LINGUIST List 25.5146

Wed Dec 17 2014

Review: Historical Ling; History of Ling: Thomas (2014)

Editor for this issue: Sara Couture <>

Date: 01-Aug-2014
From: Geoffrey Sampson <>
Subject: The Recovery of the Ancient Hebrew Language
E-mail this message to a friend

Discuss this message

Book announced at

AUTHOR: David Winton Thomas
TITLE: The Recovery of the Ancient Hebrew Language
SUBTITLE: An Inaugural Lecture
PUBLISHER: Cambridge University Press
YEAR: 2014

REVIEWER: Geoffrey Sampson, University of South Africa

Review's Editor: Helen Aristar-Dry


This little book (33 small-format pages of text and a few pages of endnotes) is a reprint of the inaugural lecture which David Thomas delivered in 1939 as Regius Professor of Hebrew at Cambridge.

Biblical Hebrew, as commonly studied by Jews and Christians, was fixed in the shape we know by the ''Masoretes'' who edited the Old Testament into its canonical form in the early Middle Ages, long after Hebrew had ceased to be a spoken language. The Masoretes were confronted with a range of documents stemming from widely different periods a thousand years and more before their own time, written in a script which indicated only consonant phonemes and which doubtless included discrepancies between different copies of the same texts. From these they produced a single agreed edition in a script which represented all aspects of pronunciation very exactly. The result was a timeless, monolithic holy language which is to some extent an artificial creation. Behind it there must have lain a living colloquial language, which will have changed in many ways over the centuries between the earliest parts of the Pentateuch and late books such as Esther. Thomas's topic is the efforts, still fairly new when he was speaking, to use novel methods and data to reveal that real-life, evolving Hebrew language.

It had long been realized that Hebrew was one member of a Semitic language-family, and Hebrew scholars often mentioned forms from sister-languages such as Arabic or Syriac when elucidating Hebrew vocabulary or grammar. But traditionally Hebraists had believed that the help obtainable that way was quite limited, because the literary monuments of the sister-languages were much younger than the Hebrew scriptures. However, by the time of Thomas's lecture archaeology had begun to provide evidence for earlier stages of these languages, helping linguists to infer how they had diverged from a common proto-Semitic ancestor. Furthermore, people such as Pontus Leander (1920) were beginning to apply the standard linguistic techniques of internal reconstruction to show how sound-alternations which were fixed facts of Masoretic Hebrew pointed to sound-laws that had operated at specific periods. For instance, the law which changed word-initial /w/ to /j/, giving e.g. Biblical /jájin/ ''wine'' from earlier *wajin, must have preceded at least the Book of Esther, since that mentioned the Persian names Washti and Wajzatha' (in the English Bible, ''Vashti'' and ''Vaizatha''), and these were not Hebraized as *Ja… .

One of Thomas's general conclusions was that the Masoretic text was more reliable than sometimes supposed. Scholars had noticed discrepancies between the Hebrew Bible and the Septuagint, the translation into Greek made by Jewish authorities at a period when that language was the lingua franca of the Levant, and had explained these by supposing that the Septuagint translators must have been working from some different and perhaps superior version of the Hebrew text. Thomas believed, on the contrary, that the kinds of evidence mentioned above could be used to show that Hebrew words had meanings other than the ones which have come down to us: the discrepancies stemmed not from errors by the Masoretes but from our later misunderstanding of their language.


Universities routinely publish inaugural lectures, but commonly these are not circulated very widely. In my experience they tend to function more as pleasant keepsakes for a new professor's friends and intellectual allies than as significant contributions to scholarship. In the case of an intellectual giant even his inaugural might offer valuable insights into the development of his thought, but that hardly explains the reprinting of Thomas's lecture after 75 years. The account of Thomas's work by John Emerton (1991), his successor in the Regius chair, presumably made the best case it could, but the portrait it offers is of a man who did sterling service as a teacher and an organizer, but who as a researcher was unoriginal, serving mainly to extend the work and ideas of the far more distinguished Sir Godfrey Driver, whose pupil he had been. Much of Thomas's career was dedicated to continuing the work begun by Driver towards compiling a new Hebrew dictionary that should take due account of new, non-Biblical data. Unfortunately, when Thomas died in 1970 it emerged that what Driver and he had done between them did not amount to anything that could be brought into a publishable shape. At present the standard Hebrew dictionary is still Brown (1906), the work which Driver and Thomas had hoped to supersede (though there are now plans to do what Driver and Thomas did not manage to do -- see Hackett and Huehnergard 2008).

Thomas did publish a number of papers offering new ideas about the meanings of individual lexical items. (Emerton makes it clear that some of these suggestions are worthwhile and others were at least reasonable at the time they were made, but a number of them are not tenable in the light of present-day scholarship.) Where this lecture made wider claims about the linguistics of Hebrew, subsequent decades seem to have dealt with these fairly harshly.

Consider, for instance, what Thomas says about the so-called waw consecutive, surely the most puzzling single feature of Biblical Hebrew grammar for us today. Hebrew had two ways of inflecting verbs for person and number, sometimes called ''suffix conjugation'' and ''prefix conjugation''. The contrasting conjugations stood for a variety of meaning-contrasts expressed in European languages by tense, aspect, and modal inflexions: suffix v. prefix conjugations could in different contexts correspond respectively to past or present v. future, complete v. continuing, actual v. hypothetical, etc. However, Hebrew was a verb-first language, and if a clause (and hence a verb) was introduced by the prefix /w-/, ''and'' (written with the letter named waw), to a close approximation the implications of the two conjugations were reversed: ''and'' + ''I shall go'' meant ''and I went'', and vice versa. Such at least was the traditional Jewish understanding of the phenomenon; linguists more recently (e.g. Niccacci 1994) have suggested that the semantic implications of /w-/ + prefix conjugation are not exactly identical to suffix conjugation, but waw consecutive remains a very strange, hard-to-explain feature. Thomas, referring to Driver's writing, claimed that waw consecutive could be explained in terms of Hebrew being a ''mixed language'', a concept which recurs throughout his lecture. Of course all languages contain some elements borrowed from other languages, but Thomas and Driver (and others) believed that Hebrew was ''mixed'' in a deeper sense: that it was something like a creole combining large elements of different Semitic languages, and that this somehow accounted for the contradictory uses of the two conjugations. However, this creole idea related to theories about the origin of the Israelites which are no longer taken seriously (Rainey 2008), and the Wikipedia tells us, I believe correctly, that '' 'mixed language' explanations [of waw consecutive] … are not commonly accepted among current linguists'' (''Waw-consecutive'' entry, accessed 29 Jul 2014).

At best, then, this little book can be seen as a period piece. Perhaps it might interest some present-day Hebraists as a vignette of a long-vanished state of scholarship, but it is not easy to see why it should have been reprinted now. Cambridge University Press may have calculated that the title combined with its imprint would ensure that any serious academic library will feel bound to buy a copy, so that reprinting would yield useful revenue in return for minimal outlay. I hope that is unduly cynical, but no alternative explanation occurs to me.


Brown, F. (ed.). 1906. A Hebrew and English lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Emerton, J.A. 1991. The work of David Winton Thomas as a Hebrew scholar. Vetus Testamentum 41.287–303.

Hackett, J.A. and J. Huehnergard. 2008. On revising and updating BDB. J. Dyk and W.Th. van Peursen (eds), Foundations for Syriac lexicography III: Colloquia of the International Syriac Language Project, 227–33. Piscataway, N.J.: Gorgias.

Leander, P. 1920. Einige hebräische Lautgesetze chronologisch geordnet. Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft 74.61–76.

Niccacci, A. 1994. On the Hebrew verbal system. R.D. Bergen (ed.), Biblical Hebrew and discourse linguistics, 117–37. Dallas, Tex.: Summer Institute of Linguistics.

Rainey, A. 2008. Shasu or Habiru: who were the early Israelites? Biblical Archeology Review 34.51–5.


Geoffrey Sampson MA, PhD (Cambridge), FBCS, Professor Emeritus, is a Research Fellow in linguistics at the University of South Africa, having retired from the Sussex University School of Informatics in 2009. His books and articles have contributed to most areas of linguistics, and also include works on statistics, computer science, political thought, and ancient Chinese poetry. His most recent book is 'Grammar Without Grammaticality' (with Anna Babarczy), de Gruyter, 2014. Homepage: <>;.

Page Updated: 17-Dec-2014