I have been reflecting on the linguistic status of ancient Hebrew, in both the Bible and inscriptions, for a while now.
"Is Biblical Hebrew a Language?" was the title of a book and essay of many years ago by the great Ethiopicist and Semitist Edward Ullendorff (for this bibliography, and much more besides, see the treasure trove assembled by Mark S. Smith), and it's a nice way into the question. Rather than arguing that Biblical Hebrew was a priestly hoax on the part of Moses or Ezra (see previous post), he asked a more straightforward question:
Does the vocabulary of the Hebrew Bible give us a full picture of how people spoke in ancient Israel? The lexicon is something around 7,000-8,000 words (in the estimation of the Israeli philologist Hayim Rabin, who should know). Compare the combined vocabulary of Rabbinic and modern Hebrew, closer to 22,000 in a compact dictionary, or the small Penguin English dictionary (40,000).
More strikingly, Ullendorff points out, we have Biblical words for "fork" (mazleg) and "knife" (ma'akhelet), but not "spoon" (kaf today, for which the earliest instance he can find is Mishnaic, despite that spoons turn up in the archaeological record quite early).
In a way, it's even worse than he thinks: the world of ancient West Semitic kitchen terms is a shadowy realm, which one enters at one's own peril. I have no confidence that mazleg, which came to mean "fork," was used that way in Biblical times: it only appears as a priestly tool to move sacrificial meat around, and I Samuel 2:13 specifies that the one in question has "three prongs," which means we can't assume it usually did. Similarly, we find the ma'akhelet doing its horribly gruesome work on the body of a concubine in Judges 19:29, and Abraham takes one to sacrifice his son Isaac in Genesis 22, but we never see it used for food! While not a military implement, the only uses of the ma'akhelet in the Bible are to cut people. And while Ezekiel features a "kitchen" (bet hammevashlim in Ezk 46:24), it is a dark secret of the whole "House of David" inscription controversy that the Palmyrene Aramaic word for "kitchen" is none other than btdwd'!
Not only that, but as Ullendorff (and he is not the first) points out, there isn't even a word for the Hebrew language! Ivrit doesn't turn up til the Wisdom of Ben Sira, and Yehudit "Judean" and sefat Kena'an "the language of Canaan" are rather more specific: they point to dialects and identities below and above the scale of the nation.
So what kind of linguistic picture does Biblical Hebrew form? In the next post, I'll weave together some reflections on the latest critique of Biblical Hebrew's linguistic status as it appears in the work of Ian Young, together with a helpful introduction from Sue Groom and some straightforward wisdom from Jonas Greenfield and Josef Naveh...