A List of Grammatical Terms from MS. Opp. 152

Dr Sandra Hajek teaches Judeo-French at the OSRJL.


The Bodleian manuscript MS Opp. 152 (Neubauer, n° 1484) is one of only two preserved manuscripts of the most comprehensive and original medieval dictionary of the Hebrew Bible north of the Pyrenees, the Sefer ha-Shoham (‘The Onyx Book’). The Sefer ha-Shoham was composed in the 1260s in London by Moses ben Isaac, known as ben ha-Nessiah.[1] The manuscript was copied in a decorative Gothic bookhand by two different scribes working in collaboration during the late 13th century, possibly in England before travelling to Europe. In the late 14th century, a Jewish scholar scribbled on fol. 1r a unique list of grammatical terms in Hebrew translated into Old French and written using Hebrew characters in a non-square style of writing, suggesting provenance around the French-German border (see Fig. 1).[2] The Old French (henceforth: O. Fr.) translations display features of the Anglo-Norman dialect (henceforth: Agn.), which had developed particular linguistic characteristics under the influence of Anglo-Saxon (later 12th and early 13th centuries, cf. Pope 1966, 424).[3] The presence of these Anglo-Norman dialect features is not easily explained. Although the Sefer ha-Shoham was composed in England and the manuscript was likely produced there, or in Northern France, the grammatical note on fol. 1 was written after the expulsion of the Jews from England (1290). It can only be surmised that the note was written by a migrant from the island or his descendent. Such authorship would suggest that Jews from England maintained a specific vernacular dialect after settling in the east of France. We have no evidence of similar familiarity on the part of Jewish communities with O. Fr. grammatical terminology. The list in question can be seen as the earliest attestation in France of the tradition of describing the Hebrew language through grammatical terms expressed in the vernacular.[4] The fact that the scribe ever translated the Hebrew terms into O. Fr. means that the O. Fr. grammatical terms were somewhat familiar to him. Therefore, we can surmise that he not only spoke the language (probably in its Anglo-Norman variety) but also used it as a language of education.

Unfortunately, the list is quite short and only displays a few dialectal features. Moreover, it is only partially vocalized, which makes the identification of vocalic features quite difficult. In some cases, the phonetic representation of a graphic sign remains ambiguous: this is the case with the matres lectionis yud and double yud following a non-vocalized consonant, where the preceding vowel could be [i], [e]/[ɛ] (in the case of yud and double yud) or [je]/[jɛ] (in the case of double yud).[5]

One very striking characteristic of Agn. is the raising of unstressed vowels, especially [ə], to [i] (cf. Pope 1966, 439). We find this in the forms אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿ ent(e)ragitif[6] ‘interrogative’ (< Lat. INTERROGRATIVUS, Mod. Fr. interrogatif[7]), פְרִישונא p(e)risone (for pirsone, cf. below) ‘person’, אַנְטְרְקִייליש antrechilis/antrechilés ‘inserted’ (cf. Mod. Fr. intercalés), and—if yud is a mater lectionis for [i]—also in פְרימְרְא primere ‘first (fem. sg.)’. However, the fact that the raising to [i] can also be found in the last, i.e., tonic syllable of אִנְפֵרושוֹנִיל inperosoni(< Lat. IMPERSONALIS) ‘impersonal’, vocalized with ḥiriq, where one would expect a ṣere or sheva rendering [e]/[ɛ] (cf. Mod. Fr. impersonnel), could point to a different or at least an additional interpretation. According to Zwink (2017, 125), the cases of vocalization alternating between ḥiriq and ṣere attested in the medical treatise Fevres (end of 13th-beginning of 14th century) might point to the similarity of the pronunciation of /e/ and /i/ in O. Fr. spoken by Jews.[8] In Fevres (cf. ibid.), as well as in our list, the alternation also takes place before nasal consonants: next to אִנְפֵרושוֹנִיל inperosonel, we read אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿent(e)ragitif and—analogically—probably טרנשי{טי}ף אין entransitif ‘intransitive’, which points to a similar pronunciation of /ẽ/ and /ĩ/.[9] The form פְרימְרְא primere/premere (instead of O. Fr. premiere), well attested in Agn. (cf. AND, s.v. primer), shows the early reduction of [je] or [jɛ] to [e] in Western French, which, next to Northern French (Norman), contributed noticeably to the character of Anglo-Norman.[10] If the yud in פלו׳ריל plurirepresents [i], we have here a reduction of the diphthong [je] or [jɛ] to the first element, which is characteristic of Northern O. Fr. (cf. Pope 1966, 488). In שנגולייר, the diphthong may be preserved, the resulting form singulie‘singular’[11] either reflecting the influence of the ‘leading’ O. Fr. dialect, Francien, on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken in England especially in the 13th and 14th centuries (cf. Pope 1966, 451), or an influence of the surrounding Eastern O. Fr. dialects on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken by our scribe at his living place next to the Franco-German border.

In אַנְפַראַטיף anparatif ‘imperative’ (< Lat. IMPERATIVUS, Mod. Fr. impératif), we have an assimilation of the unstressed vowel in the second syllable (-pa-) to the unstressed vowel in the third syllable (-ra-), which goes along with the cases of assimilation that are attested for Agn. (cf. Pope 1966, 439). The vocalization of the initial alef with pataḥ (here representing [ã]) instead of ṣere (representing /ẽ/) is probably a confusion of the initial syllable with the prefix [ã] (en-/an-, cf. below) or—in view of the vocalization of the following syllables with pataḥ—a simple lapse.

A phenomenon sometimes attributed to Judeo-French but which can also be found in Old Occitan and Middle Latin texts in Hebrew script (cf. Zwink 2017, 139) is cases of metathesis, such as p(e)risone for pirsone ‘person’ (cf. above), טַרְנִשִיטִיףֿ tar(e)nisitif for transitif ‘transitive’, and טריצא trece for terce ‘third (fem. sg.)’ (this form shows the same reduction of [je] or [jɛ] [Francien: tierce] to [e] as primere, cf. above).[12] However, as Old French was the mother tongue of the Jews living in Tsarfat (cf. Fudeman 2010, 13) and, as such, was learned prior to Hebrew, it is not probable that we are dealing here with a phonetic influence of Hebrew, which, as a Semitic language, does not permit the combination of obstruent and liquid within a syllable. Rather, we have here a purely graphical influence of Hebrew, which was the principal written language of the Jewish communities in Tsarfat. As cases of metathesis and, likewise, the epenthetic vowel e (rendering [ə]) are also typical for Agn. texts in Latin script (cf. Pope 1966, 490, Burgess 1990, 343), we are probably dealing with two factors that reinforce each other. In tar(e)nisitif and inperosonil (cf. above), the epenthetic vowels do not appear in their usual form as sheva or yud, but rather are adapted to the following or preceding vowels, graphically rendered by ḥiriq and vav respectively.

The spelling with pataḥ rendering the nasal vowel [ã] instead of [ẽ] in antrechilis (cf. above) does not match the phonetic features of the Northern and Western varieties of O. Fr. and, in consequence, Anglo-Norman, where /ẽ/ was conserved and did not coincide with /ã/ to /ã/ (cf. Pope 1966, 427, 428). Again, the form either reflects the influence of Francien, where the coincidence had taken place in the 12th century, on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken in England, or a later influence of Francien or the surrounding O. Fr. dialects on the Anglo-Norman variety spoken by our scribe at his living place near the Franco-German border.

The spelling with pataḥ rendering [a] in ent(e)ragitif (< lat. INTERROGATIVUS, cf. above) does not represent any regular phonetical development and is either a mistake or—considering that in Early Middle English, [a:] was velarised and rounded to [ɔ:] (cf. Pope 1966, 435)—a hypercorrection.

That the scribe does not seem to have been very well trained in writing French using Hebrew characters is shown by clear scribal mistakes,[13] such as פרשוש for פרשונא persone, which occurs more than one time. In אִנפֵ{נ}יטיף infenitif ‘infinitive’, he omitted a consonant sign that was later added above, and in אין טרנשי{טי}ף intransitif, he omitted the first two letters of a syllable. These scribal mistakes could also be an indication that the scribe copied the list very carelessly and did not make it up on his own.

Given that the note on fol. 1r of MS Opp. 152 can be dated to the 14th century, the O. Fr. grammatical terms found herein are earlier than attestations of the respective terms in the oldest extant, complete grammar of (late) O. Fr. also written in O. Fr. (more precisely, in Anglo-Norman), the Donait françois (ca. 1400). In respect to the Donait françois, our note has some peculiarities. Among them is the term טומֵא פְרימְרְא tome primere/premere (‘first case’, with tome maybe erroneously attributed to the feminine gender[14]), as the word tom(b)e, basically meaning ‘fall’ (see FEW 13/3, 407), is attested here in the meaning of ‘grammatical (morphological) case’ and is thus a semantic loan from the Latin grammatical term CASUS (cf. Germ. Fall). Since the Donait has the Latin loanword nominatif in the meaning of ‘first case (nominative)’ (cf. ed. Stengel 1879, 28), the attestation of tome primer(e) ‘first case’ in our list seems to be quite exceptional.[15]

Fig. 1. List of grammatical terms translated from Hebrew into Old French,
MS Opp. 152, fol. 1r. (© Bodleian Libraries, University of Oxford)

[1] A partial edition of a manuscript in St. Petersburg (MS RNL Evr II A 34) was published by Collins, 1882, and Klar, 1947, completed the part edited by Collins. See also Olszowy-Schlanger, 2012, pp. 183–198.

[2] The list is mentioned by Olszowy-Schlanger, 2023, p. 128.

[3] For the general characteristics of Anglo-Norman, see Pope (1966, 425f.), for its external history, see ibid., pp. 420–424. It is essential to keep in mind that in research on Old French, the features that are termed ‘dialectal’—i.e., typical for a certain ‘dialect’—are those features that appear regularly in the written texts that can be localized in a specific geographic area on the basis of non-linguistic features (foremost, mentions of the place where a text was written). To what extent these features were part of the actual pronunciation of Old French in different areas cannot be said with certainty, but the probability that the graphically attested forms actually mirror a local or regional pronunciation is increased if the forms: a) can still be found in the respective Modern Gallo-Romance dialects or b) represent a phonetically plausible interstage between the original form (be it Latin or Germanic) on the one side and the pronunciation in the respective Modern Gallo-Romance dialects on the other (cf. Berschin/Felixberger/Goebl 2008, 205).

[4] A similar tradition can be assumed for Christian education, if the extant bilingual (French-Latin) glossaries from 13th-century England are interpreted as serving the teaching of Latin by means of the translation into French and not vice-versa (cf. Kristol 1990, 300). 

[5] The case of אֵין טְרַגִֿיטִיףֿ ent(e)ragitif shows that yud can be preceded by a consonant vocalized with ṣere (here representing the nasalized version of [e]/[ɛ]) as well as by a consonant vocalized with ḥiriq (representing the vowel [i]). As not only intertextual but also intratextual graphic variation is the usual case in Judeo-French texts (as in O. Fr. texts in general), in instances of a missing vocalization the quality of the vowel cannot be deduced from the cases in which yud or double yud are preceded by vocalized consonants. See also note 8.

[6] The blurring of word boundaries in the written text, here in form of the graphical separation of the nexus /ẽn/, probably erroneously considered as the homonymous prefixe en-, is a typical phenomenon of Judeo-French (cf. Banitt 1972, 95).

[7] The Modern French grammatical terms most often do not continue their O. Fr. equivalents but are rather (later) loanwords from Latin.

[8] Attestations of this kind can also be found in the Hebrew-O. Fr. glossaries, first and foremost in the alternation of ḥiriq and ṣere vocalizing alef when this combination stands for the coordinating conjunction ‘and’ (in Latin script: et, here (אֵי) and i (אִי), with loss [according to the pronunciation] of final /t/), but also in other contexts such as e.g., אִיאָנְװִירוֺנִיש לַײֿ, i anvironi(= anvironez) lai (Mod. Fr. et contournez-la) ‘and surround her’, cf. Banitt 1995–2001, vol. 3, no. 14566.

[9] It is, however, unlikely that we have here an early attestation of the well-known coincidence between /ẽ/ and /ĩ/ to /ẽ/ in the history of French, which is generally dated to the 15th–16th centuries (cf. Pope 1966, 174).

[10] For the characteristics which Anglo-Norman shared with the Western varieties of O. Fr. on the one hand, and with the Northern varieties of O. Fr. on the other, cf. Pope 1966, 427–429. The study by De Jong (1996) gives evidence that the overall character of Anglo-Norman was most similar to the Northern (i.e., Norman) varieties of O. Fr.

[11] The reduced forms singulir and singuler are also attested in Agn., cf. AND s. v. singuler.

[12] In the cases mentioned by Zwink (cf. ibid.), however, the vowel sign inserted between an obstruent and a following resh (a combination known as muta cum liquida) is always a ṣere, thus transforming the combination re into er, e.g., ventre > venter ‘belly’.

[13] Of course, some of the above-mentioned features could represent scribal mistakes or lapses, too. The small amount of the leʽazim contained in this list does not allow a definite decision on this point.

[14] In Judeo-French, at the end of a word, alef regularly appears as a mater lectionis for a preceding sheva, rendering the final [ə] of feminine words (cf. Kiwitt/Dörr 2016, 151).

[15] In the context of this paper, it was not possible to examine whether this expression also appears later in the history of French grammaticography.


AND = Anglo-Norman Dictionary (AND2 Online Edition), 2022. Aberystwyth University.

Banitt, Menahem, Le Glossaire de Bâle, vol. 1: Introduction, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1972.

Banitt, Menahem, Le Glossaire de LeipzigTexte, 3 vols, Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1995–2001.

Berschin, Helmut, Josef Felixberger, and Hans Goebl, Französische Sprachgeschichte, Hildesheim/Zürich/New York: Olms, 2008.

Burgess, Glyn S., ‘Französische Skriptaformen IV: England’, in Lexikon der Romanistischen Linguistik, vol. 5/1, ed. by Günther Holtus, Michael Metzeltin, and Christian Schmitt, Tübingen: Niemeyer, 1990, pp. 337–346.

Collins, George Wolseley, A Grammar and Lexicon of the Hebrew Language entitled Sefer Hassoham by Rabbi Mōseh ben Yitsḥak of England, London: Trubnir, 1882.

De Jong, Thera, ‘Anglo-French in the 13th and 14th centuries: continental or insular dialect?’, in: The Origins and Development of Emigrant Languages. Proceedings from the Second Rasmus Rask Colloquium, Odense University, November 1994, Odense: University Press, 1996, pp. 55–70.

FEW = Wartburg, Walther von (ed.), Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch. Eine Darstellung des galloromanischen Sprachschatzes, 25 vols, Bonn/Heidelberg/Leipzig/Basel, Zbinden et al., 1922–1996 (online version:

Fudeman, Kirsten, Vernacular Voices. Language and Identity in Medieval French Jewish Communities, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2010.

Kiwitt, Marc, and Stephen Dörr, ‘Judeo-French’, in Handbook of Jewish Languages, ed. by Lily Kahn and Aaron D. Rubin, Leiden: Brill, 2016, pp. 138–177.

Klar, Benjamin (with an introduction by Cecil Roth), The Sepher ha-Shoham: (the Onyx Book) by Moses ben Isaac Hanessiah, Part I, London: Published for the Jewish Historical Society by E. Goldston, 1947 (Hebrew).

Kristol, Andres Max, ‘L’enseignement du français en Angleterre (XIIIe-XVe siècles): les sources manuscrites’, Romania, vol. 11, no. 443/444 (1990), pp. 289–330.

Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith, ‘Sefer ha-Shoham (“Le Livre d’Onyx”), dictionnaire de l’hébreu biblique de Moïse ben Isaac ben ha-Nessiya (Angleterre, vers 1260)’, in En mémoire de Sophie Kessler-Mesguich, ed. by Jean Baumgarten, José Costa, Jean-Pierre Guillaume et Judith Kogel, Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2012, pp. 183–198.

Olszowy-Schlanger, Judith, Learning Hebrew in Medieval England. Christian Scholars and the Longleat House Grammar, Toronto: PIMS, 2023.

Pope, Mildred Katharine, From Latin to Modern French with Especial Consideration of Anglo-Norman. Phonology and Morphology, Manchester: University Press, 1966 [1934].

Stengel, Eduard, ‘Die ältesten Anleitungsschriften zur Erlernung der französischen Sprache’, Zeitschrift für neufranzösische Sprache und Literatur mit besonderer Berücksichtigung des Unterrichts im Französischen auf den deutschen Schulen 1 (1879), pp. 1–40.

Zwink, Julia, Altfranzösisch in hebräischer Graphie : Teiledition und Analyse des Medizintraktats  ‘Fevres’, Berlin/Boston: de Gruyter, 2017.

Dr Sandra Hajek
OSRJL Judeo-French Teacher; Research Associate,
Georg-August-Universität Göttingen

Cite this blog post
OSRJL Administrator (2023, August 8). A List of Grammatical Terms from MS. Opp. 152. The Jewish Languages Bookshelf. Retrieved May 20, 2024, from

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