Archive for the ‘Typology’ category

Young, Ian, “What is ‘Late Biblical Hebrew’?” Pages 253-268 in A Palimpsest: Rhetoric, Ideology, Stylistics, and Language Relating to Persian Israel, Edited by Ehud Ben Zvi, Diana Edelman, and Frank Polak. Piscataway, NJ: Gorgias Press, 2009.

November 4, 2010

The third chapter of my dissertation explores the difference in the use of את between SBH and LBH, so I have been wading into some of the recent debate over chronology and typology in biblical Hebrew. In this short article, Young gives a helpful summary of the new approach that he has developed along with Robert Rezetko and Martin Ehrvensärd.

While most students learn Biblical Hebrew (BH) as a monolithic whole, the Hebrew Bible does reflect a certain degree of linguistic diversity. Scholars commonly distinguish three types of Hebrew in the biblical period:

1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew is only represented in older poetry such as Jd 5, Ex 15, etc.

2. Early Biblical Hebrew (EBH, also termed Classical Biblical Hebrew or Standard Biblical Hebrew) is the type normally taught in BH grammars. This is generally considered to be a literary language used during the pre-exilic, monarchic period. The core EBH books include the Pentateuch and Joshua-Kings.

3. Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) is the post-exilic language found primarily in the books of Esther, Chronicles, and Ezra-Nehemiah.

It has generally been assumed that the exile marked a time of social and political upheaval which had linguistic repercussions. The returning exiles would have mainly spoken Aramaic, the high language, while the lower classes who remained in the West would have spoken a vernacular Hebrew which was the ancestor of Rabbinic Hebrew. The new literary language, LBH, therefore, represents the chronological development of EBH under these influences.

Hurvitz (and others) has further argued that post-exilic authors would be unable to write in proper EBH, but that LBH features betray their setting. Therefore, scholars have attempted to use the linguistic typology developed for works whose provenance is relatively certain to establish the chronology of works whose dating is less certain. For instance, Polzin (1976) isolated several features of LBH which he then used to analyze the date of the P source. Hurvitz has also analyzed the date of several Psalms (Hurvitz 1972) and the relationship of P to Ezekiel (Hurvitz 1982).

The relationship between typology and chronology, however, is always troublesome, particularly when there are few independent data points to connect the two. As Kaufman (1986) has argued in regards to script typology, socio-linguistic issues such as dialect geography and diglossia must also be taken into consideration. In this vein, Young, along with Rezetko and Ehrvensärd, has developed the argument that EBH and LBH do not represent the chronological development of a single dialect, but two separate dialects which could have coexisted within the same language community. EBH is a more conservative dialect while LBH is less-so, allowing more variety.

Though Hurvitz argued that the presence of LBH features betrays the hand of post-exilic authors, most of the features isolated as representative of LBH are also found in the core EBH works, just less frequently. Therefore, the presence of a feature itself cannot be an indication of date. Young, Rezetko, and Ehrvensärd illustrated this by counting the number of LBH features in random 500 word samples from various biblical and non-biblical texts. While the accumulation of LBH features is greater in the core LBH books, there were several works which were clearly written in the post-exilic period but which feature a low density of LBH features (e.g. Job 1:1-2:11a, Ben Sira 41:2-44:4, Pesher Habakkuk 5:3-12:13). On the other hand, the pre-exilic Arad Ostraca had more LBH elements than any of the EBH samples considered.

Therefore, if these core EBH texts are in fact pre-exilic, then these LBH features cannot be post-exilic, and Young argues that the choice to use the LBH or its corresponding SBH feature must be stylistic rather than chronological. It is better, therefore, to view LBH not as a ‘deteriorated’ form of SBH, but as a distinct dialect.

In the conclusion to his earlier edited volume (Young 2003), Young suggested that the use of the two dialects could relate to geography. The books written in LBH are also generally considered to have an eastern provenance, while the books written in EBH originated in Judah. While he still likes this theory, he also notes several problems, most notably that Chronicles is generally considered to have a western provenance (though see Person 2010). Here, Young refines this view, suggesting that while LBH features were available to EBH writers, it was only in the eastern diaspora that a new literary style developed which was open to their use. This LBH style may have then migrated to the west where it was used for the last chapters of Daniel and at Qumran.

Tense-switching in LBH

July 25, 2009

In my previous series of posts, one of my hesitations in applying tense-switching to biblical poetry was the assumption that the syntax of biblical narrative and poetry are somehow “synchronic”. The Hebrew found roughly in Genesis-Kings is referred to as Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH) or Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) and is generally assumed to be a formal literary southern urban (most likely Jerusalem) dialect. This is certainly not proven beyond a doubt, but while other  dialects may creep in depending upon the source of the text or the purpose of the author, the dialect across these books seems highly standardized. One of the standard features is the consistent use of verbal morphology combined with word order, what Niccacci terms tense-switching, to indicate tense/aspect and prominence.

Even within SBH, the system begins to break down a bit as we move from narrative proper to direct speech, but what happens when we move completely away from SBH to another dialect, such as Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH)? Jan Joosten has a helpful article (“The Disappearance of Iterative WEQATAL in the Biblical Hebrew Verbal system,” Pages 135 – 147 in Biblical Hebrew in its Northwest Semitic Setting, Eisenbrauns, 2006) in which he argues that, while still used as a future/modal, the past iterative function of weqatal has all but disappeared in LBH and is being replaced by weyiqtol

For instance, notice the chain of weyiqtols in 2 Chr 24:11 where we would expect weqatal:

2Chr 24:11 וַיְהִ֡י בְּעֵת֩ יָבִ֨יא אֶת־הָֽאָר֜וֹן אֶל־פְּקֻדַּ֣ת הַמֶּלֶךְ֮ בְּיַ֣ד הַלְוִיִּם֒ וְכִרְאוֹתָ֞ם כִּי־רַ֣ב הַכֶּ֗סֶף וּבָ֨א סוֹפֵ֤ר הַמֶּ֙לֶךְ֙ וּפְקִיד֙ כֹּהֵ֣ן הָרֹ֔אשׁ וִיעָ֙רוּ֙ אֶת־הָ֣אָר֔וֹן וְיִשָּׂאֻ֖הוּ וִֽישִׁיבֻ֣הוּ אֶל־מְקֹמ֑וֹ כֹּ֤ה עָשׂוּ֙ לְי֣וֹם ׀ בְּי֔וֹם וַיַּֽאַסְפוּ־כֶ֖סֶף לָרֹֽב׃12 וַיִּתְּנֵ֨הוּ הַמֶּ֜לֶךְ וִֽיהוֹיָדָ֗ע אֶל־עוֹשֵׂה֙ מְלֶ֙אכֶת֙ עֲבוֹדַ֣ת בֵּית־יְהוָ֔ה 

11 And when the chest would be brought to the king’s officers by the Levites, when they saw that there was much money in it, the king’s secretary and the officer of the chief priest would come and would empty the chest (weyiqtol) and would take it (weyiqtol) and would return it (weyiqtol) to its place. Thus they did day after day, and they collected money in abundance. 12 And the king and Jehoiada gave it to those who had charge of the work of the house of the LORD…

Joosten notes that it is possible that these are wayyiqtol‘s which have been mispointed, since in Kings we do have examples of weqatal followed by wayyiqtol as an iterative (in fact, such a construction is in the similar account in 2 Kg 12:11). However, usually the Masoretes mistakenly point weyiqtol as wayyiqtol, not the other way around. Further, the abundance of examples of weyiqtol as an iterative in LBH texts supports the pointing of the MT. 

This change seems to be part of a larger realignment of the verbal system as it moves toward Mishnaic Hebrew. The wayyiqtol form is gradually falling out of use, and if we look forward to the Isaiah Scroll from Qumran we see that the scribe consistently replaced wayyiqtol with a qatal form. Note also that the Isaiah scroll replaces iterative weqatal with weyiqtol. In LBH narrative, we already see weqatal (ie conjunctive waw + clause initial qatal) as a non-iterative past tense.  This is the normal narrative tense in Official Aramaic, which already dropped the wayyiqtol, and will become the narrative tense in Mishnaic Hebrew. For example, take Ezra 3:10:

Ezra 3:10 וְיִסְּד֥וּ הַבֹּנִ֖ים אֶת־הֵיכַ֣ל יְהוָ֑ה

10 And the builders laid the foundation of the temple of the Lord 

I think we can pull a few things from this. First, wayyiqtol is the special case. Most likely, the preterite was used clause initially in narrative contexts because this position is iconic for sequence, but it then became a frozen form so that the waw was reinterpreted as part of the verb, thus it is proper to speak of wayyiqtol as a verbal form. Obviously, there is no possibility of a non-clause-initial wayyiqtol

However, to speak of weqatal, x-qatal, weyiqtol, and x-yiqtol is to combine (and perhaps confuse) the semantics of the verbal morphology with the pragmatics of word-order. Here I agree with John Cook that wayyiqtol and weqatal should be seen as two separate things. The past iterative use of weqatal flows from the modality of the perfect, just as the past iterative use of x-yiqtol flows from the modality of yiqtol. Hence there is no problem with an iterative weyiqtol. The word-order has to do with whether the verbs are sequential or not. Both weqatal and weyiqtol are clause initial, thus iconic for sequence (note that I’m not saying marked for sequence). It seems to me that there is no reason why the classical dialect could not have used weyiqtol for foregrounded iterative action, it just chose weqatal as the standard form. This gives a nice symmetry to the system since x-yiqtol is used as past iterative in non-sequential circumstances, while x-qatal is reserved for circumstantial clauses. However, once the simple past use of weqatal begins to encroach, it makes sense to move to weyiqtol instead.

So, we see that the system of tense-switching doesn’t quite hold for LBH. It is not unreasonable to assume that similar differences would be found in dialects that differ geographically from SBH as well. For instance, northern dialects may be more influenced by Aramaic which did not use weqatal as an iterative either. Thus, while I agree that the syntax of poetry should not differ greatly from that of prose, we cannot assume that SBH is necessarily the prose dialect we should be using as a baseline reference.

OK, I swear I’m done with Niccacci now. Really.

Morag, Shelomo, “Qumran Hebrew: Some Typological Observations,” Vetus Testamentum 38.2 (1988): 148-164

February 23, 2009

The discovery of Qumran was obviously quite revolutionary. In particular, the corpus of Qumran texts provided evidence of Hebrew language (QH) from the period between Biblical Hebrew (BH) and Mishnaic Hebrew (MH). But what were the relationships between the three?  Some scholars consider QH a direct continuation of Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH), others an artificial literary language based on an attempt to revive Biblical Hebrew, or perhaps it consists of LBH features mixed with lines of archaization. In this essay, Morag argues that typological features of QH suggest that it is the result of natural changes in a living, spoken language. However it is not simply a continuation of LBH, but reflects earlier dialectal diversity.

The literature composed at Qumran roughly spans the period of the beginning of the first century BCE to the end of the first century CE. Morag does not list which documents he includes in this corpus, which he labels General Qumran Hebrew (GQH), but I assume he follows something similar to Diamant. He does specifically exclude the Copper Scroll and 4QMMT which show features of a dialect closer to MH. For his study he lists the ten most significant features of GQH, finding only one in common with BH (no 1) and two in common with MH (nos 5 and 10a):

1. Preference of ˀašer to š- as relative marker.

2. Contraction of –aw in final position.

3. Dissimilation of CC to nC.

4. wˀqtlh (cohortative) form used for 1cs waw-consecutive

5. Occurance of pausal forms in non-pausal positions, ie yqtwlw for yqtlw.

6. Imperfect pron suff for 3ms: yqwtlhw.

7. Long-form of 3ms/3fs pronoun: hw’h and hy’h.

8. –hw­ and –w as pronominal suffix for word ending with ī.

9. –mh ending for 2mp perfect, 2mp pronoun (‘tmh) and 2mp/3mp suffix (-kmh and –(h)mh)

10. Syntactic features:

            a. Use of composite verbal forms hyh (yhyh / lhywt) + participle

            b. usage of prepositions such as b varies from standard use

He finds that to describe GQH as merely a continuation of LBH does not do it justice. There are several prominent features that are not continuations of LBH, but instead may be a continuation of older dialectal variations. The features shared by both GQH and MH can be divided into two categories:

 a. Features reflecting stress patterns different from those of BH (TH), specifically 5 and 6.

b. Syntactic features such as periphrastic use of the participle (10a).

Thus GQH contains both LBH and non-LBH features, some of which reflect older dialectal variation. Diachronic components such as stress shift and Aramaic influence should also be taken into account. However, most interesting is that many of the features that differ from LBH are phonological, reflections not of a literary tradition but of a living language. Thus GQH must reflect living dialects of Hebrew.


Greenberg, J. H., “A Quantitative Approach to the Morphological Typology of Language,” International Journal of American Linguistics 26 (1960): 178-94.

January 10, 2009

Greenberg suggests that for a discipline to properly be considered “science”, it must move beyond mere description to comparison and classification. In linguistics this has been achieved through the respected discipline of “comparative linguistics” using the historical-genetic method to group languages into families with common ancestors. However, there is another method called “typological”, which (up to Greenberg’s day) was not so well received. Greenberg argues that the typological method has been damaged by confusion between the two, especially where typological criteria have been used to establish historical-genetic relationships.

The historical-genetic method classifies languages into families based on shared features, usually common forms related by sound and meaning. If two languages agree in a considerable number of these forms (not through borrowing) then they can be tied to a common ancestor. However, one can also compare languages that cannot be said to have a common ancestor. For instance, all languages must express comparison, but the number options for this are actually limited: a special comparative inflection of the adjective (English great-er), use of the preposition “from” (Semitic), use of a verb meaning “surpass” (African languages), etc. Some of these are more common than others, and the geographic distribution crosses genetic boundaries. Thus typological comparison also groups languages into “families”, but these are based only on the absence or presence of a given feature. However, the grouping is arbitrary and will change depending on which features are selected.

Some of these classification schemes are useless, but some can be very useful such as the classic 19th century division of languages into isolating, agglutinative, and inflecting. While the scheme itself has many weaknesses, it has hit upon something of fundamental importance to language – the morphological structure of a word. Sapir took up this classification as the foundation of his book Language and attempted to more carefully define the terms. In the end he saw a very basic form to language – every language has a stock of roots with concrete meanings (ie table, eat) as well as forms to express abstract relational ideas between the concrete terms (such as case endings). This opposition of concrete (I) and abstract (IV) marked the ends of the scale. Between the two are derivational elements (II) which impact the meaning of the root, but do not relate syntactically to the whole sentence (such as the –er in farmer). Lastly, concrete-relational elements (III) primarily affect sentence syntax, but have a concrete meaning. All languages use I and IV, but II and III are dispensable.

The technique of how II, III, and IV (all the elements which are somehow marked for syntax) are used is described as a) isolating (based on significant order of elements, John hit Bill marks John as subject, Bill as object), b) agglutanitive (like good + ness > goodness), c) fusional (like deep + th > depth), and d) symbolic (internal changes such as drink/drank/drunk). Note that the contrast between aglutanitive and fusional is itself somewhat superficial. The Semitic languages are labeled Complex Mixed-relational because all four concepts are present. In concept II they use techniques d) then c). In concept III they use c) then d). For IV they use a), though this is a weak development.

Greenberg has basically adapted Sapir’s model and developed quantitative measures. First, Greenberg introduces an index to measure the degree of synthesis based on the number of morphemes per word. The lower limit is obviously 1.00, and the upper limit while theoretically infinite seems to be practically 3.00. Analytic languages will give low ratios, synthetic higher, and polysynthetic the highest of all.

Secondly, Greenberg measures “agglutinavity” by the ratio of agglutinative constructions to morph juncture. A construction is considered agglutinative when both morphemes are automatic, which is to say that any allomorphic variation is predictable and regular. Thus leaves is made of two morphemes /leaf/ + /s/ both of which vary predictably to /leav/ and /z/ respectively. Thus the ratio is 1.00. A language with a high value for this index will be agglutinative, a low value fusional.

The third index analyzes the type of morphemes related to the number of words: root morphemes, derivational morphemes, and inflectional morphemes. This measures the basic contrast of Sapir’s categories I and IV. A language which can have more than one root per word is a compounding language, an idea that Sapir nowhere mentions. The fourth analyzes the ratio of prefixes and suffixes. The last index measures the use of word order, inflection, and concord (matching of gender, number, etc) to indicate syntactic relationships. Note that morphemes such as the Latin case ending –um, which indicates case, number, and gender, is counted separately for each function it performs.

Greenberg next spends some time discussing the problem of finding suitable definitions for concepts like morphs, morphemes, roots, etc. For instance, some things are obviously morphemes, some are obviously not, but some are in between. For example, is /deceive/ a single morpheme or is it made from /de/ + /ceive/? Greenberg suggests the model of a square, that is if there are four meaningful sequences in a language AC, BC, AD, BD then each may be considered a morpheme. An example is the English eating : sleeping : : eats : sleeps, where A is eat-, B is sleep-, C is -ing and D is –s.

Lastly, Greenberg calculates the indices for eight languages: Sanskrit, Anglo-Saxon, Persian, English, Yakut (related to Turkish, but with less borrowing from Arabic), Swahili, Annamite, and Eskimo. Based on an admittedly small sample, Greenberg’s results seem to corroborate the usual non-quantitative descriptions of these languages as synthetic or polysynthetic and agglutinative or non-agglutinative.


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