December 1, 2007

How Shallow Was Ancient Hebrew?

Some scholars have suggested that it is easier to learn to read and write languages written with "shallower orthographies" than languages with "deeper orthographies." Not only is this issue supposedly germane to literacy, it also enters into discussions of scribal training. A deep orthography is one in which there is not a simple correspondence between written symbols and the sounds of a language. Typical examples of languages with deep orthographies are English and Danish. Greek and Italian are examples of languages with much shallower orthographies. Rollston, 48-49 and n. 5, discusses this topic with reference to various other works on the subject. I tend to agree with Rollston's, 49, comment,

. . . the fact remains that, regardless of orthography, any suggestion that proficiency in one's first alphabetic writing system (ancient or modern) can be achieved in a few days or weeks must be considered most problematic. [emphasis in original]

Referring to studies of children learning Modern Hebrew, Rollston, n.6, notes that while most spelling errors disappear around age 10, some types of errors persist into adulthood.

But let's ask a somewhat different question. How shallow was Ancient Hebrew? To begin to answer this question, I turn to a point Rainey has made on several occasions, most recently in the SBL paper I discussed the other day,

For starters, it must be noted that both the speakers of Hebrew and of Aramaic, borrowed the Phoenician (Canaanite) alphabet of twenty-two letters. This they did in spite of the fact that their own languages had a larger repertoire of consonantal phonemes. . . . Hebrew had at least twenty-five consonants. The implications of this fact should be obvious. The speakers of Hebrew did not speak the same dialect as those from whom they borrowed the alphabet! The same can be said, of course, of the speakers of Aramaic whose language had apparently twenty-nine consonantal phonemes.

This implies that written Phoenician, even with only 22 letters, may have had a rather shallow orthography while Hebrew orthography, with at least 25 consonantal phonemes, was deeper and Aramaic, with 29 consonantal phonemes, was possibly still deeper. I doubt that ancient Hebrew orthography was as deep as is English orthography. But when one adds conventions for gemination and matres lectionis to the deficiencies in the alphabet, we may be dealing with an orthography that was much deeper than commonly thought. Depending on one's view of the beginning of spirantization in the spoken language (if you think there was such a beginning or you think spirantization is not allophonic) Ancient Hebrew orthography may have been even deeper.

By the way, Rainey's opinion, which did not originate with him, on the number of consonantal phonemes in Hebrew and Aramaic is not universally accepted. However, I think that the evidence, while ambiguous in a few cases, favors the expanded consonantal repertoires Rainey mentions.


Rollston, Christopher A., "Scribal Education in Ancient Israel: The Old Hebrew Epigraphic Evidence," Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research, 344, Nov. 2006, 47-74

Posted by Duane Smith at December 1, 2007 10:28 AM | Read more on Scribal Schools |

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The issue I have with the shallow/deep orthography is that most of what I've read on the Phoenician side is based on the assumption that the Phoenicians developed their alphabet. With the discovery of Wadi-el-Hol, all bets might be off on that front -- the alphabet might be as much as a thousand years older than the Phoenician culture we once thought created it. How close can we then assume the consonantly registry match the phonemes of the Phoenicians?

Posted by: Jim Getz at December 1, 2007 11:57 AM

Yeah, this is an issue. But it is interesting that the scribe who inscribed KTU 6.70, almost certainly more Phoenician than Ugaritic, choose a short cuneiform alphabet rather the fuller one that he must have known about. Even at Ugarit at least two tablets were written in this short alphabet. I can sure see other explanations but I think the best one is that the short alphabet was chosen because it was the best fit for the language of these texts.

Posted by: Duane at December 1, 2007 1:18 PM

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