I can’t resist passing along this footnote from How to Read the Bible (see this post):

Mention here should be made of the proposal by F. Masclef in his Grammaire hébraique (1716) that Hebrew consonants be vocalized according to the first vowel in the name of the letter in question: thus, when the letter bet occurred in a word, it was normally to be vocalized as be, while a gimel should be vocalized as gi and a dalet as da. Thus the word consisting of the letters dalet, bet, and resh should be vocalized as daber. In addition, the letters alef, waw, heh, heth, yod and ‘ayin also sometimes functioned as vowel signs, representing, respectively, the vowels a, e, i, u, ai, and â. The name of Moses, written with the letters mem, waw, shin, and heh, should thus be pronounced: Meshi. This nutty system actually won other adherents, including, prominently, Charles F. Hioubigant [sic; should read Houbigant]…

You can read the second edition (1743) of Masclef’s Grammatica Hebraica a punctis aliisque inventis Massorethicis libera at Google Books: Vol. 1, Vol. 2.


  1. Well, Meshi is Arabic for walk (at least one of the forms). And we all know Hebrew is just really bad Egyptian. And, old Meshi did a lot of walking. So, why not?

  2. Kugel gets the vowels wrong: at least in the 1743 edition, Masclef thinks he stands for e and waw stands for ou (whatever exactly that digraph is intended to represent). In any case, there’s no waw in משה ‘Moses’, so it would be Messe by this system (shin, Masclef says, being pronounced ss).

  3. Excellent fact-checking; thanks for taking the trouble, and you might drop Kugel and/or the publisher a line — they might want to correct it in future editions.

  4. John Cowan says

    waw stands for ou

    Surely /u/, as the book was in French.

    It’s no sillier than the conventional method of romanizing Egyptian: alef and ayin become a, yod becomes i, waw becomesu, and then sprinkle /e/ around so anglophones can pronounce it. Quoth WP:

    For example, the name Tutankhamen (1341–1323 BC) was written in Egyptian twt-ꜥnḫ-ı͗mn [where ꜥ is the ayin]. Experts have assigned generic sounds to these values as a matter of convenience, but this artificial pronunciation should not be mistaken for how Egyptian was actually pronounced at any point in time. For example, twt-ꜥnḫ-ı͗mn is conventionally pronounced /tuːtən.ˈkɑːmən/ in English, but in his time was likely realized as something like [*tawaːt ʕaːnax ʔaˈmaːn].

  5. By the way, there actually is a Hebrew word meshi, meaning ‘silk’, and it just might be cognate with Moshe ‘Moses’: it’s from the root m-sh-(h) ‘draw out, take out from a liquid’, presumably because silk cocoons are immersed in boiling water before extraction, while the name of Moses is (folk-?)etymologized as reflecting his being ‘drawn out’ of the Nile in a basket as a baby.

  6. Surely /u/, as the book was in French.

    It’s in Latin; as I recall (I’ve closed the page) Masclef says that by ou he means “a sound between o and u“, whatever that means.

  7. Meshi? Moses? I’d rather look in the direction of Ra-mses. The fellow, after all, was born in Egypt.

    Others have made the connection before me.

  8. marie-lucie says

    TR: “a sound between o and u“, whatever that means.

    Since the author is referring to the sounds corresponding to the Latin letters, the intermediate sound would be written with [ʊ] or [ʋ] in the phonetic alphabet, closer to the vowel of foot than that of food, for instance (ignoring the difference in length).

  9. marie-lucie: Masclef might have meant [ʊ], but I think it’s just as likely that he meant something else or nothing at all; the part of the grammar I’ve read doesn’t inspire much confidence in his abilities as a phonetician. But IPA [ʋ] = labiodental approximant, not a vowel; or are you using it in a different way?

  10. Paul, I’d agree that deriving Moses’s name from m-sh-(h) may well be a folk-etymology (and maybe even gave rise to the reed-basket story?), but it’s a common one, and I don’t think it’s doubtful that meshi comes from that root (which would make them at least folk-cognates, so to speak).

  11. marie-lucie says

    TR, I couldn’t see the “capital U” I wanted on the character palette available on my Mac, so I tried two similar ones, but the “approximant” one must be wrong.

  12. This system reminds me of the old-fashioned Aegyptologists’ habit of inserting more or less arbitrary vowels to space out the Egyptian consonants.

    I’m no expert, but I though the etymological connection between Moses and Ramses was the consensus. Ramses is something along the lines of “son of Ra” and Moses is just “son”, a plausible name for someone born in Egypt.

  13. *Folk* etymology??? Exodus 2 10, y’all.

  14. BDB cites a G. Ebers who held that the name משה Moses comes from Egyptian mes, mesu child, son.

    BDB has an OT cite for משי meshi at Ezekiel 16:13, which KJV translates as silk. But BDB suggests it means ‘a costly material for garments’ and that its precise meaning is uknown.

  15. *Folk* etymology??? Exodus 2 10, y’all.

    Uralt ist das Volk.

  16. This is an interesting subject.
    Francois Masclef was French and published his first publication was Grammatica Hebraica a punctis aliisque inventis Massorethicis libera in 1716.

    He died before finishing his last publication in 1728, Novæ Grammaticæ argumenta ac vindiciæ.
    His friend Jean-Philippe-René de La Bléterie, another priester completed his work and published it in 1731 under the name: “Grammaire chaldaïque, syriaque et samaritaine.”

    What makes the story interesting is that the “Novæ Grammaticæ argumenta ac vindiciæ” was a riposte to his opponents bénédictin Pierre Guarin.and Didace de Quadros.

  17. I am reminded of Lashawan Qadash, an idiosyncratic Afrocentric reconstruction of Hebrew pronunciation.

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