[b-hebrew] Hebrew as a spoken language

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Sat Oct 27 14:26:40 EDT 2007

On 10/26/07, Dave Washburn wrote:

> Hold on.  You said in an earlier posting that, even after Latin ceased to
> be the common language and was restricted to the religious environment,
> it continued to change and develop.  But Hebrew couldn't have done the
> same thing?  That sounds like special pleading, and it doesn't work.

No I didn't.  Karl said that.  I remain non-committal on that point of whether
Latin continued to change after it died as a commonly spoken language.
However, I did state that Latin served as a language for liturgy and religious
affairs while it was still a popularly spoken language, not just for religious
matters but for standard day to day matters.  It only later died (or more
accurately, it didn't die, but its later stages are not called Latin, but rather
Romance, Italian, French, Spanish, etc.)  Thus, Latin of the time after it
had continued to evolve in popularly spoken language, but remained
fossilized in the language of liturgy and religious matters, is much like
Late Biblical Hebrew which is a rather literary dialect that existed
alongside colloquial idioms of Hebrew that continued to evolve, or like
Classical Arabic, that existed alongside spoken Arabic dialects that
continued to evolve.  I remember reading that there was evidence of
Old Persian inscriptions of the late Persian period betraying the
authors' lack of ability to write Old Persian.  They tried to emulate
the Old Persian of Darius the Great, but they could not do it perfectly,
as Persian had already undergone some of the developments toward
what is called Middle Persian.

The most important changes that I think should be highlighted are
morphological changes.  Some were provided in the previous posting
in the quote of Steiner.  Morphological changes are usually driven by
analogy.  For example, in Middle English the Old English word sta:n
"stone", had evolved due to phonological developments, in such a
way that in the plural nominative and singular genitive cases it had an
-s at the end, whereas in other cases it had none or rather only an e.
This was further levelled to the point that -s was added to other cases
(for example plural genitive) by analogy and simplification of the
paradigm.  But the real interesting thing, is that this -s which was
inherited from Proto-IE was then added to other nouns where there
was no -s in Old English, by a process of analogy.  Today only a
few nouns (ox/oxen, man/men) remain where there is no -s in the
plural.  This is a standard example of analogy which is the driving
force behind many morphological developments.  Another example
is where English borrowed many words, some with -able/-ible,
and also borrowed the root forms of these words, and this led to the
extension of the suffix -able/-ible even in words that were not borrowed,
and were originally English.  Part of this has to do with the fact that
-able/-ible is simply a suffix and does not involve any vowel alternation
in the base.

Biblical Hebrew shows the -n suffix for an agent in Lam. 4:10 only.  But
Bar Asher points out that in MH, it had become a formative suffix that could
be applied to all verbs.  This may perhaps have come as a result of a similar
extension after inheriting many words from Aramaic.  Similarly, Bar Asher
points out the use of the verbal noun qatilah (as in 1 Kings 19:8, Jud 5:16)
that becomes formalized as a verbal noun that could be derived for all Qal
and Niphal verbs only in MH.   The question is whether you can show
similar developments, in for example Latin.  Perhaps the only such possibility
is the transfer of some elements and morphological developments from a
colloquial idiom to a literary dialect.  This may have happened in Latin and
LBH, but obviously it implies that there was a common spoken colloquial
idiom alongside the literary or religious dialect.  I am very skeptical that
morphological changes such as those described above can be found in
literary dialects alone.  Part of this is that the basis of
morphological changes
is often sought in the way that children learn languages.  That is, a child
learns a language, and he learns many forms, but others he derives by rules
of inflection.  When a child begins to make an incorrect analogy from a valid
rule to an invalid case, analogy and morphological change take place.  This
is directly related to Karl's description of "on mother's knee."  Now, I don't
know Latin, so I don't know if it changed in a way independent of
concurrent colloquial related dialects, but I am very skeptical, and I want
evidence, examples (like I provided above for English and Hebrew, and like
Steiner's example in the previous post).

> I never said it was a language "dead hundreds of years at the time."   What
>I have said over and over, and I believe Karl did as well, is that it
ceased to be
> the common language around the time of the Exile.  Pot and kettle, my friend.

>From my point of view, a language is dead if it survives solely as a literary
language and is not the language that any mother uses to say to her child,
"No, you can't have candy," and the child answers "Why not?"

> >From my point of view, the Bar Kokhba letters are also significant
> > because of a letter explaining why the letter itself was not written
> > in Hebrew, because no one nearby the author knew Hebrew.  The very
> > statement suggests that elsewhere where letters were in Hebrew,
> > Hebrew was a spoken language.  See here:
> > http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-hebrew/2004-November/021371.html
> This is getting tiresome.  Please stop misrepresenting my words.

The Bar Kochba correspondence are not "religious," they are political.
Bar Kochba probably did legislate a use of Hebrew as a language of
political communication.  However, what the letter shows is that this
could not be enforced in places where people did not speak Hebrew
in common day to day life.  I ask that in any case that evidence is
offered for spoken Hebrew (such as the BK correspondence), and
you still interpret "spoken" as "not spoken by the common population,"
you show how it is consistent with the evidence provided.  Furthermore,
if I misrepresent your words, please state what the appropriate
representation is.  I try to do it when I feel you misunderstand me, and
I think if you do the same it would serve to further the discussion.

> > It was suggested that Hebrew was a language of trade, legal
> > documents, and high society.
> Suggested by whom?  Not by me.  Citations, please.

Karl.  This discussion began when I contested a common assertion made by
Karl.  You came in essentially to defend what Karl said.  You may not have
said it.  But I did not say that you said it.    See here:
You responded to this post here:
You had no problems with Karl making that statement then.

> [snip]
> > Yes, we are discussing Hebrew, not Aramaic.  But I could have said
> > the same thing for Latin.  Of course, other languages which died or did
> > not die out are useful for comparison in the case of Hebrew.  In the days
> > before internet, mass communication, and even the printing press,
> > language death was much much slower.   A town would not magically
> > switch over to a new language when the official documents began to
> > be spoken in the new language.  The elite would actually learn the
> > new language.  But the common farmer who had to go to the public
> > market to sell his stuff?  What did he need the language of the empire
> > for?
> Latin is useful for comparison because it moved from being a common
> language to a restricted usage, specifically religious, which I suggest also
> happened to Hebrew after the Exile.  This clearly did not happen to Aramaic,
> so it really isn't relevant.

What about Syriac?  But more importantly, you can't just allow comparisons
which suit your position (even though, see the above, I do not feel those
comparisons are justified).  In the case of Aramaic, what Neo-Aramaic
shows is that a language can remain living -- in the sense that it is spoken
by common people for non-religious or non-literary purposes, "learned at
mother's knee", centuries, even over a thousand years after the language
of the surrounding area has changed.  This is why it becomes highly
suspect to suggest that Hebrew was no longer spoken a generation or
two after the exile.

> > You can claim that the DSS and BK and Mishnaic statements and
> > language, among other things do not prove that Hebrew was a living
> > language.  But it is just a claim?  Why don't they prove.  Where is the
> > evidence?
> Already answered.

I must have missed it.  Please point me to the appropriate paragraph in
the archives.

Yitzhak Sapir

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