[b-hebrew] Why Semitic languages had no written vowels?

Peter Kirk peterkirk at qaya.org
Fri Apr 29 07:43:29 EDT 2005


On 29/04/2005 06:44, Vadim Cherny wrote:

>>>I don't exclude that some vowelless script predates
>>>cuneiform. I know this is an unorthodox view. But we have
>>>too little epigraphic material to be certain otherwise.
>>>      
>>>
>>True, but we do have epigraphic West Semitic, and its
>>derivation from Egyptian is fairly well established.
>>    
>>
>
>I thought that the relationship is established, but derivation? We are very
>uncertain even about the spelling of Egyptian texts. I was under impression
>that West Semitic and Egyptian are branches, not consequtive stages. In
>fact, there is much controversy even on relation of East and West Semitic.
>So it's all speculation.
>  
>

I think there is some confusion here between languages and scripts. If 
we are talking about LANGUAGES, according to most scholars the original 
Afro-Asiatic family split into several sub-families, of which Semitic is 
one and Egyptian is another, and Semitic further split into East and 
West Semitic, and West Semitic split up further. But the situation with 
SCRIPTS is very different. According to most scholars, Egyptian 
hieroglyphic and Sumerian cuneiform were independent developments 
(although some contact is possible). From the start, Sumerian cuneiform 
indicated consonants and vowels but Egyptian hieroglyphs indicated only 
consonants. The East Semitic Akkadians adapted Sumerian cuneiform to 
their language, and it was sometimes used also for West Semitic. 
Meanwhile, and independently, West Semites probably living in Egypt 
started to use some Egyptian hieroglyphs for writing their own language, 
and this developed gradually into the 22-letter consonant only West 
Semitic (Canaanite or Phoenician) script.

>Epigraphic West Semitic of possibly pre-cuneiform origin (at least,
>pre-syllabic cuneiform) is, to my knowledge, scarce.
>  
>

Not scarce, but non-existent. The oldest known epigraphic West Semitic 
is the Wadi el-Hol inscription (in upper Egypt) of around 2000 BC. This 
inscription seems to use simplified Egyptian hieroglyph shapes to write 
the consonants of the Semitic language of Asiatic mercenaries serving in 
the Egyptian army. By 2000 BC cuneiform, complete with vowels, had been 
in use for a millennium for Sumerian and for several hundred years for 
Akkadian i.e. East Semitic.

>It seems to me that West Semitic is much closer to cuneiform (or, perhaps,
>vice versa) than to hieroglyphs. Cuneiform looks like cursive West Semitic.
>This is subjective, of course.
>
>  
>
Looks are subjective, but the objective historical evidence proves that 
you are almost certainly wrong.

>>If our comparatively significant body of evidence for Egyptian and
>>cuneiform script development makes it nearly impossible to
>>say which came first, then it seems like a stretch to
>>suppose that West Semitic script predates either one.
>>    
>>
>
>We have A (Egyptian), B (cuneiform), and C (West Semitic). We know little of
>A-B relation. What does this imply about B-C relation?
>
>  
>
Nothing, not least because we know quite a lot about the A-C relation.

> ...
>
>>It seems to me that your theory requires an
>>explanation of this point. If a vowelless writing system can
>>only be explained by an absence of vowel differentiation,
>>then significant phonemic differentiation of vowels would
>>have created enormous pressure to adapt the writing system.
>>    
>>
>
>It did. Masoretic vowel marks, Arabic diacritics.
>  
>

Which are not used by most modern writers of Hebrew or Arabic script.

> ...
>
>>Indeed, Ugaritic script does seem to have been influenced by cuneiform in
>>    
>>
>its
>  
>
>>wedge-formation.
>>    
>>
>
>Why are you sure about the direction?
>
>  
>
Because Sumerian cuneiform predates Ugaritic by well over a millennium.


-- 
Peter Kirk
peter at qaya.org (personal)
peterkirk at qaya.org (work)
http://www.qaya.org/



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