Thursday, January 13, 2005

Is Biblical Hebrew a Language?

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...


EMC said...

Seth, can you give a reference for the Palmyrene? I can't find it in Hillers & Cussini.

Thanks for a very interesting post.

Sarah Roberts said...

From my limited experience in assessing linguistic structure and the shape of the lexicon from written texts (from describing an extinct contact language from archival sources), one should always be aware of the limitations of one's data. Ullendorff's methodology of discovering lexical gaps is a good way for assessing how completely these sources attest the lexicon; I have done the same thing in trying to estimate the size of the lexicon of the contact language I was describing in my own work. Another approach is to calculate the proportion of hapax legomena in the corpus; the higher the proportion, the less representative the corpus usually is. It is also important to pay attention to the kinds of literary genres that comprise your sources and if they skew heavily to one genre or another, or omit certain genres entirely. For instance, I am not aware of a sizeable cache of administrative or financial records in biblical Hebrew as we have in Akkadian or Ugaritic. Similarly, we lack any representation of the technical language or jargon of various occupations, as well as for different stylistic registers than the various literary and poetic ones employed in the Hebrew Bible. On the question of language names, since the Bible reflects metalinguistically on language use so infrequently, it is quite possible that this involves another lexical gap in our sources. However labels become more useful when a language community is heterogenous, incorporating speakers of different language backgrounds, so that it becomes necessary to distinguish one language from another in day-to-day interaction. A more homogenous community has less need to label its own speech if it contrasts only with speech outside the community. I'm not sure how this might bear on the situation in Judah and in ancient Israel but it might be worth looking into.

Anonymous said...

Kaf Achas Asarah Zahav Meleah Ketores - a spoon filled with incense - comes to mind as being in the Torah. Definitely there.