Linguistic Origins of Hebrew: 1800 BCE?!

Ian Hutchesson mc2499 at
Sat Sep 9 20:27:02 EDT 2000

At 09.05 09/09/00 -0500, Henry Churchyard wrote:
>>> 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

I will be happy for a little of what you might consider positive. You've
only been theoretical so far.

>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.

What you say is only obvious, but...

1. while I agree that languages are not texts, we only have texts;

2. proto-languages, when we think of French and Italian, are the same
thing, Latin, so talking about such a proto-language of French without
acknowledging that it is also the proto-language for Italian is not
representing the situation clearly. Your talk of proto-languages when you
isolate them could easily be misrepresenting the past.

>>>> 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.)

So can I gather you haven't read *anything* by Garbini firsthand?

I'm not sure, but I don't think Garbini has abandoned his position
regarding the particular sybillant: he had an article republished in the
early nineties which mentions the position without changing it. You will of
course say something untoward such as he should have changed by now, but it
might be better to get it from the horse's mouth rather than reading other
people's rehashes.

>>> 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), 

We've learnt a hellova lot since Zellig Harris wrote.

>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

What particular periods would you be commenting on and on what evidence?

>>> 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,

You may claim that he went astray, but it's just you saying so.

>mistakenly attributing the existence of the consonant _s'in_ in Hebrew
>to Aramaic influence, as you can read in Steiner's book, p. 44).  

As I'm not in a position to judge on this matter, let us consider for a
moment that the criticism of Garbini's position regarding the s'in is
wrong: you are prepared to refuse to read Garbini's work specifically
because you don't agree on one particular matter which you are acquainted
with. Would you refrain from reading Albright because of some of his more
doctrinaire attitudes? Would you condemn all of F.M.Cross's stuff because
he went into print claiming that the Qumran ostracon #1 contained the word
yxd and went on to defend it after it had been denounced by several
scholars? Should I denounce all your work for the unreasonable approach you
are showing towards Garbini?

>geographically-separate speech communities don't need any influence
>from yet a third language to diverge from each other linguistically;

On what grounds do you assume that we have two "geographically-separate
speech communities"? Were not Phoenician products found throughout the
uplands before the arrival of the Assyrians, then again in the Persian period?

Do you disagree with Garbini's analysis of the Gezer calendar, which he
claims was the product of a southern Phoenician dialect? If others see the
calendar as an early Hebrew product, then there is still nothing to suggest
that we have two separate or isolated speech communities.

>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_.  

Coincidentally 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!

Butta wotsa da deal
whenna notta one-a 
poisson today-ya
woulda thinka thissa
stuff issa Italian?

Notta Italian assa she-ya
woulda be spoke.

At the same time a late imperial Roman wouldn't have got much out of it.

Nevertheless, this is eventually arguing the case for me. What might have
been better is to have found something in Spanish which could be understood
easily by an Italian. Garbini argued that Phoenician was the conservative
language (just as one might consider church Latin) while Hebrew was the one
that was innovative (as was Italian).

(And church jobs like this naturally would be overburdened with Latinisms,
but what makes you think a native Latin speaker would understand it?)

>>> 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).  

When pre-X and pre-Y are the same thing, calling it either pre-X or pre-Y
is misleading.

>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.

That's fine, I guess, though, because of the rather sporadic and partial
nature of the available evidence on 2nd. millennium B.C. "Canaanite"
dialects, you may actually be talking about something that cannot be
recognized as specifically the ancestor to one language.

You did however come into the discussion about 1800 BCE when you responded
to my post to Brian (who did cite 1800 BCE) making the literally correct
but seemingly unhelpful statement:

>Of course a "pre-Hebrew" (the lineal ancestor of later attested
>Biblical Hebrew) existed in 1800 BC.  

...unhelpful in the sense that it would be unhelpful to talk of a
pre-Norwegian (going back say 1000 years from a reference point of 1500 CE)
when said "pre-Norwegian" would also be pre-Icelandic and pre-Danish as
well. I think you'll find that a term like pre-Hebrew will not have much
use unless it can be seen to have a distinct reference, ie to something
that is not Hebrew as we know it, yet distinguishable as the forerunner to
Hebrew and not other languages. Naturally there was a precursor to Hebrew
in 1800 BCE, as there was a precursor to English in 1800 BCE, but to call
it pre-Hebrew certainly is misleading, making one think that there were
something that one might be able to distinguish as specific to Hebrew
rather than to other languages.

>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...

When the Norman-English nobles finally decided to give up their variety of
French as the national language, although the majority of the population
only spoke a late derivative of Anglo-Saxon, there had been a vast
influence from the French in the fields of vocabulary, morphology, and
grammar. The are numerous other analogous examples (for example, Italian
today with a vast influx of English influence).



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