[b-hebrew] Two X letters

Isaac Fried if at math.bu.edu
Mon Oct 29 02:48:27 EDT 2007


OK, OK, you are right. If only for the sake of peace and harmony on  
this distinguished list I will climb down the rhetorical tree and  
settle upon the solid ground of stolid and dignified discourse.
The claim made [correct me please if I am wrong] is that once upon a  
time in the very distant and foggy past the ancient Hebrews, or  
ancient Canaanites [the mythical proto-Semites], had two close, yet  
semantically distinct, speech-sounds that merged into one sound that  
was eventually recorded by the inventors of the alphabet as the  
single letter X.
This claim of the twin X seeks to draw its approval from its  
existence in Arabic, fortified by the assertion that the Arabs,  
conservative in their ways, have preserved the sounds of the ancient  
Semites. It is a plausible argument but like many other apparently  
logical arguments it may well be a dud. The Arabic alphabet in its  
present form is a [relatively] modern committee-made product  
introduced only after the revelation of the Koran and motivated by  
the desire to immediately have a permanent written record thereof.  
The over-dot was possibly added to accommodate various dialectical  
differences [thus they are signs for "phones" not "phonemes"], or  
indeed for the purpose of semantic cleavage judged desirable due to  
the proliferation of Arabic roots. In other words, the process may  
have well advanced in the opposite direction: in the beginning there  
was only one X, then later it branched into a pair of Xs. This is  
what might have happened in Hebrew, a single letter spawning, as the  
language grew and demand for finer semantic distinctions increased,  
the five equivalents G, X, H, K, Q now coexisting in it.
Pronunciation is a fickle thing --- spoken Hebrew, for instance, is  
rapidly losing at this very moment many of its H sounds. The personal  
pronouns are invariably reduced now to a mere U [pronounced oo as in  
'foot'] for HU), 'he', and a mere I [pronounced ee as in 'feet'] for  
HI), 'she'. Educated Hebrew speaking people will routinely and  
nonchalantly say TA-BAYIT, 'the house', instead of the full ET HA- 
BAYIT. We are all for the short and the easy.
Deep throated ayin is also out, and Hebrew is not poorer for it.
The way foreigners record Hebrew names containing sounds strange to  
their ear is little proof as to how these names are pronounced by the  
Hebrews. Look at what they did to the name Isaac. All I am ready lo  
learn from AZA being said GAZA is that the city name was pronounced  
by some indigenous people with a baffling, non-reproducible, deep  
throated ayin.
Modern Hebrew linguists are espousing the dual-X-theory with such  
enthusiasm  since by dint of this hypothesis they grant themselves  
the license to consider, practically at will, any X as being either  
one of two "different" letters. It makes their life easier. Any  
Hebraist is constantly being called to explain, to himself, or to  
fended off pressing students, this strange phenomenon of Hebrew  
having two [or more] equiconsonantal words, say NAXAL, 'brook', and  
NAXAL, 'inherit', of apparently remote meaning. One easy way of  
extricating oneself from this dilemma is to make the dogmatic claim  
that these are two "different" X letters, and hence the two words are  
not the "same". They look the same but are actually genetically  
distinct. One is then in an instant in the free --- nothing left to  
Another notorious example is the root XRB, which some Hebraists claim  
now is a three-in-one root, each being the "different" progenitor of  
'destruction', of 'sword', and of 'dryness'.
I don't buy, not for a moment, this sneaky, ad-hoc, deus ex machina,  
argumentative device, which in my opinion is no more than an  
instrument of deception, self delusion, and slippery dodging.  
Moreover, it provides only the briefest of reprieves since it fails  
to apply to similar situations with other letters. The Hebrew words  
KPAR, 'village', KPOR, 'frost', KPYIR, 'lion cub', KOPER, 'pitch',  
KOPER, 'ransom',  KAPORET, 'cover' and KAPARAH, 'expiation' are all  
derivatives of the root KPR, yet no resort is made here to an  
argument of multiple kaps, probably because Arabic is devoid of such.
Being hardly a science [it is certainly not an exact science],  
Linguistics thrives on consensus. Without this, much of it would have  
fallen apart and dissolved under the weight of internecine bickering  
and dissenting opinions of horrifying heretics questioning its  
fundamental premises. This is why Linguistics is so apprehensive of  
the fringe and holds so dear the "mainstream", making it largely the  
scholastics of the quote, "she points out in her paper, he says in  
his book, they write in their dictionary". It tends also, as in other  
sciences, to harden into universal truths obvious, self-serving,  
platitudes and fallacies, stifling thereby any attempt at innovative  
It is the duty of every free thinking, Hebrew loving, man to decry  
them as such as soon as he sees one; in the words of Psalms 137:7  

Isaac Fried, Boston University

On Oct 25, 2007, at 8:09 PM, George Athas wrote:

> Isaac,
> Given your rhetoric, I don't see any point in pursuing the matter.
> Best Regards,
> Moore Theological College (Sydney)
> 1 King St, Newtown, NSW 2042, Australia
> Ph: (+61 2) 9577 9774
> _______________________________________________
> b-hebrew mailing list
> b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org
> http://lists.ibiblio.org/mailman/listinfo/b-hebrew

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