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In Robert Alter's The Book of Psalms: A Translation with Commentary (2009), the author examines the first line of Psalm 23:4 in the Hebrew and arrives at eight words (so far so good) and eleven syllables. Here is the relevant excerpt from page xxx:

The initial line—there are two in the verse—of Psalm 23:4 grandly reads in the 1611 translation: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil." This beautiful line has understandably moved readers for four centuries, but it is the stately beauty of a leisurely prose amble, not of a line of poetry (or, if one prefers, the beauty of a proto-Whitmanesque line of poetry rather than of biblical poetry). The Hebrew sounds like this: gam ki-ʾelekh begeyʾ tsalmawet / loʾ-ʾiyraʾ raʿ. If we ignore the Masoretic hyphenation, the Hebrew comes to eight words, eleven syllables. The King James Version weighs in with seventeen words, twenty syllables.

Alter's division of this verse as it pertains to syllable division is where I get a little lost. I couldn't arrive at the same number (11 syllables) he did and was curious if someone could enlighten me regarding his analysis of this verse.

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2 Answers 2

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כִּֽי־אֵלֵךְ בְּגֵיא צַלְמָוֶת לֹא־אִירָא רָע כִּי־אַתָּה עִמָּדִי שִׁבְטְךָ וּמִשְׁעַנְתֶּךָ הֵמָּה יְנַֽחֲמֻֽנִי׃

Psalm 23:4 (Masoretic text and King James Version)

גַּם = gam = yea (1 syllable in Hebrew) כִּֽי־ = kî = though (1 syllable in Hebrew) אֵלֵךְ (or יָלַךְ) = yālaḵ = I walk (2 syllables in Hebrew) בְּגֵיא (or without prefix גַּיְא) = gay = through the valley (1 syllable in Hebrew without prefix כִּ) צַלְמָוֶת = ṣalmāveṯ = of the shadow (3 syllables in Hebrew) אִירָא (without prefix יָרֵא) = yārē' = I will fear (1 syllable in Hebrew if second vowel is not pronounced--silent vowel in Hebrew) לֹא = lō = no (1 syllable in Hebrew) רָע = raʿ= evil (1 syllable in Hebrew)

With this reckoning, eleven syllables is correct.

Sources

Davidson, Benjamin. The Analytical Hebrew and Chaldee Lexicon. Hendrickson Publishers, 1981.

Dotan, Aron. Biblia Hebraica Leningradensia. Hendrickson Publishers, 2001.

The Holy Bible, Authorized King James Version, Thomas Nelson, 1972.

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  • Thanks for that breakdown. What threw me were the two words without the prefix ('through the valley,' 'I will fear') which I counted as two syllables each.
    – ed huff
    Commented Jun 25, 2022 at 23:57
  • Happy to help :-)
    – user10067
    Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 0:04
  • Hi David. Again, thanks for getting back to me. In reviewing your entry, I guess I'm still a little stymied over why the prefixes would be dropped in 'through [ב] (the valley)' and 'I will fear [א].' I think I understand the second 'א' as being silent in the verb 'to fear' but I'm wondering if it's a pronunciation consideration in the Hebrew by dropping the prefixes thus bringing the total syllables to eleven. Again, thanks for your patience!
    – ed huff
    Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 20:19
  • 1
    Hi Ed. The Hebrew letter in question [ב] attached to the Hebrew word is a prefix and serves as a preposition (in/or through (and the article 'the' is assumed)) for the root word גַּיְא. I personally would pronounce this preposition and include it in a syllable count. To keep things simple, I gave Alter the benefit of the doubt and assumed he did not count it intentionally (for some reason) and arrived at 11 syllables for the line instead of 12. Otherwise, you can argue he was mistaken--this is what is puzzling you--you CAN in fact argue he made an error.
    – user10067
    Commented Jun 26, 2022 at 21:49
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    This seems like a stretch. Why would prefixes not count? Isn’t the whole point of the claim that the Hebrew is more poetic because it has fewer syllables? The prefixes are read and pronounced, so they definitely contribute to the poeticness or lack thereof. And if Alter indeed intended to reach a different calculation by dropping certain syllables, wouldn’t we expect him to say that at least? Also, the א in אלך is technically a prefix as well, so why not discount that?
    – Alex
    Commented Mar 9, 2023 at 13:30
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Here is the relevent portion of the verse in its original Hebrew:
גַּ֤ם כִּֽי־אֵלֵ֨ךְ בְּגֵ֪יא צַלְמָ֡וֶת לֹא־אִ֘ירָ֤א רָ֗ע

Which can be broken up as follows (with a hyphen between syllables): גַּם (gam, 1) כִּי (kiː, 1) אֵלֵךְ ('eː-leːkh, 2) בְּגֵיא (bᵊ-gheː, 2) צַלְמָוֶת (ṣal-maː-weth, 3) לֹא (loː, 1) אִירָא ('iː-raː, 2) רָע (raːʕ, 1).

We thus have 1+1+2+2+3+1+2+1, which is 13 syllables.

The first syllable of בְּגֵיא (transliterated as bᵊ) contains what's called an ultrashort, or reduced, vowel. Such a vowel is pronounced quickly and weakly, and can thus be considered as part of the following syllable. Traditionally, this is how Biblical Hebrew syllables are counted. We thus end at 12 syllables, which is still not eleven. Therefore, Alter is wrong.

The first answer claims that the word אִירָא somehow contains a silent vowel. In Hebrew, especially Biblical Hebrew, there is no such thing: vowels were only notated to preserve the pronunciation of scripture, and thus silent vowels had no reason to come into existence. The only symbol that is occasionally silent is the Schwa symbol, appearing as two vertical dots under a letter. The word אִירָא does not contain this symbol at all, much less the silent variety. We therefore arrive at the same conclusion: Alter and the other answer are wrong.

Alter, like many intellectuals, decided he knew enough about a subject to write about it, without checking with other experts first. Otherwise, he would have realized that his premise for the section you quoted, as well as his transliteration, are wrong.

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