[b-hebrew] WHAT LANGUAGE DID ABRAHAM, FATHER OF ISHMAEL AND ISAAC, SPEAK?

Yigal Levin leviny1 at mail.biu.ac.il
Mon Nov 9 01:32:40 EST 2009


Dear Ishinan,

Your post is so full of factual and methodological errors, that I hardly
know where to begin. So I'll just list off my comments, in no particular
order of importance.

1. Even if we take the biblical story of Abraham and his sons literally, the
idea that Ishmael is the progenitor of all the people that we now call
"Arabs" is a much later tradition. Nowhere in the Bible are Abraham's
descendants called "Arabs". 

2. Even if we did accept that Ishmael is the progenitor of the people that
we call "Arabs", who ever said that a person's distant descendants must
speak the same language that he did?

3. You're assuming that the more "letters" a Semitic language has, the
"older" it is. This is simply not true. The number of individual signs an
alphabet has reflects, in part, the number of sounds that were pronounced
when that alphabet was originally adopted by that particular alphabet.
Hebrew actually had more than 22 phonemes, but since it adopted a Canaanite
alphabet, it was forced to combine such phonemes as Ayin/Ghayin and Sin/Shin
into single letters. In the first case, the distinction was lost before the
Masoretes invented the dots that tell them apart. In the second, the
distinction was preserved. 

4. You're assuming that Abraham lived in the Middle Bronze Age. This is far
from proven.

5. "Old Babylonian" is an Akkadian dialect, and is not the same as
"Sumerian".

6. While I don't take for granted that Abraham's Ur was that of southern
Mesopotamia, even if it were, this does NOT mean that Abraham would have
spoken OB as his native language. Many of the inhabitants of Southern
Mesopotamia at the time were of Amurru origin and spoke a Western-Semitic
dialect. 

7. Throughout your post, you write "Amorite" when you mean "Amurru". This is
a common mistake.

8. I have not read Jody Gorran's paper, but I have seen in referred to on
various lists. Since I am not a professional linguist, I would like to know
what other linguists think of it before forming an opinion. Has she
published it in a professional journal?

9. What I do know, is that discoveries of the past 60 years have changed the
field of Semitic linguistics totally. I would be wary of any theory based on
"discoveries" and theories from the 1930's and 40's, without reference to
all that has happened in the field since.

10. Both the time in which Hebrew ceased being a spoken language and the
time in which the Pentateuch was written down have been much debated,
including on this list. You state one opinion as if it were accepted fact.

11. what is clear, is that inscriptions from the 8th-6th centuries from
Judah and neighboring areas are written in a dialect that is very close to
that of the "pre-exilic" books of the Bible, which shows that the Bible in
its written form is not that far removed from the language of pre-exilic
Judah.

12. Given all of the above, I’d still go for your "scenario #1".


Yigal Levin



-----Original Message-----
From: b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org
[mailto:b-hebrew-bounces at lists.ibiblio.org] On Behalf Of Ishinan
Sent: Monday, November 09, 2009 7:45 AM
To: B-Hebrew
Subject: [b-hebrew] WHAT LANGUAGE DID ABRAHAM, FATHER OF ISHMAEL AND
ISAAC,SPEAK?


SCENARIO #1 -- In Genesis, Abraham appears as a Hebrew speaker, an idea 
taken for granted by the compilers of Genesis with no linguistic self 
consciousness whatever.

PROBLEM:  If Abraham spoke Hebrew and he was also father to Ishmael, the 
progenitor of the Arabs, then this would imply that the Arabic language is a

dialect of the Hebrew language. How would we account then for this prospect,

if we consider that the Arabic alphabetic inventory is much more developed 
(28 letters) than the Hebrew (22 letters).  In Semitic languages, only the 
Ugarit Alphabet surpasses Arabic with 31 letters (1500 BCE).   Hence, in 
terms of vocabulary, the Ugaritic language is older than Hebrew, and is 
considered closer to the Old Arabic.

SCENARIO #2 -- Sir Charles Leonard Woolley (17 April 1880 - 20 February 
1960) was a British archaeologist best known for his excavations at Tell 
el-Mukayyar (site of ancient Ur in present-day Iraq).  Ur was the burial 
site of what may have been many Sumerian royals.  Following Woolley's digs, 
many have placed Abraham's birth place in the Sumerian Ur.

However, if it was true that Abraham was a native of Sumer, he would have 
spoken Akkadian. Note that the Akkadian dialect spoken in Abraham's time 
would have been Old Babylonian/Old Assyrian, with "Old Babylonian" being the

same as "Sumerian."  So, should we assume that Abraham's native language was

a Sumerian/Old Assyrian mix?

PROBLEM: It is well known that Woolley offered interesting, if not always 
accurate, interpretations of the physical evidence of his findings.  Despite

this criticism Woolley argued strongly for the connection of his 
archaeological finds to the location of  Ur . However, Woolley, the son of a

clergyman, who had considered following in his father's footsteps at a young

age,  is always thought to have been often biased in his interpretations. 
Hence, if we agree with Woolley's conclusions, we are confronted with the 
dilemma of 'Ur of the chaldees'* as Abraham's birth place.  This conclusion 
is a mistake.  As many Bible critics have pointed out, 'Chaldean' was 
associated with Alexander the Great.  Hence, time wise it does not fit.  Nor

does Aramaic fit, since Aramaic came later in about the 12th century BC, and

was spoken in Jesus' time and afterwards.  Hitherto, current scholarship has

yet to prove or disprove whether Tell el-Mukayyar (the current Iraqi name 
for Woolley's site) is or is not the famed birthplace of Abraham.

SCENARIO #3 -- Gordon Donald Fee (b. 1934), one of the foremost experts in 
textual criticism of the New Testament of the Bible, posited a half century 
ago a different Ur located north of Haran, where possibly Amorite was 
spoken. Amorite is an early Northwest Semitic language, spoken by the 
Amorite tribes which were prominent in early Near Eastern history.

PROBLEM:  The Amorite language is known exclusively from non-Akkadian proper

names recorded by Akkadian scribes during periods of Amorite rule in 
Babylonia.  Because of the paucity of further existing examples, we do not 
have a way to verify Gordon's claim.

SCENARIO #4 --  In Jody Gorran's paper "Ancient Hebrews and Arabia: A 
Literature Review," there is an interesting idea raised by David Samuel 
Margoliouth (b. 1858 - d. 1940) orientalist and professor of Arabic at the 
University of Oxford:

"According to Margoliouth (1924), inscriptions had been discovered by 
English, French and Austrian explorers that had him conclude that the 
original source of the Hebrew language came from the written languages of 
ancient Arabia (p. 7).  Having found what he described as Hebraisms in 
inscriptions in south Arabia, justifies the thinking that "we have traced 
the particular usages to their homes" He continued by adding, "they 
certainly did not come from Palestine to Saba; they may have come from Saba 
to Palestine" (p. 8)."

For more on this subject, I strongly suggest you read Jody's paper in its 
entirety. You may request a copy directly from her at:  jgorran11 at gmail.com

In addition, there is a view expressed by the renown Holger Pedersen 
(1867-1953), a Danish linguist who made significant contributions to 
language science. Pedersen once wrote in his famous 1931's book "The 
Discovery of Language" about  the "Semitic languages". According to him, 
"Hebrew, Aramaic and Akkadian languages had all undergone significant 
linguistic degeneration. Only Old Arabic, due to its relative isolation in 
the Arabian peninsula, remained closer to the old stratum of the "Semitic" 
form of the language."

Historically, Hebrews living in the Persian Empire adopted Aramaic, and 
quickly Hebrew fell into disuse as Aramaic became the vernacular language. 
By the time the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch (the first five 
books of the Bible), was written down (perhaps as late as 500 BC), the 
Hebrew language had considerably deteriorated. It's vocabulary had changed 
so much that there was no similarity to the original. Moreover, over their 
long history, Jews had different dialects depending upon where they lived. 
For example, the Judæo-Arabic languages comprise a collection of Arabic 
dialects spoken by Jews living in the Arab world, particularly in the Middle

Ages.  This phenomenon may be compared to cases such as Ladino
(Judeo-Spanish) and Yiddish (Judeo-German).

Having outlined the pros and cons within the various scenarios mentioned 
above.  I reiterate my original question: In your opinion, what language did

Abraham, father of Ishmael and Isaac, speak?  Was it related to Arabic, to 
Hebrew, or to Aramaic or neither?  Anyone care to give his opinion on the 
subject?

Ishinan Ishibashi

----------------------------------------------------------
*Hellenistic designation for a part of Babylonia, which became an 
independent kingdom under the Chaldees 

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