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

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Fri Oct 10 02:34:41 EDT 2003

Dear Peter:

My responses are mingled with yours.

Karl W. Randolph.

----- Original Message -----
From: Peter Kirk <peterkirk at qaya.org>

> On 09/10/2003 11:17, Karl Randolph wrote:

> >
> >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"”? 
> >  
> >
> And I could quote similar evidence for different spellings of place 
> names in and around the land of Israel, and other written documents 
> going back hundreds of years before biblical Hebrew, including Ugaritic, 
> Egyptian, Akkadian, Eblaite etc, as well as early inscriptional Hebrew, 
> Phoenician, Moabite (e.g. the text I just sent you), Aramaic etc etc, 
> quite apart from later evidence such as Greek, Arabic and Ethiopic. This 
> adds up to a huge body of evidence from which scholars have 
> reconstructed rules of phonetic change in just the same way that they 
> have reconstructed the German rule which you quote. All this adds up to 
> a strong body of evidence that Hebrew sin was pronounced as a lateral 
> fricative, like a voiceless l, as still in the modern Semitic language 
> Jibbali.

You are comparing apples with oranges. With the German, we can compare German with German, measured over a limited time period. With the Hebrew, you are comparing Hebrew with different languages, even different language families in transcriptions, over vast spans of time during which pronunciation may have changed or exchanged because of a change of language, under widely differing linguistic influences, and so forth. Under such circumstances, your claims are in a different realm than mapping a German change in pronunciation.

As for the pronunciation of sin, I see no reason to pronounce it other than as a sibilant. The Jibbali pronunciation sounds dialectal, in the same manner that the Hoi San family of dialects have changed most Cantonese sibilants to voiceless lateral fricatives.

> >For me, the strongest evidence for Biblical Hebrew is precisely the surviving, unpointed, written documents. I think ...
> >
> Think what you like, but the evidence does not support your speculation.

What evidence do you have? How do you prove that the specific followed the pattern of the general and was not an exception?

It appears that your methodology is backwards: it should go from the specific to the general, but you seem to be applying the general to the specific.

> >
> >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. ...
> >
> Well, I have seen evidence of lots of different Semitic languages 
> written with precisely the same set of 22 letters. So that is plenty of 
> counter-examples to your alleged rule, which may apply to modern Western 
> scripts but not to ancient Near Eastern ones. It seems highly improbable 
> that all ancient Semitic languages had precisely the same set of 
> consonant phonemes, indeed it is easily proven that they did not.

How many adopted the 22 letter Hebrew alphabet? Ugaritic didn’t. Eblaite didn’t (though that’s unfair, as Eblaite predated the earliest surviving examples of Hebrew alphabet), Ethiopic didn’t, Arabic didn’t. Moabite was so close to Hebrew it could almost be called a dialect thereof. Was not the same true of Edomite? The Greeks and Romans both took the alphabet and changed it. Correct me if I’m wrong, but it looks as if the 22 letter alphabet was adopted by only a relatively small number of closely related Semitic languages.

Then there are some who claim that Hebrew was the pre-Tower of Babel language, and examples of very ancient Hebrew writing, in the 22 letter alphabet, are found world wide. You wouldn’t happen to be one of those, are you?

> >...
> >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 ...
> >
> What is your evidence that it was phonetic? It seems highly unlikely. I 
> don't think any known modern language has as few as 16 phonemes.

This was not a modern language 1200 years ago. Furthermore, we can find variences in spelling indicative of dialectal differences from region to region.

> >... 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. ...
> >
> I don't have the evidence to prove it, but I am almost sure that the 
> reconstruction of Indo-European phonology, part of which you quoted to 
> me, will indicate that these dots and other marks were added to indicate 
> distinctions which were already in the language but had been 
> underspecified in the written language. Just like the Hebrew sin and 
> shin dots.

I wrote phonemes, not phones. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had different sounds, phones, not indicated by their limited alphabet, but they were not phonemically significant until later. When it became important to differentiate between phonemes, then dots were added to the glyphs. Reconstructions are guesses, educated guesses to be sure, of how scholars believe things might have been, but they may not have been too. Reconstructions are not evidence. To restate what I said above, how do you know when a specific example is not an exception to a theorized reconstruction?

> >... And today, I wonder if the addition of ‘j’ after ‘g’, ‘k’, ‘s’ and ‘t’ in Norwegian represents a modern bifurcation of previous phonemes.
> >  
> >
> You can wonder, or you can look at the evidence. I don't know much 
> Norwegian, but I understand that after words like skirt and skip (also 
> skiff), which I mentioned before, were borrowed from Norwegian into 
> English, the Norwegian pronunciation changed so that Norwegian skip is 
> now pronounced like English (from west Germanic) ship. Before some 
> vowels a j sound is added to indicate this pronunciation. Unless you can 
> provide evidence to the contrary, I will expect that this is a regular 
> case of phonetic change conditioned by the environment.

This is not an example of ‘k’ before ‘i’ or ‘y’ which I deliberately left out because one could argue that it is a regular case of phonetic change conditioned by the environment, rather this is a case where four letters sometimes change their pronunciations, sometimes not, and a ‘j’ is added to indicate that change when it occures. Furthermore, a historical look at the words indicates that this is a definite change in the pronunciation.

I shouldn’t have said “I wonder…”

> >Therefore, if Biblical Hebrew was phonetically written, which I believe the evidence indicates, ...
> >
> What evidence? There is none, only an a priori assumption which can be 
> demonstrated to be improbable both from the general history of the 
> alphabet and from a look at Hebrew phonology.

I’ve noticed variences in spelling, most often in the sometimes inclusion, sometimes omission of medial waws and yods. That is one indicator that the language was phonetically written.

> >... 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.
> >  
> >
> No, it does not. For a simple counter-example, look at English and many 
> other western languages which have not added any vowel letters to the 
> inherited Latin alphabet to cover all their vowel phonemes etc.

If you are talking about adding new letters, no that hasn’t happened since the invention of the printing press. We have been too browbeaten by ASCII and earlier by the printing press (which stole our thorn from English) which have hindered the acceptance of new glyphs. But human inventiveness being what it is, we have gotten around this limit by having combinations of letters stand in for single glyph phonemes so most can become recognizable.

But ancient Hebrew was not so limited. While Biblical Hebrew was phonetically spelled, it would have been easy to add new glyphs, and they didn’t until after the spelling became largely frozen and people no longer spoke it in their daily lives. Then they added the dots.

> -- 
> Peter Kirk
> peter at qaya.org (personal)
> peterkirk at qaya.org (work)
> http://www.qaya.org/
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