[b-hebrew] Recreating the Origins of Language

Ishinan ishinan at comcast.net
Sun Feb 24 20:58:46 EST 2013

Will Parsons wrote: 

"Hebrew of course is considered part of the Semitic family of languages, part of a larger Afro-Asiatic family.  How would the computer reconstruction work here?  Unlike the scenario of the article using the Austronesian languages, where one has a multitude of modern languages/dialects, but essentially no historical written evidence, the situation of the Semitic languages seems to me to be precisely the opposite. 

One has a dearth of Semitic languages that have survived to modern times. Of course, Arabic has been a huge success, dividing into a spectrum of modern spoken dialects unified by a common literary language (somewhat similar to the position of early Romance dialects vis-à-vis literary Latin in mediaeval times).  I'm not sure about the situation of the African branch of the Semitic languages (i.e., the descendents of Ge`ez), but in the Asiatic branch, first Aramaic seems to have eclipsed other Semitic languages, including Hebrew and Akkadian, and then Arabic eclipsed Aramaic." 

Modern Hebrew is of course the "other" modern Asiatic-Semitic language, apart from Arabic, but because of its revivification, does not make itself an ideal candidate for historical comparison.  (I understand that Aramaic still survives, but I suspect has been heavily Arabicized, and may be of marginal status)." 


Ishinan: Will, I totally agree with your assessment. Most of the languages of the Afro-Asiatic group were originally visibly related to each other. Some more than others and their similarities were greater the further back we go in time. 

Holger Pedersen (1867-1953), a Danish linguist who made significant contributions to language science once wrote in his famous 1931's book "The Discovery of Language" about the "Semitic languages". According to him (and linguists in general), the Hebrew, Aramaic, Assyrian, Babylonian, and Akkadian languages had all undergone significant linguistic degeneration. 

Historically, Hebrews living in the Persian Empire adopted Aramaic, and quickly, enough Hebrew fell into disuse as Aramaic became the vernacular language. By the time the Old Testament, including the Pentateuch, the language had considerably deteriorated. The vocabulary of the Hebrew language had changed so much that there was no similarity to the original. Eventually, Hebrew at some point ceased to be the language of the Hebrews. 

Only Arabic, due to its relative isolation in the Arabian peninsula, remained closer to the old stratum of the Semitic form of the proto-language and therefore was closer to the Canaanite/Ugaritic, than Akkadian, Assyrian, Babylonian, Hebrew, and/or Aramaic. 

Semitic Linguists, aware of this deficiency in the Hebrew/Aramaic languages, have always referred primarily to Classical Arabic (due to its extensive rich vocabulary and alphabet inventory which is closer to Proto-Semitic alphabet) along with Ugaritic to explain the various Semitic roots and their etymologies. 

Best regards. 

Ishinan Ishibashi
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