Linguistic Origins of Hebrew: 1800 BCE?!

Ian Hutchesson mc2499 at
Sun Sep 17 18:42:51 EDT 2000

At 08.36 16/09/00 -0500, Henry Churchyard wrote:
>> 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)

No, independently datable evidence is needed. The words themselves are
strictly indicators that changes happened.

>...since a date roughly
>lateish in the 2nd. millennium B.C.E. date is accepted without much
>controversy, as far as I'm aware, 

What may be accepted without controversy is not particularly useful when
the dating itself is of prime concern. (Yet again) history is not a matter
of democracy: it is a tyranny of evidence.

On what grounds can one date a linguistic change without having (what I
consider to be) the only available indications of our knowledge of ancient
languages (ie texts)?

Is the Gezer calendar in some way involved in the construction of that date
which is "accepted without much controversy"?

>[omitted interesting indications of a relative chron. of phonological

>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 ;-)


>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...

In our particular case how can one date any of the sound changes talked
about in relation to Hebrew when the only "sure" early Hebrew texts we have
are from the period of Hezekiah?

>>> 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.

His interest does seem to be more diachronic and comparative studies in
general. He has however written on most aspects of Semitic linguistics,
many of which by necessity touch phonology. At other times he has written
specifically on phonological concerns or concerns with phonological

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

But of course influence from a third if present will have its impact on the
divergence, will it not?

>>>> 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)?

I really don't have a clue what the language of the bible is based on. It
is a form of Hebrew which doesn't reflect the DSS, which is an enormous
sample  of Hebrew, so enormous one has to conclude that the scrolls as a
bulk could only have been produced in Jerusalem. There are at least four
forms of Hebrew in the scrolls, a few examples of MH, as well as BH, Qumran
scrolls specific Hebrew, and what seems to be a Hebrew related to
Samaritan, so the origins of some of these forms are not transparent. The
majority of the non-biblical material is in QH, suggesting that that was
the active language where the scrolls were produced (Jerusalem). This was a
living language as shown by the phonological efforts of the scribes who
recorded them (Qimron's small "Hebrew of the DSS" [Scholars Press '86] is
quite illuminating here).

This leaves us still to understand how biblical Hebrew fits in.

>> 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...)

It was an analogy: the Seleucids (in whose time Jews were using Greek
names, texts began to reflect hellenistic philosophical concerns, and
Jerusalemites were taken on various hellenistic cultural traits) were a lot
further away than the Phoenicians who had more direct contact with
Jerusalem through trade. I asked "Did such a separation stop the
hellenistic cultural invasion of Jerusalem?", meaning by "such a
separation" as found in the 60 miles between Judah and the Phoenician
coast. The rhetorical question regarding the Seleucids requires a negative
answer, just as I would think that the implied question about the
Phoenicians might.

>>>>> 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.

This seems to assume that you accept the Gezer calendar as Hebrew rather
than Phoenician or some form of "pre-Hebrew" ("South Canaanite"). Why?

>>> 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.).

If the Gezer calendar isn't Hebrew, then we have at least two
possibilities: 1) it is as Garbini says, Phoenician, or 2) sunny "South

Some people are adamant about it being Hebrew, but if there is this
contention, can we say that we have an example of Hebrew before the Arad

>>>>> "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 wouldn't have thought so. I just recycled your 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.

If we cannot distinguish the "Hebrew" of the Gezer calendar from
Phoenician, yet Hebrew was closer to Moabite and other South Canaanite
languages than to Phoenician, it would seem likely then that the Gezer
calendar was not written in Hebrew but in "pre-Hebrew", perhaps in our
newly coined "South Canaanite". Hebrew in this analysis would have emerged
much later than say your 1200 BCE, though granting that writing systems
tend to be conservative.

Perhaps it is safer to say that we have no clear Hebrew before the Arad
texts (and they do at least contain complete clauses!). Is there any hard
evidence to point to the contrary?

It might also be part of the explanation why we have no monumental
inscriptions in Hebrew from the early monarchy period.



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