Linguistic Origins of Hebrew: 1800 BCE?!

Ian Hutchesson mc2499 at
Wed Sep 13 15:45:20 EDT 2000

Dear Henry,...

At 12.29 11/09/00 -0500, Henry Churchyard wrote:
>> 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 --

This sounds interesting: what are the exemplars (and their dates) used as
pegs for the date of 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)

This is fine; though there would probably be some discussion of what the
timetable might be for these developments: I think Garbini might agree on
the basic events.

I've probably misrepresented him a little. It is my argument that if he
sees the Gezer "calendar" as an example of a Phoenician dialect, given the
insistence of scholars that it was Hebrew, the difference between
Phoenician and Hebrew could not have been particularly noticeable. The
problem seems though that, if people want to say the artifact was an
archaic Hebrew, they could easily be making the mistake that I may have:
what they are calling Hebrew could well have been what you have just called
-- for want of better -- "South Canaanite" (or, if you prefer, "pre-Hebrew").

>> 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.

This all seems reasonable in the telling...

>>>>> 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_).

I suppose that if you had read Cross and Eshel's article on Ostracon 1 (as
the first work you found Cross's name attached to) and looked at the photo
for yourself, you would have seen how unsupportable the reading they put
forward as yxd was and concluded his "notably ineffectual attempts" to
insert yxd into the text which would "not necessarily [have given you] an
overwhelming confidence in the correctness of results he has arrived at in
other areas."

>>>> 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.").  ;-)

For accuracy's sake: 

You may claim that Steiner claimed that he went astray...  (-:

>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_.  

Whether you are right on _s'in_ or not, I think this is a red herring!
Either you don't agree on the person's conclusion, finding the evidence
marshalled was not sufficient or you don't. The approach you have taken is
different from this. There is an unstated subtext in what you say that
needs to be clarified. You found Steiner et al. more convincing. Fine. Do
you normally stop reading a person's works because you don't agree with
that person's conclusions on a single occasion?

>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, 

(nor to give solid timeframes for the changes you might perceive)

>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, 

Yes, you've made this clear now a number of times, yet at the same time you
haven't indulged in the idea that one sample is not necessarily sufficient
to judge a person's output.

>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).

The blame is mine in the last sentence.

However, given the 10-15 year distance between the single article you've
read and the mention I gave of this matter, I fear that there is some other
reason for your not having read more than that one work of his. He has
after all published numerous works in the field of Semitic languages.

>>> 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) 

The Latin encapsulated in later church decrees would not have been
considered the language of those people who lived in Rome at the time of
Julius Caesar. Similarly, I think your statement is more assumption than
anything else.

>were located 60 miles or more from the mass of the
>speakers of Phoenician.  

Did such a separation stop the hellenistic cultural invasion of Jerusalem?
... high priests called Jason and Menelaus? 

>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.

Nor does that geographic separation guarantee the disinterest of people in
one area wanting to immitate the mores of those in another.

>>>>> 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).

It is this lack which is part of the evidence.

>> 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.

You may be right, but I'll stay agnostic on the separateness.

>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?

The text is certainly rather limited in its linguistic range, I will admit.
Do you think there's enough to say that the text is Hebrew or pre-Hebrew or
Southern Canaanite as distinguishable from Phoenician? Some scholars claim
that the text is Hebrew.

[Omitted Italianesque poem]
>> 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.).

While this is true, one needs to consider that some language developments
can lead to a less conservative approach. Imagine that that which became
English was similarly conservative in its developments of vocabulary (for
example) in Anglo-Saxon times as that which became German was, but while
German in varying degrees maintained that linguistic conservatism up to the
end of WWII, English already in Norman times was very "innovative".
(Grammatically, it was quite "innovative" in late A-S times as well.)

>>> "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.

What about "Southern Canaanite"?  (-:

>> 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).

I can see your problem regarding the name. You've clarified your position
about when you see the possible emergence of something that could be
considered to bear features which would distinguish a Hebrew forebearer
from that of Phoenician. The only thing that remains is why you haven't
read more than one article of Garbini's, given that he has written quite a
lot in your field (which is obviously not mine): by this I mean you have
made very negative statements regarding his work while having read only one
article, which doesn't seem particularly fair especially when most scholars
have written things that other scholars haven't liked (I can't comment on
the correctness or not of his or his opponents' statements in this matter).
However, because of your conviction of Steiner et Kutscher's analyses'
correctness, you can talk of Garbini's "notably ineffectual attempts to
explain away the Hebrew/Aramaic consonant _s'in_ [which] do not necessarily
give [you] an overwhelming confidence in the correctness of results he has
arrived at in other areas." I myself will read most anyone who can produce
readable evidence. I might not agree with their conclusions but the
evidence must be considered.


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