Archive for August 2007

My orthography bibliography is done!

August 30, 2007

I have finished posting all the items from my annotated bibliography on Semitic Orthography. I am also working on an introduction to the basic linguisitc terms and concepts that will help you get over the hump reading some of these more technical works. My section on Phonetics is complete, Phonology will follow soon (See my essays page).


Blau, Joshua. On Pseudo-Correction in some Semitic Languages. Publications of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. Jerusalem: Israel Academy of Science and Humanities, 1970.

August 30, 2007

Blau analyzes an interesting feature of language contact resulting from the tension between “higher” and “lower” forms, whether between different spoken dialects or between spoken and literary dialects. Pseudo-correction is the application of a feature in the higher dialect by analogy to a form where it does not occur, betraying the author’s lack of experience in the higher dialect. The existence of pseudo-corrections in a text may be a clue as to whether it reflects living language or literary idiom, but unfortunately our knowledge of ancient dialects is too scarce in most cases to distinguish the two. Unambiguous cases of pseudo-correction in ancient texts are therefore rare. One example of hyper-correction is seen in Aramaic orthography which used z to spell proto-Semitic /ð/ even after it had merged with /d/. However, even /d/ which went back to proto-Semitic /d/ was spelled with z at times.

Blau, Joshua. On Polyphony in Biblical Hebrew. Proceedings of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities 6/2. Jerusalem, 1982.

August 30, 2007

Polyphony is the phenomenon in orthography where one character is used to represent more than one phoneme. Blau begins his study by stating “a borrowed alphabet in which phonemes of the borrowing language are lacking tends to become polyphonic”. He takes up the case of Hebrew by examining several cases of possible polyphony. The main cases are ayin and . In the LXX, ayin is transliterated as either zero/vowel mutation or gamma. This may reflect that the articulation of ayin to Greek ears was somewhere between the two or that the letter ayin was polyphonic, used both for the pharyngeal fricative ayin and the uvular trill grayin. Blau argues for the latter claiming that /ġ/ had been lost in spoken Hebrew, but was preserved in the literary dialect which was followed in the Synagogue reading.

Jackson, Kent, “The Language of the Mesha Inscription”, in Studies in the Mesha Inscription and Moab ed Andrew Dearman. Atlanta: Scholars, 1989, 96-130.

August 30, 2007

In this essay Jackson gives special attention to the orthography of the Mesha Inscription. He begins by explaining the distinction between historical spelling and vowel-letters, arguing that historical spelling of contracted diphthongs was probably the impetus for the use of vowel letters by analogy. The Mesha Inscription reflects a transitional point between historical spelling and intentional use of matres lectionis. Against Cross and Freedman, Jackson argues that there are some forms in the inscription where final vowels are not marked. However, all final 1cs suffixes are marked with yod, in contrast to the contemporary Phoenician, as are the endings of 1cs perfects.

Andersen, Francis I. and Forbes, A. Dean. Spelling in the Hebrew Bible. Biblica et Orientalia 41; Rome: Biblical Institute, 1986.

August 28, 2007

The work of Cross and Freedman on early Hebrew orthography analyzed Northwest Semitic inscriptions in an attempt to describe the introduction and use of matres lectionis in Hebrew spelling. Using this basic typology, Anderson and Forbes have attempted to statistically analyze spelling in the Hebrew Bible in order to draw historical conclusions on the transmission of the Hebrew text. They conclude that the text in general reflects the spelling practice of the Exilic and Persian periods (600-300 BCE). The Pentateuch stands out from the rest as being uniform and conservative in orthography. The basic assumption is that the more archaic the spelling of a book, the earlier it was “canonized”. The Primary History seems to have been canonized in the 6th century BCE, whereas the other books were written or edited after the Exile.

Anderson, Francis I. and David Noel Freedman, “The Orthography of the Aramaic Portion of the Tell Fekherye Bilingual” in Text and Context: Old Testament and Semitic Studies for F. C. Fensham, ed. W. Claassen, JSOT Supplements 48 (Sheffield, 1988): 9-49.

August 28, 2007

Anderson and Freedman are mainly interested in the spelling practices used in the Aramaic portion of the inscription. Their method is to examine the inscription by analyzing all of the words in which vowel letters potentially occur. They conclude that the use of vowel letters is consistent with their analysis of Northwest Semitic inscriptions from Judah, Israel, Ammon and Moab. All final vowels are marked by yod, he, or waw. Aleph never occurs as a vowel letter, it is either a consonant or a determinative marker. Both waw and yod are used to mark medial vowel letters. The scribe tends to limit himself to using one medial vowel letter per word. The use of yod for /i/ seems to have its basis in derivation but the use of waw for /u/ may be analogical and purely phonetic. This would suggest that waw for /u/ could be used more freely as there would be no confusion with historical spelling. For the most part, medial vowel letters tend to mark long vowels in stressed syllables.

Swiggers, Pierre, “Transmission of the Phoenician Script to the West” in The World’s Writing Systems, ed Peter T Daniels and William Bright. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996, 261-270.

August 28, 2007

Swiggers approach is to describe the transmission of the Phoenician script to the Greeks was “geographically diversified but structurally unified.” The Dorian alphabet represents an archaic stage, which then branched into Eastern and Western alphabets. Structurally, the Greeks notated vowels by exploiting the use of consonantal letters used to transcribe long vowels. Later in the 6th century BCE they further distinguished long and short vowels in the case of /e/ and /o/ by introducing ēta (based on ḥet) and ōmega. Geographically the alphabet was adapted to meet local needs, but the basic structure is unchanged. Thus, while letter shapes and writing direction may vary, the same inventory of letters is used. Swiggers accepts a date of borrowing around 800-775 BCE based on convergent evidence from typological analysis of the scripts and the dating of the oldest Greek inscriptions. He argues against a purely Aramaic origin of the Greek alphabet based on the letter names iōta and rhō which show evidence of the vowel shift /ā/ > /ō/ which is absent in Aramaic. He also rejects Naveh’s earlier date based on comparison to proto-Canaanite letterforms, arguing that script direction is often variable in the early stages of adaptation and that the Phoenician inscriptions provide the strongest parallels for Greek letters. The use of archaic forms in the Tell Fekheriye inscription further weakens Naveh’s argument.

Sass, Benjamin. Studia Alphabetica: On the Origin and Early History of the Northwest Semitic, South Semitic and Greek Alphabets. Orbis Biblicus et Orientalis, 102. Freiburg: Universitätsverlag, 1991.

August 26, 2007

Sass discusses the emergence of the Northwest Semitic alphabet and its relationships to the South Semitic and Greek alphabets. He argues for an 18th Century date for the development of the Northwest Semitic alphabet based on parallels to “almost alphabetic” writing of foreign names in Middle Kingdom Egyptian. The South Semitic alphabets contain many letters resembling Phoenician forms of the 10th-11th centuries which is most likely the period of the beginning of the South Arabian alphabet.

On the issue of vowel letters, he claims that the use of matres lectionis for /a/, /i/, and /u/ existed from the beginning in the Egyptian “alphabetic” writing of the Middle Kingdom. The reed sign, used for alep, also marked medial and final /a/ and /i/. Egyptian w also served as a mater for /u/. However, it is uncertain why the inhabitants of southern Canaan “were content to adopt only the consonants and did not from the very start take over the matres lectionis.”

Pitard, Wayne, “The Shape of ‘Ayin in the Ugaritic Script”, JNES 51 no 4 (Oct 1992), 261-279.

August 26, 2007

Pitard laments that no significant studies on Ugaritic paleography have been conducted outside of its relationship to the Semitic linear scripts. Interestingly, while linear inscriptions are often published with photographs, cuneiform texts have traditionally been published as drawings. These drawings tend to use signs which are standardized and somewhat artificial, showing more or less paleographic information depending on the philosophy of the copyist. Ugaritic texts have followed the cuneiform tradition, being published as drawings with useful photographs unavailable. This has led to a situation in Ugaritic studies where paleographic discussions are common, but without much substantiation.

The case of the ayin is especially relevant. In the standardized syllabaries, the shape of the ayin is described as similar to the cuneiform winkelhaken. Accordingly, there are several standard ambiguities posited between letters using angle wedges and combinations of a letter + ayin, such as /q/ and /t-ˤ/, /ẓ/ and /p-ˤ/, etc. However, in Pitard’s analysis the ayin is distinct from the angle wedge and not as ambiguous as the drawings suggest. Pitard includes many photographs and charts which support his case and suggest the usefulness of the work done by the West Semitic Research Project.

Dietrich, Manfried and Oswald Loretz. Die Keilalphabete: Die phönizisch-kanaanäischen und altarabischen Alphabete in Ugarit. ALASP band 1. Münster: UGARIT-Verlag, 1988.

August 26, 2007

Dietrich and Loretz discuss the question of the development of the alphabet from the perspective of the cuneiform alphabetic texts found at Ugarit and its environs. After reviewing the long alphabet from Ugarit, they analyze texts found in the short alphabet and other cuneiform alphabetic texts found outside Ugarit. They conclude that the long alphabet, which became the standard at Ugarit, was influenced by both the 28-letter South Semitic and the 21/22-letter Northwest Semitic alphabets. In the rest of Palestine the short alphabet prevailed. From the inscriptions they also attempt to analyze dialect geography. The existence of South Semitic vocabulary imply that the long alphabet may have been transmitted by Arab traders.


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