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Hebrew Vowels Chart

Hebrew Parsing: Use the Consonants, Luke!

Doing things the hard way…

After a semester of Hebrew, and being almost through the first-year textbook, I suspect that I’ve been doing some things an unnecessarily difficult way.  I’ve been trying to memorise paradigm tables, including the diverse and erratic permutations of all the vowels.  But anyone who has studied Hebrew in any depth knows that vowels hold an interesting position in the language.  The text of the OT was originally written using only the consonants.  The vowel markings were added much later by the Masoretes (allegedly somewhere between 500-1000AD).  This has led to some historic disputes among protestants about whether the vowel points should be considered a part of the “inspired” text.  I recently stumbled across a site called withoutvowels.org which contends that only the consonantal text is truly a part of the inspired Tanakh.

I’m certainly not going to try and settle that debate here, but instead I want to suggest a practical theory that flows out of such historical knowledge.  Native speakers of modern Hebrew (and Arabic) get by just fine without any vowels.  Apparently ancient Hebrew scribes didn’t feel they would be depriving future generations of anything critical by recording the OT using only consonants.  So the question is, were the ancient Hebrew scribes able to live without the vowels only because they knew the vowels by heart from their oral tradition?  Or is it possible that they felt the consonantal text itself contained enough grammatical detail that vowels were genuinely unnecessary?

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