As promised, here my comments concerning Duane’s discussion of the development of Hebrew with respect to Late Bronze Age Canaanite.

I probably was not as clear as I should have been with my statement:

I also agree with the largest changes in Hebrew occurring between CBH and LBH and Amarna Canaanite’s similarity to CBH–especially in Amarna’s use of waw’s.

which led Duane to say:

I have decided to reflect upon that issue here. Perhaps I am setting up a straw man but I think the underlying presupposition of this comment is that Classical Biblical Hebrew developed out of Late Bronze Age Canaanite. This presupposition is at best problematic.

I would not say that Classical Biblical Hebrew developed out of Late Bronze Age Canaanite. As Duane has discussed in his post it is very difficult to reconstruct the precise development of ancient languages. Furthermore, I agree with Duane that languages develop with a combination of many different influences, both internal and external. In my mind Hebrew is Hebrew (I get more specific than this, keep reading) and we can point to some particular analogues that appear in other languages, whether they are lexical or syntactical. These analogues might indicate some kind of contact, either direct or indirect, between these languages or these similarities could have arisen independently. Each situation needs to be judged on it’s own.

Therefore, I would rather treat languages as they stand and not say that x language evolved from x. I am very comfortable saying that x feature in x language has an analogue in x language, but except for certain instances, it is very difficult to trace the precise development of languages. Furthermore, I like to discuss languages–and title languages–based on geography. Even though ancient languages like Aramaic share commonalities amongst the various dialects and such, regions tend to have their own particularities. Furthermore, some languages have syntactical and lexical features of one language while it is written in a script that has similarities to another language. This adds another layer of complexity when we apply general categories to specific languages.

I am not saying that we never use general titles like “Aramaic” and only refer to specific geographic names, such as the language that is found in Sam’al and only refer to it as “Sam’alian” rather than “Aramaic.” But, the categorizations of these languages are still in debate and are not always clear-cut. It might be more cumbersome, but it is a bit “safer” to say something like–Sam’alian with analogous features to Aramaic. By saying this you are not committing yourself to implying that Sam’alian “developed” from or “is” Aramaic and you are also leaving open the possibility of other influences upon Sam’alian.

Even though this terminology might be more specific, it is awkward. The general categories of Hebrew, Aramaic, etc. can be retained but we should keep in mind the diversity and complexity that is involved in all these languages/dialects/idiolects, etc. Even for Hebrew, as Duane alluded to, there are various attempts to determine dialects such as Israelian Hebrew, Judahite Hebrew, etc. Even within Israelian Hebrew some advocate “sub-dialects” such as Ephraimite, Galilean, and Gileadite Hebrew.

I am very sympathetic for these movements, but I admit for example that it is sometimes hard to draw clear lines between Ephraimite Hebrew and Galilean Hebrew because we don’t have large amounts of a wide array of texts from these areas that include samples from many genres. For more on this subject, see Gary Rendsburg’s “A Comprehensive Guide to Israelian Hebrew: Grammar and Lexicon.”

About the author

Charles Halton

4 Comments. Leave your Comment right now:

  1. by Duane


    Good post. For what it is worth, I agree in general and in detail. I do think the discussion of how closely related various languages and dialects are is important in evaluating cognate usages and I may be a little more optimistic than you are that linguistic evolution can sometimes be detected in Semitic languages. It seems obvious that Akkadian shows such evolution with the Assyrian and Babylonian lines coming from a common ancestor. But students face a host of issues when they attempt work out the relationships between the various North West Semitic languages. Is Ugaritic even a North West Semitic language? It’s not so clear to me.

    Like you, I think there is evidence for cotemporaneous dialectal differences within Hebrew and many other ancient North West Semitic languages. In this regard, they do not differ from modern languages. You are correct in pointing out Rendsburg’s work. Also of interest in this regard is W. Randall Garr, Dialect Geography of Syria-Palistine, 1000-586 B.C.E., University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985. But one needs to read Garr’s work in the light of several reviews pointing out a number of weaknesses. Perhaps Huehnergard’s JBL (106, #3, 529-533) review is the most helpful in this regard. The whole discussion reminds me of the well-worn saying, often attributed to Max Weinreich, “A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”

    Again, thanks for the post and the engaging discussion. May there be more!

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  3. Duane,
    I’m glad we agree. I know what you mean about your hesitation on how Ugaritic fits into the NW Semitic scheme. I am struck by the content of some of the mythological texts. They seem to fit much better in a Medditeranean context than a Levantine one. I think the connections that people try to make between the Bible and Ugarit might not be as close as they might think.

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