May 23, 2013 ~ Shabbat BEHA'ALOTEKHA. Maqam SIGAH.
The Syrian pronunciation of Hebrew is similar to that of other Mizrahi communities, and is influenced both by Sephardi Hebrew and by the Syrian dialect of Arabic. It does not reflect the formal rules for the pronunciation of Classical Arabic (tajwid) to the same extent as the pronunciation of Iraqi Jews. Particular features are as follows:
The stress tends to fall on the last syllable wherever this is the case in Biblical Hebrew
א (Aleph) is pronounced with a clear glottal stop [ʔ], except when used as a mater lectionis
ב (Bet without dagesh) is pronounced [b]
ג (Gimel without dagesh) is often pronounced [ɣ], like Arabic غ (voiced velar fricative)
ד (Dalet without dagesh) is normally pronounced [d], but occasionally (e.g. in the pronunciation of the word adonai) [ð]
ה (He with mappiq) is often pronounced with a very short postpended schwa [ə]
ו (Vav) is pronounced [v]
ח (Ḥet) is pronounced [ħ], like Arabic ح (voiceless pharyngeal fricative)
ט (Tet) is pronounced [tˤ], like Arabic ط (voiceless pharyngealized alveolar plosive)
כ (Kaph without dagesh) is often pronounced [x], like Arabic خ (unvoiced velar fricative)
ע (Ayin) is pronounced [ʕ] (this sound is sometimes described as "the sound of swallowing a grape, backwards"), like Arabic ع (voiced pharyngeal fricative), but this is less emphatic than in some other dialects
צ (Tsadi) is pronounced [sˤ], like Arabic ص (voiceless pharyngealized alveolar fricative); that is, like English voiceless "s" but with the tongue a little retracted
ק (Qof) is "supposed" to be [q], like Classical Arabic ق (voiceless uvular plosive) but sometimes slips: historically, into [ʔ], a glottal stop as in colloquial Syrian Arabic
ר (Resh) is trilled [r], rather than uvular [ʁ]
ת (Tav without dagesh) is pronounced [t]
The retention of distinct emphatic and guttural sounds such as [ħ] and [tˤ] is common among Mizrahi traditions.
Vowels are pronounced as in most other Sephardi and Mizrahi traditions: for example there is no distinction in sound between patach and qamats gadol ([a]), or between segol, tsere and vocal sheva ([e]). Ħiriq is sometimes reduced to [ɪ] or [ə] in an unstressed closed syllable, or in the neighbourhood of an emphatic or guttural consonant.
A shewa na', if followed by a guttural letter, will take on the vowel of that guttural letter. For example, instead of le'olam, it would be lo'olam. (See Ribbi Sittehon's "Kelalei Dikduk HaKeria")
A semivocalic sound is heard before pataħ ganuv (pataħ coming between a long vowel and a final guttural): thus ruaħ (spirit) is pronounced [ˈruːwaħ] and siaħ (speech) is pronounced [ˈsiːjaħ].
In Talmudic times it was noted that the Galilean (and maybe Syrian)
pronunciation of Hebrew and Aramaic differed from those of both Judaea and
Babylonia, principally by the loss of distinct sounds for the guttural
letters he, ḥet and 'ayin. This feature is still found in Samaritan Hebrew.
Following the Arab conquest of Palestine and Mesopotamia, much work was done by the Masoretes in standardizing and refining the pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew, under the influence of the Arabic grammarians of the time: this included establishing the pronunciation of the guttural letters by reference to their Arabic equivalents. Three distinct notations for the vowels were devised: the Palestinian, the Babylonian and the Tiberian, of which the Tiberian eventually superseded the other two.
The process of assimilation to Arabic went furthest with the Babylonian Jews. For example, in Classical Arabic, and in some spoken dialects including Iraqi Arabic, there is no phonemic distinction between "a" and "e", though a phonetic difference is made by the presence of an adjacent emphatic or guttural consonant. Accordingly the Babylonian notation does not distinguish between patach (in other pronunciations [a]), segol (in other pronunciations [e] or [ɛ]) and sheva na', and these three vowels are still pronounced alike (as [æ]) among Yemenite Jews. In Levantine Arabic, by contrast, there are distinct "a" and "e" sounds, and these two vowels are distinguished in both the Palestinian and the Tiberian notations.
After the expulsion of the Sephardi Jews from Spain in 1492, the exiles took the leading position in most Arab and Ottoman countries, and the local pronunciation of Hebrew assimilated to Sephardi Hebrew in many respects, in particular the pronunciation of the vowels. For this reason, today's Iraqi Jews distinguish between patach (/a/) and segol (/e/) in the same way as most other Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. However, distinct sounds for the guttural and emphatic letters, and the [b] sound for bet raphe, were retained in many Arab countries, probably under the influence of Arabic.
Iraqi Jews, like the Yemenites, retain the Classical Arabic sounds of waw ([w]) and tav raphe ([θ]). In other Arab countries tav raphe is pronounced [t]: this is equally consistent with the pronunciation of Sephardi Hebrew and with that of colloquial Arabic. The pronunciation of waw as [v] is more clearly Sephardic in origin.