[b-hebrew] comparative historical linguistics was Re: Nun-Tav-Vet root

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Thu Nov 23 07:20:17 EST 2006

We have been through many of these issues before.  I still think it is
useful sometimes to rehash, but definitely not to the depth of the past
discussions.  It helps newcomers to the list see the problems (or,
perhaps from your point of view, merits) to your positions on these
issues which you invariably bring up on many occassions interspaced
with your interpretations.  Also, in this particular post, you responded
to the essay by Kathleen Hubbard, an essay which I brought up at
least two times before, once in discussion with you.  This is the first
time, though, that you actually responded to the claims and statements
made there.

On 11/22/06, K Randolph wrote:

> One of the presuppositions for the "reconstruction" of proto-Semitic
> is that languages only lose phonemes, they do not gain them. The
> history of northern Germanic languages shows just the opposite, that
> languages definitely can and do gain phonemes as well as lose them.

Linguists don't suppose that.  Hebrew gained various phonemes not
attested in the original language.  It gained the vowel "o", for example,
or the consonant "$", both of which are not believed to have existed in
Proto-Semitic.  However, Hebrew $ is mainly a reflex of PS *s.
However, in certain cases, it is possible that because of a sound
change, a phoneme in certain environments would change depending
on the surrounding phonemes.  This is the case with the multiple
pronounciations of the letter resh, and is also, I understand, one
explanation for the development of Ghayin in the unrecoverable
prehistory of Proto-Semitic.  It has also been suggested that the
two allophones of p, [p] and [f], had become separate phonemes
based on the following minimal pair: *[?alpe] - "two thousands of"
vs [?alfe] - "(plural) thousands of".  The first, however, is only
reconstructed and is not attested.

> In the utexas document, there is this statement, "Pure gold for the
> historical linguist is ATTESTED (written) ancient forms." According to
> that, if "Akkadian, the earliest-attested Semitic language, has only
> 18 consonants." (that is making certain assumptions) then when we get
> to the later "All of the 29 Proto-Semitic consonants are preserved as
> distinct sounds in the Old South Arabian languages (such as Sabaean)",
> is this not another example of where languages have gained, not lost,
> phonemes?

How is one statement inconsistent with the other?  We have attested both
Old South Arabian and Akkadian.  Both attestations are "pure gold."  Where
does it say anywhere that if the earliest attestation has less phonemes than
a later attestation of a cognate language, then the cognate language must
have gained them rather than the earlier attested language having lost them
in prehistory?  It doesn't, because it doesn't follow logically.  However, let
me note, that if I remember correctly, Old Akkadian and Eblaite have more
phonemes than later Akkadian.

> Thus Hebrew, when it ceased to be taught at one's mother's
> knee, would it not gain the phonemes of the native languages, in
> particular Aramaic of that time, of those who read Hebrew?

Such as which phonemes?

Hebrew did not cease to be taught perhaps ever.  However, it ceased to be
spoken, with only the liturgical language being taught even at a very young
age.  This happened probably sometime in the middle first millenium CE.
Throughout its spoken history, Hebrew always borrowed words.  But I am
unsure as to which phonemes of "Aramaic" you are referring here.

> Going back to the statement, "Pure gold for the historical linguist is
> ATTESTED (written) ancient forms." we find Hebrew was originally
> written using 22 consonants,

In the 8th century BCE, when we can identify the language as Hebrew.

> writing it had prior to contact with the Phoenician traders.

This statement above is unsupported by evidence.  More significantly,
it probably hasn't occurred to you that Hebrew is very much a dialect of
Phoenician and that Israelites were also considered to be "Phoenician" by
the Greeks just as well as the Phoenicians from Tyre, Sidon, or Byblos.

> Why should that not be evidence that Hebrew, at
> the time it was written ("pure gold" see above), had 22 consonants?

This is not the reason that attested languages are "pure gold."  In any
case, the writing system is distinct from the spoken language.  In this
case, because Hebrew maintains phonemes consistently that are known
to be represented also in cognate languages in the same consistent
manner across a large number of cognate words, the only logical
conclusion is that Hebrew maintained those phonemes even though they
were for a long time not represented uniquely in the writing system.  The
clearest example of this is Shin and Sin.  Since we discussed this at
length in the past, there is no need to rehash this part.

> Another statement with which I disagree, is "Reconstruction revolves
> around the notion that sound change is mechanical and exceptionless."
> In particular I disagree with the "exceptionless". Human beings are
> not automata, sometimes they go against the rules for sheer
> orneriness, but that is the exception rather than the rule.

The reason it is exceptionless, is because the sound change is not a
conscious choice of the speakers but a natural development related to
their ability to pronounce words.  Just like most English speakers can't
pronounce [x], and most Israeli speakers can't pronounce either [dh] or
[th] properly.  It may be governed by a phonetic condition (such as
"a sound change that occurs only in prevocalic environments") but it
remains exceptionless.

> But the bottom line is that this is pretty much irrelevant to the
> study of Biblical Hebrew. During the thousand years that Hebrew was
> written, from the 15th to 5th centuries BC (discounting the
> possibility that Moses merely copied older documents when writing
> Genesis), we have a time capsule, as it were, of the language as it
> existed at that time. It is that time capsule that we are analyzing.
> It is not even the same language as Mishnaic Hebrew, a daughter
> language.

This is all wrong.  We are analyzing Biblical Hebrew, the language as
it was chanted by the Tiberian Massoretes in the late centuries of the
first millenium CE, and historical linguistics is very relevant.  Because
you are invoking above issues of belief (how Moses wrote documents,
and which documents, etc) we can't discuss this issue further
following the request by George Athas.  (Besides, the issue has been
discussed by us as well as by James Read and Christopher Heard
in the past).

Yitzhak Sapir

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