[b-hebrew] linguistics, was Re: Prov. 30:19

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Thu Oct 9 14:17:56 EDT 2003

Dear Peter:

My responses are interspaced within your message.

Karl W. Randolph.

> >----- Original Message -----
> >From: Peter Kirk <peterkirk at qaya.org>
> >
> >> >>On 07/10/2003 23:00, Karl Randolph wrote:
> >>
> >>>Dear Peter:
> >>>
> >>>How do you know that it is not Arabic from over a thousand years later that split one root into two? ...
> >>>
> >>Because such things don't happen, within the rather well understood 
> >>processes of how languages change over time.
> >>    
> >Oh? Languages sometimes add phonemes, sometimes reduce phonemes, over time. Who can predict which way an individual language will go?
> >  
> No one can predict what will happen. But anyone can predict that there 
> are certain things which are very unlikely to happen, on the basis that 
> they have not been observed in any of the well studied language groups 
> e.g. Indo-European, Semitic etc, or in any other less well known group. 
> One of those processes which does not occur, as I understand it, is the 
> splitting of one phoneme into two apart from when it is conditioned by 
> the phonological environment.

Just that you don’t know of any such observation merely means that you don’t know of any such observation, not that it didn’t happen. Or has it been observed? See below.
> >>>... Even with post-Biblical Hebrew, we see that one letter, sin, was split into two: sin and shin, ...
> >>>
> >>No, as Trevor has explained. Sin and shin were always pronounced 
> >>differently, but were written with one letter because there was no 
> >>separate letter available for sin.
> >>
> >You have no evidence for this claim.
> >  
> The evidence is in the scholarly reconstruction of the history of the 
> Semitic languages, which has a similar status to the reconstruction of 
> the history of Germanic, Greek etc which you mention below although 
> there is equally "no evidence" for what you repeat as fact. For if we 
> don't accept as evidence for pronunciation the various written forms 
> which have survived, we are left with no evidence at all for the history 
> of language, before the invention of sound recording and phonetic 
> transcription.

As I read your response, you claim that scholarly reconstruction equals evidence. What if the scholarly reconstruction is wrong? How would we know? What is their evidence?

As for the evidence of the German pronunciation change, it is from written documents and place names. For example, Stratteburg became Straßburg over a period of time (before it got its modern, French spelling). That’s just one of many examples. Because German spelling remained fluid until relatively modern times, pronunciation changes such as these could be mapped, so what do you mean “there is equally "no evidence"”? 

For me, the strongest evidence for Biblical Hebrew is precisely the surviving, unpointed, written documents. I think the points, particularly in bgdkpt and sin/shin, represent a later development of the language from a period after when Hebrew was no longer spoken in the home and on the street, but was the language of religion and high literature.
> >>Karl, it is clear that you have very little idea of how languages change 
> >>over time. Please study some comparative linguistics, history of Semitic 
> >>languages etc, and weigh carefully the evidence used for their 
> >>reconstructions, before presuming to know these things better than me, a 
> >>trained linguist, and than the experts in this field whose theories I 
> >>have summarised.
> >
> >Peter, you neither know me nor what I have studied. It seems that Proverbs 18:13 fits this situation. I make no presumptions on your studies and learning.
> >
> I'm sorry if I failed to acknowledge your qualifications. However, it 
> remains clear to me that you misunderstand this subject.

Nope. It is only clear that I disagree with you.
> >If Moses wrote Torah about 1400 BCE as tradition avers (and I see no reason to doubt this tradition), then it follows that the alphabet more closely follows the pronunciation and linguistic structure of the period than any other period or language.
> >
> Well, the theory that Moses invented the Semitic alphabet no longer 
> seems tenable as there is evidence for it from earlier than Moses could 
> have lived. That implies that Moses (or whoever) took an existing 
> alphabet which was not necessarily adequate to represent all the sounds 
> of Hebrew, just as the English alphabet, taken from the Latin, is not 
> and never was adequate to represent all the sounds of English.

Who said that Moses invented the Semitic alphabet? I certainly didn’t. It is my belief that the Hebrew people, or at least their leadership, were literate at the time of Moses. And had been for many generations.

When an alphabet is adopted from one language to another, the examples I have seen indicate that it is rare that the alphabet is adopted unchanged. When a language is written phonetically, it will drop phonemes from the alphabet that are not in the adopter language and add those lacking in the alphabet. An example of this is that as late as the mid 1960s in Norway, children in first grade were taught a 24 letter alphabet based on the Latin one, omitting c, q, w, x, and z while adding æ, ø and å. (My brother went to first grade in Norway, and that’s the alphabet he was taught.)

Looking back at the history of Scandinavian languages, it seems we can chart additions of phonemes over the last 1200 years. When my ancestors burst out of the cold north to terrorize England, Ireland and France, they were literate, using a 16 letter phonetic alphabet called “Futhork”, commonly called runes. These 16 letters represented the 16 phonemes in use at that time, though it is possible that it did not represent all the phones the people spoke. Over time, dots and other marks were added to various glyphs to indicate phones, later phonemes, that were not represented by the 16 glyphs. Some of the original phonemes split apart, such as the ‘k’ to ‘g’ and ‘k’, the ‘a’ to ‘a’ and ‘æ’, and so forth. And today, I wonder if the addition of ‘j’ after ‘g’, ‘k’, ‘s’ and ‘t’ in Norwegian represents a modern bifurcation of previous phonemes.

Therefore, if Biblical Hebrew was phonetically written, which I believe the evidence indicates, the 22 letters represent the consonental phonemes they had. There was nothing to prevent the ancient Hebrews from adding letters if the alphabet did not cover all their consonental phonemes. That they did not do so indicates that they did not need to.
> -- 
> Peter Kirk
> peter at qaya.org (personal)
> peterkirk at qaya.org (work)
> http://www.qaya.org/
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