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

Trevor Peterson 06peterson at cua.edu
Fri Oct 10 05:39:30 EDT 2003

Karl wrote:
> 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.
Ugaritic probably took the basic linear alphabet used in one form or
another by all West Semites and adapted it for writing on clay in
imitation of Mesopotamian cuneiform. But generally speaking all of the
Semitic alphabetic systems are related in one way or another. Granted,
they did not all use a 22-letter set. The South Arabian and Ethiopian
languages developed a larger set for the very reason that South Arabian
preserved all of the consonants posited for proto-Semitic. (And this was
at a time roughly contemporaneous with most of the biblical writing, so
your argument about Arabic being too late to be of significance in this
respect is a moot point.) We don't know exactly how many different
language groups used the consonant set that we're familiar with from
Hebrew, but clearly Aramaic used it, even though it was not a perfect
fit. Then we have to ask where it originated in the first place, and the
signs point to Egypt, where hieroglyphics were simplified into a faster
system and apparently also generated an alphabetic system by reducing
the values of signs to their first consonant sound, rather than a whole
syllabic value. There is evidence of the presence of Semites in Egypt
over a rather extended period, and it is therefore plausible that these
sojourners formed the first alphabet out of a foreign writing system.

In any event, the more important issue is whether we actually see these
languages developing new signs throughout their own linguistic
development, and in many cases, we don't. We might see them varying
spelling according to different pronunciations, but they stuck with the
same consonantal inventory, even if it meant adapting a letter that
hadn't always represented the same sound in the same way. Later, we see
Arabic, which takes the Aramaic system and adds diacritics to
distinguish multiple pronounciations resulting from the fact that Arabic
had a much larger consonantal inventory than the writing system could

Trevor Peterson

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