Kaufman, Stephen A., “The classification of the North West Semitic dialects of the Biblical period and some implications thereof,” Pages 41-57 in Proceedings of the 9th World Congress of Jewish Studies. Panel Sessions: Hebrew and Aramaic Languages. Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 1988.

Language classification is complicated in areas of language contact since interference from surrounding dialects and languages (ie borrowing, analogical change, etc.) tends to obscure the genetic connections (assuming that there is validity to the genetic model). Thus the Stammbaum  approach (ie family tree) tends to be modified by the wave theory of change, the idea that linguistic features radiate out from some cultural center into the surrounding dialects. As Garr has argued, this especially seems to be the case for Syria-Palestine in the first half of the first millennium which represents a linguistic continuum of dialects in contact with each other. Therefore, scholars meet with great difficulty when attempting to shoehorn some of these peripheral dialects into neat categories such as “Aramaic” or “Canaanite”.

The most notorious among the NW Semitic dialects have been Ugaritic, Samalian, and Deir Alla. Ugaritic is something of a special case since it is an earlier dead-end branch from the Late Bronze Age, a peripheral member the proto-Canaanite-Aramaic dialect continuum (Kaufman’s term), and no universal consensus seems to have been reached on its classification. There does seem to be a consensus that Samalian is properly Aramaic, again, a peripheral dead-end variety. In this paper, Dr Kaufman will take up the issue of Deir Alla. Both Randall Garr and Jo Ann Hackett have addressed Deir Alla in their dissertations, Garr grouping it with Aramaic but Hackett South Canaanite.   

The most common approach to the classification of dialects among students of Semitic has been to assemble lists of isoglosses and simply count the presence or absence of features in the dialect, grouping it where it shares the most in common. Quite often this approach suffers from a lack of methodological rigor, most notably the assumption that all isoglosses are equal. If one follows the genetic model of language development, then it makes sense that only shared innovations are significant for genetic subgrouping. This is because shared innovations demonstrate that a subgroup has continued to develop independently after a split in the family tree. 

Further, Kaufman argues that features of greater frequency in normal speech ought to be given more weight. While the absolute chronologies of the glottochronological method may be rightly criticized, the assumption of lexicostatistics that the basic vocabulary of a language has more resistance to change  seems fundamentally sound. The same can be said of common morphological and grammatical features. This approach seems consistent with the criterion of mutual intelligibility. While it is probably impossible to measure the mutual intelligibility of ancient languages, it stands to reason that two such languages must coincide in their basic vocabularies and fundamental grammatical structures.

Thus Kaufman begins by summarizing the features of Deir Alla in comparison to “Canaanite” and “Aramaic”.  He finds seven features that are either common to NW Semitic or inconclusive including the imperfect consecutive, the use of the infinitive absolute with cognate finite verb, and the apparent lack of a definite article. There are seven features in common with Canaanite like the Nifal and the 3fp form tqtln. Lastly there are seven features in common with Aramaic such as the masculine plural ending -n and the distinction in the third weak verb between jussive -y and indicative –h. The scales appear to be balanced, but after removing the features which come from doubtful readings or really cannot be clearly classified as Canaanite or Aramaic, only one feature remains in the Canaanite column while four remain in the Aramaic column. Here Kaufman introduces a lexical analysis, finding that the vocabulary of Deir Alla contains 75-80 words from common NW Semitic, 5-8 Canaanite, and 21-24 Aramaic. Further, in contrast to Canaanite, the Aramaic list is full of basic vocabulary items like ‘son’, ‘wine’, give’, ‘enter’, etc. This seems to tip the scale drastically toward Aramaic.

Interestingly, this conclusion fits nicely with Dion’s analysis of Samalian. Every feature which Samalian shares with Old Aramaic against Canaanite is also shared by Deir Alla with only one exception, but none of the so-called Canaanite features of Samalian are found at Deir Alla. This suggests that Old Aramaic, Samalian, and Deir Alla shared a period of joint development after the split into the Canaanite and Aramaic branches. Both Deir Alla and Samalian seem to have then split from the main Aramaic branch at the same time. 

Now for the implications. Not only was Syria-Palestine a region of linguistic continuum, but also a literary continuum. The Deir Alla text has obvious parallels to the Bible, not only the character of Balaam but language, style, and phraseology. For instance, the “Last words of David” in 2 Sam 23:1-7 is an oracle introduced by the same phrase as the Deir Alla text, n’m PN n’m hgbr… 

More interesting though is the way Aramaic and Canaanite features are “mixed” in the Deir Alla text. Much of the Aramaic-like vocabulary was dismissed by those arguing for a Canaanite affiliation since it also occurs in the Hebrew Bible. But where does it occur? Usually in passages like Job or the wisdom of Lemuel (Prov 30) that are regarded as “Aramaizing” (and declared therefore to be post-exilic). However, Deir Alla suggests a different solution – the text may simply be written in a Trans-Jordanian pre-Exilic dialect which has a mix of Aramaic and Canaanite features. In fact, most such passages are not only connected to Trans-Jordanian characters, but are representing their direct speech. Thus what we may have are Hebrew authors in Hebrew texts attempting to represent Trans-Jordanian speech.

Explore posts in the same categories: Kaufman, SA, Language Contact

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