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Review of  Languages from the World of the Bible

Reviewer: Tyler A. Barrett
Book Title: Languages from the World of the Bible
Book Author: Holger Gzella
Publisher: De Gruyter Mouton
Linguistic Field(s): Historical Linguistics
Language Family(ies): Semitic
Issue Number: 23.3217

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EDITOR: Holger Gzella
TITLE: Languages from the World of the Bible
YEAR: 2011

Tyler Barrett, Faculty of Education, University of Calgary


Introduction (Holger Gzella)

In light of the many English translations of the Biblical Canon, often resulting
in its association with the West, it is interesting to consider the multilingual
contexts and languages of the non-Western world of the Bible. This volume of
scholarly works is a revised translation of German, and as such, editor Holger
Gzella acknowledges “a number of shortcomings” (viii). Each section is
structured 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 Bible
has always been part of a multilingual world. In terms of the shift-and-loss
nature of languages, languages in the world of the Bible (and languages in
general) have survived in various forms; some have been recovered to varying
degrees, while others have remained ‘extinct’ according to the “languages are
ecologies” metaphor (Haugen et al. 1971). This given, Gzella notes that, with
the exception of Ugaritic, Syro-Palestinian dialects remained in the background
of Akkaidian scribal cultures in a type of Akkadian code, as demonstrated by a
corpus of hundreds of letters sent to the Egyptian pharaoh, which were
discovered in Tell el-Amarna. As a result, it is difficult to contextualize
Syro-Palestinian dialects in direct relation to the Semitic family of languages
because the recovered remnants of such ‘extinct’ languages only lead to more
questions concerning origin and use, among other things. This example is
paradigmatic of the complexities and uncertainties that exist concerning
languages in the world of the Bible, about which, Gzella and the other
contributors 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 Israelites
arriving in Canaan at the end of the late Bronze Age (1250-1150 BCE). Inhabiting
this land meant building upon past Babylonian (multilingual) civilizations whose
remnants have become evident as a result of excavation. Such examples of
preexisting script include: potshards bearing Egyptian hieroglyphs of pharaoh
Narmer; old Babylonian cuneiform from the Middle Bronze Age (2000-1550 BCE); and
fifteen tablets and fragments recovered at Tell Ta’annek and Shechem.

Concerning alphabet script and its development, the sociocultural and
cross-linguistic contexts had much to do with the development of an alphabet
based upon an acrophonic principle where the initial sound of the name of the
sign is its value. In terms of the historical development of an alphabet, this
meant that signs of the linear alphabet can be traced through the Middle and
Late Bronze Ages in Canaan. Furthermore, the Egyptian influence in this region
concerning this development of script meant that papyrus was the material used
for transcriptions. Overall, the impact of this development is demonstrated by
the Ugarit scribes’ Phoenician and Hebrew cuneiform alphabet in the Iron Age
(1200-600 BCE). This alphabetic cuneiform covers a wide range of ancient writing
and is believed to have influenced regions further south. In terms of a
developed legible text, the Byblian texts of the tenth century BCE are thought
to have been a primary influence upon other Iron Age alphabe t developments such
as Phoenician, Hebrew, Aramaic, Transjordian, and Greek, all of which Millard
elaborates upon in the final segments of this chapter. They will also be looked
at in greater depth in the following sections by the different contributors of
this book.

Ugaritic (Augustinus Gianto)

Agustinus Gianto chronicles the Ugaritic language, a North Semitic language with
familial traits linked to Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic, originating from the
city of Ugarit. Interestingly, demonstrating the rich development of the
Ugaritic language, Ugaritic tablets discovered have revealed various literary
genres such as epic, religious, epistolary, administrative, medical, and
pedagogy. In terms of Ugaritic script, it is the oldest alphabetically written
Semitic language, which is perhaps one of the reasons it is used for comparative
studies with Hebrew in the discipline known as “Northwest Semitic Philology”.
Gianto finishes this section with an in-depth discussion and description of
various aspects of the Ugaritic language, which include detailed accounts of
Ugaritic phonology, morphology and morphosyntax, and two-line “bicolon” poetry.

Phoenician (Holger Gzella)

Holger Gzella describes ‘Phoenician’ as a generic term representing Canaanite
dialects primarily associated with cities such as Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon, which
is the area known today as Lebanon. Over time, as a result of economic and
political power shifts, in addition to cultural hierarchies (among other
things), “standard” Phoenician became the dialect of Tyre and Sidon. Because of
the multicultural exchanges occurring in these regions, and the apparent
prestige associated with the Phoenician dialect, it remained in use until the
first century. However, in terms of archaeological findings, several
inscriptions 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, Gzella
acknowledges that there is much debate. Concerning the Phoenician language,
Gzella gives an extensive description of phonological char acteristics, such as
the 22 letter-signs of the Phoenician alphabet corresponding with one
consonantal phoneme. Gzella finishes the chapter comparing and contrasting
Phoenician 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 to
be the quintessential Semitic language (although that is also debatable), Gzella
offers a chapter about Ancient Hebrew, beginning with a brief history of the
language. In his introduction, he points out that until the eighteenth century,
Hebrew was only known for its manuscripts containing biblical and rabbinic
texts. He also gives insight regarding the Western influence upon the Biblical
cannon, particularly concerning the western grammatical tradition, to which he
says “the pointing of the Masoretes from Tiberias in Galilee has become
normative and dominates the teaching of Biblical Hebrew since the first
Christian textbook ‘De rudimentis Hebraicis’ (published in 1506),” (76). The
focus of the chapter is the pre-Exilic inscriptions of Ancient Hebrew, with
particular interest in prose, which is suggested to be reasonably homogenous.
Overall, pre-Exilic Ancient Hebrew is said to have developed into Tiberian
Hebrew, which is particularly relevant to the Biblical cannon, as mentioned
above. In terms of writing, the scribes of Israel essentially took over the
Phoenician alphabetic writing, creating a ‘national’ variant script which
evolved 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 Canaanite
languages, which include Moabite, Ammonite, Edomite, and the language of the
inscription from Deir Alla/Gilead. Each language is discussed, some in greater
detail than others, with Moabite receiving the greatest treatment, perhaps
because it is said to be the most well known as a result of the inscription
discovered in 1868 of King Mesha or ‘Mosha’. Concerning the Ammonite language,
of the region of Ammon, which was north of Moab, it includes divergences from
the Moabite language, perhaps as a result of its close proximity. As a result of
incomplete transcriptions (i.e. the artifact referred to as ‘Bottle 1’), there
are degrees of ambiguity. Similarly, the Edomite language from Edom, south of
the Dead Sea, has but a few artifacts that demonstrate inscriptions, of which
particular differences in letter-shapes allow it to be distinguished as a
separate language. Finally, Beyer discusses a text discovered in Jordan’s Deir
Alla, which is speculated to be of the Aramaic alphabet, although this is
uncertain. Whether it is Canaanite, Aramaic, a blend of the two, or an unknown
West Semitic language, has yet to be determined.

Old and Imperial Aramaic (Margaretha Folmer)

Distinct from Canaanite and Ugaritic languages, and in use from the tenth
century BCE until present day in the regions of Syria and Mesopotamia, are
Aramaic languages, which have the longest history of any Semitic language.
Demonstrative of its long standing presence and continued use, as a result of
the imperialist expansion of the Neo-Assyrian empire, Aramaic was at one time a
lingua franca, reaching its peak in terms of widespread use in the Achaemenid
period (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 independent
Aramaean city-states. “Imperial Aramaic” is suggested to be Aramaic of the
Achaemenid period and Biblical Aramaic (i.e. portions of the book of Ezra and
the book of Daniel) is considered to be Imperial Aramaic.

Old South Arabian (Rebecca Hasselbach)

Hasselbach discusses the Old South Arabian languages, also known as Sayhadic
languages, which are thought to be associated with the Pre-Islamic southwest
region of Arabia (first millennium BCE), known today as the region of Yemen.
Additional artifacts demonstrating Sayhadic languages have also been found in
Oman and northern Arabia. As noted by Greek geographer Eratosthenes, and
confirmed by the existing cuneiform in our present day, Sayhadic languages are
thought to be inclusive of Sabaic, Minaic, Qatabanic, and Hadramitic languages,
whose nations (Sabaioi, Minaioi, Kittibanoi, and Atramotitai) co-occupied the
area during the third century BCE, resulting in Sabaic (Beeston 1984, 1).
Biblical accounts referring to the Sayhad region and its nations include the
account of the queen of Sheba occurring in Saba (1 Kings 10:1-13), in addition
to 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 the
sociocultural and sociolinguistic exchanges occurring as a result of nations
being within close proximity of one another, the Sabaic, Minaic, Qatabanic, and
Hadramitic languages were first suggested to be dialects of one language,
although later it was suggested they were separate languages that share certain
morphological innovations (Beeston 1984). For example, Hasselbach writes that
one 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 the
Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European language family. Dating from the 6th to
the 4th century, the cuneiform that demonstrates this language consists of a
6700-word corpus with several repetitions. Demonstrating the cross-linguistic
ties as a result of socio-political contexts of the time, Aramaic was the
administrative language during the early Persian empire from which Middle
Persian script developed. The most important inscriptions are located in the
palace of Darius I and Xeres I in Persepolis and Susa. The Old Persian words and
names have been preserved in the Elamite, Akkadian, and Aramaic languages. Other
Old Persian names have been found in Hebrew, Egyptian, Lydian, Lycian, Greek,
Latin, and Early/Middle Indic texts. These words and names found in other
languages 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 Armenian
languages. It is suggested that Greek came in contact with pre-Indo-European
languages, as demonstrated by loanwords (e.g. the Greek word for ‘bathtub’). In
terms of writing, Greek writing is first evident in the 14th and 13th centuries.
The earliest existing examples of Greek writing include prose texts from the
Classical era and examples of Homer’s ‘Illiad and ‘Odyssey’ from the 8th
century. Concerning early Greek writing, the alphabet is suggested to have
derived from the Phoenician alphabet, perhaps around the 9th century. During the
Classical period, Greek appears to consist of several regional dialects, perhaps
according to the culture of each town. The Greek dialectical isoglosses in this
context are composed of four groups: Aeolic and Doric-Northwest Greek (of the
south), and Arcado-Cypriote and Attic-Iconic (of the north). Due in part because
Athens became an important city in the region, after the 4th century, Attic
became an international language. In spite of Attic’s international status,
Koine continued to be used during the Hellenistic period of the Macedonian
empire, achieving its own sort of international status as a result of expansion
into the Near East and Egypt (also known as Alexandria) regions. Biblical texts
written in Koine include the Septuagent (the Greek Old Testament) and the New


Considering these descriptive accounts of the various languages of the world of
the Bible, it is evident that the biblical world of the first millennium BCE
evolved 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 of
languages in the world of the Bible, with mention of the Bronze age Egyptian and
Hittite rule, the Iron Age in Syria-Palestine coinciding with the Phoenician
variant of the alphabet, the evolution of letter forms such as various Canaanite
and Aramaic speaking civilizations which have links to epic traditions, poetic
language, and the development of literary prose in Hebrew languages, among many
other things.

Gzella’s chapter on Ancient Hebrew is perhaps the most compelling because he
demonstrates reasons why assumptions of language purity concerning named
languages, such as the consummate language of the Hebrew Bible (i.e. Ancient
Hebrew) may be problematic. For example, Gzella notes that since countless
scribes handled the manuscripts passed down from generation to generation (e.g.
the Codex Leningradensis from 1008 CE), additional marks were added to
manuscripts that influenced the copying of future manuscripts. Gzella discusses
other variants and possible derivations in Ancient Hebrew concerning the Hebrew
Bible, 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; Hab
3) 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 Ancient
Hebrew texts that have been passed through the hands of scribes through the
generations, particularly since during the latter half of the first millennium
BCE, Aramaic gradually replaced Hebrew. As a result, Gzella states, “in early
Biblical texts, it is often hard to distinguish dialectal “Northernisms” from
the influence of Transjordanian idioms or Aramaic” (77). Overall, Gzella and the
other contributors have brilliantly constructed a very complex view of languages
from the world of the Bible that suggest that there is much more to a language
than the potential constraints of a name.

Considering that the book is aimed at comparative and contrastive linguistic and
grammar analyses of languages from the world of the Bible, its shortcomings, if
any, are simply a result of pre-existing speculation (which the authors
recognize) 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, the
inclusion of these language examples and their limited archives allows for a
greater understanding in terms of insight about the evolving and fragmented
nature of language, particularly in terms of false notions of ‘language purity’.
Examples that demonstrate this evolving and fragmented nature of languages
include (previously mentioned): 1) Ugaritic links to Phoenecian, Hebrew, and
Aramaic; 2) Phoenican-punic hybridities; 3) the sharing of certain morphological
innovations between Sabaic, Minaic, Qatabanic, and Hadramitic languages; 4) Old
Persian words and names in other languages, among others. Overall, since this
collection offers just enough of an extensive and in-depth linguistic analysis
in consideration of historical contexts concerning various examples of cuneiform
and other archaeologically discovered artifacts, it inspires further reading and
engagement with the languages from the world of the Bible. That being said,
since Gzella’s intention in constructing this volume of work is to encourage
further 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. Supplement
25, 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. His interests include topics in the fields of sociolinguistics and globalization, discourses about Christianity, and identity.