Archive for the ‘Language Contact’ 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.

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.


Kutscher, EY. The Language and Linguistic Background of the Isaiah Scroll (I Q Isaa), Studies on the Texts of the Desert of Judah, 6. Leiden: Brill, 1974.

February 12, 2009

Among the original scrolls found at Qumran, the Isaiah scroll 1QIsaa may have been the most remarkable. This scroll, containing all 66 chapters of Isaiah (along with a fragmentary version 1QIsab) dates from the last few centuries before the Common Era, while the earliest known manuscripts of the Prophets were from 916 and 895 CE. Thus there was considerable enthusiasm that a text much earlier than the MT had been found. Kutscher, however, argues that a comprehensive linguistic analysis of the scroll shows that it is actually of a later text type than that reflected in the MT. Analyzing the linguistic anomalies in the scroll, Kutscher concludes that they reflect the Hebrew and Aramaic spoken in Palestine towards the end of the Second Commonwealth. From this he suggests that the Isaiah Scroll is actually a popularized text whose language has been emended for the semi-literate masses. Further, this language seems to reflect a situation of diglossia in the Hebrew of this time period, where a “standard” dialect used for liturgical reading coexisted with a “substandard” dialect reflecting more colloquial use.

The first clues that the text is of a later type than the MT come from the orthography. One indicator is the spelling of proper names. For example, Damascus is always spelled דרמשק in the scroll, in contrast to דמשק in the MT. External sources confirm that the MT spelling is the more ancient, while the scroll’s spelling can date no earlier than the last few centuries BCE. A second indicator of a late date is the increase of plene spelling with ו and to a lesser extent י.

In this period knowledge of Hebrew seems to have been decreasing as Aramaic became the colloquial language in Palestine. Knowledge of Classical Hebrew had already begun to wane at the beginning of the Second Temple period as reflected in the language of the later biblical books and the complaint by Nehemiah (13:24) that “their children spoke half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language…” In its place a new dialect was developing which by the 2nd century CE had become Mishnaic Hebrew.

Aramaic seems to have been the lingua franca of the Ancient Near East from an early point, however based on 2 Kg 18:26 (= Is 36:11) in the 8th century Aramaic was not yet understood by the average Judaean. Over time, Aramaic influence grew and ultimately it became the official language of the Persian Empire. In Syria and Palestine, Aramaic seems to have also become the language of the common people, displacing Hebrew and the other local dialects. This dialect is not Imperial Aramaic, however, but Middle Western Aramaic, which branched into Galilean Aramaic, Christian Palestinian Aramaic, and Samaritan Aramaic. Aramaic seems to have finally replaced Hebrew as the common tongue by the days of R. Judah the Prince (2nd century CE). Mishnaic Hebrew seems to continue as a spoken language during this period, but it had already become a “classical” language. The period of the Dead Sea Scrolls must reflect a time in which Hebrew and Aramaic were still competing for supremacy as the common tongue.

This situation seems to be reflected in the language of the scroll. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the scribe has updated the classical language to reflect the contemporary Hebrew dialect by replacing rare words and archaic forms. The plene spelling seems to be used to aid pronunciation, especially by differentiating Hebrew from Aramaic when confusion might arise. At the same time, heavy influence of Aramaic can still be detected. Thus the scroll seems to have been produced for an audience who still had some knowledge of Hebrew, but whose primary language was Aramaic.

The scribe seems to have often substituted more familiar roots for rare words. Kutscher acknowledges that in some cases the Scroll’s reading may be superior to the MT, but in general the comparative evidence suggests that the MT is most often the earlier. For instance, in Is 13:10 he emends הלל to אור ‘shine’. The root הלל is not known in either Aramaic or Mishnaic Hebrew with the meaning ‘to shine’. In Is 33:7 and 42:2 the root צעק is amended to זעק. This is somewhat surprising since both appear in the Bible with relatively the same frequency, but their distribution is not equal. While in the Pentateuch צעק is used almost exclusively, in Chronicles, Nehemiah, and Esther, it is זעק which is much more common. Thus זעק seems to have been much more common during the Second Temple Period.

The scribe also avoids archaic morphological forms. For instance in Is 22:2 the form הַחֹ֣מֹתַ֔יִם occurs with both a feminine and dual ending which the scribe emends to simply חומות. In Is 41:2 the nifal participle נִדָּ֖ף “driven away” is emended to נודף, the more common form in Mishnaic Hebrew for פ”נ verbs. The scribe often writes the hiphil infinitive without ה, as is common in Qumran Hebrew, such as לחיות for MT להחיות in Is 57:15. All the later dialects tend to substitute /o/ for /a/ in the imperfect forms of intransitive verbs, thus we have אפעולה for MT אֶפְעַ֖ל “I will work” (Is 43:13). This form also reflects the spread of the lengthened form of the imperfect from being strictly a cohortative to being used as a normal imperfect. This seems to have begun already in the later books such as Ezra, Daniel, and Nehemiah. Note, however, that this form did not continue into Mishnaic Hebrew.

The greatest difference between Mishnaic and Biblical Hebrew is the simplification of the verbal system. Mishnaic Hebrew no longer uses the infinitive absolute, and the infinitive construct is only used when preceded by ל. Accordingly, there is a marked tendency in the scroll to add ל to infinitives. Further, in Mishnaic Hebrew the preterite יקטל form as well as the wayyiqtol and weqatal forms have disappeared. Instead the יקטל form serves as modal and subjunctive, the קטל as the perfect, and the participle is used for the present and future. The language of Chronicles seems to already reflect this development. Note that literary Hebrew, however, preserved the waw-consecutive as late as the Maccabean Era.

Accordingly, in the scroll we often see the later verbal system. For instance, in Is 11:8 the MT וְשִֽׁעֲשַׁ֥ע יוֹנֵ֖ק is emended to וישעשע יונק, the weqatal being replaced by waw + imperfect. In Is 12:2 וַֽיְהִי־לִ֖י is emended to היהא לי, the wayyiqtol being replaced by the perfect. Sometimes the so-called prophetic perfect is emended with an imperfect as in Is 11:9 where כִּֽי־מָלְאָ֣ה הָאָ֗רֶץ is changed to כי תמלאה הארץ. Is 6:4 contains an imperfect to indicate continued concomitant action, but the first part of the verse establishes the time reference as past, וַיָּנֻ֙עוּ֙ אַמּ֣וֹת הַסִּפִּ֔ים מִקּ֖וֹל הַקּוֹרֵ֑א וְהַבַּ֖יִת יִמָּלֵ֥א עָשָֽׁן “Then the foundations of the threshold shook at the voice of the one calling, while the house filled with smoke”. Here the scroll uses a nifal perfect והבית נמלא עשן.

While the language is updated, the scribe also seems to have attempted to avoid ambiguity between Hebrew and Aramaic features in order to aid the reader. For instance, we constantly find the spelling לוא rather than לא for the negative particle to emphasize the Hebrew // against Aramaic //. Similarly is the spelling יואמר to indicate Hebrew /yōmar/ against Aramaic /yēmar/, etc. We also find cases where the scribe seems to have avoided genuinely Hebrew roots because of their similarity to Aramaic roots. For example, in Hebrew both הן and הנה are presentative particles, but in Aramaic הן = אם ‘if’. Thus the scribe has consciously avoided the use of הן to limit confusion.

However, the influence of Aramaic on the language is impossible to avoid completely. Aramaic influence is particularly strong with nouns and pronouns. For example עלוהי for עליו “upon him”, and Aramaic גופן /guwpnā/ for Hebrew גפן /gεfεn/ “vine”. Influence is also seen in the verbs, for example מהסיר for Hebrew מסיר reflects Imperial Aramaic in which the ה of the hafel appeared in the participle.

Another example is the 2fs form קטלתי instead of קטלת. This form appears in the Bible as a Ketib and perhaps once in the Song of Deborah where it is usually taken as an archaism. Kutscher argues, however, that here the form is an Aramaism. In fact, it occurs primarily in Jeremiah and Ezekiel, two late books under Aramaic influence. This seems to be an interesting phenomenon that is somewhat regular, early forms that were common to Hebrew and Aramaic have fallen out of Hebrew, only to be reintroduced at a later stage from Aramaic, where they have been conserved. This seems to hold true for the 2fs pronominal suffix כי- as well.

Lastly, there are several features which suggest a situation of diglossia in the Hebrew of the time period. A higher “standard” dialect seems to have been maintained for the liturgical reading concurrent with a colloquial “substandard” dialect. For instance, the scroll has several cases of the imperfect pausal form when the position in the clause does not warrant it, such as אכרותה for וְאֶכְרֹת in Is 37:24, etc. Such “pausal” forms are also found in good Rabbinical manuscripts as well as the transliterations of Origen and Hieronymus, and Palestinian Christian Aramaic where it must be a result of Hebrew influence. This suggests that forms such as תקתולו were actually accented penultimately in the colloquial Hebrew of the Second Temple period. Thus, while the synagogue readings retained the ultimate accent, it was gradually replaced by penultimate in the colloquial speech.

Along these same lines are the form of the 2ms perfect and 2ms pronominal suffix. The transcriptions in Origen’s Secunda reflect the Hebrew forms קָטַלְתְּ and דִּבָרָךְ in contrast to the MT forms קָטַלְתָּ and דִּבָרֶךָ. Kahle argued that the former are the original Palestinian forms, the latter the creation of the Tiberian Masoretes under Arabic influence. However, Bergsträsser pointed out that we must differentiate between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew in this regard, as the suffix /-āk/ is only found in Mishnaic texts. Kutscher suggests that the two types of Hebrew existed side by side. The standard form was /-kā/ which was carefully preserved in the liturgy, while the colloquial form was /-āk/ (apparently influenced by Aramaic). Like Qumran Hebrew in general, the scroll shows many cases of the כה- personal suffix and תה- verbal ending, demonstrating its age. It would not be surprising, however, that the Jews who read for Origen’s transcription did not use (and perhaps did not even know) the standard pronunciation.

A final example comes from the segholates, particularly the *qutl forms which become qitol in Tiberian Hebrew. The LXX transliterations reflect either qotel or qotol, which also seems to be the pronunciation in the scribe’s dialect. In contrast, the Secunda (3rd century CE) reflects the form qotl exclusively without an epenthetic vowel, while Hieronymus (4th -5th century CE) reflects only a form qotel. The chain qutl > qotol > qotl > qotel hardly seems possible. In fact, the Secunda form qotl is barely different than the original *qutl. Thus Kutscher suggests that again we are dealing with different dialects. The form in the Secunda is more ancient than that in the LXX, even though it is chronologically later. It is hard to tell which was the standard form, but most likely it was the LXX – Hieronymus – TH form qotel > qitol.

The linguistic structure of the scroll clearly points to the end of the Second Temple Period. The most telling characteristic is the use of ה in the hifil participle. Since this is a feature of Imperial Aramaic that has fallen out of use in all the later dialects the scroll seems to date no later than the 1st Century BCE. Since the main purpose of the plene spelling seems to be differentiating the Hebrew pronunciation and forms for an audience who primarily spoke Aramaic, and since this seems to be the overall character of the scroll, Kutscher suggests that this is a “popular” version of Isaiah meant for the semi-literate masses. As such, it must date from a time when Hebrew was still more or less understood by said masses, which best fits the period before the destruction of the Second Temple. Interestingly, the Samaritan Pentateuch and Septuagint also seem to be “popular” texts.

How then can the MT, a much later text, be superior to the LXX, Sam P, and Isaiah Scroll? Kutscher argues that the same distinction is found between the Greek papyrii found in Egypt and the Medieval manuscripts. The difference is between popular texts used for home study and the standard text carefully preserved in the Temple and centers of learning. The MT is a descendent of the standard text in contrast to these popularized versions.

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.

January 20, 2009

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.

Faber, Alice, “Genetic Subgrouping of the Semitic Languages,” Pages 3-15 in The Semitic Languages, Edited by R. Hetzron, London: Routledge, 1997.

January 9, 2009

One of the major pursuits of science has always been classification. Thanks to Linnaeus, the predominant taxonomy tends to be a fixed hierarchy (ie kingdom – class – order – genus – species). Thus a major pursuit of linguists has been the classification of languages and dialects into such groupings of parent-child (genetic) relationships. These groupings are usually based on the similarities between languages/dialects. However, it is difficult to determine whether a given similarity is a result of common ancestry or merely the influence of one language on another, or even just chance. Thus the preferred method is to group languages based on only shared innovations. Further, morphology is more useful for such analysis than phonology or lexicon.

In this article, Faber outlines the traditional approach to the Semitic languages as well as a new approach first introduced by Robert Hetzron based on shared innovations. The traditional grouping of the Semitic languages tended to be based more on cultural and geographical than linguistic features. The major groups are East Semitic (of which only Akkadian and Eblaite are attested) and West Semitic. West Semitic is further divided as follows:

West Semitic

Northwest Semitic



South Semitic


Southeast Semitic

Modern South Arabian


Old South Arabian


The major change introduced by Hetzron (and modified by Huehnergard) is to group Arabic and Northwest Semitic together under the label Central Semitic, which is distinguished from South Semitic (Southeast Semitic in the traditional model). Arabic shares features with both Northwest Semitic and South(east) Semitic, thus classification depends on which of these features are shared innovations and which may be the result of chance or structural similarities in the languages.

The features Arabic shares with Northwest Semitic include:

1. The realization of the emphatic consonants through pharyngealization (in Ethiopian and Modern South Arabian they are followed by a glottal stop).

2. The prefix conjugation yaqtulu which replaced the form yaqattal with doubling of the middle radical, attested in Akkadian (iparras), Ethiopic, and South Arabian.

3. Levelling of the prefix vowels. In Akkadian the prefixes of the active, non-derived stems are ˀa and ta, but ni and yi. However, in Central Semitic, all of the prefixes for a particular verb stem have the same vowel, either a or i. The vowel a was generalized in Arabic, while Hebrew preserves the a-i alternation (yilmad but yåqum).

4. Generalization of -t- in the kataba suffix conjugation. In the Akkadian stative, the 1cs form is parsā-ku while the 2ms form is parsā-ta. In Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic, the 1cs suffix form becomes katab-tu on analogy to the 2ms form katab-ta. In Ethiopic the reverse occurs as the 2ms becomes -ka.

5. Development of the compound negative marker *bal. Farber suggests that these forms may have developed from an inherited Afroasiatic negative particle *b combined with either negative or asseverative *la.

The features that Arabic shares with South(east) Semitic include:

1. The unconditioned sound change *p > /f/.

2. The existence of verbal stems with a long first vowel – kātaba, takātaba.

3. The broken plural, ie plurals formed by adding a prefix and/or internal changes rather than adding a suffix.

Those who group Arabic with South(east) Semitic (Blau, Diem) argue that the first five features represent convergence or diffusion, while the last three are shared innovations. Those who group Arabic with Northwest Semitic (Hetzron, Huehnergard, Goldenberg) argue that the first five are shared innovations while the last three represent common retentions from an older phase of language which have been replaced in Akkadian and Northwest Semitic.

Rendsburg, Gary A. Diglossia in Ancient Hebrew. American Oriental Series 72. New Haven: American Oriental Society, 1990.

December 2, 2008

Diglossia is the phenomenon where two varieties of a single language exist simultaneously, one for informal colloquial use and one for formal literary use. Such a phenomenon has been studied for spoken Arabic vs classical Arabic, Haitian Creole vs standard French, etc. Rendsburg, in his doctoral thesis, attempts to establish such a bifurcation for ancient Hebrew – a written dialect used for literary works and formal language and a spoken dialect used for everyday communication. Note that contrasting the two as written vs spoken dialects is slightly inaccurate since in certain settings the formal language is used for speaking while in others the colloquial language may be used for writing. Additionally, in light of sociolinguistics, even a bipartite division into  formal and colloquial language may be too simple. For example, M Joos distinguishes five levels of language: intimate, casual, consultative, formal, and frozen (The Five Clocks, 1967).

Some earlier studies of ancient spoken Hebrew focused on the direct quotations in the Bible (MacDonald, 1975), however this method is flawed since in general biblical authors maintained the formal language even when reproducing speech. This is paralleled by the Quran, in which classical Arabic is used for direct speech rather than the colloquial. Instead, Rendsburg relies largely on the comparison to Arabic diglossia, as well as other living Semitic languages such as Ethiopian, modern South Arabic, and Neo-Aramaic (though these have no corresponding synchronic literary variety). Most importantly, however, is the Hebrew of the post-biblical period in which Mishnaic Hebrew (MH) represents the spoken dialect and Qumran Hebrew (QH) the literary dialect. The Bar Kokhba letters from the 2nd century have demonstrated that MH was indeed a spoken language, though Rendsburg notes the importance of studying the text of manuscripts rather than the printed editions of the Mishna (in which the language tends to be leveled to biblical Hebrew). Analysis of QH has demonstrated that it developed naturally from Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). Further, there is no significant break in the literary tradition between the end of the later books of the Bible (c. 400 BCE), Ben Sira, Jubilees, and Daniel (c. 2nd century BCE), and then the DSS (c 150 BCE to 70 CE). 

Rendsburg argues that the diglossia between MH and QH can be retrojected to biblical times. The literary dialect of post-biblical Hebrew is a natural development from classical biblical Hebrew (through LBH), and it can be theorized that MH is similarly the continuation of the colloquial dialect. While the literary dialect was probably more-or-less stable throughout the land, undoubtedly the spoken dialect varied. Most scholars recognize the differences between northern and southern Hebrew as reflected in the Samaria ostraca, for example, however for the purposes of this study Rendsburg has assumed a dichotomy only between formal and colloquial language. 

For the purpose of establishing diglossia, it is obviously the informal language which must be defined. Rendsburg’s method is twofold. First, he suggests that those BH features which anticipate MH developments are possible colloquialisms which have infiltrated the classical language. As a test he compares the post-biblical literary language of Ben Sira, Daniel, and the DSS. If the features are absent or rare here, then he assumes that they are indeed spoken forms. If not, they may be features of later language. Second, those features of BH which run counter to the accepted grammar and have parallels in spoken Arabic (against classical Arabic) or the other spoken Semitic dialects may also be considered colloquialisms.

The data for the study is mainly morpho-syntactic rather than phonological or lexical, since dialectal differences are best measured by morphology. While phonological distinctions no doubt existed, there is little evidence for the actual pronunciation of spoken Hebrew in ancient times. As for lexicon, vocabulary differences are quite small between formal and colloquial dialects. An analysis of Arabic using the Swadesh list found only 24 distinctions out of 200 words, or 12%. 

Rendsburg isolates twelve features of the colloquial dialect: 

1. Gender Neutralization – the use of epicene forms where the standard dialect employs separate masculine and feminine forms, usually the masculine supplanting the feminine. For example, the 2mp אתם and 3mp הם for the 2fp אתן and 3fp הנה.

2. Incongruence – the lack of grammatical agreement (gender, number, or both) between the parts of a sentence (ie noun and adjective, subject and verb).

3. The merger of ל”א and ל”י verbs, such as נָשִׁיתִי for נָשָׁאתִי. 

4. The elision of ה in the nifal, hifil, and nitpael infinitive construct with ל, such as לִיקָּטֵל for לְהִקָּטֵל.

5. Lack of agreement in definiteness between a noun and its adjective, either איש הישראלי “the Israelite man (Lev 24:10)” or פלשתים הערלים “The uncircumcised Philistine (Judg 14:3)”.

6. The use of the relative pronoun ש instead of אשר.

7. The use of the independent possessive pronoun של rather than the construct state or a circumlocution such as אשר ל.

8. The use of the anticipatory pronominal suffix, ותראהו את הילד “And she saw (him) the child (Ex 2:6)”.

9. The use of זֹו/זֹה as f.s. demonstrative pronoun rather than זֹאת and the use of אֵלּוּ as the c.p. form rather thֶּan אֵלֶּה.

10. The use of a second set of demonstratives – m.s. הַלָּזֶה, f.s. הַלֵּזוּ, c.p. הַלָּלוּ, etc. 

11. The use of the 1 c.p. independent pronoun אנו rather than אנחנו. 

12. The construction היה + participle.

In conclusion, Rendsburg analyzes the distribution of these features within the biblical corpus.  First he looks at the effect of literary genre (prophetic, poetic, legal/cultic, narrative, and orational – sections of the Prophets which fall into neither the prophetic nor narrative genres). Of the 598 colloquialisms, 9.7% occur in prophetic sections, 23.7% in poetic, 6.8% in legal/cultic, 46.0% in narrative, and 13.7% in orational. Correcting for the distribution of each genre within the Bible, he calculates the following deviations (lower numbers indicating less likelihood of the existence of colloquialism): prophetic -35.3%, poetic -12.5%, legal/cultic -30.6%, narrative 16.2%, and orational 59.3%. This suggests that prophecy, poetry and legal/cultic language are the least likely to admit colloquialism (not surprising since these are all formal contexts), while prose composition such as narrative and oration admit colloquialism more freely. 

Rendsburg next analyzes a sample of passages within the narrative corpus, finding that sections containing 3rd person narration occur 57.5% of the time and contain 58.6% of the colloquialisms in narrative. Similarly, sections containing direct quotation occur 42.5% of the time and contain 41.4% of the colloquialisms. This confirms that direct quotation is no more likely to contain colloquial language then the rest of the narrative.  

Rendsburg also investigates whether the date of composition has an effect, finding that pre-Exilic literature shows the least influence of colloquialisms, then Exilic, and finally post-Exilic the most. This may be explained by the loss of an official literary circle with the fall of Jerusalem in 586 BCE.

Lastly, Rendsburg points to the study of Kurt Sethe who analyzed the history of Egyptian, concluding that each successive stage of the literary dialect is actually the spoken dialect of the previous period. Applying Sethe’s model to ancient Hebrew, Rendsburg suggests that the standardization of Classical Hebrew, especially from c. 1000 BCE onward in Jerusalem, initiated the distinction between the formal and informal dialect. The colloquial language continued to develop, widening the gap with the more conservative literary language. After 586 BCE, written Hebrew is less standardized and more susceptible to spoken idiom. Thus there is more development in LBH and QH than CBH. The events of 70 CE ended the literary Hebrew of BH and QH, and the spoken dialect of MH took over as the literary dialect. Presumably spoken Hebrew continued to develop until c. 200 CE.

Tropper, Josef, “Dialektvielfalt und Sprachwandel im frühen Aramäischen Soziolinguitische Überlegungen,” Pages 213 -222 in The World of the Aramaens III: Studies in Language and Literature in Honour of Paul-Eugène Dion, JSOT Supplement Series 326, Edited by Daviau, P. M. M., J. W. Wevers, M. Weigl. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.

December 1, 2008

In this article, Tropper presents a sociolinguistic explanation of the development of the early Aramaic dialects, arguing that the standard geographic distinction of East and West Aramaic is too simplistic. Instead, he suggests the division between the dialects of the nomadic peoples and those of the city and village dwellers is the basis of the wide variety of early Aramaic dialects as well as the earlier differentiation of Aramaic from Canaanite dialects.

Old Aramaic, or Early Aramaic as Tropper prefers to label it, includes the Aramaic inscriptions of the 9th and 8th centuries up to about 700 BCE. Roughly four dialect groups can be distinguished:

1. A relatively uniform group from central Syria, which is the best attested group and serves as the baseline for the other dialects.

2. The Aramaic of the Tell Fakhariyeh stele, an early representative of East Aramaic which was clearly derived from an early central Aramaic, but shows great linguistic and orthographic innovation which are also found later in Imperial Aramaic.

3. The Aramaic of the Deir-Alla inscription, which deviates even further from early central Aramaic, but also shows many agreements with Canaanite languages.

4. Samalian, the local dialect of Zincirli, which shows the greatest deviation from early central Aramaic. It is distinguished from its contemporary Aramaic dialects by strongly conservative features such as retention of the old Semitic case inflection in masculine plural forms and the lack of a definite article.

Interestingly, this analysis of Old Aramaic shows that many of the features considered to be specifically Aramaic were actually innovations after Proto-Aramaic. For instance, the post-positive definite article // and the etpe’el stem with prefix -t. Samalian and Deir Alla lack the former, and  where Tell Fakhariyeh has a t- stem, it is an infix -t- (ygtzr, Line 23) as is common in most other Semitic languages. Further, the G infinitive seems to be qtl (= /qatāl/) rather than /miqtal/, which is an innovation common in East Aramaic and again first represented at Tell Fakhariyeh.

If these characteristics only arose secondarily, then it suggests that Proto-Aramaic was linguistically far closer to Proto-Canaanite than has been assumed. Further, Proto-Aramaic seems to be far more conservative throughout than Proto-Canaanite. For instance, Aramaic retains all 29 Proto-Semitic consonantal phonemes, the Proto-Semitic 1 c.p suffix -na (in contrast to Canaanite -nū), and nunation in the dual and plural of the noun (in contrast to mimation in Canaanite).

Tropper explains these typological differences by appealing to the study of Arabic dialects, in which a clear distinction is found between the bedouin dialects and those of settled people. In general, the dialects of nomadic speakers are much more conservative. Innovation takes place in the urban centers and reaches the nomadic dialects only with substantial delay, if at all. It this model is transferred to Northwest Semitic speakers during the mid 2nd millennium a clear distinction can be seen between the settled people of West Syria, Lebanon, and Palestine and the nomadic or semi-nomadic people farther inland on the Syrian steppe. In the former areas, urban culture predominates and the Canaanite languages developed, while the latter is the area of the Aramaens. Thus perhaps one can associate Canaanite with the early NWS urban dialects, and the Aramaic of that time with the NWS nomadic dialects. Thus the original differentiation of Aramaic from Canaanite is sociolinguistic based on the early settlement of a section of NWS speakers.

Around the 12th century BCE, the lifestyle of the Aramaens changed radically as they became settled in a relatively short period, giving rise to a distinct Aramaic urban culture. This had effects on the subsequent development of the Aramaic dialects. The far reaching changes in Aramaic in the first half of the 1st millennium explain why the relationship of Aramaic to Canaanite is completely different from around 1000 BCE and 500 BCE. Aramaic becomes the modern branch of NWS as it becomes the lingua franca of the entire ancient Near East and surpasses the more slowly developing Canaanite. This quick development of Aramaic also explains why some of the geographically isolated dialects, such as Samalian and Deir Alla, did not share in these innovations.

Tropper recognizes that such a sociolinguistic model of urban versus nomadic dialects is certainly oversimplified. At no time was the ancient Near East divided into a strict dichotomy of nomads and settled peoples. However, he argues that the model does help explain some of the basic differences between Canaanite and Aramaic dialects. It also explains why East Aramaic dialects such as Tell Fakhariyeh are much more innovative than other early Aramaic dialects. The settlement of northeast Syria began to happen earlier than other areas, and was in contact with the highly developed Mesopotamian urban culture. Thus the native dialect of Tell Fakhariyeh was much more innovation-happy than others, and  seems to be the source for many Aramaic distinctives which spread out later, most notably by means of Imperial Aramaic.

Lieberman, Stephen J., “Response (to Blau),” Pages 20-28 in Jewish Languages, Theme and Variations. Edited by Herbert Paper. Cambridge, Mass: Association for Jewish Studies, 1978.

October 28, 2008

Lieberman makes a few salient points in response to Blau’s paper on the historical periods of the Hebrew language. First, he objects to Blau skipping from Middle Hebrew directly to Modern Hebrew, implicitly privileging spoken over written language. While spoken language indeed precedes written, the written can often achieve an independent status that is important in its own right. Thus, for example, it seems that the language of the Responsa of Maimonides should have a place in the development of Hebrew.

Second, he appeals to the use of sociolinguistics to better draw the boundaries between chronological periods, in analogy to dialect geography. Thus dialect boundaries are drawn based on the loose clustering of isoglosses (Lieberman aptly remarks that such boundaries should not be considered walls, but “seives”). These clusters are the result of cultural and historical factors, such as language loyalty. Further, we should be aware that there are a variety of levels of language available to an individual for different social situations. Thus changes in language due to historical factors are often turned into cultural or sociolinguistic differences.

Often languages are differentiated not on linguistic but literary grounds. That is, major written works become the standard for a given period. This is reflected in the standard division of Pre-Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew, Dead Sea Scrolls Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, etc. These works have a great influence on subsequent linguistic development, but they may also mask the greater linguistic diversity of a period.

Lieberman thus suggests a scheme in which Early Hebrew represents pre-Exilic Hebrew (ie pre-6th century, and leaving aside the earliest stages of Hebrew which are not documented directly). Judean or Post-Exilic Hebrew extends from the time of the Babylonian Exile until the time when Hebrew ceased to be spoken (c. 200 CE). Scholastic Hebrew covers the period until the revival of the spoken language in the 19th century, which he labels Israeli Hebrew.

Within Early Hebrew, he prefers to divide between a prose and a poetry dialect which shows archaic features, rather than distinguish a separate period of Archaic Hebrew. Thus it is a sociolinguistic rather than a historical distinction. Further, he suggests that Early Hebrew should also be divided into a southern Judean dialect, which became prominent, and a northern Ephraimite dialect. 

In the next period, Judean Hebrew, he notes many sources of interference. Some of these are external to Hebrew, such as the influence of Aramaic, Persian, and later Greek and Latin. There also seems to be a situation of diglossia between a vernacular and a literary dialect which is reflected in later biblical books like Chronicles and Esther, as well as some compositions from the Judean Desert. The vernacular dialect is reflected in compositions which were originally oral within the Mishna, the Halakhic Midrashim, and other Tannaitic works.

In the Scholastic Period there were likewise two varieties of Hebrew in use: a dialect influenced by Early Hebrew, and the vernacular dialect as it was known from the Oral Law. Of course, there was again interference between the two, including the tendency to correct the vernacular to the more prestigious dialect.

Blau, Joshua, “The historical periods of the Hebrew language”. Pages 1-13 in Jewish Languages, Theme and Variations. Edited by Herbert Paper. Cambridge, Mass: Association for Jewish Studies, 1978.

October 28, 2008

In this short conference paper, Blau gives a summary of the historical periods of the Hebrew language with special attention to those features which have become the primary constituents of Modern Hebrew.

1. Pre-Biblical Hebrew (roughly 20th – 12th century BCE) is not well understood. Our only evidence is indirect in Akkadian and Egyptian documents. Even then, it is difficult to distinguish true “Hebrew” from “Canaanite”. 

2. Biblical Hebrew is attested predominately in the Bible, but also in some inscriptions and transcriptions (ie the Hexapla). The inscriptional evidence is limited by the use of a consonantal script, but we can make some inferences. For example, the spelling ין (presumably yēn) instead of יין (yayin) for ‘wine’ in northern ostraca suggests that monophthongization of /ay/ was more widespread in northern dialects than in Judea.

2.1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew is preserved mainly in poetry. It is marked by several features:

– long forms of prepositions (אלי elē, עלי alē, עדי adē)

– less frequent use of the definite article and the object marker את

– less frequent use of relative אשר 

– the ending / on nouns in the construct

– the pronominal suffix מו- -mō ‘their/them’

– the use of the construct form before prepositions

– the use of the shortened imperfect (preterite) as in Dt 32:8:

בְּהַנְחֵ֤ל עֶלְיוֹן֙ גּוֹיִ֔ם בְּהַפְרִיד֖וֹ בְּנֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם
יַצֵּב֙ גְּבֻלֹ֣ת עַמִּ֔ים לְמִסְפַּ֖ר בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, 
he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.”

2.2. Pre-exilic Classical Hebrew prose is the standard language of Biblical Hebrew.

2.3. Post-exilic prose shares features with Middle Hebrew and Aramaic. 

– preference for אני ‘I’ instead of אנכי.

– the attachment of pronominal suffixes to the object marker את instead of directly to the verb

– more frequent use of the participle in the verbal system

Note, however, that in a broader perspective, the differences in language within the Bible are quite slight. Blau attributes this to two things. First, Biblical Hebrew had a status as a standardized literary language. Second, in the transmission of the text, later hands have leveled out the language.  

The Masoretic text has three levels: the consonantal text, the vowel letters (matres lectionis), and the diacritical marks for vocalization and cantillation. Even the consonantal text underwent updating by the scribes such as the replacement of śīn by samek and the replacement of antiquated forms (for instance, the older תַּחְתֵּ֑נִי in 2 Sam 22:37, 40, 48 but תַחְתָּ֑י in the corresponding verses from Ps 18).

In the vocalization of the text, it seems that the Masoretes have tried to eliminate the older qal passive where possible. For instance, שרף ‘to burn’ normally occurs in the qal. However, when context demands a passive meaning, as a perfect it is vocalized as a pual שֹׂרָ֑ף while as an imperfect it is vocalized as nifal יִשָּׂרֵֽף.

Thus it is interesting that in morphology and phonology, Biblical Hebrew represents a late stage of the language (when compared to corresponding structures in Modern Arabic dialects in reference to Classical Arabic), but in syntax Biblical Hebrew is quite archaic (for instance, Blau points to the comparatively rare use of subordinated clauses). The implication is that the phonology and morphology were able to develop while the syntax was tied to the consonantal text.

3. Middle Hebrew (or Mishnaic Hebrew) seems to have developed from the vernacular of Judea after it was resettled in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. In the rest of Erets Israel it seems that Aramaic was the vernacular at this time. After the Bar Kokheba revolt (132-135 CE), the rabbis moved to Galilee, bringing MH with them. However, as a spoken language it died out within one to two generations. Thus, the language of the Tannaim was based on spoken language, while that of the Amoraim is from a period when MH is no longer living and influenced more by Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew.

4. Modern Hebrew draws on both Middle Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew. Most of the phonological deviations in Middle Hebrew from Biblical Hebrew were leveled by copyists and printers in the Middle Ages so that they had little influence on Modern Hebrew. However, Middle Hebrew has influenced the morphology and syntax of Modern Hebrew such as in the lack of so-called waw-consecutive forms, the lack of the infinitive absolute and use of the infinitive construct only with prepositions, predominately -ל. Some Middle Hebrew features seem to prevail in Modern Hebrew because they are simpler, such as the use of של for the genitive which reduces the number of special construct forms that must be remembered. Both Middle and Biblical Hebrew vocabulary is used, sometimes with synonyms split for more specialized meanings. For instance, Biblical Hebrew יֶלֶד is maintained for ‘child’ and Middle Hebrew תינוק tīnōq, originally ‘child’ as well, is used for ‘baby’. 

This also highlights an interesting feature of Modern Hebrew. As a spoken language develops ‘naturally’, the various layers of the literary dialect become stratified chronologically. There is no reaching back into the older strata to derive new forms. However, because there is an almost eighteen hundred year gap between Modern and Ancient Hebrew as a spoken language, the older layers are stratified side-by-side and are all available for derivation. Thus none of the old forms are ever really dead. Of course, they are fused into a new unity and extended by new derivational patterns.

Polak, Frank, “Style is More than the Person: Sociolinguistics, Literary Culture and the Distinction between Written and Oral Narrative,” Pages 38-103 in Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology. Edited by Ian Young. London: T&T Clark, 2003.

September 16, 2008

In this paper, Polak applies studies on the differences between spoken and written language to compare the early narratives, such as the patriarchal narratives in Genesis and the Saul-David cycle, to the later narratives in Kings, Chronicles, Ezra-Nehemiah and Esther. In general, the latter narratives prefer “intricate sentence constructions, long noun groups, and subordinated clauses,” reflecting features of written language, while the former tend toward “short, simple clauses in parataxis,” reflecting spoken language. Polak terms the first style “complex-nominal” and the second “rhythmic-verbal”. 

For instance, the speech of the wise woman from Tekoa in 2 Sam 14:5b-7a is characterized by a sequence of short independent clauses. These clauses largely have only a single argument (defined as either an explicit subject, object, modifier, etc) and there are very few multi-word noun phrases. Since this women is characterized as wise and she is addressing a king, Polak suggests that her speech is representative of fine spoken language (ie, the short clauses are not the result of a lack of competency on her part. 

In contrast, Dt 9:8-11 gives an example of the “complex-nominal” style. Here only four clauses contain a single argument. There are many dependent and subordinate clauses, as well as lengthy multi-word noun groups including כָל־הַדְּבָרִ֡ים אֲשֶׁ֣ר דִּבֶּר֩ יְהוָ֨ה עִמָּכֶ֥ם בָּהָ֛ר מִתּ֥וֹךְ הָאֵ֖שׁ בְּי֥וֹם הַקָּהָֽל (v 10) where the noun phrase כָל־הַדְּבָרִ֡ים is expanded by a complex relative clause which itself includes three adverbial phrases.    

This contrast between spoken and written language follows the cross-linguistic analysis which has found that written discourse generally prefers long noun groups, two or more arguments including a high frequency of prepositional phrases and modifiers, subordination including participial phrases and indirect discourse, and complex subordination. This suggests that texts in this  “complex-nominal” style are at home in a professional scribal culture, much like what is known from the Persian period. On the other hand, those in the “rhythmic-verbal” style have their roots in oral narrative.