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Please explain what is going on with the letter aleph in certain places in Tanakh (e.g. the second to last word of Devarim 3:12, the first word of Tehilim 34:10) where the aleph contributes neither a consonant nor a vowel sound. In these instances, the word is pronounced as though the aleph were not there at all.

My Feldheim Simanim Tanakh colors these alephs in gray and quotes the "Mesora Rabta" as saying that there are 48 words that contain an unpronounced aleph. I would be interested to learn more about this phenomenon. Why are these silent alephs present at all? Are there any other Hebrew letters that can be completely silent in this way?

(I'm not familiar with the work "Mesora Rabta", so a pointer to that would also be helpful.)

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Does your list of 48 words include ישמעאל? –  Yosef Nov 30 '10 at 3:48
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I don't have the list of 48 words, but the Feldheim Tanakh does not mark the aleph in ישמעאל as silent, presumably because the aleph is being used as a vowel, representing the sound of the tzere. –  Sam Nov 30 '10 at 4:12
    
That is interesting, because I would have thought ישמעאל would be a prime candidate. It is vowelized under the ע, with no mark on the א at all: יִשְׁמָעֵאל –  Yosef Nov 30 '10 at 16:35
    
For those who pronounce the ע, is it pronounced "Yishma'-El" or "Yishma-'El"? –  Isaac Moses Nov 30 '10 at 16:43
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What do the dash and apostrophe represent? –  Sam Dec 1 '10 at 2:01

3 Answers 3

Basically, it's there because the etymology of the word demands it. In your examples, לראובני is from ראובן, where the א is pronounced; and יראו is from ירא, where (in some forms of the word, such as תיראו) the א is also pronounced. In the forms with silent א, then, it's simply assimilated into the preceding vowel.

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But the question remains why the alef is silent rather than pronounced: for example, I'd expect יראו, an imperative, to have a form like זִכְרוּ, and so be יִרְאוּ. Likewise, ראובני, from ראובן, should "by rights" be רְאוּבֵנִי. –  msh210 Nov 30 '10 at 16:44
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About יראו - not necessarily: its imperative probably follows the pattern of words like לְכוּ or עֲלוּ (in the latter case the sheva turns into a chataf-patach, because ע can't take a sheva na). So the only difference would be that here the א is preserved in spelling, unlike the ה of עלה. –  Alex Nov 30 '10 at 17:57
    
About ראובן: in that form the initial sheva is definitely sounded (na), so naturally the following consonant has to be pronounced so as to avoid hiatus. But with לראובני and similar forms, the sheva that should be there is weakened enough that it becomes silent (though it's true that according to the usual rules it should be sounded), and hence the א can be elided and its vowel moved back to the ר. –  Alex Nov 30 '10 at 18:00
    
לְכוּ, and also שְׂאוּ,‎ קְחוּ,‎ שְׁבוּ,‎ צְאוּ, etc., would imply that the imperative here should be רְאוּ. So maybe I'm wrong that יראו is the imperative? (But עֲלוּ is from a ל״ה root, unrelated to this discussion AFAICT.) –  msh210 Nov 30 '10 at 18:22
    
But ראו as an imperative would mean "see," from the shoresh ראה. So here necessarily the י has to be preserved, unlike in שבו and צאו. (That's why I was thinking of comparing it to עלו - there the ה is silent and indeed disappears altogether, whereas here the א is silent but is still written.) –  Alex Nov 30 '10 at 18:27

After much research, I believe the Aleph in question is known as a Quiescent Aleph.

These take no vowel, are not a consonant, and are not counted when performing syllable division.

They appear in certain environments in Biblical Hebrew.

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The Aleph is originally not a "silent" letter: it had a function as a consonant, known as a glottal stop.

A glottal stop refers to the adduction of the vocal folds closing off the flow of air. If you can think of a cockney saying "I like it alot," at the end of "alot" the T is not pronounced. It's also present before the word apple is said (you can feel the folds close before you begin to say the word.)

So for יְראו, phonetically, it would have been: Yuh-R- GLOTTAL STOP-oo.

For לֵאלֹהֵיהֶם, La-GLOTTAL STOP-Lo-Hay-Hem.

An ayin is not silent either: it functioned as a consonant too: a pharyngeal fricative. That is a little harder to pronounces for an English speaker.

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Can you source this? Based on my understanding this is wrong. While אהוי letters can all function as consonants, they all have the ability to function as matres lectonis, meaning they are not consonants but serve to demarcate vowel sounds in an abjad. In your two examples here, the א is not pronounced. If it were to be pronounced, that would be demarcated by a shva mark under it as in Ex 15:11 נאדר. The א there has a shva and is pronounced Ne-STOP-dar. But in your cases, it's a vowel and is not pronounced. –  Double AA May 14 '12 at 5:28
    
In fact, pronouncing יראו as you suggested makes it dangerously similar to יראו (year-oo future plural of .ר.א.ה) –  Double AA May 14 '12 at 5:39
    
...umm...you didn't quote any sources in your answer whatsoever! I'm sorry that wikipedia is the easiest thing to link to online, but I think the data contained within it is accurate enough for our purposes. If you'd like to argue, then please site any source that agrees with you! –  Double AA May 14 '12 at 15:04
    
I apologize, I was going to quote wiki myself: I made the point that the Alef IS pronounced: it's a consonant known as the glottal stop. Its use as a vowel and matres lectonis is much later: books.google.com/… In addition, all the matres lectonis had their consonant value originally pronounced with the vowel. STOP does not mean not to make a sound: it means to make the glottal stop. Historically, Hebrew has origins not part of a basic Jewish education. –  EEE May 14 '12 at 15:10
    
Essentially, my point is this: before we say the word "apple," we momentarily close the glottis. You can feel it if you try. In both examples from the poster, that's what is marked by the Aleph. יְראו is the better of the two to really notice this physically. This is a much earlier Hebrew than the one in shul or spoken in Israel today. –  EEE May 14 '12 at 15:40

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