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

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Thu Nov 23 17:59:58 EST 2006

We have already been through the theological beliefs issues from
various angles.  You are practically the only person here who believes
that the 22 letter alphabet was designed from scratch for Hebrew to
mark all consonants separately, and this is based, in part, on your
theologically based beliefs regarding what script the Torah was
written in, what the value of the Massoretic vowels was, and what
date the Torah was written, all of which are without evidence.  Your
beliefs contradict the standard accepted conclusions held by practically
everyone else, of all theological persuasions.  Just because your
beliefs are related to your own theological beliefs does not make
my positions theological.  It does make your positions somewhat
off-topic and we've already hashed the principles involved several
times.  I will concentrate instead, on your statements regarding
the historical linguistic method, which is also the topic of this

> Of course, it always helps that if you refer to essays, that you
> provide the URLs to them so that people can respond to them. You
> haven't always done that.

I provided the URL already in the past.

> > Linguists don't suppose that.  Hebrew gained various phonemes not
> > attested in the original language.  It gained the vowel "o", for example,
> Seeing as the vowels were never written until much later, where is the
> evidence for that? Speculation again?

I am not sure what the question is.  Proto-Semitic is reconstructed with
only *a, *i, and *u vowels, as well as long corresponding vowels.  The
alphabetic scripts do not include vowels but all the alphabetic scripts
post-date instances of both East and West Semitic languages in syllabic
script.  So the vowels were written originally and later dropped.  This was
the big innovation of the alphabet.  Later, the Massoretes began adding
marks to signify the vowels in the primary syllables along with several
signs to mark certain allophones of various letters, thus creating Biblical
Hebrew.  By comparing the evidence of Biblical Hebrew with the evidence
of syllabic writing prior to the use of the alphabet, as well as the
reconstructed Proto-Semitic phonology, we see that Biblical Hebrew had
seven vowel qualities whereas Proto-Semitic had only three.  Hence,
Hebrew gained vowels not present in Proto-Semitic.  You claimed that
linguists who reconstruct Proto-Semitic, assume that phonemes can only
be lost.  This is an example of a gained phoneme, so obviously linguists
don't make this assumption.

As for the Shin, Resh, Ghayin, and Pe/Fe statements: Both Shin and Resh
are attested, and Ghayin and Pe/Fe are not attested but plausible. I had
previously on this list provided evidence of the differentiation of Shin/Sin in
West-Semitic from approx 2000 BCE.

> > > 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?
> Who said they are inconsistent? What they are inconsistent with is the
> supposition that the speculated proto-Semitic always had 29
> consonantal phonemes.

They're consistent.  Neither Akkadian nor Old South Arabic is Proto-Semitic.
Proto-Semitic could have had 29 phonemes which would have been preserved
all the way down to Old South Arabic, but some would have been lost in

> > Hebrew did not cease to be taught perhaps ever.
> Obviously you did not understand what was said. Let me translate it to
> simpler English. The language "taught at one's mother's knee" is the
> first language that a person learns. It is the one he babbles with his
> parents when he is two. Later, when he goes to school, he may learn
> another language or two or three and may in time know those languages
> better than the language he learned first from his parents, but that
> does not make those languages  "taught at one's mother's knee".

No.  Hebrew was taught at a very young age continuously even as it
ceased to be a spoken language:
Here is a slightly later response by Peter T. Daniels shows that he does not
dispute the basic claim regarding ages as put forth by Stefan Schorch:

> > ...  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.
> >
> The loss of the distinctiveness of the samech, and the bifurcations of
> bet, gimmel, dalet, kap, peh, sin and tau.

Shin and Sin did not "bifurcate."  The rest may have been caused by
Aramaic influence.

> > > 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.
> >
> What historical documentation do you have for this statement? Or is
> this just your theological belief? I suspect the latter.

The Siloam inscription along with various ostraca from Jerusalem and
Arad.  No earlier attested inscriptions which have 22 letters are identifiable
as being distinctively Hebrew as opposed to a different NWS language.
For example, the Gezer calendar could be Phoenician no less than
Hebrew or perhaps some other dialects.

> Statements within the documents indicate as early as 15th century BC,
> if not earlier.

The dating of attestations whether by the claims of various documents or
various scientific methods such as strata or radio-carbon dating, etc., is
of only secondary importance in reconstruction.  If you look at the table
in the provided URL, you will see that attestations from various ages,
from Avestan to Sanskrit to Greek to Modern English are compared
irrespective of their dates.  It is the actual words contained in the
language that are of interest, not the date of the documents.  In fact, the
word "dating" or variants of it, are not mentioned at all in this essay.

> Just because the languages were close cognates does not make Biblical
> Hebrew a dialect of Phoenician.

How do you know, if you don't know Phoenician and haven't even tried to
study it?

> > > 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.
> Where is your evidence for this? Did you interview a native speaker?

Yes, I had short and long conversations with Hebrew speakers and
English speakers.  For none of them was the written system
equivalent to the spoken language.  The situation is worse in French
where entire grammatical forms appear to me to be absent from the
spoken language.  What is the evidence that leads you to think that
the writing system was ever equivalent to the spoken language?  Which
native speaker did you interview?

> > ....  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.
> We have been over this before. All you have is non-falsifiable
> speculation to back up this statement. Or did you interview native
> speakers?

The statement I made is falsifiable.  And the only thing I have is an
explanation and supporting evidence that is acceptable to anyone but

> > 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.
> >
> Apparently you have not learned how children learn languages. Those
> difficulties in pronouncing sounds you mention is a matter of how
> children learn to speak languages. It has nothing to do with ability
> to pronounce words. Usually at about 14, something becomes hard wired
> in a person's brain that if he has not learned certain sounds in daily
> life, he often can no longer learn those sounds. Often is the
> operative term here, as with hard practice, many people can learn new
> phones after that age.
> Because many people can learn new phones even after 14, and their
> children can pick those phones up even if their parents didn't,
> language change is not mechanical and exceptionless.

People can be multilingual "at one's mother's knee".  As such, they
will be able to pronounce phonemes not in one language but in the other
without any problem.  The problem is not that a person cannot
consciously learn to pronounce it at a later age.  The question is how
we explain the observed fact that in modern languages by modern
speakers, phonemes in a language shift from being realized in one way
by a whole group of people to being realized in another way by their
descendants.  It happens all the time.  This is not a conscious choice,
and it is exceptionless.

> > 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.
> You may be studying that, but I am not. Because I know that the
> cantillations and points were not found in Biblical Hebrew, I read the
> text without them. If I had access to a good consonantal pre-Masoretic
> text, I would use that instead of an unpointed Masoretic text that I
> use. As I said, as far as it is in my ability, I am studying Biblical
> Hebrew, not Masoretic Hebrew.

Biblical Hebrew and Massoretic Hebrew are one and the same.  That
you use an unpointed Massoretic text does not mean you have all of
a sudden made the step towards pre-Massoretic Hebrew.  You now
have the Great Isaiah scroll on the Israel Museum site, though.

> Even a study of the text as it was chanted by the Tiberian Masoretes
> in the late centuries of the first millennium AD is still a time
> capsule, as it were, of the language where historical linguistics is
> irrelevant. It is only by going beyond the Masoretes that historical
> linguistics become relevant.

Actually, for Massoretic Hebrew which represents the liturgical language
alone, historical linguistics is important in determining what the language
was like and what differences arose thereafter from the time when the
language of the texts was still being spoken, and when the texts were
actually originally written down.

Yitzhak Sapir

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list