[b-hebrew] Proto-Semitic, was WAYYIQTOL

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Mon Mar 15 07:28:20 EST 2004

On 15/03/2004 01:07, Karl Randolph wrote:

>If this is what Huxley really said, he was 
>more ignorant than I thought. And not below 
>making an ad homonym attack (even if the 
>bishop asked for it).
Yes, it was an ad hominem attack, and yes, the bishop asked for it. 
These were not Huxley's actual words, but Huxley approved this version 
of the story many years later for publication in the official biography 
of Darwin. I took this from the discussion by Stephen Jay Gould 
(mentioned below), in "Bully for Brontosaurus".

On what basis do you call Huxley ignorant? Do you know better than he 
did (although he had just listened to the bishop's speech) about the 
bishop's acquaintance with the scientific questions under discussion? 
Certainly you don't know better than Huxley about the nature of the 
bishop's speech. You may disagree with Huxley on many issues, as I also 
do, but he did know what he was talking about.

>Admitting that evolution is not a 
>scientific theory does not falsify it, it 
>merely acknowledges that it is a 
>metaphysical theory, which is a 50? word 
>for religious theory.

I don't want to go into evolution either. But the issue of science and 
evidence is one that applies in very similar ways to history, including 
historical linguistics, which itself includes interpretation of texts in 
ancient languages. It also applies, although partly for different 
reasons, to most astronomy and cosmology - and for that matter, though 
for even more different reasons, to some aspects of human biology e.g. 
understanding the brain. These are all fields in which we are unable to 
perform experiments, and so unable to use what is perhaps the canonical 
scientific method. We are restricted to observing the phenomena which 
happen to present themselves to us. Many of these phenomena, e.g. a 
fossil, or a text, or a star, can be observed repeatedly, and in this 
way the deductions made by scholars from the phenomena can be subjected 
to normal scientific testing - although some are unrepeatable e.g. 
fossils and texts which crumble away as well as transient astronomical 
phenomena so we have to rely on records of the initial observations.

Now I can see that according to a certain very strict view of the 
scientific method this methodology might be considered unscientific. The 
result is the exclusion from the domain of science of evolutionary 
biology, of history, historical linguistics and all study of dead 
languages, and of astronomy (at least beyond Mars, although even there 
we are observing rather than experimenting) - and of study of the human 
brain unless we start cutting people up for experiment rather than 
observing the consequences of injuries and of otherwise necessary surgery.

Alternatively, we can accept a slightly broader definition of the 
scientific method, and one which I am sure Dr GG Simpson accepted as 
valid (certainly Gould does), according to which observations are not 
restricted to repeatable experiments. If we do this, evolution, history 
and astronomy are acceptable scientific disciplines.

>As for historical linguistics, the fossils 
>indicating the existence and development of 
>those languages are the surviving documents 
>written in those languages. Unfortunately, 
>those documents are often just skeletons, 
>even parts of skeletons, unable to flesh 
>out the richness the languages originally 
>had. Where is the skeleton of proto-
>Semitic? By your own admission, it doesn?t 
>exist. It is merely a conjecture, based on 
>a theory. To use conjecture based on theory 
>to have veto power over how one should 
>interpret the observed skeleton of a 
>historical language, sounds backwards to 
>me. Especially as long as there is the 
>possibility that the theory may be wrong.

A better analogy here is not with evolution but with physics. Atoms 
cannot be observed directly. But all physicists accept that they exist 
because they account for huge numbers of indirect observations. By the 
same principle, there is no direct evidence that proto-Semitic had a 
particular form, but various scholarly hypotheses about it are generally 
accepted because they account for indirect observations e.g. of recorded 
ancient and modern Semitic languages. There is of course the possibility 
that the theory may be wrong; there is also the possibility that the 
atomic theory of matter may be wrong; there is even the possibility that 
the earth may be flat.

>My interpretation of the bones of Biblical 
>Hebrew are that the 22 letters represented 
>22 consonantal phonemes, each with one 
>sound that existed from Moses to the Galut 
>Babel. The consonantal sounds may have been 
>different than as we interpret the signs 
>left by the Masoretes. Just because a 
>cognate language may have had more phonemes 
>does not mean that Hebrew did. Absent 
>documentary evidence, there is no way to 
>prove, nor disprove, my interpretation.

Which makes your theory certainly no better than the standard accepted 
one. If you don't accept the latter because of this kind of principle, 
you had better conclude that it is impossible to say anything about 
Hebrew except what is immediately deducible from the surviving texts.

Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)

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