation of ט (Ṭet),

Emphatic (i.e. pharyngealized, with retracted tongue root and increased muscular pressure) unvoiced alveolar plosive [tˁ]

https://www.tiberianhebrew.com/teth has an audio clip of its pronunciation.

Section I.1.23 is on the pronunciation of ת (Tav),

Tav with dagesh (תּ‎): unvoiced aspirated alveolar stop [th]

Tav without dagesh (ת): unvoiced alveolar fricative [θ]

https://www.tiberianhebrew.com/tav has an audio clip of both sounds.

On the form of Tav without dagesh, along with some other letters, Khan writes in I.1.25,

In general, the fricative variants of the בגדכפת letters (i.e. the forms written without a dagesh sign: [v], [ʁ], [ð], [χ], [f] and [θ], respectively) occur after a vowel when the letter is not geminated

  1. Geoffrey Khan, The Tiberian Pronunciation Tradition of Biblical Hebrew, Volume I. Cambridge, UK: Open Book Publishers, 2020, https://doi.org/10.11647/OBP.0163

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