Linguistic Origins of Hebrew: 1800 BCE?!

Henry Churchyard churchh at
Sat Sep 9 10:05:42 EDT 2000

>> From: Ian Hutchesson <mc2499 at>
>>> From: Henry Churchyard
>>>> From: Ian Hutchesson <mc2499 at>

>>>> 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 question to which it's basically impossible to give a
>>> decisive and complete answer based on the available evidence.

>> What is the date of the evidence for the most closely related
>> languages you mention or hint at?  I would assume that it is
>> extremely late in most cases.  If this is so, what is their
>> relevance to a language we are attempting to deal with at around
>> 900 BCE?

Ian, languages are not texts, and none of your painstakingly assembled
"negative evidence" bag of tricks is going to carry over from texts to
languages.  If a language exists at time X (and is not an esperanto or
a true creole), then a language which is the lineal ancestor of that
language must exist at every preceding period.  Whether or not the
lineal ancestor of one language at an earlier period was the same or
or distinct from the lineal ancestor (at the same period) of another,
related language is something which can be debated -- but not the
simple fact of the existence of such proto-languages.

>>> 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).

>> It might be useful if you could cite passages from Garbini's
>> arguments regarding the non-existence of sin that upset you

Actually, it was all decisively refuted before I started working on
the subject (which was over ten years ago); Kutscher pretty well
demolished Garbini in his review article "Contemporary Studies in
North-Western Semitic" in _Journal of Semitic Studies_ (v.10,
pp. 21-51, 1965), while Richard C. Steiner spelled out everything in
detail and dotted the i's and crossed the t's, in case anyone had any
lingering hesitations on the Moscati-Garbini hypothesis, in his book
_The Case for Fricative-Laterals in Proto-Semitic_ (American Oriental
Series #59, 1977), pages 41-47.  See also some further discussion and
references by Steiner on pages 1501-1503 of his paper "Addenda to the
Case for Fricative-Laterals in Proto-Semitic" in _Semitic Studies in
Honor of Wolf Leslau_, Alan Kaye ed. (1991), pp. 1499-1513 (which
brings out the fact that in 1873 Noeldeke had already briefly
considered then rejected the same hypothesis that would later be
proposed by Garbini).  If you want my take on the Hebrew/Aramaic
_s'in_, then look at section three of the paper "Early Arabic _siin_
and _shiin_ in light of the Proto-Semitic Fricative-Lateral
Hypothesis" in _Perspectives on Arabic Linguistics V_, Mushira Eid and
Clive Holes eds. (1993).  (However, I don't actually reference Garbini
in my bibliography, since there was no point in bringing up what had
already been disproved by others.)

>> Again, if the contention between Garbini and some other scholars
>> over the Gezer "calendar" is not trivial -- your comment below
>> shows that you know nothing about his position here, so naturally
>> you can't comment meaningfully --, then the differences between the
>> Hebrew and the Phoenician at the time of the calendar are quite
>> negligible.  Given your stated lack of knowledge of Garbini, I find
>> the comment about his work being "ineffectual" quite sudden and
>> without reason.

My "ineffectual" comment refers only to his work on Hebrew/Aramaic
consonant _s'in_ (the only work of his I directly know about).  I
haven't looked up his Gezer Calendar thing partly because it's not
directly in my main area, and partly because your descriptions of it
haven't made me feel more motivated to seek it out (in fact, rather
the reverse).  But having read Zellig S. Harris's book _Development of
the Canaanite Dialects: An Investigation in Linguistic History_ (still
a good book for the range of data it takes on and the types of
reconstructions it proposes, though we know a little more in some
areas than in 1939), and W. Randall Garr's book _Dialect geography of
Syria-Palestine, 1000-586 B.C.E._ (1985), as well as having some
general knowledge of historical linguistics and comparative Semitic, I
feel qualified to make some comments on the question of the historical
distinctness of Hebrew and Phoenician in itself (without reference to

>> Can one postulate a pre-Hebrew dialect a few hundred years earlier
>> that was in fact separate from a pre-Phoenician dialect given the
>> movement away from each other (later observed) based on an Aramaic
>> influence upon that which was to become Hebrew?

Not quite sure what you mean; very few of the differences between
Phoenician and Biblical Hebrew (other than some in "late Biblical
Hebrew") can be attributed to Aramaic influence on Hebrew (in fact,
that's exactly where Garbini went astray all those years ago,
mistakenly attributing the existence of the consonant _s'in_ in Hebrew
to Aramaic influence, as you can read in Steiner's book, p. 44).  Two
geographically-separate speech communities don't need any influence
from yet a third language to diverge from each other linguistically;
it's the natural tendency of languages to differentiate, and it's
cases where geographically-separated language varieties only diverge
relatively slowly over time that require special explanations (such as
the existence of a "dialect continuum", though which "wave" influences
can propagate).

>>> 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.
In any case, if you look at the Gezer Calendar, what you seem to find
is a generic schoolboy exercise, containing a short formulaic text
without any complete sentences or finite-inflected verbs, and written
in the older orthography which was rather parsimonious in the use of
_matres lectionis_.  In these particular circumstances, it's not
especially surprising that it might be ambiguous between Phoenician
and Hebrew -- and if it is ambiguous, I don't think it necessarily
says all that much about the distinctness of Phoenician and Hebrew.
After all, an Italian once wrote a prayer that makes sense both as
Italian and as Latin, and I don't think that anyone has ever used this
to argue that Latin and Italian are not distinct languages!  ;-)

                    Te saluto, alma Dea, Dea generosa,
                    O gloria nostra, o veneta regina!
                    In procelloso turbine funesto
                    Tu regnasti serena; mille membra
                    Intrepida prostrasti in pugna acerba;
                    Per te miser non fui, per te non gemo,
                    Vivo in pace per te.  Regna, o beata!
                    Regna in prospera sorte, in pompa augusta,
                    In perpetuo splendore, in aurea sede!
                    Tu serena, tu placida, tu pia,
                    Tu benigna, me salva, arma, conserva!

>> You need to deal with Garbini's logic before proposing your
>> conjectural date of 1800 BCE even disguised with the title
>> "pre-Hebrew".

Sorry, but "pre-Hebrew" is a purely linguistic term, which is
perfectly well justified on purely-linguistic grounds (it doesn't
necessarily imply that "pre-Hebrew" was a distinct language -- as I
explained in my original post, quoted at the top above, "pre-Hebrew"
was actually intended as a neutral term which doesn't presuppose the
distinctness or non-distinctness of the proto-language -- if that's
what's worrying you).  Anyway, I wasn't actually the one who first
brought up the date 1800 B.C. -- though I'm perfectly willing to
defend the usefulness of "pre-Hebrew" in the terminology of historical
linguistics with reference to the 2nd. millennium B.C. in general,
given the rather sporadic and partial nature of the available evidence
on 2nd. millennium B.C. "Canaanite" dialects.

P.S. Garbini's vision of Hebrew differentiating from Phoenician under
Aramaic influence starting prior to 600 B.C. is totally and utterly
radically incompatible with your own idea that the majority of
Palestinian Jews were monolingual Hebrew-speakers even down to the
times of Jesus and Josephus, by the way...

> Date: Fri, 8 Sep 2000 10:33:13 +0200
> From: Niels Peter Lemche <npl at>

> Who spoke pre-Hebrew? The Habiru--probably the only Hebrews around
> 1800 BCE.  Although I would not say that--the babiru was ethnically
> many things, including Hurrians as well as NWS speaking people and
> many more.  Amorite (NW-Semitic) is attested in personal names of
> rulers from the southern Levant in the 18th century BCE, that's all
> we have.  Then, of course we have a few more scraps of evidence
> about the language at Byblos.  And a fairly extensive PN-material
> from many parts of the ANE including NWS PNs.  The term 'pre-Hebrew'
> used about a MBA society is simply colored in the extreme and
> misleading.

How about letting linguists use whatever terminology they find
appropriate and useful on purely linguistic grounds without
interference from archaeologists and textual scholars?  (I'm sure
linguists will be willing to extend reciprocal privileges to
archaeologists and textual scholars.)  By basic axioms of historical
linguistics and commonly-used patterns of terminology within
historical linguistics, a "pre-Hebrew" must have existed (regardless
of whether it was a language distinct from the ancestors of later
languages related to Hebrew, and regardless of whether we can identify
its speakers with anything in the ever-changing hypotheses and
transient fads thrown out by archaeological and textual studies).

Henry Churchyard   churchh at

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