Dion, Paul-E., “The language Spoken in Ancient Sam’al,” JNES 37/2, Colloquium on Aramaic Studies (April 1978): 115-118

This short essay is a summary of Dion’s longer French monograph on the language of Sam’al (La langue de Ya’udi: description et classement de l’ancien parler de Zincirli dans la cadre des langues sémitiques du nord-ouest). Sam’alian was a local Aramaic dialect spoken in the kingdom of Sam’al during the 8th century. It is represented in two long inscriptions dedicated to Hadad (KAI 214, also called just Hadad) and King Panamuwa II (KAI 215, also called Panamuwa or Panamu). The dialect seems archaic and some scholars, such as Moscati and Friedrich, have considered it typologically earlier than the division of Northwest Semitic into Aramaic and Canaanite. However, the Aramaic Sefire inscription shares some features with this dialect that supports the traditional view of Ginsberg and J.C.L. Gibson that it is indeed Aramaic. 

Orthographically, both inscriptions (KAI 214 and 215) use the Aramaic system of vowel letters, w and y for final /û/ and /î/, and h for feminine singular ending /â/. Further, w and y were also sometimes used to mark internal vowels, and both aleph and yod seem to have been used to mark final /ê/. In contrast to the Aramaic system is the defective writing of some final long vowels, like את for /attâ/. 

Phonology and morphology seem to be the most productive categories for analyzing dialectal variation. Several features are common to Aramaic and Sam’alian which do not follow the development of the other Canaanite dialects. For instance, in Aramaic and Sam’alian emphatic /ð/ does not merge with /ṣ/. There are also several shared developments between Aramaic and Sam’alian such as the development of the emphatic particle *hin to a conditional particle, hēn in Aramaic and *hinnu (הנו) in Sam’alian. 

However, there are also features shared by Sam’alian and Canaanite, such as the retention of the feminine plural ending -ât where Aramaic uses -ân. Dion suggests that these are mostly negative, that is they demonstrate places where Sam’alian did not follow Aramaic innovation. The only significant example where Sam’alian seems to follow a Canaanite innovation is the syncopation of the causative prefix *ha- in the imperfect. However, this later reached Aramaic as well.

The only significant innovation peculiar to Sam’alian is the dropping of the final *-m or *-n in the masculine plural ending. All other peculiarities (such as the lack of a definite article and the retention of case distinctions in the masculine plural) can be described as archaisms.

In conclusion, Dion suggests that Sam’alian is a branch of Aramaic that began to develop independently around 1000 BCE. This suggests that some of the archaic features of Sam’alian may have been present in second millenium Aramaic, such as the use of precative *lu, the strict adherence to verb-subject word order, and the previously mentioned retention of case distinction in the masculine plural.

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3 Comments on “Dion, Paul-E., “The language Spoken in Ancient Sam’al,” JNES 37/2, Colloquium on Aramaic Studies (April 1978): 115-118”

  1. Jay Says:

    Thanks for this. I admit that when the news about the inscription broke, I had to look up Sam’alian to figure out where it fit among the NWS languages . . .

  2. Peter Bekins Says:

    You know, its kind of funny. I became interested in Sam’ailan after Garr described it as a language island. I had downloaded this article by Dion at some time in the past, so I wrote up a summary last week, but then I thought, “Who really cares to read about Sam’alian?”. So I didn’t post it. Who would have thought a new inscription would be found.

  3. Jay Says:

    You know, when I was looking up Sam’alian I completely forgot that you had just talked about it in your review of Garr. I knew something was nagging at me that it was related to Aramaic. I really need to read that book some time . . .


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