LINGUIST List 23.3217

Fri Jul 27 2012

Review: Historical Linguistics; Semitic: Gzella (2011)

Editor for this issue: Rajiv Rao <>

Date: 27-Jul-2012
From: Tyler Barrett <>
Subject: Languages from the World of the Bible
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EDITOR: Holger GzellaTITLE: Languages from the World of the BiblePUBLISHER: De GruyterYEAR: 2011

Tyler Barrett, Faculty of Education, University of Calgary


Introduction (Holger Gzella)

In light of the many English translations of the Biblical Canon, often resultingin its association with the West, it is interesting to consider the multilingualcontexts and languages of the non-Western world of the Bible. This volume ofscholarly works is a revised translation of German, and as such, editor HolgerGzella acknowledges "a number of shortcomings" (viii). Each section isstructured similarly, beginning with an introduction of language history,followed by comprehensive linguistic analyses in terms of writing, phonology,morphology and morphosyntax (among other things).

Consistent with languages of the modern world we live in today, the Hebrew Biblehas always been part of a multilingual world. In terms of the shift-and-lossnature of languages, languages in the world of the Bible (and languages ingeneral) have survived in various forms; some have been recovered to varyingdegrees, while others have remained 'extinct' according to the "languages areecologies" metaphor (Haugen et al. 1971). This given, Gzella notes that, withthe exception of Ugaritic, Syro-Palestinian dialects remained in the backgroundof Akkaidian scribal cultures in a type of Akkadian code, as demonstrated by acorpus of hundreds of letters sent to the Egyptian pharaoh, which werediscovered in Tell el-Amarna. As a result, it is difficult to contextualizeSyro-Palestinian dialects in direct relation to the Semitic family of languagesbecause the recovered remnants of such 'extinct' languages only lead to morequestions concerning origin and use, among other things. This example isparadigmatic of the complexities and uncertainties that exist concerninglanguages in the world of the Bible, about which, Gzella and the othercontributors to this collection have written in great depth and detail.

The Alphabet (Alan Millard)

Alan Millard's historical account of the alphabet begins with the Israelitesarriving in Canaan at the end of the late Bronze Age (1250-1150 BCE). Inhabitingthis land meant building upon past Babylonian (multilingual) civilizations whoseremnants have become evident as a result of excavation. Such examples ofpreexisting script include: potshards bearing Egyptian hieroglyphs of pharaohNarmer; old Babylonian cuneiform from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 BCE); andfifteen tablets and fragments recovered at Tell Ta'annek and Shechem.

Concerning alphabet script and its development, the sociocultural andcross-linguistic contexts had much to do with the development of an alphabetbased upon an acrophonic principle where the initial sound of the name of thesign is its value. In terms of the historical development of an alphabet, thismeant that signs of the linear alphabet can be traced through the Middle andLate Bronze Ages in Canaan. Furthermore, the Egyptian influence in this regionconcerning this development of script meant that papyrus was the material usedfor transcriptions. Overall, the impact of this development is demonstrated bythe Ugarit scribes' Phoenician and Hebrew cuneiform alphabet in the Iron Age(1200-600 BCE). This alphabetic cuneiform covers a wide range of ancient writingand is believed to have influenced regions further south. In terms of adeveloped legible text, the Byblian texts of the tenth century BCE are thoughtto have been a primary influence upon other Iron Age alphabe t developments suchas Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Transjordian, and Greek, all of which Millardelaborates upon in the final segments of this chapter. They will also be lookedat in greater depth in the following sections by the different contributors ofthis book.

Ugaritic (Augustinus Gianto)

Agustinus Gianto chronicles the Ugaritic language, a North Semitic language withfamilial traits linked to Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic, originating from thecity of Ugarit. Interestingly, demonstrating the rich development of theUgaritic language, Ugaritic tablets discovered have revealed various literarygenres such as epic, religious, epistolary, administrative, medical, andpedagogy. In terms of Ugaritic script, it is the oldest alphabetically writtenSemitic language, which is perhaps one of the reasons it is used for comparativestudies with Hebrew in the discipline known as "Northwest Semitic Philology".Gianto finishes this section with an in-depth discussion and description ofvarious aspects of the Ugaritic language, which include detailed accounts ofUgaritic phonology, morphology and morphosyntax, and two-line "bicolon" poetry.

Phoenician (Holger Gzella)

Holger Gzella describes 'Phoenician' as a generic term representing Canaanitedialects primarily associated with cities such as Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon, whichis the area known today as Lebanon. Over time, as a result of economic andpolitical power shifts, in addition to cultural hierarchies (among otherthings), "standard" Phoenician became the dialect of Tyre and Sidon. Because ofthe multicultural exchanges occurring in these regions, and the apparentprestige associated with the Phoenician dialect, it remained in use until thefirst century. However, in terms of archaeological findings, severalinscriptions of Phoenician cuneiform are linked to Punic languages. As a result,approximately 10,000 examples of Phoenician-Punic inscriptions have been found.Interestingly, while it appears that these two languages are linked, Gzellaacknowledges that there is much debate. Concerning the Phoenician language,Gzella gives an extensive description of phonological char acteristics, such asthe 22 letter-signs of the Phoenician alphabet corresponding with oneconsonantal phoneme. Gzella finishes the chapter comparing and contrastingPhoenician and Punic with Ugaritic and Hebrew languages.

Ancient Hebrew (Holger Gzella)

In what could be the central chapter of the book, as Hebrew is often thought tobe the quintessential Semitic language (although that is also debatable), Gzellaoffers a chapter about Ancient Hebrew, beginning with a brief history of thelanguage. In his introduction, he points out that until the eighteenth century,Hebrew was only known for its manuscripts containing biblical and rabbinictexts. He also gives insight regarding the Western influence upon the Biblicalcannon, particularly concerning the western grammatical tradition, to which hesays "the pointing of the Masoretes from Tiberias in Galilee has becomenormative and dominates the teaching of Biblical Hebrew since the firstChristian textbook 'De rudimentis Hebraicis' (published in 1506)," (76). Thefocus of the chapter is the pre-Exilic inscriptions of Ancient Hebrew, withparticular interest in prose, which is suggested to be reasonably homogenous.Overall, pre-Exilic Ancient Hebrew is said to have developed into TiberianHebrew, which is particularly relevant to the Biblical cannon, as mentionedabove. In terms of writing, the scribes of Israel essentially took over thePhoenician alphabetic writing, creating a 'national' variant script whichevolved into what we know to be Ancient Hebrew.

The Languages of Transjordan (Klaus Beyer)

Klaus Beyer discusses the languages of the Transjordan, also known as Canaanitelanguages, which include Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, and the language of theinscription from Deir Alla/Gilead. Each language is discussed, some in greaterdetail than others, with Moabite receiving the greatest treatment, perhapsbecause it is said to be the most well known as a result of the inscriptiondiscovered in 1868 of King Mesha or 'Mosha'. Concerning the Ammonite language,of the region of Ammon, which was north of Moab, it includes divergences fromthe Moabite language, perhaps as a result of its close proximity. As a result ofincomplete transcriptions (i.e. the artifact referred to as 'Bottle 1'), thereare degrees of ambiguity. Similarly, the Edomite language from Edom, south ofthe Dead Sea, has but a few artifacts that demonstrate inscriptions, of whichparticular differences in letter-shapes allow it to be distinguished as aseparate language. Finally, Beyer discusses a text discovered in Jordan's DeirAlla, which is speculated to be of the Aramaic alphabet, although this isuncertain. Whether it is Canaanite, Aramaic, a blend of the two, or an unknownWest Semitic language, has yet to be determined.

Old and Imperial Aramaic (Margaretha Folmer)

Distinct from Canaanite and Ugaritic languages, and in use from the tenthcentury BCE until present day in the regions of Syria and Mesopotamia, areAramaic languages, which have the longest history of any Semitic language.Demonstrative of its long standing presence and continued use, as a result ofthe imperialist expansion of the Neo-Assyrian empire, Aramaic was at one time alingua franca, reaching its peak in terms of widespread use in the Achaemenidperiod (538-331). In terms of "old" and "imperial" distinctions, "Old Aramaic"is generally associated with the pre-Achaemenid periods (i.e. Neo-Babylonian(626-539), among others), when Aramaic was the language of the independentAramaean city-states. "Imperial Aramaic" is suggested to be Aramaic of theAchaemenid period and Biblical Aramaic (i.e. portions of the book of Ezra andthe book of Daniel) is considered to be Imperial Aramaic.

Old South Arabian (Rebecca Hasselbach)

Hasselbach discusses the Old South Arabian languages, also known as Sayhadiclanguages, which are thought to be associated with the Pre-Islamic southwestregion of Arabia (first millennium BCE), known today as the region of Yemen.Additional artifacts demonstrating Sayhadic languages have also been found inOman and northern Arabia. As noted by Greek geographer Eratosthenes, andconfirmed by the existing cuneiform in our present day, Sayhadic languages arethought to be inclusive of Sabaic, Minaic, Qatabanic, and Hadramitic languages,whose nations (Sabaioi, Minaioi, Kittibanoi, and Atramotitai) co-occupied thearea during the third century BCE, resulting in Sabaic (Beeston 1984, 1).Biblical accounts referring to the Sayhad region and its nations include theaccount of the queen of Sheba occurring in Saba (1 Kings 10:1-13), in additionto other biblical passages that suggest that the Sabaeans are merchants (i.e.Psalm 72:10; Isaiah 60:6; Ezekiel 27:22; Jeremiah 6:20). Consis tent with thesociocultural and sociolinguistic exchanges occurring as a result of nationsbeing within close proximity of one another, the Sabaic, Minaic, Qatabanic, andHadramitic languages were first suggested to be dialects of one language,although later it was suggested they were separate languages that share certainmorphological innovations (Beeston 1984). For example, Hasselbach writes thatone of the main isoglosses (i.e. a geographic boundary of a linguistic feature)in all four Old South Arabian languages is the suffixed definite article -h(n).

Old Persian (Michiel de Vaan & Alexander Lubotsky)

As de Vaan and Lubotsky indicate, Old Persian is an old Iranian language of theIndo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. Dating from the 6th tothe 4th century, the cuneiform that demonstrates this language consists of a6700-word corpus with several repetitions. Demonstrating the cross-linguisticties as a result of socio-political contexts of the time, Aramaic was theadministrative language during the early Persian empire from which MiddlePersian script developed. The most important inscriptions are located in thepalace of Darius I and Xeres I in Persepolis and Susa. The Old Persian words andnames have been preserved in the Elamite, Akkadian, and Aramaic languages. OtherOld Persian names have been found in Hebrew, Egyptian, Lydian, Lycian, Greek,Latin, and Early/Middle Indic texts. These words and names found in otherlanguages are often useful for reconstructing aspects of the Old Persian language.

Greek (Andreas Willi)

Beginning with the second millennium BCE, Willi writes about the Greek language,which is an Indo-European language with ties to Indo-Iranian and Armenianlanguages. It is suggested that Greek came in contact with pre-Indo-Europeanlanguages, as demonstrated by loanwords (e.g. the Greek word for 'bathtub'). Interms of writing, Greek writing is first evident in the 14th and 13th centuries.The earliest existing examples of Greek writing include prose texts from theClassical era and examples of Homer's 'Illiad and 'Odyssey' from the 8thcentury. Concerning early Greek writing, the alphabet is suggested to havederived from the Phoenician alphabet, perhaps around the 9th century. During theClassical period, Greek appears to consist of several regional dialects, perhapsaccording to the culture of each town. The Greek dialectical isoglosses in thiscontext are composed of four groups: Aeolic and Doric-Northwest Greek (of thesouth), and Arcado-Cypriote and Attic-Iconic (of the north). Due in part becauseAthens became an important city in the region, after the 4th century, Atticbecame an international language. In spite of Attic's international status,Koine continued to be used during the Hellenistic period of the Macedonianempire, achieving its own sort of international status as a result of expansioninto the Near East and Egypt (also known as Alexandria) regions. Biblical textswritten in Koine include the Septuagent (the Greek Old Testament) and the NewTestament.


Considering these descriptive accounts of the various languages of the world ofthe Bible, it is evident that the biblical world of the first millennium BCEevolved against a background of considerable linguistic and cultural variation,perhaps not unlike our world today (or perhaps any other post Babel period).Gzella's introduction, albeit brief, is a daedal and historical account oflanguages in the world of the Bible, with mention of the Bronze age Egyptian andHittite rule, the Iron Age in Syria-Palestine coinciding with the Phoenicianvariant of the alphabet, the evolution of letter forms such as various Canaaniteand Aramaic speaking civilizations which have links to epic traditions, poeticlanguage, and the development of literary prose in Hebrew languages, among manyother things.

Gzella's chapter on Ancient Hebrew is perhaps the most compelling because hedemonstrates reasons why assumptions of language purity concerning namedlanguages, such as the consummate language of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. AncientHebrew) may be problematic. For example, Gzella notes that since countlessscribes handled the manuscripts passed down from generation to generation (e.g.the Codex Leningradensis from 1008 CE), additional marks were added tomanuscripts that influenced the copying of future manuscripts. Gzella discussesother variants and possible derivations in Ancient Hebrew concerning the HebrewBible, such as the poetic language used in various texts (e.g. Gen 49; Ex 15;Number 22-24; Deut 32, 33; Jdg 5; Sam 1, 22; Psalm 18; 2 Sam 23; Psalm 68; Hab3) whose form is also evident in the Ugaritic epic where, as noted by Gianto(above), in terms of script, the Ugaritic language pre-dates Ancient Hebrew,suggesting that the Ugaritic language is a constituent of Ancie nt Hebrew.Further, Gzella points out that Aramaic influences are also evident in AncientHebrew texts that have been passed through the hands of scribes through thegenerations, particularly since during the latter half of the first millenniumBCE, Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew. As a result, Gzella states, "in earlyBiblical texts, it is often hard to distinguish dialectal "Northernisms" fromthe influence of Transjordanian idioms or Aramaic" (77). Overall, Gzella and theother contributors have brilliantly constructed a very complex view of languagesfrom the world of the Bible that suggest that there is much more to a languagethan the potential constraints of a name.

Considering that the book is aimed at comparative and contrastive linguistic andgrammar analyses of languages from the world of the Bible, its shortcomings, ifany, are simply a result of pre-existing speculation (which the authorsrecognize) apparent as a result of a lack of archaeological data (e.g. Ammonite,Edomite, and the languages of the inscription from Deir Alla/Gilead). Yet, theinclusion of these language examples and their limited archives allows for agreater understanding in terms of insight about the evolving and fragmentednature of language, particularly in terms of false notions of 'language purity'.Examples that demonstrate this evolving and fragmented nature of languagesinclude (previously mentioned): 1) Ugaritic links to Phoenecian, Hebrew, andAramaic; 2) Phoenican-punic hybridities; 3) the sharing of certain morphologicalinnovations between Sabaic, Minaic, Qatabanic, and Hadramitic languages; 4) OldPersian words and names in other languages, among others. Overall, since thiscollection offers just enough of an extensive and in-depth linguistic analysisin consideration of historical contexts concerning various examples of cuneiformand other archaeologically discovered artifacts, it inspires further reading andengagement with the languages from the world of the Bible. That being said,since Gzella's intention in constructing this volume of work is to encouragefurther study along such lines, the book has achieved this goal.


Beeston, A.F.L. (1984) Sabaic Grammar. Manchester: Journal of Semitic Studies.

Haugen, E. (1971) The ecology of language. The Linguistic Reporter. Supplement25, 19-26. Reprinted in Haugen 1972: 324-329.

Huenergard, J. (2002) "Introduction" (pp.1-18) in Kalter and McKenzie's (eds.)"Beyond Babel: A Handbook for Biblical Hebrew and Related Languages". Leiden: Brill.


Tyler Barrett is a doctoral student at the University of Calgary. Hisinterests include topics in the fields of sociolinguistics andglobalization, discourses about Christianity, and identity.

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