May 2, 2009

Hebrew Origins: No New Light From A Recent Article

One of the perennial problems with which I from time to time wrestle is the origin of the Hebrew language and those folks that spoke it. The nature of the dialect continuum out of which ancient Hebrew arose and in which it flourished and the fact that the writing system(s) may well mask or exaggerate elements of that dialect continuum open wide the door for speculation. The extent to which the problem is underdetermined at many levels makes even ordering the speculative options impossible. The default position is that Hebrew is an indigenous Canaanite language/dialect but Anson Rainey has been arguing for some time that Hebrew along with Moabite and Ammonite more closely align with Aramaic than they do with say Phoenician and came from "the steppes of Transjordan and possibly the Syrian Desert." He specifically claims that Hebrew is not a Canaanite language. But which position is more probable? That isn't so clear.

So, when I run across a paper that sounds like it might provide a new means of shedding light on this old problem I tend to jump at it. It was in this spirit that I read Thomas Currie and Ruth Mace's paper, "Political Complexity Predicts the Spread of Ethnolinguistic Groups." The authors don't mention the problem of Hebrew origins or address it even indirectly. I didn't think they would. I was just looking for new light from a different direction. Alas, it turns out that this paper isn't helpful in resolving any part of the problem of the origin of the Hebrew language. At least, I don't see how it is. The new light comes from a different direction but it just isn't bright enough to illuminate what I hoped it would. Here is part of their conclusion,

In summary, our results show that several cultural and ecological factors are associated with the area a language covers and, by extension, the pattern of distribution of the world’s languages. These results suggest that the direct effects of the cultural factors included in this analysis explain as much or more of the variation in current patterns of cultural group diversity than do the direct effects of environmental factors. In particular we have shown that the largest single factor predicting the area over which a language is spoken is the degree of political complexity exhibited by the society speaking that language. [p. 5]

I'm don't think this is world shattering news. But their statistical approach is quite interesting. While their analysis does support their conclusions on a worldwide basis, the correlations are too weak to be applied to relatively small regions. In fact, their methodology would be nearly impossible to apply to the current state of the Late Bronze - Early Iron Age evidence from the Levant. How would one even characterize the relative social complexity of those who spoke the various languages in the Northwest Semitic dialect continuum? Currie and Mace, 6, used a five category system to designate social complexity.

But this system is static. Thinking of Judah: would you call Iron Age I Judah a simple chiefdom, a complex chiefdom or a state? Heck, some would even characterize it as having "no political authority beyond the local community;" on odd numbered days, I would be among them. How does that change by the time of the fall of Israel? How should one characterize the intermediate steps if any? How widespread were the various relevant Iron Age languages? People seem to have spoken or at least written Aramaic and Phoenician over a significant area. But is that the result of trading patterns? How about Hebrew?

Anyway, I found the paper interesting but couldn't help but think that if we knew enough about the geographic distribution of the ancient Northwest Semitic languages, the social complexity of the cultures that spoke them and all the other factors that Currie and Mace considered, we'd be a lot closer to knowing the origins of Hebrew without requiring their methodologies. Somehow, I think Currie and Mace would agree with this conclusion.


Currie, Thomas E. and Ruth Mace, "Political complexity predicts the spread of ethnolinguistic groups," PNAS, Published online before print April 20, 2009, doi: 10.1073/pnas.0804698106 [open access]

Posted by Duane Smith at May 2, 2009 2:27 PM | Read more on Hebrew Bible |

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