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

Peter Kirk peter at qaya.org
Sat Nov 25 06:00:56 EST 2006

On 25/11/2006 06:33, K Randolph wrote:
> ...
> In West Semitic, but we are discussing Biblical Hebrew, and the
> evidence indicates that sin and shin were one letter with one
> pronunciation in Biblical times.

Well, if you accept that sin and shin were separate in West Semitic, but 
insist that they were one letter in biblical Hebrew, let's see what that 
implies. It must be one of the following:

1. Biblical Hebrew is not related to West Semitic, despite that fact 
that you can read and understand West Semitic (Phoenician); I can't 
believe that even you insist on that.

2. Biblical Hebrew has a common ancestor with West Semitic in which sin 
and shin were distinct (this is the normal scholarly position), and West 
Semitic preserved the distinction, whereas biblical Hebrew lost the 
distinction, but it reappeared later, before the time of the Masoretes.

3. Biblical Hebrew has a common ancestor with West Semitic in which sin 
and shin were not distinct; West Semitic innovated the distinction in 
ancient times, and Hebrew separately innovated the distinction in 
post-biblical times, before the time of the Masoretes.

The problem with both 2. and 3. (and all the more so with 1.) is that 
biblical Hebrew seems to distinguish sin and shin in exactly the same 
places as ancient West Semitic. How do you account for that? I suppose 
it is just possible that this came about because of Aramaic influence. 
But surely it is more probable that the distinction was in fact already 
present in biblical Hebrew, although not clearly distinguished in writing.

As for the supposed evidence "that sin and shin were one letter with one 
pronunciation in Biblical times", I suspect that &YM "put" and $M 
"there" are "false friends" with no real etymological link despite their 
(slightly) similar meanings. Anyway on your hypothesis you need to 
explain how these two split apart when their meanings were similar. You 
also refer to "the paucity of roots differentiated by shin and sin, as 
rare as what is expected if they originally were one letter, not two". 
But is this actually true? Just looking at words (not roots, verbs 
written unpointed) starting with sin or shin, we have the following pairs:

$B( / &B(
$BR / &BR
$GG / &GG
$GH / &GH
$DD / &DD
$WX / &WX
$W+ / &W+
$WR / &WR
$XH / &XH
$X+ / &X+
$XQ / &XQ
$KK / &KK
$KL / &KL
$KR / &KR
$N) / &N)
$(R, $A(AR / &(R, &A(AR
$QD / &QD
$QR / &QR
$RR / &RR

Now I accept that there are many roots in biblical Hebrew which are 
homonyms (although most of these are easily explainable by hypothesising 
loss of phonemes from earlier forms of the language), also that some of 
the pairs I have listed may not be clearly semantically distinct (I 
haven't looked at definitions, only a list of lemmas). But your 
hypothesis would have to explain not only why there are so many of these 
pairs but also how they came to split apart in a consistent way when (on 
your hypothesis) sin and shin split apart.

I note also the extreme rarity of words starting with sin - lamed, which 
to me is most easily explained by avoidance of two lateral sounds 
together, thus strongly suggesting that sin had some kind of lateral 
sound at the time when sin and shin were distinguished.
> Here the distinction between language and dialect is really fuzzy.
> Among modern languages, for example, Swedish and Norwegian are so
> close that one speaking one can usually understand a person speaking
> the other, yet they are called different languages, But Mülheiserisch,
> a subset of Allamanisch spoken near Heidelberg, and Toi San Wah, two
> "dialects" I have had to deal with, are so different from their main
> languages, German and Cantonese, that they cannot be understood by
> speakers of the  main languages.
Indeed, you are making the same point as me here. Perhaps Hebrew and 
Phoenician are rather like Swedish and Norwegian, languages of different 
people who wanted separate identities but nevertheless very similar and 
mutually comprehensible.

> Here the distinction is between an alphabet devised for a language, vs
> one adopted from another language. For example, if I were to devise an
> alphabet for modern English with its 46 or thereabouts recognized
> phonemes, I would make it have 46 letters, one letter per phoneme.
> Instead we use an alphabet adopted from Latin that fits poorly. It is
> like the difference between a tailor made suit compared to one off the
> rack that can be worn but doesn't fit.
OK, I take your point. But in fact the major reason why alphabets don't 
fit modern languages well is that languages have changed. French was 
mentioned earlier. The original Latin alphabet was significantly 
modified for French (added accented vowels and c cedilla, dropped 
consonants) and probably fitted quite well with French as spoken at the 
time of the adaptation. But French pronunciation has changed quite 
severely while the alphabet and spelling have remained fixed. As a 
result the French alphabet is now a rather poor fit for spoken French. 
And much the same is true of English: the modifications to the Latin 
alphabet made for English (added "j" and "w", "u" and "v" distinguished) 
were less, so that in the 16th century spelling was not completely 
phonetic, but it was in fact much more phonetic than it is now.

> Now the question is: was the 22 letter alphabet tailor made for
> Biblical Hebrew, or was it adopted from another language? One way to
> answer that is to answer who had that alphabet first?
> We see from ancient graffiti and inscriptions that southern Arabian
> languages' alphabets shared a similar root as Biblical Hebrew but had
> a different set of letters, corresponding to their different number of
> phonemes while many of the letters are shared. I suspect that the Wadi
> al Hol graffiti were southern Arabian, not equivalent to Hebrew.
Unlikely. It is known that the Egyptians had close contacts with Canaan 
and that the many Semites living in Egypt at that time were largely from 
Canaan. Egyptian links with south Arabia, i.e. modern Yemen and Oman, 
were much more obscure. Meanwhile the letter shapes of the earliest 
surviving inscriptions from Canaan strongly suggest derivation from 
Egyptian hieroglyphs, and so that they were derived in a similar way to 
the Wadi el-Hol inscriptions if not provably directly linked.

> While the ancient Phoenicians were far more prolific in their graffiti
> and stone inscriptions than Hebrew writers, there is evidence that
> their use of the 22 letter alphabet was adopted from Hebrew instead of
> the other way around. Their widespread use dates from about the time
> of King David and they use a cursive from about that time. Hebrew was
> historically credited with having the alphabet from centuries earlier,
> but written on scrolls that have not survived.
> Because Moses' use of writing dates from about the same time as the
> earliest attested use of a similar alphabet among southern Arabian but
> with 22 letters instead of the more numerous but mostly shared letters
> found among southern Arabians, that indicates that the 22 letters
> corresponded to 22 recognized consonantal phonemes of Biblical Hebrew.
> In other words, that the alphabet was developed, i.e. tailor made, for
> Biblical Hebrew.
Of course even if we grant that Moses wrote down the Torah, we don't 
know that he wrote it in anything like the 22 letter script that we know 
today. It may originally have been written with more (or fewer) letter 
distinctions and later copied into the alphabet used later. But even if 
we grant that the Torah is the oldest surviving document in the 22 
letter script, that by no means implies that it was the first such 
document. It may well be that the 22 letter script had become widespread 
among the Semites in Egypt at the period (but using perishable writing 
materials) and was based on a phonetically simplified form of NW Semitic 
used as a kind of trade language between the different Semitic groups, 
while the Hebrews and maybe other such groups kept their own 
phonetically more rich versions. You may find similar things happening 
among modern Germanic dialects, which may well be phonetically richer 
than standard German etc; it is also true of English dialects e.g. Scots 
retains the [x] sound and phoneme e.g. in "loch" which is missing from 
standard English.

> ...
>>> Some people can, some people can't, and some people can be taught how
>>> to. As such, it invalidates what follows.
>> Do you have evidence that any people (other than those with specific
>> hearing, learning or speaking disabilities) are unable to learn to
>> pronounce any phonemes which are found in any language? ...
>> ... In general phoneticians have shown that anyone
>> can be taught to make any sound found in any human language, although
>> sometimes this is a difficult process. Do you have any evidence to the
>> contrary?
> No, what I mention is what I heard from phoneticians, namely that
> normal children can learn all phones used in all languages. However,
> languages use as phonemes only a small subset of possible phones.
> One complicating factor is that at about the age of 14, as a matter
> or maturation, the phones and phonemes used in a person's native
> language become hard wired, as it were, in a person's brain, after
> which time it is often very difficult even to recognize phones and
> phonemes from other languages. The main exceptions are those children
> who are exposed to multiple languages around that age and before.
> Linguists have to be trained to recognize phones and phonemes from
> outside their native tongue.
Yes, linguists and language learners have to be trained to recognise and 
produce phones from previously unfamiliar languages, and after a certain 
age this becomes more difficult. Like learning Hebrew, it is difficult, 
but not impossible. That is why I reject your "some people can't", 
unless because of specific disability.

Peter Kirk
E-mail:  peter at qaya.org
Blog:    http://speakertruth.blogspot.com/
Website: http://www.qaya.org/

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