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

Vadim Cherny VadimCherny at mail.ru
Wed May 4 14:49:07 EDT 2005

> >Well, by "I don't think" I just trid to state politely that such examples
> >must be non-existent. If you refer to them - pre-2000 BCE - then name

> The basement of the British Museum is full of them. Seriously, there is
> a huge quantity of surviving cuneiform tablets. Exactly how many of them
> are Akkadian and before 2000 BC I don't know, but the number is
> significant. There is a much larger number of surviving tablets from the
> Old Babylonian period, 2000-1600 BC, which was certainly before the
> western Semitic alphabet was in widespread use.

That far I know. But you asserted that piel indistinguishable from vowelless
paal existed in Akkadian before the alphabet appeared. This implies that
vowels at the time when alphabet emerged could not be unambiguously
reconstructed from syntax. This I doubt.
I cannot check your assertion.

> > The number of tablets in Old Akkadian is not very large.

Unlikely they include attested piel semantically different from intense
paal. Just a guess.

> The final -a in Hebrew (and Aramaic) feminine nouns (which is derived
> from an original -at which survives in the construct form)

On the contrary, common sense suggests that tav was added to mark suffix a
in writing, and to pronounce it more distinctly.
Note that abstract plural suffix -ot seems to exist also as -on, as in
Helbon, suggesting that suffix consonant is non-essential. The same thing
with 2ms suffix -ca and -ta, consonant seems non-essential.

> It is certainly not influenced by Greek -a. It is clearly an indication of
femininity in words like malka as
> well as in feminine adjectival endings.

No problem with that

> In other words it simply marks feminine grammatical gender.

Now, that's just baseless assumption. I think, -a and -h are different
suffixes, -a employed for meaningful feminine objects, animate.

> The common origin of this ending is shown in the way that it changes
to -at in the construct state.

This is a logical error, as you surely understand. The same result does not
prove the same inputs.

> The Aramaic definite suffix alef is a quite different object. Note that
> the definite state of Aramaic feminine nouns ends in tav-alef, i.e. -at
> plus the definite suffix, with the -t reappearing before the vowel.

What does this imply? I agree that animate feminine suffix might be a
vowel -a. I don't agree that all suffixes -h are the same, but perhaps we
should differentiate between animate feminine -a and directional -h. I think
that Aramaic suffix aleph is a remnant of hey.
Anyway, I don't quite see what we are arguing here about. Sure enough,
vowels serve morphological function, and are used for affixes.
You mean that vowelless malk and malkah cannot be determined from context?
Well, this might be a reason to use hey for -a. I don't agree that hey in
suffixes is strictly mater lectionis, since this concept emerged much later.

> The directional he suffix is also something quite different.

Here we enter semantics and, frankly, the meanings are ambiguous. I have no
problem seeing directional concept in feminine, a proverbial object of
desire. Or in milhama, taking it as m+lhm+h - "for bread."

> Also different is the 3rd person feminine possessive suffix -ah, which
> has a pronounced he marked with mappiq.

This is a different topic, and we can discuss it separately, if you wish. I
think that possessive suffixes are only vowels, i, a, u, with consonants
added for writing.

> >I'm not a specialist in the field, but I recall publication some years
> >of unearthing in Jericho the remains of the oldest human with some
> >anatomical feature, necessary for speech. Articulate speech did not start
long ago.
> >
> I would be interested in more details of this one.


> But most scholars seem to hold that humans have been anatomically modern
and so capable of
> speech for more than 100,000 years.

Capable - does not mean they actually spoke. Aborigenes are capable of
developing nuclear bomb, but they did not.

> On your theory there is also a
> serious issue of how Native Americans and Australian aboriginals are
> able to speak, for it is known that their ancestors were almost entirely
> cut off from the rest of the world since before the time of Jericho.

I'm not an expert in those languages, and cannot judge their independence
from Afro-Asiatic. I recall publication on even Japanese Jomon settlement in
America of 3000 BCE. Some contacts were there.
In any case, their languages might arise similarly single-vowel.

> Earlier stages of development of human
> language included progressively less grammatical forms, true, but these
> earlier stages cannot be described as proto-Hebrew any more than
> proto-English.

proto-Egyptian, whatever

> > That a proto-language had only nouns? ...
> Possible if we are talking about proto-human rather than proto-Hebrew,
> but entirely speculative.

How did common sense became speculation? First speakers first named objects,
just as Adam did. So, they needed nouns.

> >... That these nouns, like
> >davar, had a single vowel? That proto-language, consequently, had a
single vowel?
> For proto-human, not obviously false, simply improbable and baseless
> speculation.

You keep surprising me. Let's start from Biblical Hebrew and trace it back.
Further back we go, fewer grammatical forms are there. At the earliest
point, the predecessor of Hebrew (and yes, of English, too) included only
most simple nouns, like davar. The proto-language with davar nouns need not
diverse vowels. Where is a flaw in this argument?

> >You keep avoiding the major point, that all Hebrew vowels developed just
> >expected from the syntactical accent elongation and stress-shift
> No, I don't ignore it, I have repeatedly rejected it and denied it. I
> have provided some evidence to refute it

Well, I do not recall any evidence. Would you repeat, please.
I, however, offer clues for development of

- shuruk from holam, gadOl - gdulA by stress shift
- hirek from tzere, catEv - (h)aIchtiv by stress shift
- hirek from ae-like schwa movable, by Masoretes
- patah from tzere, diber - dibar.ti and canes - nich.nas by limited
- tzere from kamatz, catAav - catEv by elongation because of upward
intonational accent
- holam from kamatz, adam - adAam - adOm by elongation because of upward
intonational accent
- holam and kamatz-katan in Ashkenazic, davAr - dAvar - dAavar - dOivor,
accented elongated to holam, post-tonic shortened to kamatz-katan.
- segholate, cAlav - cAl'v - calv - calb
- haial as word-initial stress verbs

Vadim Cherny

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