Ginsberg, H.L., “The Northwest Semitic Languages,” Pages 102-124, 293 in The World History of the Jewish People, Vol 2: The Patriarchs. Edited by B. Mazar. Tel-Aviv; New Brunswick, 1970.

In this classic article, Ginsberg discusses the subdivision and development of the Northwest Semitic family of languages. NWS can be first divided into Canaanite and Aramaic groups. Canaanite is further comprised of a Phoenic group (Phoenician, Punic, Ugaritic, and Philistine/Ashdodite?) and a Hebraic group (Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite and Edomite). Aramaic is comprised of Common Aramaic and Samalian.

Canaanite can be distinguished from Aramaic based on the following features:

1. Lexicon – הלך “to go” has secondary root ילך in imperfect, words like גג “roof”, שלהן “table” are confined to Canaanite.

2. Morphology – 3fp preformative t-, use of pōlel and hitpōlel for D and tD hollow verbs, formation of the participle based on the stem of the imperfect in hollow verbs, stative verbs, and the nifal, change of preformative vowel ya– to yi- when following vowel is a, attenuation of a to i in first syllable of derived conjugations.

Within Canaanite, the Phoenic can be distinguished from the Hebraic group by the following features:

1. Lexicon – for example יתן “to give”, כון “to be”, פעם “foot”, הרוץ “gold”, קרת “city” (note that the last three occur in Biblical Hebrew, but only as rare or poetic terms).

2. Syntax – no imperfect consecutive tense, instead use of infinitive absolute as a narrative tense.

In the 2nd Millenium, the only attestation of NWS comes from Ugaritic and the Canaanite reflexes/glosses in the Amarna letters. Some Biblical texts may date to the 2nd Millenium, most notably the Song of Deborah in Jd 5 (c. 1100 BCE). The oldest significant Phoenician inscription is the Ahiram sarcophagus from c. 1000 BCE.

Ugaritic maintains almost the entire inventory of Proto-Semitic consonants. It is also characterized by the use of the š causative in contrast to h-/ˀ-/y– and the use of the Gt. Ugaritic retains case endings and lacks a definite article. There is no evidence of a shift from ā > ō in contrast to the Amarna letters as well as Hebrew and Phoenician. The Amarna letters also frequently use a t- prefix instead of y- for the third masculine plural.

By 1000 BCE, Canaanite had gone through several changes:

1. First is the loss of case endings in Hebrew and Phoenician, though Phoenician retains the -i of the oblique case at least before pronominal suffixes. The short vowels at the end of verbal forms have also disappeared. Stress therefore came to rest on the final syllable causing the vowel to lengthen except when the final syllable is doubly closed (it ends with two consonants).

2. The third feminine singular ending –at > a in the Hebrew and Phoenician verb, as well as the Hebrew noun. In the Phoenician noun this change may have been blocked by the retention of the oblique -i ending.

3. Along with the shift of ā > ō, the diphthongs reduce (aw > ō and ay > ē) in Phoenician. This occurred variously in the other Canaanite languages as well.

4. In Phoenician the consonants were reduced to 22. Hebrew, while using 22 graphemes, still distinguished š and ś, and likely from and ġ from ˁ in the early pronunciation.

5. Lastly, by 1000 BCE all the Canaanite languages have the definite article haCC-.

The Phoenic group is comprised of Phoenician, Punic, Ugaritic, and perhaps Philistine/Ashdodite. Phoenician has a broad diffusion chronologically (lasting almost 1500 years) and geographically. It is divided into two dialects: Byblian and Common Phoenician. Byblian is characterized mainly by the archaic pronominal suffixes: 3ms –h and –w, 3fs –h, and 3mp –hm. Common Phoenician, on the other hand, uses two sets. The first set is 3ms –o, 3fs –a, pl –m, and the second is 3ms –yu, fs –ya, pl –nm. The first set is used following consonants while the second set is more common (perhaps due to retention of the oblique -i ending). Other characteristics of Common Phoenician include  yi– as the preformative of the causative rather than hi-, bal as the negation rather than , and the particle of non-existence ˀy in contrast to ˀēn in Hebrew, Ugaritic, and Moabite.

Punic is the language of the Phoenician colonies in the Western Mediterranean, most notably Carthage in North Africa. It is attested from the early 8th century BCE through the 2nd century CE, but continued to be spoken until the 6th century CE. Early Punic only differs from Common Phoenician in writing the ms and fs suffixes (-o and –a) with א.

The Hebraic group is comprised of Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite (though we have no extant texts of the latter two). The Hebraic group is distinguished most notably by the verb עשה “to make, do” and the imperfect consecutive construction. Moabite retains the Gt, the mp ending –n, and the feminine ending –t.

Hebrew can be divided into the Biblical Period (1225 BCE- 63 BCE) and the Roman Period (63 BCE – c. 200 CE), though admittedly this division is socio-political in nature and not linguistic. The Biblical period is further divided into the Golden Age (1225 BCE – 500 BCE) and the Silver Age (500 BCE – 63 BCE). The earliest text is probably the Song of Deborah (c.1100) while Deutero-Isaiah (c 550-500) is the last author of the Golden Age. Esther is probably the last work of the Silver Age though the language is archaizing and thus typologically older than Canticles for example. Qumran Hebrew deliberately imitates Biblical Hebrew, but is recognizably later.

Hebrew is more archaic than the Phoenic group in the use of 3mp suffix –hēm instead of –nēm, the use of the pual, hophal, and qal passive (which is not supplanted completely by the niphal until the early Silver Age). However, Hebrew is less archaic then the Phoenic group in the complete loss of the case system and the loss of the Gt.

The Hebrew modal system has many interesting characteristics. The jussive is distinguished from the imperfect by the so-called energic nun: yišmrehû “let him watch it”, but yišmrennû “he will watch it”. Prohibition is expressed by אל while ordinary negation uses לא (not bal as in Phoenician). A permanent or solemn command can be expressed by the infinitive absolute, and a permanent prohibition by לא + imperfect.

Several changes occurred in the Silver Age. Most notably the more frequent use of ש for אשר, the introduction of many Persian loanwords by way of Aramaic, and imitation of Aramaic. For instance אשר and ש usurp the function of the conjunction כי, similar to the use of ד in Aramaic.

Most of the changes in the Roman Age are due to the increasing influence of Aramaic. Several parts of the verbal system fell out of use including the infinitive absolute, the cohortative, the so-called consecutive tenses, the infinitive construct with a subjective recta, and the Qal passive. On the other hand, new tense forms developed from the combination of the participle with היה. Other changes include the use of את + a pronominal suffix as a demonstrative and many borrowings from Greek.

The Aramaic sub-family includes Common Aramaic and Sam’alian, a local vernacular of the kingdom of Sam’al that was superceded by Common Aramaic in the 8th Century, at least for royal inscriptions. Distinctive features of Aramaic include:

1. Dropping of ˀa from the number one – ḥad.

2. Shift of to a phoneme resembling q, which was again shifted later to ˁ.

3. The relative particle .

4. The vowel pattern ai in all derived active conjugations.

5. The assimilation of initial y in roots ydˁ and yṯb in certain conjugations.

6. The generalization of the nominative construct for all other cases (except before 1cs suffix) for the words “father” ˀabū-, “brother” ˀaḥū-, and “father-in-law” ḥamū.

The earliest Aramaic inscriptions maintain almost the entire Proto-Semitic consonantal inventory as well as the old passive conjugations. The jussive is distinguished from the imperfect and negated by אל. Instead of the nifal or Gt, there is a tG. Common Aramaic lost the case endings as well as the feminine ending –t. In the Hellenistic period, the initial hit– reduced to ˀit in the reflexive conjugations, while the analogous reduction of ha– to ˀa– in the causative was completed by the Roman period. Also in the Roman period, the characteristic vowel reduction took place. The bgdkpt letters softened sometime before the 5th century CE, but it is not known exactly when.

In the Roman period there is also a noticeable division between Eastern and Western Aramaic dialects. Some characteristics of the Eastern dialects include:

1. The use of –ē for the mp emphatic ending (cf. –ayyā).

2. The emphatic state no longer indicates determination.

3. The disappearance of the pronominal suffixes with –in-.

4. The substitution of the jussive form with prefixed l– (later n-) for the third person imperfect.

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One Comment on “Ginsberg, H.L., “The Northwest Semitic Languages,” Pages 102-124, 293 in The World History of the Jewish People, Vol 2: The Patriarchs. Edited by B. Mazar. Tel-Aviv; New Brunswick, 1970.”

  1. […] has an excellent summary of H.L. Ginsberg, “The Northwest Semitic Languages,” Pages 102-124, 293 in The World History of […]

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