Linguistic Origins of Hebrew: 1800 BCE?!

Henry Churchyard churchh at
Mon Sep 11 13:29:30 EDT 2000

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

>>>> 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?

>> Ian, languages are not texts, and no "negative evidence" tricks
>> carry over from texts to languages.

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

I haven't offered any opinion as to when in the second millennium B.C.
Hebrew might have been become a distinct language, because I don't have
any strong opinions on the matter -- and in fact think that the
question is not precisely answerable, given the scanty linguistic data
available on "Canaanite" dialects/languages in the second millennium.
If you pressed me to name a date, I might throw out 1200 B.C., since
that's the approximate period (or perhaps slightly before the period)
when the sound change of the loss of word-final short vowels occurred --
a change which caused a restructuring of the Hebrew stress system,
marks of which are still very visible in the Tiberian masoretic
patterns of placement of orthographic accent symbols roughly 2,000 years
later.  However, I don't in fact have any hard evidence that the
restructuring of the stress system was involved in the differentiation
of Hebrew from related languages.  No matter what absolute dates you
might assign, Phoenician was not the most closely related language to
Hebrew, which means of course that first the "South Canaanite" group
(an ad-hoc term I just coined) would differentiate from Phoenician, and
then Hebrew would differentiate from the other (more closely-related)

> 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.

In the case of Latin, we fairly clearly know the absolute dates when
the ancestors of the Romance languages started to diverge, while in the
case of subgroupings within Northwest Semitic the absolute dates of
divergence are less clear, which is why for some purposes it's
convenient to speak of "pre-Hebrew" and "pre-Phoenician" at such and
such a date, in order to leave open the question of whether the
ancestors of Phoenician and Hebrew were or were not already distinct at
that date.  It's really just a matter of terminological agnosticism.

>>>> Garbini's 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

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

>> Kutscher pretty well refuted 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 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.

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

I certainly did read his 1971 article in the _Journal of Northwest
Semitic Languages_ ("The Phonetic Shift of Sibilants in Northwestern
Semitic in the First Millennium B.C.", vol. 1, pages 32-38), but it's
been over ten years since I looked at it (I didn't think it was worth
photocopying at the time), so my direct memory of it is now rather
vague (however at that time I didn't notice any particular discrepancy
between Garbini's article, and Kutscher and Steiner's descriptions of
Garbini's arguments).  At this distance in time (10-15 years), I
couldn't say with any certainty whether or not I read anything else by
Garbini (I suspect not, since the only work of Garbini's, other than
his 1971 paper, which is cited in Steiner's 1977 book is the 1960 book
_Il Semitico di Nord-ovest_, which I know I haven't read) -- however I
did look at Moscati's _Introduction to the Comparative Grammar of the
Semitic Languages_ (Moscati and Garbini held similar views about
Hebrew/Aramaic _s'in_).

>>> 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).

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

No, in this particular case, it's actually Steiner saying so (very
specifically, as a matter of fact: "In Garbini's hands, however,
Moscati's proposal undergoes a subtle but fatal change.  The `dialect'
in which the Masoretic distinction between _s'in_ and _shin_ originated
turns out to be -- Aramaic.").  ;-)

Of course, I was convinced by Kutscher and Steiner, not Garbini, and so
endorse Steiner's position...

> 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?

I don't know; I didn't spend over ten years, off and on, working on
Qumran ostracon #1, while I did spend over ten years working on the
Hebrew/Aramaic _s'in_.  It's in an area (historical phonology and its
relationship with orthography) that I'm very familiar with, and I know
the specific problem as well as I know anything -- in fact, in this
narrowly defined mini-micro sub-area, I might be considered among the
world's leading authorities ;-)

And anyway, historical phonology is in some respects a more exact
science than other fields involved in ancient Near East studies -- it
may not be possible to reconstruct phonologies exactly, but quite often
there is a broad range of hypotheses which can pretty well be
definitely ruled out (with a degree of assurance that you don't always
find in textual studies, and certainly not in speculations about
ancient cultures).

So when a person advances a hypothesis in what happens to be one of my
strongest areas of competence, and I find that hypothesis to be pretty
much plainly factually incorrect, it's hard for this situation not to
diminish my enthusiasm for inquiring into that person's work in other
areas.  However, even so, I might be more curious about Garbini's
Hebrew vs. Phoenician work if your descriptions of it led me to think
there was something interesting there (but so far that has not really
been the case).

>> Two 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?

Phoenicians traded quite extensively, but at any given time the mass of
speakers of southern/Judaean Hebrew (the predominant language of the
Hebrew Bible) were located 60 miles or more from the mass of the
speakers of Phoenician.  Contact between speakers of related languages
is one of the things that creates a "dialect continuum", but it does
not necessarily nullify basic geographical separation.

>>>> 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!

What's coincidental about it?  Lack of _matres lectionis_ was the
original state of affair, and the use of _matres lectionis_ developed
fairly slowly over the centuries (until you eventually arrive at the
Yiddish or late Punic situation).

> 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.

"Separate" is not the same thing as "isolated".  In my opinion, Heberw
and Phoenician were separate in the 1st. millennium B.C., but they were
not isolated.

Do you disagree that persisting "dialect continuum" situations can
affect the linguistic relationships between languages?  Or that the
Gezer calendar is rather limited in not containing any finite-inflected
verbs or complete sentences?

>> 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.

I was just reproducing the text faithfully from my source (which
didn't contain much information about the prayer, but I suspect it may
have been written in the 19th century; anyway, I assume the goal was
for it to be understandable and more or less grammatical in both
languages -- not idiomatic and natural in both, which would be a
little too much to ask for).

> Garbini argued that Phoenician was the conservative language while
> Hebrew was the one that was innovative

Well, no living language is conservative in all respects (that's the
"Appalachian Elizabethan" myth again).  There are certainly some
counterexamples (such as the Phoenician long o to u change, etc.).

>> "pre-Hebrew" was actually intended as a neutral term which doesn't
>> presuppose the distinctness or non-distinctness of the
>> proto-language

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

Yes, but I'm not certain whether or not they were the same thing, so
that "pre-Hebrew" is a suitable terminologically agnostic term.

> 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.

If you have an idea for a more suitable terminologically-agnostic term
than "pre-Hebrew", then feel free to propose it, but otherwise you
should criticize me for our areas of substantive disagreement -- rather
than for using a terminology which basically adequately reflects my

Anyway, I'll actually admit that it's definitely more probable that the
ancestor of Hebrew was _not_ distinct in 1800 B.C. (I only promised to
defend the non-laughableness of 1800 B.C., but not actually to defend
1800 B.C. as being my own position).

Henry Churchyard   churchh at

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