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

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Sun Oct 12 13:53:10 EDT 2003

Dear Trevor:

The reason I ask if this question is more philosophical than linguistic in nature is because I am looking at the question, what is the nature of the evidence?

Or to put it another way, who is a more accurate indicator of historical events? The one who lived through or observed the events (tempered by his adherence to the truth), or the modern historian who reconstructs the events based on his presuppositions? In this regard, I am reminded of a comment by a historian, when he was a graduate student and starting to analyse source documents for much of the history that he had studied as an undergrad, he came to the prof and asked why undergrad histories omitted many details found in source documents. The prof answered, “Because we don’t understand them.” i.e. they didn’t fit the prof’s presuppositions.

Getting back to Hebrew, the earliest alphabetic writing that I am familiar with, namely protosinaitic, had 22 glyphs. There are some who claim that this writing has been found world wide: the stone I gave the URL and translated in an earlier posting was found in Scandinavia (I have no idea how it got there). This was the time that if the original Semitic language had more phonemes, that it would have been a simple matter to add more glyphs. That they did not until later is evidence that phonemes are added to, as well as subtracted from, the languages. The modern theory that phonemes are only lost by convergence does not correspond to the evidence that I observe, neither in the case of Semitic languages, nor in the case of Norwegian from 800 AD to today.

The reason I mention Norwegian is that there is where we find the original writing with 16 glyphs (many Norwegians knew the more complex German runes, but that they did not use them indicates that they did not need the extra German runes except for their numerical values) which in its development lost two of those phonemes, but added enough other ones that today modern Norwegian has close to double the number of phonemes.

My reading of the evidence is that ancient Hebrew was one of the more conservative of the languages, not adding new phonemes until the Galut Babel. Some cognate languages could have started adding phonemes very early on, others not until later. That Arabic’s additions are indicated by dots is one evidence that Arabic’s additions may have been later than earlier. That we find a certain commonality in those additions over different languages is because shifts in sounds usually follow fairly regular patterns, and influenced by contacts between speakers of the different cognate languages.

The reason I think this question has devolved to a philosophical question is because I now see it dealing with what is the nature of historical evidence in the historical development of the Hebrew language.

Karl W. Randolph.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Trevor Peterson" <06peterson at cua.edu>

> Karl wrote:
> > Lost, or added? Was the original Hebrew usage appropriate and 
> > other languages ill-fitting? Were those phonemes added or 
> > lost? What does the evidence say?
> Since the question spans the entire Semitic family, the evidence should
> also span the entire family. It seems to me that you want to restrict
> your treatment to Hebrew as much as possible, but IMO this is an
> irresponsible approach. If you're going to answer this kind of question,
> you need the right kind of evidence. That's why I've already appealed to
> the correspondence of consonants in various Semitic languages. It is
> highly implausible that each language divided sounds in such a way that
> their correspondences matched. Much more likely is the standard model,
> that the original inventory was larger and has reduced by convergence in
> several languages.
> > 
> [snipped]
> > 
> > How soon in cognate languages did they appear?
> The first answer is that we may not know. It may happen in most cases
> prior to the written evidence that we have. (I'm not saying that it
> does, but this is a reality about historical linguistics that we must
> acknowledge.) Without your positivistic assumptions, the fact that a
> language like Arabic, for instance, lacks early written evidence does
> not tell us how early the sounds originated. We have to look elsewhere.
> The second answer is that in a very practcal sense we don't need to know
> how soon divergences originated to substantiate the model. The point is
> that we can determine their direction, and the evidence points
> overwhelmingly to a larger inventory of phonemes that reduced in several
> languages over time.
> > 
> [snipped]
> > 
> > > > Do you agree that we are dealing with differences that are
> > > > more philosophical than linguistic?
> > > 
> > > I don't.
> > 
> > Why?
> Because your basic argument seems to be that by looking at a small
> portion of the evidence available and extrapolating positivistically
> from that evidence you can overturn the basic rules of historical
> linguistics. Yes, there are philosophical issues here, but that does not
> change the fact that linguistics is against you on this issue.
> Trevor Peterson
> CUA/Semitics
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