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Is the concept in Hebrew, of long vowels and short vowels , a purely grammatical thing, or a a statement about how the vowel is sounded(in length or anything else?), or both(how it's sounded plus grammatical)?

I'm not talking about the Hataph vowels 'cos I guess those would be shorter. The word Hataph is implying, hurried.

And does it only apply to Sephardi pronunciation,or does it also apply to Modern Israeli pronunciation? Does it have any application to Ashkenazi pronunciation?

4 Answers 4

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For most speakers of Modern Hebrew, there is no phonemic vowel length, that is, neither between full vowels (i.e. ṣērê), short vowels (sĕgōl) or reduced vowels (ḥāṭēp sĕgŏl). All are pronounced /e/, but may (as the rest of the simple vowels) be shortened to [ə] when far from lexical stress.

But when speaking of Hebrew, there are many variants and many historical stages of language to consider.

In the early stages of Biblical Hebrew, there was indeed a phonemic distinction of length, so that short and long vowels were distinguished in speech by their duration, but there was a tendency for this distinction of length to collapse into a distinction of quality.

Thus by the time of Tiberian Hebrew (the form typically found in printed Hebrew Bibles), the difference between so-called "short" and "long" vowels had primarily become one of quality, i.e. ṣērê was /e/, but sĕgōl was /ɛ/. There may have been a secondary phenomenon of positional length, where a vowel would have been pronounced long when stressed or in an open syllable, and shorter when unstressed or in a closed syllable. At the same time, other traditions (e.g. those that served as bases for the Sephardic pronunciation) had preserved an older distinction of phonemic vowel length.

PS: In Modern Hebrew too, true long vowels sometimes arise from the merger of two vowels when a glottal stop is elided, so that a word such as תַּעֲבֹד, which is phonemically /taʔaˈvod/, is pronounced with a long vowel: [taːˈvod].

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  • You write "other traditions (e.g. those that served as bases for the Sephardic pronunciation) had preserved an older distinction of phonemic vowel length." <-- In the book "How The Hebrew Language Grew" p334 it says "Samuel David Luzatto, one of the most famous Hebrew Scholars of the 19th century, an Italian, wrote very simply, "All my life I grew up among Sephardic Jews, many of them distinguished scholars and rabbis. I have never heard once anyone distinguish between the ah sound of a kamatz gadol and a patah".
    – barlop
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 14:15
  • @barlop But note that the fact that Sephardic Jews in the 19th century didn’t distinguish vowel length does not mean that (older) traditions that served as bases for Sephardic pronunciation didn’t. Commented Jan 9 at 13:51
  • @JanusBahsJacquet You mean supposing they didn't in the 19th century doesn't mean that older traditions didn't. Also where pinnerup writes "In the early stages of Biblical Hebrew, there was indeed a phonemic distinction of length, so that short and long vowels were distinguished in speech by their duration" It'd be interesting to see the basis for that.
    – barlop
    Commented Jan 10 at 2:30
  • @JanusBahsJacquet And BTW I recall that HowTheHLang grew book author Edward Horowitz writes that pronunciation of long/short (like chirik vs chirik yid), is based on open/closed syllable, and it just so happens that vowels written in long form tend to be in open syllables and vowels written in short form tend to be in closed syllables. (not sure how that stands 'cos a vowel written in long form, like chirik yud, would make a syllable long!) but anyhow.. And I think he might have described the short and long as ih vs ee.
    – barlop
    Commented Jan 10 at 2:32
  • @barlop Yes, that’s exactly what I mean. It might be, for example, that some traditions that are known to have formed the basis for Sephardic pronunciation still distinguished length in the 15th century, but by the 19th century, the distinction had been lost in the described Sephardic pronunciation. I know virtually nothing about Hebrew, so I am just making very generic guesses here. Commented Jan 10 at 3:12
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From Biblical Hebrew through Tiberian Hebrew to some modern Sephardi accents, it’s both grammatical and pronounced.

For example, the words ״ענֶנּוּ״ and ״ענֵנוּ״; The former has a short vowel under the first נ, which means that the syllable is closed, and the meaning becomes “Answer him.” The latter word replaces that vowel with its long variant, meaning the syllable is open, and the meaning becomes “answer us.”

In Modern Hebrew and certain Ashkenazi accents, it’s only grammatical. The pronunciation does not (necessarily) change depending on vowel length.

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  • In your example of "the words ״ענֶנּוּ״ and ״ענֵנוּ״". You've shown segol as your example of a short vowel, and tsere as your example of a long vowel. And your example isn't just grammatical or just pronunciation but a different meaning, and not surprising you got a different meaning since you really used two different vowels. A better example is Chirik and Chirik Yud i.sstatic.net/KrkRp.png So more the same vowel / closest to being the same vowel, but the short version vs the long version.
    – barlop
    Commented Jan 9 at 2:56
  • You write "In Modern Hebrew and most Ashkenazi accents, it’s only grammatical. The pronunciation does not necessarily change depending on vowel length, due to the influence of European languages." <-- no I think that's wrong and makes no sense. Let's take the example of Chirik and Chirik Yud,. That's mirrored in English or at least British English. bin/sin/tin vs Tea/been. The short ih and the long ee, very much exists in european languages. Likewise ashkenazim would do Segol and Tsere differently, eh ve ei. Sephardim pronounce segol and tsere the same.
    – barlop
    Commented Jan 9 at 3:01
  • And the difference between short and long eh and ei, totally exist in european languages. Hen/Then/Ben vs Gain/tame. Ashkenazim distinguish them in pronunciation, though sephardim don't. But segol and tsere may well be different vowels (even though both in the e class), so is not a good example for hebrew for my question. Hirik and Hirik yud is a good example for my question, re whether pronunciation of short vs long, applies.
    – barlop
    Commented Jan 9 at 3:03
  • @barlop That difference between long and short Chirik is a relatively modern difference that also exists in certain Sephardi pronunciations. Originally, both varieties of Chirik were pronounced as “ee”, with Chirik-Yod being the long vowel. Regarding Segol and Tzere, Tzere has always been the long vowel of Segol. The fact that Ashkenazim pronounce Tzere as a diphthong “ey” is itself from many European languages; and many modern Ashkenazim, mostly Americans, pronounce Tzere, Segol, and even Shva Na as “ey”. Commented Jan 9 at 12:46
  • So you're saying that long and short chirik is in certain sephardi pronunciations, but then you're saying it's a modern difference, it can't be both. You say that the ashkenazi distinction between segol and tsere, of eh for segol and ei for tsere, is from european languages. So then those sephardi traditions(which?) that you say distinguish pronunciations of segol and tsere, what way do they do so? Presumably you think they do so differently to how ashkenazi pronunciation I mentioned does. (cntd)
    – barlop
    Commented Jan 9 at 13:28
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I don't have a full answer on this.

They are certainly taken as a grammatical concept. In that they influence how the shva is sounded. Whether the shva is vocal or not.There is a slight difference in the rules on shva being vocal or not, between sephardi and ashkenazi, but both use the concept of long/short vowels as a grammatical point.e.g. https://judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/92599/what-are-the-rules-for-shva-na

There is a book "how the hebrew language grew" that around p 334 writes on this and states its opinions kind of frivously, e.g. defining it different ways without saying so explicitly, making statements he makes conflict a bit.

A thing the book says that is clear is it indicates that some people must have thought that it was longer or shorter in quantity as on p334 it quotes samuel david luzatto saying all the sephardim he hears don't distinguish kamatz gadol and patach. In the book "How The Hebrew Language Grew" p334 it says "Samuel David Luzatto, one of the most famous Hebrew Scholars of the 19th century, an Italian, wrote very simply, "All my life I grew up among Sephardic Jews, many of them distinguished scholars and rabbis. I have never heard once anyone distinguish between the ah sound of a kamatz gadol and a patah"

Another meaning of long/short is in pronunciation, like the difference between took and boot(for 'u'). bit and been(for i). Bet and bait(For 'e'). Clock(british accent not us accent), and Cloak(for 'o'). And that seems to be more to do with whether a syllable is open or closed.

And maybe some might use the term long/short to mean the vowel written in full form e.g. the 'i' vowel (chirik vowel) written with a yud following it. Vs the vowel written in its short form,so the 'i' vowel without a yud following it.

The ambiguity of the terms long/short make the terms not very good...but it's important to know the range of meanings, to try to help determine which they might mean if they sadly use the terms.

Another meaning of the concept of short vowels is how like in English, when the accent moves forward from a syllable, the vowel of the syllable lessens. Cigar becomes Cigarette. The ah of cigar equivalent to the kamatz gadol ah , becomes uh like a Hebrew shva(ashkenazim and sephardim do a shva like uh. Modern hebrew might do it like ih). .(the book "how the hebrew lanuage grew" uses that example on p337. Gadol become Gedolah or Gedolim . Maivin becomes Muhvina.

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There is a phonetic (pronounced) difference between long and short vowels in Hebrew, it is not just a grammatical abstraction. There are indeed three degrees of length: reduced, "normal", and long, reduced (hataph) being a feature of Biblical Hebrew. However, there is a chicken-egg question, whether vowel length is predictable based on stress or is stress predictable based (in part) on vowel length. The main controversy, as I understand it, is whether vowel length is "important" in the same way that the difference between [i] and [a] is important.

This work provides an analysis of Biblical Hebrew phonology, which lays out the complex relationship between stress and vowel length in Biblical Hebrew. This work argues that vowel length is abstractly relevant to Modern Hebrew without positing that it is a surface-obvious feature of pronunciation.

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  • Since the question doesn't specify, I think you should add "Biblical" to the first sentence, as this isn't the case for Modern Hebrew.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 17:15
  • Bolozky shows that it is also true for Modern Hebrew, though a different rule.
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 17:51
  • As a native speaker, this surprises me -- do you have a reference?
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 19:06
  • Not the full citation, but his paper in the Alan Kaye volume on African & Asian languages.
    – user6726
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 20:23
  • I think you're talking about the "merger of two vowels when a glottal stop is elided" mentioned in pinnerup's answer (at least, that's the only relevant thing I'm finding in that paper) -- if so, it's pretty marginal and clearly not what the question is about, but fair enough I suppose.
    – TKR
    Commented Dec 16, 2022 at 21:29

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