Linguistic Origins of Hebrew: 1800 BCE?!

Ian Hutchesson mc2499 at
Fri Sep 29 06:17:50 EDT 2000

At 04.18 21/09/00 -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 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.
>> 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)?
>First you reconstruct relative chronologies of sound changes (tied to
>absolute dates in those cases where we have explicit external
>evidence, but chronologically free-floating where there is no
>available external evidence about exact exact dates of changes), and
>then you extrapolate between the chronologically fixed points to
>derive rough estimates as to dates of intermediate reconstructed

This is of course where the process becomes totally arbitrary. As there is
no way of demonstrating the significance of the results, the making of such
estimates in itself is unproductive.

>Of course, here it's a lot more complicated than that,
>because our only available evidence for fixed chronological points
>often applies to dialects other than the one we're interested in.  For
>example, the Amarna letters are interesting, but it's not clear that
>any of them (even those written from Jerusalem) provide evidence about
>a dialect which is a direct ancestor of later attested biblical
>Not quite sure why you're making so much of this, since I freely
>admitted from the beginning that I only had a rather approximate date
>to offer for word-final vowel loss in Hebrew, and that I was not in
>fact very sure that word-final vowel loss was directly connected with
>the differentiation of Hebrew from related languages.  

To understand what parameters you are using to make the guesstimates.

>You urged me to
>throw out some kind of hypothesis, and that was the one which occurred
>to me -- and I never claimed that it was anything other than a very
>tentative one (though even so, it's still less problematic than the
>idea that Hebrew first differentiated from Phoenician under Aramaic
>influence in the 9th century B.C.).

I have already clarified this last point. The process was *roughly*
described as Hebrew being differentiated from Phoenician. I am just as
happy to talk about the small family of languages/dialects which arose from
that which separated from Phoenician under Aramaic influence.

>> Is the Gezer calendar in some way involved in the construction of
>> that date which is "accepted without much controversy"?
>Nope -- the Gezer calendar hardly even indicates long vowels (much
>less short vowels).

Well, what is the bottom end of your scale from which you make those
estimates? The Arad texts?

>>> 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?
>Languages are not texts, remember?

Texts are the only evidence we have, remember?

>In any case, for a number of the sound changes that I've been
>interested in (having to do with vowels and stress), not even the
>indisputably Hebrew inscriptions of the 1st. millennium B.C. are very
>relevant, since such Hebrew inscriptions only transcribe a restricted
>subset of long vowels (with no information about short vowels or
>stress).  Therefore such phonological work basically involves directly
>correlating the masoretic Tiberian orthography with the early
>Canaanite vowel system (derived from the proto-Semitic three-vowel
>two-quantity system by the change of most long [a] to long [o] and the
>monophthongization of at least some [ay] and [aw] to long [e] and [o]
>vowels), and reconstructing the necessary intermediate stages, as
>discussed at length in section 1.4 of my dissertation (available

Is the first preserved manifestation of Tiberian orthography your bottom end?

>>>> 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
>>> Actually, in the Hebrew/Semitic area, my field is historical
>>> phonology.  I don't think that Garbini would describe himself as
>>> being primarily a phonologist
>> 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 importance.
>I just looked up Garbini in the electronic MLA bibliography, and it
>turned up a total of nine items by him published since 1962 (which is
>about as far back as the bibliography goes), of which only one, the
>article I mentioned earlier ("The Phonetic Shift of Sibilants in
>Northwestern Semitic in the First Millennium B.C.") is obviously
>phonological in focus based on the title or the supplied subject

This may be the article on the subject (mine is called simply "The Phonetic
Shift of Sibilants in Aramaic") which I have in a collect republished in
1994. However, much of his phonological interests are manifested in works
such as "Il semitico di nord-ovest".

>Of course, the MLA may be spotty on material published in
>Italian (but unfortunately, Italian is not really one of my languages

Knowledge of French and/or Spanish makes Italian relatively easy. However,
Italian is generally not one of one's languages anyway, meaning that people
like Liverani, Garbini, and Sacchi don't get read by English speakers. This
makes their work more easily discountable.

>>>>>>> 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?
>Certainly -- if the third language influences one of the two more
>heavily than the other (and so acts as a differentiating factor rather
>than a common factor).  But it's not a necessary condition, so that in
>most cases of two related languages a historical linguist will feel no
>particular need to seek out yet a third language in order to provide an
>"explanation" for the cause of their differentiation.

Of course, if the manifestation is one well known in the third language,
then its presence in only one of the other two needs to be considered in
light of the possible influence. 

>>>>>> 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.
>>>> 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.
>I don't think your analogy strictly proves anything, 

It shows that there is doubt about your basic presupposition.

>since it's not
>necessarily the case that patterns of cultural diffusion in the late
>1st. millennium B.C. were identical to what they had been in the early
>1st. millennium B.C.  Anyway, there were Hellenistic cities located
>closer than 60 miles to Jerusalem in Seleucid times -- and all this is
>actually somewhat irrelevant, since the main criterion remains the
>specifically-linguistic (not vaguely cultural) 

(Linguistic phenomena are cultural phenomena. Linguistic impact isn't
noticeable without cultural impact.)

>one I stated above:
>"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."

What is this talk of "linguistically irrelevant"? You are making a
generalization and want me to "prove" it is incorrect, rather than you
showing that it is in fact correct. This is quite unacceptable as a logical
process, as is your postulated necessary condition to "prove" what you desire.

>>>> 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.  This leaves us still to
>> understand how biblical Hebrew fits in.
>Your perplexity seems to be mostly the result of your fixed _a priori_

There is nothing a priori about it. One needs to deal with the physical
evidence we have. There are a number of hypotheses derivable. I didn't put
one forward. I merely indicated that the scrolls came from Jerusalem and
that they reflected various dialects.

>preconception that these different varieties couldn't largely reflect
>different historical/chronological stages (leaving Samaritan Hebrew
>out of consideration).
>[...] Phoenician orthographic practices were influential
>when the 22-letter alphabet was adopted to write various
>non-Phoenician languages in the early first millennium B.C. (such
>orthographic influence doesn't have much to do with linguistic
>relatedness, since Aramaic orthographic practices were even more
>heavily influenced by Phoenician than Hebrew orthography was).  
>If you're really interested in this subject, you could look up Blau's
>"Pseudo-Corrections in Semitic" book...

Thanks for the thought. It's the sort of title which appeals to me, as is
the subject, but such orthographical practices aren't on my agenda.


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