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

Trevor Peterson 06peterson at cua.edu
Sun Oct 12 16:18:27 EDT 2003

Karl wrote:

> 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? 

Don't you think this is a rather simplistic portrayal of the situation?
The only indication that you're suggesting we have of what the
eyewitnesses thought is the writing system they used. But to conclude
that their writing system shows us a set of only 22 phonemes requires
the application of a modern historical construct. The bottom line is
that we can't get away from working as modern historians. It then
becomes a question of how naïve we're going to be in the process.


> 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.

Again, I think you're confusing too much the history of writing with the
history of language. You seem simply to assume that because these are
the earliest inscriptions we have they must therefore represent the
earliest levels of the language. We can't even prove that this was the
only alphabetic writing in use at the time, much less that it shows us
the whole picture of the available phonemes in the language being
written. And even if we could get that far, we still wouldn't have the
whole picture for the various Semitic languages at that time.

> 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.

You can argue this point with someone else if you like, but I'm not
putting forward that theory. I'm saying that we can only explain the
existing evidence for the Semitic language family in terms of
convergence. Perhaps other languages yield other patterns--I wouldn't

> That Arabic’s additions are indicated by dots is one 
> evidence that Arabic’s additions may have been later than 
> earlier.

This is false. The nature of the Arabic writing system is contingent
upon the way that system came about--as a borrowed alphabet from
Nabatean. By this point, Aramaic already had a long tradition of using
one sign to represent multiple sounds. Even if you disagree with that
point, it is obvious that Arabic was trying to use an Aramaic script
that was insufficient for its needs. To avoid confusion, the Aramaic
signs were retained and modified with diacritics. This tells us nothing
about when the Arabic sound set originated. It could have been around
for centuries before they borrowed the Aramaic script and had to find
ways to adapt it.

> 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.

This is an inadequate explanation. I can only assume that you have not
actually looked at the evidence you're trying to explain. We are talking
here about a phoneme splitting in such a way in language A and in
language B that the same set of cognate roots appears in language A with
new phoneme X and in language B with new phoneme Y. It actually gets
more complicated than that, because we have more languages to work into
the pattern. If you think you have a system of rules according to which
you can explain this consistency, I'm sure there are plenty of scholars
who would love to hear it. But until you present those rules, I suspect
most of them are going to stick with the explanation that has already
been well established, that these correspondences result from variable
convergence of originally shared phonemes (and that convergence
according to well-established phonetic rules).

I think that's probably about as much as I'm going to say about this.
This is not a comparative Semitics list, and we've drifted into a
discussion that is totally about comparative Semitics.

Trevor Peterson

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