Linguistic Origins of Hebrew: 1800 BCE?!

Henry Churchyard churchh at
Sat Sep 16 09:36:12 EDT 2000

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

>> 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.

> 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?

"Examplars" (if you mean words that underwent the sound change)
include just about every form of every word in the language, with the
exception of a few narrow morphological categories such as the
3rd. feminine singular QATAL -at ending, and unsuffixed forms of the
jussive and the YAQTUL preterite.  Unfortunately, I didn't really
organize my notes in such a way that I can easily go back to original
sources and references on the absolute dating of the change; it wasn't
something that seemed important to my purposes, since a date roughly
lateish in the 2nd. millennium B.C.E. date is accepted without much
controversy, as far as I'm aware, and I didn't have anything new of my
own to contribute on this point (absolute dating of the change) -- I
was much more concerned with the relationship of word-final short
vowel loss to the stress system (as first discussed by Lambert in 1890
and further developed by Blau and Cantineau), rather than the evidence
for its absolute dating; however, it's obvious that cuneiform
transcriptions are one important type of evidence.  And I was
oversimplifying a little in speaking of "the" change, since it's
actually quite possible that word-final short vowels disappeared
earlier in some contexts than they did in others (so that Blau and
Steiner have reconstructed different chronologies for the
disappearance of word-final short vowels in construct state vs.
absolute state forms to explain Philippi's law, etc.) -- therefore
word-final short vowel deletion could have taken a fairly substantial
amount of time to affect all forms in all contexts in a language, and
there of course would be differences between different
dialects/languages (there's evidence that case vowels in certain
contexts survived into the 1st. millennium B.C. in some non-Hebrew
languages).  When I gave the date above, I was just roughly
guesstimating an approximate date when word-final short vowel deletion
would probably have more or less worked its way through to completion
in Hebrew/"pre-Hebrew"...  Sorry to have unfairly excited your hopes
of a definite date ;-)

>> It's in an area (historical phonology and its relationship with
>> orthography) that I'm very familiar with, 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)

You're absolutely correct that in some cases the sound changes themselves
can be reconstructed pretty firmly (without much doubt), yet the evidence
on the absolute dating of such sound changes can remain rather vague;
that's just the way the game works...

>> 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).

> 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).  He has after all published
> numerous works in the field of Semitic languages.

Actually, in the Hebrew/Semitic area, my field is historical phonology --
which means that studies of exact absolute dates of dialect
differentiation, and disputed readings of inscriptions, are pretty
much a background to my main interest.  I don't think that Garbini
would describe himself as being primarily a phonologist, so it's not
all that surprising that I've read his most prominent excursion into
pure historical phonology (or the most prominent one with respect to
my interests), but haven't read other writings of his that are less
directly connected with phonology.

>>>> 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.

> 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.

Not sure what you mean; are you denying that Biblical Hebrew as we find
it in the Bible is predominantly based on a Jerusalem-area dialect
(regardless of whatever absolute date we might or might not choose to
assign to it)?

> Did such a separation stop the hellenistic cultural invasion of
> Jerusalem?  ... high priests called Jason and Menelaus?  Nor does that
> geographic separation guarantee the disinterest of people in one area
> wanting to immitate the mores of those in another.

Again, cultural influences only prove that there were contacts between
the speakers of the two languages; for you to prove that the 60 miles
distance was absolutely linguistically irrelevant, you would basically
have to prove that it was not the case that speakers of Hebrew
generally spent more time interacting with other speakers of Hebrew
than they did interacting with speakers of Phoenician.  (Not sure why
you pull up Jason and Menelaus, since the Phoenician language was
moribund in Phoenicia by their date, and it wasn't really Phoenician
culture that they were influenced by...)

>>>> 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.

Not really; no one has disputed that speakers of Hebrew (and speakers of
other languages, including Aramaic) were influenced by Phoenician
orthographic practices when they first adopted the alphabet to be used in
writing their languages.  The Hebrew and Phoenician written traditions
developed the use of _matres lectionis_ at different rates, but their
starting point was basically the same, and the Gezer Calendar is fairly
close to the starting point.

>> 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.

I haven't studied the text intensively to be able to make a considered
judgement; I was just pointing out some obvious factors that would
reduce our ability to observe Phoenician vs. Hebrew distinctiveness
within a corpus consisting solely of the Gezer Calendar (and so would
lessen the strength of your claims that Hebrew "didn't yet exist" to
be written in during the first half of the 1st. millennium B.C.).

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

> What about "Southern Canaanite"? (-:

Not sure that's even a standard term; I just came up with it on the spur
of the moment to include Hebrew, Northern Hebrew, and Moabite (and
possibly more fragmentarily-known languages in the area) as opposed to

>> 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) languages.

> 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").

Not quite sure I get your point; if Hebrew was not yet differentiated
from Moabite but was already differentiated from Phoenician (which is
what the term "South Canaanite" means if it means anything at all),
this state of affairs would not particularly be demonstrated by any
Hebrew-Phoenician indeterminateness in the limited written Gezer
calendar text.

Henry Churchyard   churchh at

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