Why does the pronunciation of 'ABA' ( אבא ) is straightforward, while the pronunciation of 'IMA' ( אמא ) is not ?

Shouldn't it be pronunciated 'AMA' instead of 'IMA' ?


(I'm assuming your question relates to how the writing relates to the pronunciation, rather than how the words came about historically. Correct me if I'm wrong. I'm also approaching this from an Aramaic perspective rather than a Modern Hebrew one; both of these words are Aramaic in origin, and the spelling given in the question is the Aramaic one.)

The Aramaic writing system didn't generally indicate vowels the way the Greek, Latin, and Cyrillic alphabets do. Certain letters, such as aleph, can either indicate a consonant or a long vowel. And short vowels are just unwritten. Compare the modern Arabic alphabet.

There is, however, a convention called "pointed writing" (as well as probably fancier names, but that's the one I learned) where diacritical marks are placed on letters to indicate how they're actually pronounced. That makes it much clearer.

The first word you mention is written in "pointed writing" as אַבָּא ʾabbā. The second word is אִמָּא ʾimmā. In both of these, the first aleph doesn't indicate a vowel a, but rather a consonant: the glottal stop. The short vowel following that glottal stop doesn't get its own letter.

NB: It doesn't get its own letter in Aramaic, at least. In Modern Hebrew, the use of actual letters for vowels has become more widespread, whether the vowels are long or short. As har-wradim points out, the second word is thus prescriptively spelled אימא, with the i explicitly marked. Yiddish has taken this trend to its obvious conclusion, using letters for all vowels.

(Historically, the different vowels in these roots seem to go back to Proto-Semitic.)

  • The answer is correct in essence, but the details are not accurate. – alephreish Aug 22 '17 at 14:15
  • @har-wradim The two answers approach the question rather differently and there's no way to know what the OP was asking without further input. If the question is "Why isn't it written with a yod today?" your answer is more on point, but if the question is "Shouldn't I pronounce aleph as /a/?" then I find this answer's comment "Aleph doesn't indicate a vowel but a glottal stop" the most à propos. – Luke Sawczak Aug 23 '17 at 14:50
  • @LukeSawczak By 'not accurate' I mean first of all that it is not clear what language(s) at what periods are meant. Statements like 'aleph ... can ... indicate a long vowel', 'short vowels are just unwritten' or 'aleph ... indicate(s) ... glottal stop' are very much context-dependent (are we talking about Aramaic or Hebrew? Biblical, Rabbinic or Modern?). – alephreish Aug 23 '17 at 15:25
  • Given the transcriptions, it is clear that OP is referring to Modern Hebrew, so neither of the three statements would be correct. – alephreish Aug 23 '17 at 15:28
  • @har-wradim A fair point. I don't actually know Modern Hebrew; I'll add a note about that. – Draconis Aug 23 '17 at 17:18

The story behind אמא and אבא is slightly more complicated than explained in Draconis' answer.

Jewish Aramaic (the two words in question are of Aramaic origin - see below) and all stages of Hebrew were/are written in square script which originally did not have means to denote vowel sounds.

The two mutually non-exclusive strategies used to assist the reader are: 1) the addition of special vocalization diacritic symbols and 2) introduction of matres lectionis, i.e. consonant letters denoting vowels. Vocalization marks came very late and are/were rather inconvenient in day-to-day writing. The general trend in the development of Hebrew writing has thus been the more extensive usage of matres lectionis.

The four matres lectionis in use in Hebrew and Aramaic are:

  • י - /i/ in Modern Hebrew (occasionally also /e/)
  • ו - /u/ and /o/
  • ה - word-final /a/ (in Hebrew)
  • א - word-final /a/ (in Aramaic, most notably the definite article -א as in אבא/אמא), occasionally also /a/ and /o/ in the middle of a word in Mishnaic and Modern Hebrew.

There was indeed a tendency for the matres lectionis to be written in long syllables, but this is not evident in Modern Hebrew writing.

Now to the words in question. Both אמא and אבא are Aramaic words and in such shape they entered Mishnaic Hebrew. The motivation for the lack of י in אמא is likely twofold: first, the corresponding syllable was closed by the geminated m (it must be said though that in Aramaic orthography closed-syllable vowels could be denoted with matres lectionis as well) and second, the word was easily recognized without י. In Modern Hebrew, nevertheless, the spelling אימא is prescribed, although this prescription is to a large extent ignored.

Interestingly, Hebrew preserved also the original Hebrew words for father and mother:

Proto-Semitic *ʔimm > ... > Tiberian Hebrew אֵם /ʔem/ [ʔe:m] (inflected /ʔimm-/) ~ Modern /em/

Proto-Semitic *ʔimm > ... > Judeo-Aramaic אִמָּא */ʔimma:/ > ... > Modern /ima/

Proto-Semitic *ʔab > ... > Tiberian Hebrew אָב /ʔɔ̄v/ [ʔɔ:v] ~ Modern /av/

Proto-Semitic *ʔab > ... > Judeo-Aramaic אַבָּא */ʔabba:/ > ... > Modern /aba/

  • 2
    Presumably the reason אמא lacks a mater lectionis (note, not lectiones) is that the [i] was short; in pre-Modern Hebrew matres lectionis were almost exclusively used for long vowels. (Btw as a native speaker of Modern Hebrew I find the prescribed spelling אימא very unfamiliar and bizarre-looking.) – TKR Aug 22 '17 at 16:29
  • @TKR lectionis - thanks, corrected. "in pre-Modern Hebrew matres lectionis were ... used for long vowels" - this is correct for BH, while RH is more diverse. Statements like "all long vowels were denoted with matres lectionis" or "absence of matres lectionis is an indication of shortness" would not be correct. The first syllable in the original Aramaic אמא was short when it entered RH (AFAIK), but for the Tiberian Masoretes it would have been long due to stress. – alephreish Aug 22 '17 at 18:55
  • @TKR Important correction: the stress in both אמא and אבא was ultimate, so at no point in time could the first syllables be long. – alephreish Oct 12 '18 at 16:13

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