Wednesday, August 26, 2015

What are these accents in the OT?

There is little sense I suppose in arguing. It was Will Durant who said that "History is mostly guesswork, and the rest prejudice". I prefer to avoid the arguments in the religious world.

But I do ask: What do all these accents in the Old Testament signify? With thanks to some negative comments on Haik-Vantoura's system in the Academia site, I now know there are a few more resources to study on the accents - e.g. this one from archive.org: A treatise on the accentuation of the three so-called poetical books on the Old Testament, Psalms, Proverbs, and Job, with an appendix containing the treatise, assigned to R. Jehuda Ben-Bil'am, on the same subject, in the original Arabic.

Well, its not in the original Arabic or I would not be reading it. And it's not too likely that I will read the whole thing very quickly in any case. But a few paragraphs maybe. It will be a counterfoil to Jacobson.

One thing is sure, if it were not for Vantoura's system, I would never (and I mean never) have studied or appreciated these signs. But the music is very revealing. And the more I reveal, the more people will see and hear that there is much to her system that reveals the mind of the poet.

The negative comments I received on my paper (copy is here) were these. The first led me directly to the above link (though his link is commercial and incomplete.)
I didn't have time to comment before the session closed. I wanted to point out an error regarding the two sets of te'amim in the Decalogue. What you missed in the paper is that the te'amim have another function, that of parsing the verse into lexical units. For more on this you should have a look at the following classic work by William Wickes: here The two sets of te'amim reflect two reading modes, one to be used in synagogue, and one for study. The reading in synagogue splits the Decalogue more obviously into 10 distinct utterances, and so necessitates a different set of te'amim of accommodate the different lexical parsing.
Now this is news to me and quite different from Vantoura's suggestion. Worth some consideration.

My response: Thank you for the interesting observation. This is certainly a possibility. I did not expect much discussion. Vantoura considered the extra accents as music in any case. I suspect she and her father, a rabbi, did not know this other possible usage. Besides modern (i.e. post 12th century) explanations of the accents, do you have some idea of the origin of these two sets of them in the Decalogue?

The second is less revealing:
I can not congratulate you. The theory of Haïk-Vantoura is based on wrong data. Vantoura knew little about function of the te'amim. She interpreted them incorrectly. Vantoura's reconstruction differ fundamentally with the synagogue practice of reading Torah and with the opinion of the leading researchers on cantillation marks.
This last sentence is a true statement. Unfortunately, the first statements are guesswork and prejudice.

My response: I understand that what you say is true. But I would hope you could give more reason than just disagreement. Vantoura's interpretation is the inference of a musician and it reveals function that is quite brilliant and beautiful. It also shows a carefully coded internally consistent system that is typical of human engineering. What is the right data and how can it be inferred and confirmed as correct?

The test case for Vantoura's methods remains for me their application to Psalm 114 where they resolve into the famous tune: tonus peregrinus. See more in The Songs of Ascents by David Mitchell (Precentor, Holy Trinity, Brussels).


I should also say that her method leads to the ability to sight-read the accents and to perform them with ordinary people. We have done so at St Barnabas on several occasions in both Hebrew and English. One would not want to do this every week, but the results strike people deeply and make the Old Testament lessons and psalms stand out in all their drama, foreignness, and beauty.

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