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In Shabbos 77a-77b, Chazal ask about the spelling of a series of words, questioning whether the words are spelled with an alef - as in גראינין - or with an ayin - as in גרעינין. Wasn't ayin vocalized at that time? If so, how could there be a question when the two letters had markedly different pronunciations?

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Daf Yomi Challenge? –  Seth J Dec 19 '12 at 13:45
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They're still pretty similar. I could imagine someone getting confused. –  Double AA Dec 19 '12 at 14:37
    
"Wasn't ayin vocalized[sic] at that time?" - I don't think the pronunciation of "ayin" is dependent as much on time as it is on location. –  WAF Dec 20 '12 at 3:01
    
@WAF I'm all for pedantry - would you prefer "universally articulated as a voiced pharyngeal fricative"? :) –  yoel Dec 20 '12 at 3:17
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2 Answers

Perhaps these words that Chazal are asking about were not words used on a daily basis and therefore it was unclear how to pronounce them.

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I don't know how these words are said, I'm guessing the vowelization is גַרְעִינִין or גַרְעֵינִין or maybe גַרְעֵינְיָן?

Either way, unless you're trying to be particularly makpid on pronunciation, ayin-tsere-malei or ayin-hirik-malei sound a lot like their aleph-based counterparts.

Languages also tend to be forgiving when there's no easily-confusable near-homonym.

In addition, Sumerian doesn't have an ayin sound, so perhaps Eastern Aramaic didn't pronounce their ayins as clearly as Western Aramaic.

EDIT: Here's a pdf that (I think) is trying to explain that there is a shift between aleph and ayin in Jewish Middle Aramaic, so it seems like things were confused at the time.

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However, this should all be run through a qualified linguist. I'm just guessing here. –  Charles Koppelman Dec 19 '12 at 19:07
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I did a search in the Mechon Mamre mishnah, and came up with one result for "גרעין," namely Trumos 11:5. There it is vowelized (in Vagshal) with a chirik. –  b a Dec 20 '12 at 1:20
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