[b-hebrew] Biblical Hebrew orthographical practices in light of epigraphy

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Tue Jun 1 17:07:24 EDT 2010

Hello James,

Let us get back to the point of the different orthographies for the Bible
and epigraphy.  You made a particular suggestion regarding yodhs -- that
it was more convenient to the scribe on stone, and you write that I am
"refusing to deal with this phenomenon in isolation."

James, I don't have any reason to deal with this phenomenon in isolation.
I'm guessing you are hoping to provide individual suggestions for each
particular difference, as you did for the plurals -ym vs -m.  But I don't
think it is an isolated phenomenon.  And you, supposedly, don't have
a position.  Your position is that you have no position.  So if I don't think
it is an isolated phenomenon, and you don't (because you have no position
on the issue), why should I respond as if it were?  Is there any evidence
that it is an isolated phenomenon? Is there reason or evidence to think that
the absent yodh in the plural ending different than the yodh in אש 'man' or
the yodh in להגד or הנבא or the he in ועת?

You haven't provided any reason at all to consider it so.

In fact, you have provided no evidence against what I suggested.  You only
provided possible conjectures.  When I questioned those conjectures on the
basis of hard evidence, you ignored the questions, preferring instead to
split hairs about how you have no position.

You rightly mention the issue of the size of the corpus.  But all you
have provided
so far, James, are very high numbers related to the amount of data necessary to
translate an arbitrary sentence in a given language without any other
knowledge.  You claim that translators are native speakers and that they do not
use deep linguistic methods.  But translators are usually not native in both
languages involved in the translation, and translators regularly use
and other linguistic reference works.  That is your deep linguistic methods.

James, you realize that the Bible itself is only 20,000 verses and
therefore is less
than 1% of what you consider an adequate corpus to be able to know anything
with any kind of certainty.  This is a pretty extreme statement.  It
suggests that
we cannot know that the first person pronoun in Hebrew was indeed אני
or אנכי, or
that Hebrew was a language with gender and number agreement between verbs and
nouns, or even that the name of the Hebrew god was a particular four
letter word.
After all, this data set may be completely unrepresentative, and had we had
1,980,000 or more other verses, together they would present an
entirely different
picture of these elements of the language.  Hebrew could be exactly like modern
English except for the particular 1% of evidence that survives in the
Bible.  The
name of God could be Plonialmoni.

Not only is this an extreme position.  It is a ridiculous one!  I
think anyone with a
basic knowledge of the Bible will realize that there is plenty of data
to make some
conclusions regarding the language, including grammar, phonology, and
orthography.  Similarly, anyone with a basic knowledge of epigraphic
knows there is sufficient data to make some conclusions.  I quote from
an article by
Cynthia Miller on the subject (Methodological Issues in Reconstructing Language
Systems).  I provide a quick summary too -- she says basically the same thing!

 "What constitutes an extensive, representative, and diverse corpus
depends upon
the kind of linguistic analysis that one wishes to accomplish.  In
linguistic studies of
modern corpora, a 1000-word sample has been determined to reflect grammatical
features reliably.  Lexicographical research, however, requires a much
larger corpus
 ... Our texts are most limited for lexicographic analysis -- no West
Semitic language
is adequately attested.  In contrast ... phonological and
morphological research can
proceed with a more modest corpus, perhaps as small as 1000 words.  In these
areas, then, language data from the better attested West Semitic
languages should
be largely adequate ..."  The term "better attested languages" refers
to Hebrew and

James, we are not attempting even a phonological or morphological
analysis.  This is
not even a complete orthographic analysis.  This is a very limited
question about
comparative orthography between the Bible and the epigraphic corpus.
For this, we
have more than enough adequate data.  Some words -- such as אני, לקרת or נחנו --
are too poorly attested in the epigraphic corpus to draw conclusions
regarding the
orthography.  But things like plurals, the word עת, some pronoun
suffixes, etc are
attested adequately enough for conclusions to be made.  Your numbers on the
number of texts algorithms need in order to translate an arbitrary
passage without
linguistic knowledge are completely irrelevant to this question.

You suggest a particular situation of a "b4 orthography."  To do this,
you must concoct
an unrealistic scenario in which books and other elements with the more regular
orthography do not get preserved.  Just like it is extremely unlikely
that future
archaeologists will only have "b4" spellings preserved, so too it is
extremely unlikely
that there was an additional orthographic system in the pre-exilic
times that was not
preserved.  But the scenario itself does not fit the epigraphic
corpus.  James, we have
all kinds of epigraphic documents in Hebrew  (yes, Karl, Hebrew!) --
some of them no
more than graffiti.  It would be like coming to an archaeological site
and finding a letter
from a noble; to another site with a list of materials from an
accountant; in another site,
graffiti in caves; in another, a report from a military camp; in
another, donations listed by
priests of a  temple. In fact, the literacy at that was so limited,
that the wide variety
allows us to be rather certain that we see the way in which all (that
is, all) types of
literate individuals wrote, and they all show that the orthography in
pre-exilic Judea
and Samaria was different and less evolved than that of the Bible.  So this
suggestion doesn't really work either.

James, I am hoping for once you would respond with a discussion of the evidence.
Yes, you asked the questions.  Perhaps, you played the devil's advocate.  But I
provided answers and evidence to that end.  Does it settle those
questions?  If not,
why not?  What is missing in what I provided?  I raised questions regarding the
alternatives you suggested are possible.  Can you respond to those alternatives,
or are they simply not viable?

You say: "And so in conclusion there is clearly not enough data to be
decisive either
way but the evidence seems to be mounting that your position (the one
you support)
is misguided."  What evidence James?  The idea that the Samaritan and Jewish
traditions accurately maintained the Pentateuch since the split of the
kingdoms is
not evidence.  It is a conjecture.  One that needs to be supported
with evidence.
Evidence which you have not provided.

So like I said,  I really hope you would respond with evidence, or
concrete answers
to the responses I raised.  But I am guessing instead your message will be
another winding confusing and roundabout way of avoiding the evidence.

Yitzhak Sapir

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