by Nick Posegay
The term ‘vocalisation’ has many meanings in the history of Semitic languages. For most modern readers, it refers to the systems of written dots and strokes that Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew writers may use to indicate vowels in a text. These ‘vowel points’ are often necessary as, in general, Semitic alphabets do not have enough letters to record all of their vowel sounds. For most readers, most of the time, this lack of letters is not a problem. As long as the reader has a solid grasp of the language, they can use their knowledge to intuit the unwritten vowels and read ‘unvocalised’ texts without issue. Consequently, modern publications in these languages rarely include vowel points, and when they do, they are usually reserved for specific instances where a difficult or foreign word appears.
There are two main exceptions to this tendency of publishing unvocalised texts. The first is for very important texts where it is essential to read as precisely as possible – that is, the Bible and Qurʾan. The second is for children’s books, which are often fully vocalised to aid new students who are learning how to read.
These two exceptions are significant reasons why Semitic scribes invented their vowel points in the first place. In the early medieval period – between the seventh and eleventh centuries – the spread of Islam across the Middle East brought Syriac-speaking Christians and Aramaic-speaking Jews into contact with Arabic-speaking Muslims. As Arabic became the dominant language in the region, fewer Christians and Jews mastered the holy languages of the Bible, especially Syriac and Hebrew. Syriac and Hebrew scribes thus invented their systems of vocalisation signs to precisely record all the vowel sounds of their biblical reading traditions, allowing future readers to reproduce those traditions even if they primarily spoke Arabic.
At the same time, the growing influence of Islam meant that more and more Muslim converts came from communities that did not speak Arabic. This situation increased the likelihood of someone incorrectly reading the Qurʾan, as these new Muslims needed to learn Arabic as a second language. Arabic scribes thus developed their own system of vocalisation signs, both to preserve the traditional readings of the Qurʾan and to help new learners read and recite Arabic. The same is true for Christian and Jewish scribes. Medieval sources tell us that they permitted the use of vocalisation signs to teach students how to read, but not for public-facing manuscripts like Torah scrolls used in synagogues or Qurʾan codices used in mosques.
As these vowel points grew in popularity, medieval scholars also developed novel methods for explaining the linguistic features of their holy languages, down to the finest detail. This new intellectual domain of ‘vocalisation’ is the subject of Points of Contact: The Shared Intellectual History of Vocalisation in Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew. In the increasingly multifaith environment of the medieval Middle East, scholars of different religions often adapted or borrowed ideas from each other to better explain the features of their own languages. By examining shared concepts that appear in the linguistic traditions of Christians, Muslims, and Jews from this period, this book identifies points of contact where diverse groups of people exchanged knowledge about Semitic languages. In many cases, the writings of individual medieval linguists synthesised information from multiple sources, including earlier Greek, Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew scholarship. As such, Points of Contact demonstrates that the most effective way to understand any one vocalisation tradition is by placing it in context with its neighbours, ultimately revealing a shared tradition of Semitic linguistics in the medieval Middle East.
Points of Contact: The Shared Intellectual History of Vocalisation in Syriac, Arabic, and Hebrew by Nick Posegay is an Open Access title available to read and download for free on the link below.