[b-hebrew] "irregularities" in Ancient/Modern Hebrew,

joel at exc.com joel at exc.com
Sun Aug 19 14:04:27 EDT 2007

>>The almost universal observation that ancient languages had fewer
>>irregularities that modern ones do (Classical Latin vs. Italian,
>>Biblical Hebrew vs. Modern Hebrew, Classical Greek vs. Modern Greek,
>>etc.) probably simply refelct our poorer knowledge of the ancient
>>languages compared to the modern ones.
>You make a great point here.  I have always wondered why this seems
>to be the case.  Could it have something to do with the fact that the
>written specimens we have correspond more to "formal language" -
>which would have selectively reflected the use of language by those
>who actually could read and write?

Not only that.  The written langague tends not to indicate all of the
irregulatities of a spoken language.

Along with the (alleged) near perfect regularity of dead languages, we
find (alleged) near one-to-one correspondence between orthography and
pronunciation.  That is, we frequently find the unsupported claim that
ancient words (in Hebrew, Greek, Latin, etc.) were pronounced just the
way they were spelled.

But our lack of audio recordings from antiquity makes it unlikely that
we would know about spelling irregularities. (Even Modern Hebrew is
not pronounced exactly the way it's written, a fact that is hidden
from a researcher looking only the written language.)

Finally, we have many ancient samples that *do* seem to indicate
irregularity, but many researchers are quick to brand these samples as
"scribal errors" or as the (imperfect) "work of a student."  Do we
really think that the Gezer incription, the Izbet Sartah abecedary,
etc., --- that is, our most revealing samples of ancient Hebrew ---
all happen to have been written by students?  It hardly seems likely.

Ancient languages, like modern ones, probably suffered a mismatch
between orthography and pronunciation, and probably enjoyed less
regularity than it appears.


Joel M. Hoffman, PhD

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