[b-hebrew] Proto-Semitic, was WAYYIQTOL

Karl Randolph kwrandolph at email.com
Thu Mar 18 17:05:32 EST 2004

Dear Kevin Riley:

Your letter reminds me why I almost always 
use “phoneme” instead of “phone”.

For example, in English, the voiced and 
unvoiced th, though they are different 
phones, represent the same phoneme. If I 
were to substitute an unvoiced th for every 
voiced one, it wouldn’t make a whit of 
difference in meaning.

There may have been two different 
pronunciations for Ayen originally, but 
they were the same phoneme: substituting 
one pronunciation for the other didn’t make 
a difference. The same with the Sin and the 

The problem is, all of us, myself included, 
are only guessing how Hebrew was originally 
pronounced. I personally favor the view 
that each phoneme represented one 
consonantal phone, but there’s no way to 
prove it. However, I would be surprised if 
statistical analysis did not show that each 
letter represents one phoneme, and that 
includes that the Sin and Shin were 
originally one phoneme.

Karl W. Randolph.

----- Original Message -----
From: "Kevin Riley" <klriley at alphalink.com.au>

> >-----Original Message-----
> >From: b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
> >[mailto:b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org]On Behalf Of Karl Randolph
> >
> >Yigal:
> >
> >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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