December 16, 2006

Is the Canaanite of the Amarna Letters a Precursor of Biblical Hebrew?

Over at Awilum an interesting discussion of literacy in the Ancient Near East has developed from Charles' comments on my post about the Revadim Seal. Take a look at the comment thread if you are interested in this question. In the course of this discussion, a sometimes related issue has arisen concerning the evolution of the Hebrew language.

Responding to Jake, Charles said,

I also agree with the largest changes in Hebrew occurring between CBH [Classical Biblical Hebrew - des] and LBH [Late Biblical Hebrew-des] and Amarna Canaanite’s similarity to CBH–especially in Amarna’s use of waw’s.

I have decided to reflect upon that issue here. Perhaps I am setting up a straw man but I think the underlying presupposition of this comment is that Classical Biblical Hebrew developed out of Late Bronze Age Canaanite. This presupposition is at best problematic. Perhaps Rainey put it most pointedly in a rant against Dever and company in a Biblical Archaeological Review piece,

Dever must rely on the conventional wisdom that Hebrew is a Canaanite dialect. I have begun to assemble numerous features that distinguish ancient Hebrew from coastal Canaanite (which we often call Phoenician). It is now obvious that Hebrew has its closest affinities not with coastal Cannanite, but with Aramaic and Moabite east of the Jordan. The argument for coastal Canaanite was often based on supposed Canaanite features in inscriptions from east of the Jordan like the Aramaic text from Deir Alla. The Aramaic text from Dan is another such Aramaic text, although found west of the Jordan headwaters; the Aramaic inscription of Zakkur, king of Hamath, is another. But these features are absent from Canaanite (Phoenician) inscriptions and from the Amarna letters (a hybrid language) and from Ugaritic (which is not Canaanite) (see p. 112, col. 1 of the Sacred Bridge for a preliminary treatment of these issues).

In short, Hebrew is not a Canaanite language, but a Transjordanian language. It is encouraging that my most respected mentors, colleagues and former students have received with enthusiasm my new definition of Hebrew as a Transjordanian language. . .

Gary Rendsburg has pointed out to me that Hebrew, Aramaic and Moabite (if André Lemaire’s new reading is confirmed) each have a distinct verb “to be.” Its root is HWY or HYY. That verb is not in Phoenician (Canaanite) or even in Ugaritic. These two languages from the Mediterranean coast have another verb entirely to indicate “to be.” Moreover, the personal name of Israel’s God—Yahweh, is derived from the verb “to be”! This reflects a strong connection between ancient Hebrew and the languages east of the Jordan, which in turn are key to Israel’s origins.

I don't want to debate Rainey's conclusions about Israel's origins here but, regardless of how this debate turns out, his linguistic observations are well taken.

The issue of the relationship between Hebrew and Canaanite is technically quite complex and there are unquestionable close affinities between Amarna Age Canaanite and Classical Biblical Hebrew: some uses of the waw and the so-called Canaanite shift are among them. And of course, there are a great many cognates. It is difficult to say much about this whole subject without reference to Rainey's four tomes on the grammar of Canaanite in the Amarna tablets. As far as I know, the nearest copy is 45 miles away at the UCLA research library. The relationship between Amarna Age Canaanite and Phoenician is also not completely clear. As I discussed in a previous, perhaps too lengthy, post in my series on how to recognize a scribal school, there is even more than one recognizable dialect in the Canaanite of the Canaano-Akkadian from Amarna but none of them appear to be "proto" Hebrew. The methodological problem is not so much to account for the similarities, after all both Hebrew and Canaanite are cognate West Semitic languages, but to account for the differences. For one "dialect" to be a predecessor of another, their differences must have definable evolutionary pathways. Let's look at a couple of their differences. I have chosen the examples below, not because they are necessarily the best or strongest examples, but because they were easy to document without a trip to UCLA.

Proto Semitic Ś becomes s in Amarna Canaanite but is unchanged in Biblical Hebrew. Interestingly, in the Jerusalem dialect of Canaanite one sees š where one might expect ś in Hebrew. This is based on Egyptian transcriptions of place names when compared with their cuneiform counterparts. See Sivan, 48-50, on this particular issue. Izre'el, 8, and a few others, suggest that the Jerusalem case is an orthographic convention rather than a phonetic difference. Ś becomes š in Ugaritic. While one could explain a shift from s back to ś on phonetic grounds, I think it more parsimonious to assume that Hebrew is simply more conservative with respect to this sibilant.

Perhaps the best illustrations come from important vocabulary items such as Rainey's example of the verb HWY/HYY which does not occur in Phoenician (or Ugarit) and can not be found in any of the extent Late Bronze Age Canaanite. One would need to explain how this could come about. And while one might claim that there was not enough Late Bronze Age Canaanite to be sure, there certainly is enough Phoenician.

Even looking at the very scanty evidence from the multilingual texts from Aphek and Ashqelon, and despite certain obvious affinities, one is hard put to see a clear precursor of "Hebrew." One should remember that these texts are from the very end of the Late Bronze Age, twelfth century BCE, nearly 100 years after the Amarna age. If the reading is correct, and this is a big IF, the best example of the difference between Late Bronze Aphek Canaanite and Hebrew is du?-uš-bu, "honey(?), in Aphek 8151/1:5'. This may represent a form of a noun with the same order of consonants as seen in Akkadian but not Hebrew. This is likely a metathesis of the proto-Semitic root, *DBŠ as is seen in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic ("to become black or brown," "honey color"). On this, see Rainey, 1976, 139. Should we read the Canaanite as dušbu? But alas, as Rainey correctly says of this word, "Under the present circumstances, all suggestions must be conjectural." Of course, some may see this as an Akkadianism in the Canaanite language of Aphek. The fact that the Akkadian word is actually dišpu rather than dušbu argues against this suggestion. A more firm example would be nice, but one must work with what is available however little that may be.

To be sure, Isaiah 19:18 uses the expression שְׂפַת כְּנַעַן, "(the) language (literally 'lip') of Canaan." This late(?) addition to Isaiah's oracle concerning Egypt speaks of five cities in Egypt where the people in them speak "the language of Canaan," Hebrew, as opposed to Egyptian. But by the time this passage was written there was already a long tradition of Hebrew being spoken in Canaan. The passage has nothing to do with the origins of the Hebrew language. And in other places, Nehemiah 13:24, 2 Kings 18:26, 28 and Isaiah 36:11, the language of the people is referred to as יְהוּדִית "Judean." Nehemiah complains that half of the children of mixed marriages spoke Asdodian rather than "Judean." The 2 Kings and Isaiah passages contrast Judean, "Hebrew," with Aramaic.

I think one should not be too dogmatic on the question of the origins of Hebrew and how it relates to Canaanite. However, they are not the same language and do not appear to me to be related in an evolutionary way. However, it is not at all unlikely that Canaanite informed Hebrew at many levels and just as it is likely, at least in my view, that those people we call Israelites were of heterogeneous origin, it is also possible that the language of their greatest literary works and their every day conversation at the time those works were first committed to writing was also heterogeneous. By way of analogy, one need only think of how our modern English language evolved from its Celtic, Latin, Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Norman mixed ancestry.

Please remember and never forget that there may have been a reason that,

לֹא-נִבְדְּלוּ הָעָם יִשְׂרָאֵל וְהַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם מֵעַמֵּי הָאֲרָצוֹת: כְּתֹעֲבֹתֵיהֶם לַכְּנַעֲנִי הַחִתִּי הַפְּרִזִּי הַיְבוּסִי הָעַמֹּנִי הַמֹּאָבִי הַמִּצְרִי וְהָאֱמֹרִי (Ezra 9:1b,c)


Izre'el, Shlomo, Canaano-Akkadian, Languages of the World/Material, 82, München: Lincom Europa, 1998

Moran, William L., Amarna Studies, Collected Writings, John Heuhnergard and Shlomo Izre'el eds, Harvard Semitic Studies, 54, Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns, 2003

Sivan, Daniel, Grammatical Analysis and Glossary of the Northwest Semitic Vocables in Akkadian Texts of the 15th-13tg C.C.C from Canaan and Syria, Kevelaer: Verlag Butzon and Bercher, 1984

Rainey, Anson F., Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets: A Linguistic Analysis of the Mixed Dialect Used by the Scribes from Canaan, Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1996 (4 volumes)

Rainey, Anson F., "A Tri-Lingual Cuneiform Fragment from Tel Aphek," Journal of the Tel Aviv University Institute of Archaeology, 3:4, 1976, 137-140

Posted by DuaneSmith at December 16, 2006 03:13 PM | Read more on Hebrew Bible |

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