Linguistic Origins of Hebrew: 1800 BCE?!

Henry Churchyard churchh at
Sun Sep 3 15:01:57 EDT 2000

> From: Ian Hutchesson <mc2499 at>
> Date: Fri, 01 Sep 2000 20:13:47 +0200

>> Hebrew (1800 BC - present)

> this seems a bit of a joke, Brian.  If Garbini can claim that the
> so-called Gezer calendar was written in a southern dialect of
> Phoenician while other scholars say that it was written in some sort
> of Hebrew, the distinction between Phoenician and Hebrew in the
> ninth century (memory) was so small that one cannot imagine the
> existence of a Hebrew in 1800 BCE.  We have difficulties dating
> Hebrew before the ninth century BCE.

Of course a "pre-Hebrew" (the lineal ancestor of later attested
Biblical Hebrew) existed in 1800 BC.  Whether this pre-Hebrew of 1800
B.C. was what linguists would call a separate language, or was an
only slightly-distinct dialect, or whether in 1800 B.C. there was no
speech community existing at all which spoke a variety of speech that
was the lineal ancestor of later-attested Hebrew and that was not
also the lineal ancestor of the languages closely related to Hebrew
(the most closely-related languages seem to have been Ammonite, etc.,
not including Phoenician, by the way) -- this is a very interesting
question (and _not_ a laughable question), but it's a question to
which it's basically impossible to give a decisive and complete
answer based on the available evidence.  Garbini (the man whose
notably ineffectual attempts to explain away the Hebrew/Aramaic
consonant _s'in_ do not necessarily give me an overwhelming
confidence in the correctness of results he has arrived at in other
areas) must have been working with consonant-orthography-only texts
when examining the distinctness of ninth century B.C. Hebrew and
Phoenician, and such unpointed texts can cover quite a multitude of
linguistic differences (especially in the old Phoenician orthography,
in which long vowels were very rarely written with a _mater lectionis_
unless they had actually developed from a vowel + consonant
combination, including w and y among the consonants).  I stand by
what I wrote earlier:

| Date: Mon, 17 Jul 2000 10:33:34 -0500 (CDT)
| From: "Henry Churchyard" <churchh at>
| To: b-hebrew at
| Subject: Re: "Is Biblical Hebrew a language?", etc.

| Ullendorf is of course correct in his assertion that only a
| restricted vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew has come down to us, but
| this has almost nothing whatever to do with the hypothesis that
| Biblical Hebrew "didn't yet exist" in the 1st. half of the 1st
| millennium B.C.  This latter hypothesis is meaningless in one sense,
| since (unless it is claimed that Biblical Hebrew is some kind of
| made-up Esperanto) there must be an ancestor of Biblical Hebrew
| existing at every chronological period from attested Biblical Hebrew
| back to proto-Semitic.  If it's claimed that there is nothing in
| Biblical Hebrew which is incompatible with mid-1st.-millennium B.C.E
| Phoenician, then I don't think this is entirely true either; a
| number of innovations occurred in Phoenician which did not occur in
| Hebrew, as you can see by looking up Harris's Zellig S. Harris's
| book _Development of the Canaanite Dialects: An Investigation in
| Linguistic History (American Oriental Series, Volume 16)_, 1939.  Of
| course, Hebrew and Phoenician (along with Moabite, Ammonite,
| northern Hebrew etc.) were members of a "dialect continuum" -- a
| sequence of fairly closely related languages spoken in adjacent
| regions, through which "waves" of innovations and linguistic
| influences can pass back and forth (note that Phoenician and Judean
| Hebrew were not actually geographically adjacent in the
| dialect-chain).  The effects of such a persisting dialect continuum
| (along with Sapir's mysterious "drift") can make related languages
| seem more similar than one would expect, if the only information you
| were given was the time at which they originally diverged -- and
| therefore can also make it extremely difficult to estimate the
| original time of divergence by means of comparing the overall
| similarity between the attested languages.  So it seems to me that
| blanket statements that Hebrew was just Phoenician until 400 B.C.,
| or whatever, are rather more categorical and dogmatic than can be
| justified by the available facts and evidence, and are also
| contradicted to some degree by the evidence.

Henry Churchyard   churchh at

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