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Tiberian vocalization

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Tiberian Hebrew designates the extinct canonical pronunciation of the Hebrew Bible or Tanakh and related documents. This traditional medieval pronunciation was committed to writing by Masoretic scholars based in the Jewish community of Tiberias in the period ca. 750-950 CE. This written form employed diacritics added to the Hebrew letters: vowel signs and consonant diacritics (nequdot) and the so-called accents (two related systems of cantillation signs or te'amim), which together with the marginal notes (masora magna and masora parva) make up the Tiberian apparatus. (Though the written vowels and accents only came into use ca. 750 CE, the oral tradition they reflect is many centuries older, with ancient roots.)

While the Tiberian systems of vocalization and accentuation for the Hebrew scriptures represented a regional pronunciation, localized to Tiberias, Tiberian Hebrew was universally acknowledged as superior to other reading traditions. For example, the Tiberian tradition made fine distinctions among varieties of /r/, and, crucially, maintained the full range of low vowels.

Two other contemporary regional traditions that gave rise to similar graphic apparatuses are geographically designated as Palestinian and Babylonian. The so-called Palestinian tradition has evolved into contemporary Israeli Hebrew via the intermediate Sephardi Hebrew (although its graphic implementation was abandoned). The Babylonian tradition was dominant in some areas for many centuries; and the pronunciation (though not the graphic system) may survive to this day in the form of Yemenite Hebrew. (These competing systems were "supralinear", placing the diacritics primarily above the letters; whereas the Tiberian places the vowels, for the most part, under the letters.)

As mentioned above, the Tiberian points were designed to reflect a specific oral tradition for reading the Tanakh. Later they were applied to other texts (one of the earliest being the Mishnah), and used widely by Jews in other places with different oral traditions for how to read Hebrew. Thus the Tiberian vowel points and cantillation signs became a common part of Hebrew writing.

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