[b-hebrew] Re: PS /g/

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Tue Nov 16 07:17:04 EST 2004

On 16/11/2004 06:43, Yigal Levin wrote:

> ...
>As far as Greek: the graphic similarity of Shin and Sigma and of Samekh to
>Xi is quite apparent. Greek did not have a /sh/ sound, and so adopted the
>21st letter of the Phoenician alphabet as /s/. Samekh was then superfluous,
>but since Phoenician did not have a /x/, that sign was made into the Xi.
>Other Phoenician letters that were not pronounced in Greek were the
>gutterals Aleph, He, Het, and Ayin, as well as Yod; these became the vowels,
>a function which Phoenician did without.

Vav, interestingly, was borrowed and then split into two letters, the 
consonant digamma, which was later dropped except as a numeral (although 
Latin F was borrowed from it, and still has sixth position in the 
alphabet), and the vowel upsilon, which was added to the end of the 
alphabet and remained there. Latin U, V, W and Y all derive from this, 
so that is five Latin letters from one Hebrew one!

>So, it would seem that the distinction between Samekh and Sin, which must
>have been pronounced at one time (otherwise there would not have been
>separate letters in the first place) was lost by the time the Greeks
>borrowed the Phoenician alphabet. ...

Nick Nicholas' explanation (and he is an expert on Greek) is rather 
different. According to him, some early Greek dialects had a /sh/ sound 
and xi was originally used for this, because those who borrowed the 
letters swapped round the sounds of samekh and shin, perhaps confused 
because some people pronounced shin as /s/. Only later did the /sh/ 
sound change into /ks/.

>As far as Shin/Sin, obviously most Semitic dialects have both sounds.
>However, the specific Canaanite dialect whose 22 letter alphabet was adopted
>by everyone else did not, or at least, the way they pronounced Sin (which
>was DIFFERENT than Samekh), was close enough to Shin so that they used the
>same letter. The Hebrews, at least, and probably most Arameans as well, kept
>the tradition of pronouncing both Shin and Sin, a tradition that remained
>all the way down to the masoretes, who added the dot on the right for Shin
>and on the left for Sin.

Or could it be that already at the time the alphabet was adopted sin had 
lost its distinct sound everywhere, but had merged with shin in 
Phoenician but with samekh in Hebrew and Aramaic? This would imply that 
when writing was borrowed from the Phoenicians or whoever, spellings 
were also borrowed, so that shin was sometimes written for words 
actually pronounced with samekh. Borrowing of spellings even when 
contradicted by pronunciation may sound strange, but it is well attested 
both with Latin and French words into English etc and with Arabic words 
into Persian and many other Arabic script languages. One would have to 
presume that the earliest scribes in Israel were Phoenicians, or had 
studied at the Phoenician scribal schools, and so wrote Hebrew as if it 
was badly pronounced Phoenician. There is after all very little 
difference between the written languages in the earliest periods.

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

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