Six Degrees of Deuteronomy.

A.Z. Foreman (to quote his blog profile) “is a translator and poet who has been obsessed with languages and literature since childhood”; you should check out his translation blog, with lots of poems accompanied by his translations (and sometimes audio files of him reading the original) in languages from Arabic to Yiddish. But right now I want to feature a post from his other blog, The bLogicarian (“essays, translations of prose, original poems and so forth”) — Six Degrees of Deuteronomy: the phonological journey of Biblical Hebrew. He takes Deuteronomy 32:1-6 and gives versions of it in six stages of Hebrew: Pre-Exilic, Roman Empire, Late Amoraic, Late Ge’onic, Babylonian, and Medieval Andalusi (ancestral to “every modern Hebrew liturgical dialect in current use outside of Yemen”). For each he gives a phonetic transcription and an audio file, along with a paragraph of explanation. As an example, for Popular Reading of Jews in the Roman Empire he writes:

Fast forward through the Exile and the Second Temple period to the 3rd century. Hebrew has ceased being anybody’s native language, though pretty recently. There are many people who can remember remember hearing Hebrew spoken by their grandparents. What you have here is the pronunciation recorded in Origen’s Hexapla except with even more reduction. The lingering nasal-weakening of /m/ after long vowels seemed like a proper touch, and supported by the transcriptions. Like a residual trace of Hebrew’s last stage as a native vernacular. Aramaic influence is pervasive, from phonology to morphology. Begedkefath spirantization has long ago kicked in. There is heavy vowel reduction, and the native speakers of Palestinian Aramaic using this pronunciation use a dorsal /r/. I went out on a limb to posit that the tetragrammaton in this type of reading gets realized with the Aramaicism /jahoː(h)/. Note that spirantization is a completely synchronic rule. The resyllabification caused by proclitic ו in ופתלתל ends up despirantizing the first ת.

I absolutely love this kind of thing, and listened to all the stages.


  1. I am wondering why he posits a phonetic reading for יהוה in late Roman times at all. The tetragrammaton was probably still pronounced to some extent in Mesopotamia at in the third century, but not in Roman Palestine.

  2. Maybe he’ll show up to explain.

  3. Delta Alpha Pi says

    What about the tetragrammaton when it was fist pronounced/heard even before Hebrew language existed?

  4. David Marjanović says

    Why do you think it was ever heard before the Hebrew language existed?

  5. Don’t ask!

    *braces for onslaught*

  6. David Eddyshaw says

    Let battle commence!

    No, but seriously …

    It seems to me that it’s a perfectly reasonable question, which need not presuppose any particular commitment to Biblical literalism (personally, I have no problem with Biblical literalism, but unlike some of my fellow literal Biblicists I have actually noticed that arguments from Scripture have rather little traction with those who have every reason not to believe that your premises are valid.)

    One question is how early it makes sense to speak of “Hebrew” as a distinct language at all. Bearing in mind that even the earliest bits of the Tanach actually call the language “Canaanite”, in that sense Hebrew itself could quite easily be later than the name YHWH. Certainly the actual language name must surely be later, at any rate.

    Furthermore, if the traditional explanation of the Name is valid (and again, one can entertain this possibility without any grave danger of accidentally turning into a Southern Baptist) there’s the obvious fact that HWY is not the Hebrew verb “to be” HYY that we all know and love.

  7. Stu Clayton says

    Will this become another J** thread ? At work, to avoid discussions for the sake of discussion, I keep an open mind and a closed door. There’s a tradeoff between popularity and peace of mind. As Franz Josef Strauß put it: Everybody’s darling is everybody’s Depp.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    One hopes not. If I have contributed to lighting the blue touch paper, I heartily repent.
    Backing away quietly while maintaining eye contact is sometimes wiser, I agree.

  9. Stu Clayton says

    I’m not sure that maintaining eye contact is always a good idea. Dogs can interpret it as Drohstarren.
    But not maintaining eye contact is also risky when it is the result of turning your back.

    The important thing is not to let the adversary get behind you. Perhaps back away while letting your gaze wander – and murmuring “Look, a squirrel!” or “my grandma has no one else to care for her”.

  10. So the tetragrammaton business is one of a number of points on which I felt extremely iffy, and may actually rerecord it and change it. The Greek and Roman transcriptions suggest a tradition (somewhere, among some sort of Jew) of pronouncing it as /jaho:(h)/. Perhaps some who used the Secunda-type pronunciation for a time (indeed Origen himself reports a pronunciation transcribed as Ιαω). Even though in Origen’s Hexapla, the tetragrammaton was spelled by inserting the Hebrew letters יהוה. At the same time Epiphianus’ transcription of ιαβε matches the traditional reconstruction of /jahweh/. Theodoret’s report of ιαβε for Samaritans as against a norm of ιαω adds to the evidence for a split between pronunciations of the Yahōh-type and the Yahweh-type. The former may be a combination of Aramaic influence and spelling pronunciation. I am not married to the idea that there was a context in which Secunda-type readers were apt to pronounce the Tetragrammaton at all, and am open to being convinced otherwise.

  11. A.Z. Foreman says

    There are other points on which I felt iffy. The precise timeline of when ejectives switched to pharyngealization, for example. Kantor’s dissertation has convinced me that it was some time after the 3rd century AD, and I myself am inclined to think pharyngealization in the reading of Hebrew scripture is a development of the Islamic era. There IS some slender but pretty unshakable evidence for pharyngealization in Arabic at least in the 1st centuries BCE-CE in inscriptional Safaitic. And Ola Wikander has convinced me that certain developments in Aramaic suggest pharyngealization at an early stage in at least some dialects of it. But for the most part I’m of the opinion that the mass of pharyngealization you see today is the result of the Islamic conquests. If the Rashidun Caliphs had managed to make it to Ethiopia and hold it for a few hundred years, I bet Amharic would have pharyngealization.

    We can actually see pharyngealization replacing glottalization via contact with Arabic at present in one dialect of Tigre. Which gives a very good idea of what that process may have looked like in real time

    Another point that I actually mentioned in the post was the fate of long *ā. There are other ways to swing the trajectory between the pre-exilic period and the late 1st mil. CE. Kantor opts for rounding in the Secunda dialect, but I am unconvinced on that point and think that Babylonian and Tiberian actually rounded separately under the influence of Arabic-style pharyngized emphatics that made a [a~æ]/[ɑ] contrast hard to sustain. Though not necessarily. I learned just the other day that there are now Yemenite readers who are trying to introduce a pataħ/segol distinction in their reading in the form of /a/ and /æ/ where the former is traditionally simply a back allophone in pharyngeal contexts.

    Yet ANOTHER point of uncertainty is the timeline of /w/->/v/ development in Palestine. It is a sheer guess (albeit a fairly plausible one) that the proto-Masoretic tradition in Palestine would have resisted that change long after it was accomplished in Aramaic speech. I’ve heard of a forthcoming article on that which may or may not end up requiring me to revise my thoughts on that score.

    I often add a disclaimer to my audio reconstructions of pre-modern speech. As with all reconstructions, this is at more than one level hypothetical. In listening to these files you are doing something less like watching a documentary than watching a well-researched work of historical fiction.

  12. Lars Mathiesen says

    That’s how I deal with the 5G nutters at work — “Yes, I got your links, but I haven’t had time to read them.”

  13. A.Z. Foreman: Thanks for that detailed explanation!

    I often add a disclaimer to my audio reconstructions of pre-modern speech. As with all reconstructions, this is at more than one level hypothetical. In listening to these files you are doing something less like watching a documentary than watching a well-researched work of historical fiction.

    That’s definitely the way I take it.

  14. David Marjanović says

    Don’t ask!

    *braces for onslaught*

    I thought of that, but then I thought I remembered that in-story the Name is revealed quite late, so certainly later than…

    even the earliest bits of the Tanach actually call the language “Canaanite”

    …oh. I had no idea.

  15. Eeeeh, it’s revealed in Genesis 2 when the whole story of creation is retold from a different point of view (creating endless discussions about the order in which things were created). Now, if there were originally 2 separate texts which then were interleaved that’s an interesting fact, but not “in-story”. If you count only Elohist than HaShem is reveled to Moses from the burning bush, so yes, pretty late.

  16. @D.O.: Genesis, Exodus, and Numbers are indeed mostly made up of two main interleaved narratives, so there are numerous doublets and inconsistencies. However, the duplicate creation stories do not actually come from combining the Elohist and Jahwist sources. The second story, which uses the HaShem, is indeed from J (and the use of the proper name from the very beginning is, of course, how the source gets its name), but the first version (with the famous seven days, including the simultaneous creation of man and woman) is from the Priestly Source, whose main contribution to the Torah is Leviticus.

    Since P is elsewhere primarily a source for law, the P creation story is rather peculiar. It was probably a separate myth that was associated with the temple priests but without a canonical written form (explaining why its text has a distinctly P cast). The perceived importance of the creation story probably explained why P took the time to include this as part of their written religious-legal documents. There are other important-seeming parts of the Torah where there also seem to be more than just the usual J and E authors. Most notably, the first sections explicating the Law of Moses are a mishmosh of sources—too many to tease out how many. There are some sections that might have been added (coming from separate parallel traditions with much smaller written law corpuses) only near the time of the final redactions. Or they might have been incorporated into E or J (or P) much earlier, prior to any of the main redactions.

  17. David Eddyshaw says

    Presumably it’s common ground that no human being actually spoke the Name before the Israelites did (either because it hadn’t been revealed yet, or because the Israelites hadn’t come up with the name yet, depending on your point of view.) The question of whether the Name itself is eternal is thus fortunately irrelevant.

    So the question devolves into “What language did the first people to use the name YHWH actually speak?”
    (It seems pretty unlikely that the Elohist or the Jahvist or their brethren simply invented the name: this is to fall into the error of those who suppose that Shakespeare actually coined all the words which aren’t attested before he used them.)

    AFAIK there isn’t even a clear distinction between Canaanite and Aramaic before the beginning of the first millennium, let alone between different Canaanite languages. Do we have any evidence independent of the Bible itself as to how old the worship of YHWH actually is, and if so, does it antedate the breakup of Northwest Semitic and the consequent appearance of “Hebrew” as such?

    (Unfortunately this could turn into logomachy about exactly what one means by “Hebrew”; given that the self-designation “Hebrew” is certainly late, I can make the thesis that the first users of the Name did not speak “Hebrew” more or less vacuously true; however, I still think there is an interesting issue with the fact that the explanation of the name YHWH in Exodus actually doesn’t work properly in Biblical Hebrew.)

  18. Owlmirror says

    As I recall from about a year ago, it seems to be known that the pre-exilic Northwestern Semitic language of the north (Israel) was distinct from that of the south (Judah), even perhaps in the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton (יהוה), given the different forms theophoric names (see linked thread).

    But I guess that “Pre-Exilic”, in the OP, means the Judaite form; there doesn’t seem to be enough known of the northern Israelite dialect(s) available to reconstruct.

  19. Thanks, Brett. I’ve heard of the Priestly Source, but didn’t know it’s the source of Genesis 1. Oh well, guess I’ve missed that day in the Bible school.

  20. John Cowan says

    There is, of course, the view of Unsong, in which the Tetragrammaton is simply one of the simplest of the Names of God, the one which kills the kabalist immediately upon pronouncing it.

  21. Owlmirror says

    The site has the text of the tanach (Leningrad Codex) with the option to turn on markings of the Documentary Hypothesis (and the listing of where the markings are, with references used, at the linked page).

  22. >So the question devolves into “What language did the first people to use the name YHWH actually speak?”

    Do Yahu or Yao/Yau count? Or is the final he important to the way you want the question answered?

  23. What language did the first people to use the name YHWH actually speak?

    Middle Egyptian

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    Or is the final he important to the way you want the question answered?

    Not a bit. Just the first people to use any form of the distinctive name.

    Middle Egyptian

    Too early (apart from any other considerations …)

  25. That’s in the Bible.

    In Exodus 3:13-15, God tells his name to Moses who, as we know, was a native Middle Egyptian speaker being adopted son of Pharaoh’s daughter.

  26. David Eddyshaw says

    It would be Late Egyptian by then. (Late Egyptian is pretty early by everybody else’s standards.)

  27. David Eddyshaw says

    I can perhaps answer my own question: the earliest extrabiblical reference to the Name seems to be

    (which, as it happens, is in Moabite, though at the period in question I would imagine that everybody concerned would have understood each other anyway, as everybody was just speaking dialects of Canaanite.)

    The Song of Deborah and a few other bits of the Tanach seem (by consensus of scholars not necessarily committed to any sort of Biblical literalism) to go back to before the beginning of the first millennium, so if you declare by fiat that anything in the Tanach is ipso facto in “Hebrew” (unless it’s in Aramaic, of course), evidence for the Name in Hebrew long antedates the Mesha stele; I can only save the phenomena by saying that calling the language in which these texts were originally composed “Hebrew” is an anachronism.

  28. David Marjanović says

    by consensus of scholars

    From the paper posted yesterday, but apparently not in this thread:

    The Song of Deborah might preserve an ancient tradition of Issachar and Zebulun about the battle of Kishon. The war reason was probably economic, but the folkloric milieu transformed it into an ideological holy war poem. It is doubtful that the present form of the Song preserves anything of the ancient text, except some ideas impossible to identify with certainty. The existing shape of the song is late, from the end of the 9th till the mid-8th centuries BCE, and belongs to the northern traditions that after 722 BCE were incorporated into the Judean traditions via Bethel.

    I saw no irrefutable literary dependence of Judg. 4 upon Judg. 5. Chapter 4 might be a parallel development of the old tradition. In fact Judg. 4 preserved the initial belligerents, i.e. the northern tribes of Issachar and Zebulun, while Judg. 5 reflected a later historical framework, after the conquest of the Omride dynasty.

    The holy war poem aimed to establish the limits of the community: some tribes formed the core of the kingdom, others are passive members and, finally, foreigners such as Kenites and possibly Midian and Amalek helped Israel or were presented positively/neutrally. This tradition differs from other holy war narratives where the Midianites and the Amalekites embodied the fierce enemies.

    Late post-exilic redactions of the book of the Judges embedded the Song of Deborah and the narrative account in ch. 4 in a more general composition about the early history of Israel. In those times the community identity was questioned in a serious way. In opposition to the segregationist directions represented by Ezra and Nehemiah, the tradents of Judg. 4-5 pointed out that also some Israelites tribes were reluctant to the Israel liberation wars of the past and that on the other hand foreigners could be more attentive.

  29. I always tell my students that the P account of creation was inserted (replacing the story of YHWH stomping Rahab, the Chaos Monster) to spell out the fact that the universe has a rational and intelligible structure. The guys evidently looked at the Babylonian model of the cosmos and asked, “How would you put that together?” In short, it’s proto-scientific, which accounts for its often-remarked parallels with actual earth history.

  30. David Marjanović says

    What do you think of the idea that they looked at the Babylonian story of cosmogony and modified the religious aspect? In the Babylonian version, the sun, the moon etc. are all deities themselves, while in the Bible they’re mere created things that serve purposes, and that seems like part of the point.

    often-remarked parallels with actual earth history

    Are these actually better than random? Rain after land plants, birds with fish and before land animals, fish after fruit trees and grass, indeed birds after fruit trees and grass… :-/

  31. often-remarked parallels with actual earth history

    Are these actually better than random? Rain after land plants, birds with fish and before land animals, fish after fruit trees and grass, indeed birds after fruit trees and grass… :-/

    The rain business is in Gen 2, though.

    I was thinking that in Gen 1, the sequence of creation demonstrates an awareness of ecological/environmental dependency, and a sense of a hierarchical ladder/chain of being. Plants, trees and grass need earth, light, and water, so earth, light, and water are created first. Birds need trees, so trees are created first. Land herbivores need grasses and other plants, and so come later, and the predators need prey (fish and birds).

    I’m not saying that it’s actually close to being correct. It’s obvious that that the author didn’t even know that light comes from the sun as a light source, let alone that animals and plants all co-evolved, and environments changed over time as a result of interactions with life, as well as the broader laws of physics. But it shows the sort of wrong answer that can be reached by making observations and incorrect inferences from ignorance.

  32. As Pushkin remarked on another (but similar) occasion “Bad physics, but such a poetry!”

  33. David Marjanović says

    The rain business is in Gen 2, though.


    But it shows the sort of wrong answer that can be reached by making observations and incorrect inferences from ignorance.

    Yes, of course.

  34. Like Owlmirror said, sure they’re better than random. The mechanism involved isn’t causal but logical, but it proceeds in a (mostly) necessary order:

    1.3: light: something vs. nothing: existence.
    1.5: day and night: now vs. then : time.
    1.7: the vault of heaven: above vs. below: space.
    1.9: land: dry vs. wet: quality.
    1.11: plants: alive vs. dead: life.
    1.14: put the light in some nice things. Now we’re preparing for creatures that can look at them. Note that after Enuma Elish goes on for tablet after tablet describing the astrological function of the heavenly bodies, P pointedly flips it all off: “He made the stars too.”
    1.20: Sea and air creatures.
    1.24: Land creatures.
    1.26: YAY US.

    By the way, the P account ends at 2.4.

  35. I don’t know anything about the sources, and can’t really assess the names and whether they’re related, but there was an effort 100 years ago to find antecedents to yahweh in theophoric names:

    Was it all debunked and reinterpreted, or did that kind of Bible-oriented history just go out of fashion?

    I also thought I had read about more recently discovered early inscriptions with Yao or Yau but it’s a difficult thing to google. Did the author write Yao or Jao or Ya-o or Ya-hu, and how does the signing of Yao Ming with the Houston Rockets factor in?

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    I too had the impression that there were Akkadian sources which cited Canaanite theophoric names including forms of the Name, but searching reveals nothing at all and I think I must simply have imagined it.

    I think part of the trouble is that nobody paid much attention to the Israelites (apart from themselves) until a remarkably late period. About the only one of their kings to leave any lasting impression seems to have been Omri (who in the Bible just has a walk-on part as yet another generic Bad King.)

  37. Owlmirror says


    For future reference: Google Books only requires the book ID and the page, so this:
    is all you need to get to the same page.

    While Google restricts access to the specific book that you linked to, it was easy to discover that it is actually out of copyright, and the Internet Archive has the whole thing for free, in multiple scans, thus:

    And more from the author can be found by clicking on the link of his name on that page: Clay, Albert Tobias, 1866-1925

    I also thought I had read about more recently discovered early inscriptions with Yao or Yau but it’s a difficult thing to google.

    As I linked above @ April 21, 2020 at 5:54 pm, there was a thread where that was discussed. The particular comment I had in mind as an article from Ha’aretz describing examples of theophoric names from Tel Dan (northern Israel), like “Immadiyaw”, being spelled differently in Judea (southern Israel; in this case, specifically Horvat Uza in the Negev) : “Immadiyahu”.

    Perhaps something like that is what you saw?

  38. David Eddyshaw says

    According to that article

    stamped seals dating to the 9th and 8th century BCE, carrying the names Immidayaw and Zechariyaw have been found

    About the same period as the Mesha stele, then.
    Whatever else, it does seem pretty clear that the the first people to use the name YHWH were Canaanites, and belonged to the culture which appears as the various Israelite kingdoms in the Bible.
    While my nitpicking objection that it’s an anachronism to call their languages “Hebrew” is technically correct, I think, I must admit it’s a bit of a distinction without a difference, at best.

    In other words, DM was right in the implication in his first comment (though it remains the case that the question of whether the Name had a pronunciation prior to the Hebrew one is in itself a perfectly sensible one.)

  39. AJP Crown says

    Wer everybody’s Darling sein möchte, ist zuletzt everybody’s Depp. – Franz Josef Strauß.

    Johnny Depp [an American actor, My Lord] wondered why Germans always giggled when he introduced himself. Apparently Depp is, mostly in southern Germany or Austria, a colloquial noun meaning fool, twit or dope. It’s translated somewhere as douchebag but I think it means someone who is dim.

  40. Stu Clayton says

    As who might say: “Everbody’s darling is everybody’s doormat”.

  41. Aha, that’s a good translation. Thank you.

  42. David Marjanović says

    Apparently Depp is, mostly in southern Germany or Austria, a colloquial noun meaning fool, twit or dope.

    Yes, and I pity Prof. Wolfgang Deppert (that’s the adjective).

    “Douchebag” is definitely wrong, because that means evil, not stupid. I’d go for “dumbass”.

  43. Johnny Dumbass, then. As rude as ‘Schnabel’, say, but not necessarily ethnically motivated.

  44. Stu Clayton says

    Does anyone know where I can buy a Dr. Schnabel plague mask ? The stores in NRW will be reopening on Monday.

  45. John Cowan says

    evil, not stupid

    ‘Evil’ is definitely too strong; douchebag means ‘jerk, asshole, contemptible person’, typically by reason of rudeness, arrogance, being personally disgusting, or other forms of obnoxiousness. To call Hitler a douchebag would be ridiculous, though he undoubtedly was. AHD5 gives ‘foolish’ as one of the meanings, but i think that’s too weak.

  46. David Marjanović says

    Well, “small-scale evil”, small enough that it’s contemptible rather than simply scary.

  47. While my nitpicking objection that it’s an anachronism to call their languages “Hebrew” is technically correct, I think, I must admit it’s a bit of a distinction without a difference, at best.

    אַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט

    It occurred to me that this could be expanded upon: A language is a dialect with an army of teachers and scribes, and a navy of merchants and accountants.

  48. When I think of „douchebag“ I think of the bad guys in a generic 1980s comedy. The archetypical douchebag is Trump as he was in the 1980s. He Is no longer a douchebag as he is either too corrupt and demented, or too anointed by God, depending on your political persuasion.

  49. David Eddyshaw says


    Well put. Numerous examples come to mind, too.

  50. Relevant to YHWH, The Biblical Archaeology Review has some material freely available at this time, and one of them is Did ancient Hebrew have vowels?.

    However, as more people learned Hebrew and its grammar became more sophisticated, some of these letters began to serve a dual purpose as vowel letters. Specifically, these letters—the waw (ו), yod (י), aleph (א), and later the heh (ה)—were sometimes used as matres lectionis, Latin for “mothers of reading,” to help readers pronounce some words that were commonly mispronounced or misunderstood.

    Matres lectionis began appearing infrequently in Hebrew inscriptions in roughly the eighth century B.C.E. and became more common over the centuries. In fact, a general rule of thumb in Hebrew texts is the more “plene vowels” (or vowel letters) that appear in a Hebrew text, the later the text is.

    The Jewish historian Josephus references vowels in War of the Jews (5.235). He states that the Jewish high priest wore a golden crown that was engraved with the holy name [of God], composed of “four vowel letters” (φωνήɛντα γράμματα τέσσαρα). Interestingly, this is the only time Josephus uses the Greek word φωνήɛντα (“vowel”) in any of his writings. Furthermore, he doesn’t elaborate on the fact that Yahweh’s name is made up of these vowel letters. But, as a skilled writer of the Greek language, and as a Jew with a knowledge of Hebrew, he is obviously aware of the difference between what first Plato and later the second-century B.C.E. Greek grammarian Dionysius Thrax described in his work, Ars Grammatica, as the phōnēenta (Greek: φωνήɛντα), or “sounding” Greek letters—by which he meant the breathed vowels α, ɛ, η, ɩ, ο, υ, and ω—and the áphōna (Greek: ἂφωνα), or “unsounding” Greek letters—by which he meant the remainder of all the breathless consonants.

    This means that Josephus preserved in his writing what all readers of Hebrew knew at the time: There were some letters in the Hebrew alphabet that had developed a secondary usage as vowel letters. But unlike Greek, which had separate letters to represent these breathed vowels, Hebrew readers would simply have to know from experience and education when these dual-purpose letters were vowels and when they were consonants. It was not until the 11th century C.E. that scribes called the Masoretes formally codified the pronunciation of the text of the Hebrew Bible by adding the vowels we see today above and below the text.

    So was Josephus saying that the Tetragrammaton was pronounced IEOE, or something like that?

    It seems unlikely to me that no other source would have mentioned this use of vowelized letters in general, and made more tenuous given that the idea is based on one single mention in Josephus. And why would other vowel systems have ever arisen if this convention actually existed?

    An idea that I had once was that the name, when used ritually, was supposed to be pronounced like a drawn-out sighing of the wind – Yaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhwhooooohhhh. I wonder if perhaps that is what Josephus meant by phōnēenta. ( The theophoric versions of the name would of course be shortened. )

  51. So was Josephus saying that the Tetragrammaton was pronounced IEOE, or something like that?

    I would assume rather that he was saying the name was made up of letters that could be used as vowels.

  52. David Eddyshaw says

    I would assume rather that he was saying the name was made up of letters that could be used as vowels

    Absolutely. Also, I wouldn’t take the vile quisling Josephus’ word for anything …

    IEOE is just not a possible form in Hebrew (or any ancient Semitic language.) It’s one thing to have a divine name that you’re not allowed to pronounce, quite another to have a divine name that breaks the phonotactic rules of your own language. The Unpronounceable Name …

    Cthulhu fhtaghn.

  53. Stu Clayton says

    Õאַ שפּראַך איז אַ דיאַלעקט מיט אַן אַרמיי און פֿלאָט
    a shprakh iz a dialekt mit an armey un flot

    Max Weinreich, purveyor.

    So I learn Hebrew letters from Yiddish written with Hebrew letters. Great. Could be worse.

  54. You could have learned it here, but that was before your time.

  55. Stu Clayton says

    I’m not talking “it”, but only them. There are limits. Old age concentrates the mind wonderfully – on very few things. Money and reputation, chiefly.

  56. David Marjanović says

    However, as more people learned Hebrew and its grammar became more sophisticated


    I would assume rather that he was saying the name was made up of letters that could be used as vowels.

    Me three, and it’s quite possible that the tetragrammaton wasn’t pronounced at all in his time (except by one priest in one ceremony in the Temple).

  57. John Cowan says

    Perhaps sophisticated here still means ‘contaminated’, as in unsophisticated ale ‘ale without hops’.

  58. David Eddyshaw says

    Biblical Hebrew uses vav and yod, which as consonants respectively represented /w/ and /y/, to write long /u:/ and /i:/, and also uses vav for the /o:/ which is the Canaanite reflex of Proto-Semitic /a:/, along with the /o:/ that arose from /aw/. The vowel /e:/ is normally only written with yod when it represents earlier /ay/. The text does not normally write vowels which are “long by position” with vav or yod at all; it represents a significantly earlier stage of the language than the Massoretic pointing, when these vowels were still short. The latest books of the Tanach do change the conventions a bit, but this is more in the direction of writing vav and yod more consistently for long vowels in unstressed syllables than the earlier books do.

    The letter he is only (used as a mater lectionis) to write word-final /a:/ and /ɛ(:)/. In most cases where it is used for final /a:/, this actually derives from earlier /at/, and the convention probably originated as a way of writing an intermediate stage /ah/ (like ta: marbu:ṭah in Arabic.). Significantly, the verb ending /ta/ and the pronominal suffix /ka/ are usually not written with final he. Final /ɛ(:)/ mostly comes from *Vy.

    Aleph is not used to mark vowel length in Biblical Hebrew (unlike Aramaic and Arabic); the text actually consistently reflects a time before the consonant was lost after vowels with compensatory lengthening, and aleph pretty much always represents the etymologically expected original consonant /ʔ/.

    Three out of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton do not represent vowels in any way at all.

  59. Three out of the four letters of the Tetragrammaton do not represent vowels in any way at all.

    This was a very learned comment, which is why it left me confused:
    Biblical Hebrew uses vav and yod […] to write long /u:/ and /i:/, and also uses vav for the /o:/
    The letter he is only (used as a mater lectionis) to write word-final /a:/ and /ɛ(:)/
    Isn’t it what is meant by “vav, yod, and hey can represent vowel sounds”?

  60. David Eddyshaw says

    You are a diplomat, D.O. “Learned” = “needlessly obscure (and probably fundamentally confused into the bargain.)” I confess.

    Sure. They can represent vowel sounds. But they only do so 75% of the time in the Name. (Actually, this follows from the conventions used for writing Biblical Hebrew, even if you don’t accept the usual reconstructed vocalisation, which indeed could in principle be wrong.)

    The usual presentation of the Biblical Hebrew vowel system as taught to happy Christian theology students goes back to David Qimḥi’s ingenious superposition of the vowel systems of two phases of the language a thousand years apart. It works remarkably well in practice, considering, though you end up with a picture of the language greatly at variance with any phonological plausibility.

    The logorrhea in my previous comment was due to the fact that I’ve long found the whole thing fascinating. The Massoretic pointing of the vowels is amazingly rigorous in its own terms; I first realised this when looking into something that even the big standard grammars scoot over in a paragraph: the conditions under which the bgadkpat spirantisation of stops after vowels takes place between words in phrases. It turns out that there is an absolutely rigorous rule for this, but it depends on systematically distiguishing two distinct types of word-final /a:/. The rule is applied so consistently that the Massoretes must have been consciously aware of the difference, even though it is neutralised in words cited in isolation. I’ve found exactly one previous account of this, by Seligman Baer (and it’s in Latin.)

  61. “Learned” = “needlessly obscure (and probably fundamentally confused into the bargain.)”

    Actually, no. I would call it “reverse sarcasm”, a remark that can be read as sarcastic, but in fact is not. But the term seems to be already taken by something else. So…. let’s call it “inverse sarcasm” or maybe iomasm.

    I really liked the comment and it’s high level of erudition.

    My totally uninformed guess is that Greek(-speakers) taunted their Jewish friends “eh-neh-neh-neh-neh-neh, were are your vowels?” and Jews naturally responded: “see, we have these three at least” and as such Jews writing for Greeks decided that they will call these letters “vowels”.

  62. David Eddyshaw says

    I wasn’t really imputing sarcasm to you, D.O. (you are always exemplary in your courtesy.) But I am vaguely aware that I sometimes lapse into gratuitous obscurity. Sometimes.

  63. David, according to Wiki it’s not only [a:]. The rule is probably so maddeningly complicated that even Wiki begged out of it

    In Hebrew texts that are not modern, begedkefet letters at the beginning of a word preceded by a vowel are sometimes written without a dagesh and therefore pronounced as fricatives, e.g. “אֲשֶׁר־בּוֹ פְרִי־עֵץ” (/aʃer bo fri ʕets/, Genesis 1, 29), but not always – e.g. “עֹשֶׂה פְּרִי” (/ʕose pri/, Genesis 1, 11 and 1, 12). This is governed by the stress and cantillation mark of the preceding word, but the detailed rules are beyond the scope of this article.

  64. the detailed rules are beyond the scope of this article.

    That may be the most frightening thing ever seen in a Wikipedia article.

  65. Owlmirror says

    So was Josephus saying that the Tetragrammaton was pronounced IEOE, or something like that?

    I would assume rather that he was saying the name was made up of letters that could be used as vowels.

    This reading doesn’t make sense to me. If Josephus were discussing the Hebrew writing system, and then mentioned that some letters act as vowels when used in certain ways (matres lectionis, as known and noted above), that would be understandable. But he is only discussing the letters on the crown. Saying that these are all letters that could, in other contexts, be used as vowels, but aren’t meant to be read as such in this context, looks like a bizarre non-sequitur. The most straightforward interpretation is that Josephus is saying something about the pronunciation of the name as it appears, vague and undetailed as it may be.

    I have a frustratingly vague memory that Josephus, or someone contemporary to or close to his era, had something to say about the tetragrammaton being all vowels (besides this reference), but I can’t pin down what it was.

    The Wikipedia article on the topic is long and sprawling, but maybe this is what I’m remembering:

    Most commentators, Genesius said, favoured Yahwoh, in line with the statement by several ancient writers that the Jews called their God ΙΑΩ.[16] This form has the same vowel structure as in the Hebrew names of Jacob and Pharaoh.

    Others favoured Yahweh on the basis of the account by Theodoret (c. 393 – c. 458/466) of the Samaritan pronunciation as Ιαβε, of the theophoric name suffixes יָה֫וּ /jahu/ and יָהּ /jah/, and the abbreviated name YH /jah/.

    One of the reference images for the page is the Dead Sea Scroll fragment 4Q120 of the Greek Septuagint with the name appearing as ΙΑΩ.

    I think it’s worth considering that there may well have been multiple different pronunciations, with the variants being lost over time due to attrition of the communities where those pronunciations occurred, or where one group managed, by whatever means, to convince others that they were doing it wrong.

    The taboo on writing the name out certainly did not arise immediately: The Lachish ostraca (c. 590 BCE), as but one example, invoke the name casually in non-sacred context.

  66. David Eddyshaw says

    the detailed rules are beyond the scope of this article.

    The rule is actually fairly easy to state, though it involves knowing a bit beforehand about the cantillation marks and about how stress alters when words are combined. As I said above, it actually applies with almost clockwork regularity. (I didn’t mention cases with final ɛ like the one Wikipedia cites, because you don’t need to distinguish two different cases, the way you do with final a:)

    I’m off to work now, but would be happy to explain further this evening if anyone cares.

  67. Stu Clayton says

    The rule is actually fairly easy to state, though it involves knowing a bit beforehand

    This is also true of any aspect of category theory, cat physiology or quilting – to name but three.

  68. David Eddyshaw says

    It reminds me of a principle of surely universal validity that I actually first encountered in the context of AI: “You can only teach somebody something if they almost know it already.”

  69. David Marjanović says

    I’m off to work now, but would be happy to explain further this evening if anyone cares.

    …Yes, please, so I may remove the scariest passage in all of Wikipedia.

  70. David Eddyshaw says


    Greek of the period in question has of course no symbols for any of the relevant consonants. If the Name really was vocalised like “Jacob” or “Pharaoh” it would in fact mean that all four of the written letters represented consonants, while the vowels, as expected, were entirely unwritten: Yahwo:h.

    Incidentally, this vocalisation has the advantage of doing away with the need for the final he to represent /ɛ/: although that is of course standard practice in Biblical Hebrew orthography for lamed he forms (of which the Name is one, if the traditional explanation is correct), I’m not sure how old that particular writing convention actually is.

  71. Saying that these are all letters that could, in other contexts, be used as vowels, but aren’t meant to be read as such in this context, looks like a bizarre non-sequitur.

    No, it’s just a train of thought. People are not computers and they do not think, speak, or write in logical sequiturs. He could perfectly well have looked at the name and thought “Hey, those are all [letters that can be used as] vowels” and run with it. I often do that sort of thing; just read this blog. To me, the idea that the Name was all vowels is far more bizarre.

  72. David Eddyshaw says

    The taboo on writing the name out certainly did not arise immediately

    There’s no taboo on writing the Name, of course – it’s all over the Bible: the taboo is on speaking it. Admittedly Lachish Guy probably had no trouble with that, but the fact that he wrote it is neither here nor there. However, the taboo does indeed seem to be post-Exilic.

  73. David Marjanović says

    Incidentally, this vocalisation has the advantage

    Well, perhaps; see the quote in the OP.

  74. Owlmirror says

    There’s no taboo on writing the Name,

    Holy Sacrilege Batman! Of course there are taboos on writing the name. It’s in the bible — or rather, the written Hebrew torah — but there are all sorts of taboos surrounding the torah!

    1) Works containing the Name — copies of the torah and prayer books — are supposed to be treated respectfully, and preserved for as long as possible. If they become genuinely too worn/damaged to be used, the works are supposed to be buried in a graveyard. The reason the scriptal treasure trove of the Cairo Genizah exists is because people put in all sorts of works written using Hebrew letters (which therefore might contain the Name), which were supposed to be ultimately buried, but which were instead simply stored for centuries.

    2) When writing or printing things (usually prayers on small cards to be distributed widely) where it is known that the written material might not be treated properly, circumulocutions are used. The name is written simply “ה׳” or “ה”; “elohim” or “eloheynu” is written as “elokim” or “elokeynu” (אלוקים/אלוקינו). I’ve also seen “ד” and “אלודינו”.

    3) The Hebrew numbering system uses the letters א-ט for the numbers 1-9, י-צ for the numbers 10-90, and ק-ת for the numbers 100-400, used for ordinary numeration, but also for gematria. The most famous example is “יח”=”חי” ; life=18. However, there is an irregularity for the written numbers 15 and 16 — “יה” is too close to being a form of the name, so “טו” is used (9+6), and “יו” is also too close, so “טז” is used (9+7).

    4) The taboo on writing the name of God has become so ingrained that some modern Jews prefer to write “G-d”, even though “God” is not the name of God. There are probably scholarly papers out there about taboo expansion.

    Admittedly Lachish Guy probably had no trouble with that

    He had no trouble with that because the taboos had not yet arisen. No modern Jew would dream of writing “יהוה” in a non-sacred casual writing like a letter, which might get lost or treated carelessly! If someone needed to refer to God in a letter, as a pious writer well might, they would use a circumlocution like “ה” or “השם”.

  75. There have been multiple rounds of taboo avoidance in Jewish culture. Many Orthodox Jews will not write or pronounce “Adonai” except in traditional prayers, even though “Adonai” is itself just a replacement for the tabooed tetragrammaton.

  76. David Eddyshaw says

    OK. The promised screed:

    First of all, some background for the three Hatters who don’t know Biblical Hebrew (everyone else can skip to the very end.)

    Biblical Hebrew is written with an alphabet entirely consisting of consonants. However the vowels corresponding to Proto-Semitic long vowels /o:/ (from Proto-Semitic a:) /i:/ /u:/ are usually written with the so-called matres lectionis consonant letters for /w/ /y/ and /w/ respectively, and the vowels /o:/ and /e:/ deriving from original /aw/ and /ay/ are naturally enough written with /w/ /y/. In addition, the word-final vowels /a:/ /ɛ/ and /ɛ:/ are written with the letter for /h/.

    The vowels called “long by position” in Biblical Hebrew grammars are consistently not written with matres lectionis (except to a limited extent in the later books); at the time that the orthography of the Bible was established the vowels were still short.

    The vowel marks in Hebrew Bibles are the work of the Massoretes. There were different schools of Massoretes; the ones responsible for the most important tradition worked by Lake Tiberias, hence the name “Tiberian” for the system they created. They themselves spoke Aramaic, and by the time in question Hebrew was no longer a living vernacular. Nevertheless, their marking preserves an astonishing fidelity to the tradition of pronouncing the text; this pronunciation, however, reflected major changes in the phonology of the language that had occurred in the millennium since the last books of the Tanach had been written, and also reflects the fact that the language was for them a lingua ebraica in bocca aramaica. In particular, all short vowels in open syllables had either been reduced to schwas or lengthened, the lengthened versions now coinciding with the reflexes of the original long vowels. However, the preservation of the tradition was so accurate that these two sorts of long vowel still pattern quite differently in the morphophonemics. The modern tradition of description of the system goes back to David Qimḥi, who attributed the morphophonemic differences to there being two different sorts of long vowel synchronically; this is in fact an illusion generated by superposition of two vowel systems separated by a millennium of sound change.

    Some of these changes are already reflected in LXX transcriptions into Greek letters, in particular the prolongation of short vowels in closed final syllables in nouns (but not verbs.) Origen’s Hexapla several centuries later is similar. The other changes came about in the centuries just before the Massoretes’ work, and look very much like accommodations to Aramaic speech habits after the demise of vernacular Hebrew (the Aramaic of this time did not permit short vowels in unstressed open syllables at all.)

    Another Aramaicising feature of the language reflected in the Massorah is the so-called bgadkpat phenomenon. This is in itself easy to describe and reflects a cross-linguisitically common sort of process: non-glottalised stop consonants became fricatives after vowels unless the stops were geminated /pp/ /tt/ etc.

    In the Tiberian system itself, this stop/fricative distinction is nearly-but-not-quite-completely noncontrastive. Apart from a few isolated oddities, the main thing making it apparently phonemic is the loss of the aforementioned schwa vowels, so that e.g. [ka:θəβa:] “she wrote” became [ka:θβa:].
    Confusingly, the Massoretes used the same symbol for /ə/ that they used after a non-word-final
    consonant to signify that it had no following vowel at all, and closed the syllable. This has led many to the natural conclusion that in the Tiberian tradition itself these schwa-vowels had already been lost; ergo, the stop/fricative distinction was already phonemic. At a later stage of Hebrew pronunciation while the Tiberian tradition was still itself being orally transmitted this is certainly true (Geoffrey Khan has done remarkable work on investigating such things.) However, the Tiberian pronunciation tradition (itself now lost) must have changed over time: it is absolutely clear from prosodic considerations that /ə/ had not been lost at the time the stress-marking notation was applied to the text.

    This “stress marking” is what is traditionally called “cantillation marking.” The original individual
    meanings of the signs has been lost, along with the oral tradition of the Tiberian pronunciation. However, the system is discoverable from the text, and it’s one of the linguistic wonders of the world. Students of Biblical Hebrew unfortunately usually come across it mentioned only in passing, as the individual cantillation marks (with one or two trivial exceptions) are placed on the stressed syllable of each word (and stress is contrastive and grammatically important in Hebrew.) However, it’s much more than that: it functions as a very fine-grained punctuation system. There is a defined hierarchy of cantillation marks, which is used to divide each verse up into successively smaller units. This can be helpful in understanding the text: it preserves the Massoretes’ own parsing of the text (they weren’t invariably right, just as they weren’t always right about the vowels, but they are always worth paying attention to.)

    The system is accordingly pretty complicated: happily, for the purpose in question the complexity can be drastically reduced by just dividing the marks into two groups, which are traditionally called “disjunctive” (dividing bigger groups of words) and “conjunctive” (smaller groups.)


    Many sandhi phenomena occur within “conjunctive” groups, but not across the bigger groups. In particular, the bgadkpat phenomenon (remember that?) occurs when a word beginning with a stop is preceded by a word ending in a vowel, i.e. the fricativisation rule applies across word division.
    There is also another important sandhi rule which turns out to interact critically with this: stress dissimilation.

    When a word with final stress precedes a word with initial stress within a “conjunctive” group, something usually has to give. The first word either shifts its stress to the preceding, penultimate syllable, or if this is impossible, loses its stress altogether, and is joined to the following word by a hyphen-like mark called maqqeph. The stress can only be shifted like this if there is a penult (obviously), but also is not allowed to shift if the stress lies on a superheavy CV:C syllable, or if the penult is a closed CVC syllable; it can shift two steps back, over a schwa: (/’ka:θəβa ‘llo:/ “she wrote to him”), which is how you can tell that schwas were still a thing at this time. [Incidentally, the “superheavy” restriction allows one to see that the original Tiberian tradition did not automatically lengthen all vowels in closed stressed syllables, as is popularly supposed.]

    Now this spirantisation of initial consonants after vowel-final words has exceptions.

    There are no exceptions after the vowels /e:/ /i:/ /o:/ /u:/
    With the final vowel /ɛ:/, the spirantisation always takes place if the /ɛ:/ is stressed. However, if the /ɛ:/ is unstressed (which can only happen through stress dissimilation) the initial consonant of the following initial-stress word is geminated (whether it’s a stop or not); if it’s a stop, this prevents fricativisation (as always.)

    Thus with D.O.’s example from Genesis 1:11; it’s actually for /ʕo:sɛ ppəri:/, with gemination of the /p/; this has escaped many scholars because the “dagesh” mark is used both to signify that a consonant is not fricative, and to write gemination, but non-stops also take dagesh in these circumstances and are thus clearly geminated (hence my /’ka:θəβa ‘llo:/ above.)

    Now for the last piece of the jigsaw:

    With word-final /a:/, the rule is that spirantisation always takes place if the /a:/ is stressed; AND it always takes place if the /a:/ is stressed in the form that word takes in pause. Many Biblical Hebrew words adopt a different form before pause from elsewhere; a case in point is the qal perfective 3rd person singular feminine, which appears in the grammars as /qa:ṭə’la:/, but appears as /qa:’ṭa:la:/ in pause.

    The rule after final /a:/ is, accordingly, that fricativisation does not occur [gemination does instead] if the /a:/ is not only unstressed in the construction in consideration, but is ALSO unstressed when the word appears in pause.

    Thus /’ha:ya: ‘βo:/ “he was in it” (/ha:’ya:/ “was”)
    but /’ka:θəβa ‘bba:/ “she wrote with it”

    The rule is therefore straightforward:

    Within groups demarcated by conjunctive marks, bgadkpat fricativatisation takes place across word division except

    (i) after unstressed /ɛ/ always
    (ii) after unstressed /a:/, SO LONG AS the /a:/ is also unstressed in the pausal form of the word.

    The rule is applied with extraordinary consistency (check for yourselves!) and the Massoretes must surely have been consciously applying it.

  77. Stu Clayton says

    What are the reasons (however inconsistent among themselves) that have been given over millenia for these taboos ? Owlmirror mentions “respect”. This reminds me of Trump’s demands that people be “appreciative” of him, not contradict him, not be “disrespectful” or “nasty” towards him etc. He wants to be the only one who may use his name, and he’s always using it.

  78. Thanks very much for that screed; I have learned much from it.

  79. The fact that five Hebrew letters have different forms at the ends of words may also have some significance in terms of phonological effects across word boundaries. However, this is a much older phenomenon and, if there really is an effect, it has never been properly understood.

  80. John Cowan says

    “You can only teach somebody something if they almost know it already.”

    “[A teacher is] one who attempts to re-create the subject in the student’s mind, and his strategy in doing this is first of all to get the student to recognize what he already potentially knows, which includes breaking up the powers of repression in his mind that keep him from knowing what he knows.” —Northrop Frye, The Great Code (the first of Frye’s two books on the Bible, from Blake’s expression “the Great Code of Art”)

  81. Stu Clayton says

    “You can only teach somebody something if they almost know it already.”

    That’s the old Socratic scam in the Menon, the claim that a slave can prove a geometrical theorem that he didn’t even know before S. started asking him leading questions.

    breaking up the powers of repression in his mind that keep him from knowing what he knows.

    Repression ?? Freud as the Socrates of innate-knowledge enthusiasts ?

    You can lead a horse to knowledge but you can’t make him think. By their horseapples ye shall know them.

  82. David Eddyshaw, thank you so much.

  83. David Eddyshaw says

    That’s the old Socratic scam

    Nah. “Almost” is the key word. None of these Platonic shenanigans.

    It’s one of those neat aphorisms which is evidently true, but turns out to be hardly a piercing insight once you reflect on it for about thirty seconds. “I see … so when I’m teaching people things, I need to arrange the material in such an order that one lesson prepares for the next. Brilliant! Your ideas interest me strangely.”

  84. Stu Clayton says

    You wiggled nicely out of that one, by avoiding the word “knowledge” altogether. We are essentially d’accord. My beef is with the reification of the notion of “knowledge”. As you imply, lessons are called lessons because their number lessens as time goes on – if you get lucky.

  85. SFReader says


    Had to look it up. Turns out I knew this word, but forgot.

    Haven’t read Marx for almost thirty years.

  86. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I learnt the word reification from one of the Histories of Discworld, I think.

    I took the quote as a warning from the other side – to bear in mind that something which is simple or obvious to you may not be to someone who doesn’t know all the similar things which you know around it.

  87. Stu Clayton says

    SFReader, you seem to mean the Marxian notion in political philosophy of Verdinglichung, or “reification” in English. The notion of reification I mean is that of Whitehead (“the fallacy of misplaced concreteness”), Dewey et al.

    I imagine Crown and Trond can tell us more about the dangers of misplaced concrete.

  88. David Eddyshaw says


    That actually fits pretty well with the context in which I first came across it: the point was that much of the difficulty in getting machines to act in an intelligent way resulted from the fact that human everyday intelligent behaviour requires a huge background of knowledge about how things can be expected to be and behave (a background which we normally take completely for granted and have some trouble even bringing to our conscious awareness.)

  89. David Marjanović says

    Thanks very much for that screed; I have learned much from it.


    Your ideas interest me strangely.

    …and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter.

  90. AJP Crown says

    I can, actually. The land under the goathouse has been eroded by water, the conc. foundation has split in half and I have to spend the summer mixing more conc. and filling in the gaps before the goathouse falls down. I’m just glad they never lived to see it in this state.

  91. David Eddyshaw says

    As Marx has been invoked, and in honour of the date:

    C’est la lutte finale
    Groupons-nous, et demain
    Sera le genre humain!

    (It’s a catchy number.)

  92. And the guy who wrote it was an anarchist.

  93. David Eddyshaw says

    Yes, I expected you to know that …

  94. John Cowan says

    Billy Bragg’s lyrics: “Stand up, all victims of oppression” (1990).

    Greg Baker’s “Linuxnationale”: “Arise, you prisoners of Windows” (2000).

    “Je suis marxiste, tendance Groucho.” —variously attributed (1968)

  95. Just to make a bit of a convergence with a nearby thread, today is inexorably an anniversary of May Day parade (in American sense, it’s demonstration in Russian) in Kiev in 1986.

  96. David Marjanović says

    “Stand up, all victims of oppression”

    That’s nothing. Start here.

    (In case you’re wondering, here’s the imperial origin story.)

  97. How is reification different from hypostatization, if at all?

  98. Stu Clayton says

    Weell, if you’re prepared to collapse the philosophical history of “substance” (ousia, hypokeimenon, monad …) into riffs on (impredicable, unchanging) “thing” – then yes, the two words amount to the same hill of beans.

    Except that, as I mentioned, Marx and Whitehead cook those beans in different ways. Now there’s an example of misplaced concreteness if there ever was one !

  99. Only if you dislike beans.

  100. J.W. Brewer says

    More than two millennia before Marx and Whitehead, certain Greek thinkers were already stuck on the puzzle of exactly how many beans you could remove from the hill before it ceased to be a hill.

  101. And of course there was Pythagoras.

  102. Stu Clayton says

    Only if you dislike beans.

    I meant that my statement – “Marx and Whitehead cook those beans in different ways” – is an example of misplaced concreteness. Frijoles mal colocados.

  103. Lars Mathiesen says

    Depends on who you are? These guys testing how many beans you get an immediate idea of how many there are, more than that is a collective. Innit.

  104. John Cowan says

    I know how many beans make five ‘I know what’s what’ or ‘Don’t insult me with such elementary explanations’.

  105. Wow, that goes back a ways. From Greene:

    know how many (blue) beans make five (v.)
    to be alert, to be aware of facts or information.

    1780 [UK] T. Pasley Private Sea Journals 5 May (1931) 86: His Nephew, a very genteel young Man – seems to know how many blue Beans make five, if I may be allowed the vulgar adage.
    1803 [UK] J. Wetherell Adventures of John Wetherell (1954) 9–10 Oct. 69: You are all always pretending you know how many beans make five and after all know nothing at all.
    1830 [UK] J. Galt Lawrie Todd I Pt II 90: I had met with few men in America who better knew how many beans it takes to make five.
    1980 [UK] Barltrop & Wolveridge Muvver Tongue 88: Explanations of how things work or have come out are usually capped with […] ‘Now you know how many beans make five’.
    2000 [UK] M. Amis Experience 344: Bernard knows how many beans make five.

    And I had never heard of it.

  106. You can read the Kinky Konk’s long struggle with the question here.

  107. David Eddyshaw says

    Completely familiar expression to me.

    This gives me the same rather depressing feeling I had when visiting a science museum with my children and seeing all the exhibits of the stuff I used when I was their age …

  108. I did not know that expression, but this scene from Blackadder II is probably an allusion to it. The scene is quite hilarious even if one is unfamiliar with the aphorism, and the whole episode is arguably the funniest of the entire Blackadder oeuvre.

  109. Owlmirror says

    It is utterly unsurprising that beans, like calculi, might be used as manipulatives to try to convey basic mathematical concepts to young children (and Baldrick).

    That having been said, I am suddenly reminded of the notion that we don’t know how many beans make five, because there is a secret missing integer.

    You might not think that makes sense, but nevertheless, there’s a story (and short film) about the idea (and perhaps see also the “Works Similar” at the bottom of the page).

    I am also reminded that the Pirahã don’t have a native concept of discrete quantities. This also seems strange to me because other South American and Mesoamerican peoples seem to have the concept; how would such a useful concept get lost? But the experiments seem clear: they could understand “less” and “more”, but not specifics like “four” and “five”. I see from WikiP that they are now being taught Portugese, and the mathematical concepts of that language.

    (Story idea: The Pirahã are descendents of advanced mathematicians that strove to find the hidden integer, and were punished with complete dyscalcula for their hubris)

  110. AJP Crown says

    There was a nice old Cockney man of about seventy when I was a child, he’d been gassed in WW1 and he owned a bicycle shop in Portobello Road where I used to hang out while my mother was working. He used to sing music-hall songs like “She was a beautiful dicky bird/Tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet she went,” and ask me how many beans made five. At first I’d say “Five,” but I never really knew if it was an appropriate answer. After a few days or weeks of this, I began to reply by asking what he meant. Of course he had no explanation. So I went back to just answering “Five,” and he’d nod.

  111. David Marjanović says

    this scene from Blackadder II is probably an allusion to it

    *lightbulb moment*

    how would such a useful concept get lost?

    Numerals do get lost; there are many languages in Australia that have numerals only up to 2, and others up to 3, and some of those that end with 2 have clearly lost one for 3.

    Useful… useful for what, when they’re already happy?

  112. No, it’s probably not about how many beans make 5 with Baldrick, they never even get to 5, it’s a Pirahã-style joke (1,2,3, many).

    In Ukraine, we used to joke that a person has only 9 fingers. How? That’s how, give me your hands and count with me “перший, другий, вторий ,третій, …, дев’ятий”. It’s nine! [For those who staunchly refuse to learn Ukrainian другий and вторий are both words for 2]

  113. Lars Mathiesen says

    There’s a physical joke that gives nine fingers (digits) as well: starting with the little finger use your right thumb to count the digits of your left hand and when you have counted your left thumb as number five, continue counting the four fingers of your right hand with your left thumb. Not very deep, but confusing if you don’t pay attention.

    Once upon a time you could download a clock for the X desktop that on the most approximative setting would go 9ish, 10ish, 11ish, lunch, go home soon. And on Friday, it just said Friday. That’s how you lose numerals, I think.

  114. David Marjanović says

    a Pirahã-style joke (1,2,3, many).

    Lots of languages are like this, but not Pirahã, which doesn’t even have a word for 1: it goes “very few, some, many”.

  115. @Lars Mathiesen: I think the classic version of something like that is the Hodja counting his donkeys, although it also reminded me of Martin Gardner’s demonstration of how to fit seven people in six chairs.

  116. There’s a similar jocular way to prove someone has eleven fingers I remember from elementary school. You start on one hand, counting down from ten to six, and then add the five fingers on the other hand.

  117. Trond Engen says

    Or you count with the hands in your pocket.

  118. David Eddyshaw says

    Steady on. Not all of us are mathematicians.

  119. Saying that these are all letters that could, in other contexts, be used as vowels, but aren’t meant to be read as such in this context, looks like a bizarre non-sequitur.

    Not having taken a Ling 101 class, Josephus was presumably thinking in terms of the Greek grammatical tradition. The alphabet is divided into φωνήεντα ‘vowels’, ἄφωνα ‘stops’, and ἡμίφωνα ‘continuants’; a letter can’t belong to two categories, and the Hebrew letters in question must be the φωνήεντα because otherwise there wouldn’t be any. (The Romans had letters which could stand for either vowels or consonants, but Quintilian still describes i and u as being “vowels which are [sometimes] used for consonants”.)

  120. confusing if you don’t pay attention

    Division can be a much trickier operation (in Russian).

  121. Speaking of numbers, May the Fourth Be with You!

  122. David Eddyshaw says

    It’s just occurred to me that יהוה is the Imperial Aramaic 3sg masculine imperfective of “be.” I’ve just learnt that in Biblical Aramaic, which is pretty much Imperial Aramaic, the 3sg m imperfective of “be” uniquely appears in the Eastern Aramaic form להוה, presumably precisely to avoid the coincidence in form with the Name.

  123. Owlmirror says

    I linked to Eisenbraun’s site, and just happened to notice that while A Handbook of Biblical Hebrew costs $70, there are free MP3 files of 12 different accents/pronunciations of Hebrew.

    The text being read from is the last couple verses of Exodus 14:30-31 and continuing to Exodus 15 (The Song of the Sea). If you can read Hebrew, I recommend finding a text with full niqqud, because it’s easier to track the different pronunciations (Yemeni gimel-dagesh is “/dʒ/”? Guess so…)

    Some of the readings are spoken, some are chanted/sung according to the cantillation. And, speaking of taboo avoidance of the name of God, most say “Adonai”, the Lithuanian one says “Hashem”, and I’m pretty sure I’m hearing “Adonan” during the Holland-Amsterdam reading, which is a euphemism I’ve not heard before.

    Readings are:


  124. [Beans, five]

    Since I was looking at this book [Folk-phrases of Four Counties (Glouc., Staff., Warw., Worc.) English dialect society, 1894] for the cat’s mother, I also noticed:

    How many beans make five ? Warw .; Worc. (?) Said to test one’s sharpness. The ‘retort courteous’ is not always given . The ‘quip modest’ is, ‘A bean and a half, a bean and a half, half a bean, and a bean and a half.’ To say of a man that ‘He knows how many beans make five’ is to speak highly of his shrewdness.

    I am not sure I understand “the retort courteous” in this context. Is five supposed to be a matter of opinion to be differed on?

    I see that Brewer has more on beans.

    He says that “blue beans” are bullets/shot. He also claims that the Pythagorean proscription on beans was a circumlocution for staying out of politics (voting with beans). He provides no citation, and Wikipedia, at least, does not even mention this interpretation (Pythagoras’ life seems to have been poorly attested enough that all sorts of hot air was emitted about what he did or did not do).

  125. He used to sing music-hall songs like “She was a beautiful dicky bird/Tweet-tweet, tweet-tweet she went”

    You can hear this sung in true music-hall style here (from 0:45 to 1:45) and see the full lyrics here.

  126. David Marjanović says

    He says that “blue beans” are bullets/shot.

    Blaue Bohnen are stereotypically involved in threats gangsters make.

  127. Lead doesn’t look blue to me, and bullets/shot don’t look bean-shaped to me, so I would never have guessed the connection.

    I wonder if it’s originally a hunting (shooting? poaching?) joke. Maybe “make five” in some dialect or other language is a pun on hitting (a target)/killing/scoring? Something to do with tally marks?


    – How many [bullets] make five?
    – One to go high, one to go low, one to go left, one to go right, and one to hit.

    – How many [bullets] make five [hits]?
    – Five if you’re a good shot, fifty or more if you’re a bad one.


    Additional variant answers to “How many beans make five?”

    two beans, one bean, a bean and a half, and half a bean.

    a bean, a bean, a bean and a half, half a bean and a bean.

    The answer, established by Penelope Keith’s voice, is FOUR.

    One is a has bean.

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