Wednesday, March 07, 2007

My English Hebraica precursor

Early blogger Israel Abrahams (1858-1925) seems to have written one of the first English Hebraica posts, which I reproduce below.

(As an aside--Milton? Paging Rav Aharon Lichtenstein!)
(Second aside, this is what Milton looked like? [1] I seriously would have thought something more like this. [2])



And to make it text searchable (gotta feed Google):

In April, 1648, Milton tried his hand at a rendering of nine Psalms (lxxx.-lxxxviii.), and it is from this work that we can see how Milton pronounced Hebrew. Strange to say, Milton's attempt, except in the case of the eighty-fourth Psalm, has scanty poetical merit, and, as a literal translation, it is not altogether successful. He prides himself on the fact that his verses are such that "all, but what is in a different character, are the very words of the Text, translated from the original." The inserted words in italics are, nevertheless, almost as numerous as the roman type that represents the original Hebrew. Such conventional mistakes as Rous's _cherubims_ are, however, conspicuously absent from Milton's more scholarly work. Milton writes _cherubs_.

Now, in the margin of Psalms lxxx., lxxxi., lxxxii., and lxxxiii., Milton inserts a transliteration of some of the words of the original Hebrew text. The first point that strikes one is the extraordinary accuracy of the transliteration. One word appears as _Jimmotu_, thus showing that Milton appreciated the force of the dagesh. Again, _Shiphtu-dal_, _bag-nadath-el_ show that Milton observed the presence of the Makkef. Actual mistakes are very rare, and, as Dr. Davidson has suggested, they may be due to misprints. This certainly accounts for _Tishphetu_ instead of _Tishpetu_ (lxxxii. 2), but when we find _Be Sether_ appearing as two words instead of one, the capital _S_ is rather against this explanation, while _Shifta_ (in the last verse of Psalm lxxxii.) looks like a misreading.

It is curious to see that Milton adopted the nasal intonation of the _Ayin_. And he adopted it in the least defensible form. He invariably writes _gn_ for the Hebrew _Ayin_. Now _ng_ is bad enough, but _gn_ seems a worse barbarism. Milton read the vowels, as might have been expected from one living after Reuchlin, who introduced the Italian pronunciation to Christian students in Europe, in the "Portuguese" manner, even to the point of making little, if any, distinction between the _Zere_ and the _Sheva_. As to the consonants, he read _Tav_ as _th_, _Teth_ as _t_, _Qof_ as _k_, and _Vav_ and _Beth_ equally as _v_. In this latter point he followed the "German" usage. The letter _Cheth_ Milton read as _ch_, but _Kaf_ he read as _c_, sounded hard probably, as so many English readers of Hebrew do at the present day. I have even noted among Jewish boys an amusing affectation of inability to pronounce the _Kaf_ in any other way. The somewhat inaccurate but unavoidable _ts_ for _Zadde_ was already established in Milton's time, while the letter _Yod_ appears regularly as _j_, which Milton must have sounded as _y_. On the whole, it is quite clear that Milton read his Hebrew with minute precision. To see how just this verdict is, let anyone compare Milton's exactness with the erratic and slovenly transliterations in Edmund Chidmead's English edition of Leon Modena's _Riti Ebraici_, which was published only two years later than Milton's paraphrase of the Psalms.

The result, then, of an examination of the twenty-six words thus transliterated, is to deepen the conviction that the great Puritan poet, who derived so much inspiration from the Old Testament, drew at least some of it from the pure well of Hebrew undefiled.


Milton’s transliterations are printed in several editions of his poems; the version used in this book is that given in D. Masson’s “Poetical Works of Milton,” in, pp. 5-11. The notes of the late A.B. Davidson on Milton’s Hebrew knowledge are cited in the same volume by Masson (p. 483). Landor had no high opinion of Milton as a translator. “Milton,” he said, "was never so much a regicide as when he lifted up his hand and smote King David.” But there can be no doubt of Milton’s familiarity with the original, whatever be the merit of the translations. To me, Milton’s rendering of Psalm lxxxiv seems very fine.

The controversy between the advocates of the versions of Rous and Barton–which led to Milton’s effort–is described in Masson, ii, p. 312.

Reuchlin’s influence on the pronunciation of Hebrew in England is discussed by Dr. S.A. Hirsch, in his “Book of Essays” (London, 1905), p. 60. Roger Bacon, at a far earlier date, must have pronounced Hebrew in much the same way, but he was not guilty of the monstrosity of turning the Ayin into a nasal. Bacon (as may be seen from the facsimile printed by Dr. Hirsch) left the letter Ayin unpronounced, which is by far the best course for Westerns to adopt.

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