[b-hebrew] Proto-Semitic, was WAYYIQTOL

Kevin Riley klriley at alphalink.com.au
Wed Mar 17 03:26:03 EST 2004

>-----Original Message-----
>From: b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
>[mailto:b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org]On Behalf Of Karl Randolph
>It is exactly your last question that makes
>me doubt that ancient Hebrews adopted the
>Phoenician alphabet. It is also the reason
>I doubt that Biblical Hebrew had the number
>of phones that the Masoretes recognized
>over a thousand years later.
>If proto-Canaanite had 30 characters, why
>would they adopt an alphabet with fewer
>characters unless it was brought in from
>outside, as was the Hebrew writing?
>Karl W. Randolph.
Perhaps the whole question of spelling 'phonetically' was not an issue to
the Hebrews.  If you look at other Semitic languages, you find that it isn't
a big issue.  Akkadian, Amorite, Eblaite and Ugaritic are about the earliest
records.  The first three used the Sumerian derived  cuneiform.  Not only
are the emphatic consonants not consistently represented by separate
symbols, but the voiced/voiceless distinction is also not made in Eblaite.
So DA = any dental stop, GA = any velar stop. SA = an sibilant, etc.  Double
consonants are often ignored.  When you add in the different signs for each
sound, there is what at first sight looks like confusion.  It seems
reasonable to suppose that the literate Canaanites were familiar with one or
more of these languages.  The need to distinguish each sound by a
corresponding letter may not have been felt as a pressing need.  Ugaritic
did have an 'alphabet' that represented the 27 phonemes, but they also had a
22 letter alphabet that corresponded to Hebrew.  Even though they had the
longer alphabet which represented the sounds of their language fairly well,
there was no problem writing in the shorter alphabet which used the same
symbol for different sounds.  I tried to find a chart that compared the two,
but couldn't find one quickly.  Old Aramaic is perhaps the best parallel to
Hebrew, as it used the 22 letter alphabet.  The letters Het, 'ayin and Shin,
have the same double pronunciation as posited for Hebrew, with a few more
that don't relate to Hebrew.  The fact that letters represent 2 or 3 sounds
that were similar in Old Aramaic, but became dis-similar in Imperial Aramaic
argues against the theory that they had merged into one sound [e.g. shin
represents 'theta' - a sound similar to a sibilant, that later merged with
'taw' which is not similar].

We may not be able to explain why the Hebrews adopted a 22 symbol alphabet
when a 'better' one was available, but it is not unique or unusual in their
world.  There is also no explanation for why an Aramaic speaking group
[Abraham's descendants] should have become a Canaanite speaking nation,
especially in Egypt.  But then, there is no reason why English has never
felt the need to distinguish between the two sounds of 'th'.  'Then' and
'thin' could be distinguished - edh and thorn existed in Old English but
were used indiscriminately for both.  Icelandic differentiated the sounds by
using separate letters, English 'chose' to use 'th' for both.  We can blame
the habits of the Norman scribes, but from memory the last Norman scribe
died many centuries ago, and we still write 'th' for both sounds.

Kevin Riley

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