[b-hebrew] Hebrew Alphabet from Anson Rainey's article in BAR
Bryant J. Williams III
bjwvmw at com-pair.net
Thu Oct 23 03:00:00 EDT 2008
The excerpt below is from Anson Rainey's article, "Inside, Outside" in the
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Rev. Bryant J. Williams III
"Perhaps the most powerful arguments that the ancient Israelites came from the
eastern steppe, rather than from lowland Canaan, come from linguistics, a
discipline in which Dever is sadly lacking. My study of Northwest Semitic
languages in the last few years, especially of the significant epigraphic
discoveries made in the late 20th century,a has firmly convinced me that Hebrew
has more affinities with Transjordanian languages (such as Aramaic and Moabite)
than with Phoenician (that is, coastal Canaanite). And this has profound
significance for the origin of the Iron I settlers in the hill country.
Although both ancient Hebrew and Aramaic borrowed the 22-letter Phoenician
(Canaanite) alphabet, the fit was not quite perfect: Hebrew and Aramaic needed
more consonants. Hebrew had at least 25 consonants. Aramaic had at least 26.
(The consonantal repertoire of Ammonite, Moabite and Edomite cannot yet be
established.) Accordingly, Hebrew and Aramaic had to make some compromises. A
few letters had to do double duty; that is, they were polyphonal. The use of one
sign for shin (“sh”) and sin (“s”) is the most obvious example. It would be
completely illogical to suggest, as would be required by the “revolting peasant
theory,” that the vast population of the newly established hill-country sites
were peasants from the lowlands who had always spoken a different dialect from
their Canaanite feudal masters.
The adoption of the Phoenician alphabet by the Hebrews settling in the hill
country and by the Transjordanian peoples is easily explainable: The Phoenician
alphabet enjoyed a high prestige in the Levant, probably because of the
Phoenicians’ high degree of literacy. The rustic clans from the steppe lands to
the east were so impressed by this superior cultural feature that, as they began
to develop their own social and political organizations, they adopted the
writing medium of the highly cultured people of the coastal areas.
The linguistic affinities between Hebrew and the Transjordanian languages
evidence the common heritage of the early Israelites with other pastoral nomadic
Transjordanian tribes such as the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites, and further
east, the Arameans. This area is a single isogloss, as linguists call the area
of a common dialect of languages. Coastal Phoenician (Canaanite) does not share
these features. For example, Phoenician and Ugaritic (a language known from the
northern coastal city of Ugarit) have a different root for the verb “to be”
(kwn) than that found in Hebrew, Moabite and Aramaic (hwy or hyy). Other
examples of linguistic divergence include the verb “to do” and the word for
Another significant link between Hebrew and Moabite is the use of the relative
pronoun “that” (asher). It has no relationship to the Phoenician word ’is that
performs the same linguistic service.
Several word sequences (or syntagmas) used to narrate sequential actions are
shared by Hebrew, Moabite and Aramaic but are not found in coastal Phoenician.
The most striking is the use of an archaic form for the past tense, often
wrongly called the verb with conversive waw.
All this linguistic material provides a very strong argument for classifying
ancient Hebrew and Moabite not as Canaanite dialects, but as Trans-jordanian
languages. And this provides a nearly airtight case that the speakers of ancient
Hebrew came from the same area as the Moabites, the Ammonites and the
Arameans—and not from the Canaanite cities on the coastal plain."
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