Skip navigation to content

DIALECTOLOGY IN BIBLICAL HEBREW: A NORTH ISRAELITE DIALECT? SYNCHRONIC AND DIACHRONIC CONSIDERATIONS

James R. Davila
School of Divinity

 

University of St. Andrews

 


United Kingdom
paleojudaica.blogspot.com
(c) 1994:  reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author

 

Presented in a panel discussion on "Dialectology in Biblical Hebrew:  A

 

North Israelite Dialect?,"  at the 1994 annual meeting of the Society of

 

Biblical Literature.

 

 

Was there a north Israelite dialect in ancient Israel?  The answer to this question, as to most such broad questions, surely must be "Yes and no."  More concretely:  yes, there were certainly different dialects of Hebrew in the biblical period.  However, no, I do not think there was a single northern dialect, or even a single northern dialect that attained the literary importance of the Jerusalem dialect in the south.  My purpose in this presentation is to attack the question of a northern dialect in a roundabout way, by setting Hebrew dialectology in the larger context of the overall linguistic development of ancient Hebrew in the biblical and early postbiblical period.  I will look at ancient Hebrew first from a synchronic perspective, dealing with geographical and social dimensions of the language.  Then I will move on to the diachronic level to examine the chronological development of Hebrew.  I will conclude with some illustrations of the difficulties of dialectal analysis from the book of Qoheleth.

 

I begin, then, with synchronic analysis of the geographical dimension of dialect.  This is the dimension that is normally addressed when the question of Hebrew dialectology is broached.  A number of important methodological points have been raised over the last decade or so regarding this dimension.<1>  First, we must think in terms of a "dialect continuum" over the whole area of Syria-Palestine during the Iron Age.  Dialectal variation comes not in digitized formal units corresponding to political or religious boundaries, but in an analogue flow of minor differences from village to village that only add up to significant variation over a relatively large geographical distance.  Second, the distinction between a dialect and a language is more socio-political than linguistic.  Or as the adage goes, "a language is a dialect with an army."  Jerusalemite Hebrew became the standard for literary Hebrew because Jerusalem became the political and religious centre for ancient Israel as a whole for key portions of the country's history, including the periods of the united monarchy and the time between the fall of Samaria and the Babylonian Exile.  Thus a good portion of the literary legacy in the Bible tends to give us an artificial and misleadingly univocal picture of pre-exilic Hebrew.  Much of the Bible is written in Jerusalemite Hebrew and most of the rest seems to have been edited by speakers of this dialect.  Third, due to these first two considerations and others, modern linguists must exercise extraordinary methodological care in seeking to distinguish languages from dialects in the dialect continuum of Syria-Palestine in the period in question.  The most foolproof way of classifying two dialects as the same language is by applying the criterion of mutual intelligibility.  Unfortunately, in the absence of a time machine or even a competent necromancer, this method is useless for classifying ancient inscriptions in extinct languages.  The next best approach is to classify dialects into languages on the basis of shared grammatical and phonological innovations.  But given the limited number and length of the inscriptions available to us, as well as the poor condition in which they often are preserved, all too frequently this method does not give secure results.

 

The West Semitic Balaam inscription from Deir Alla provides a good example of the geographically conditioned problems of dialect analysis.  Is its language eastern Canaanite, southern Aramaic, or Transjordanian Israelian Hebrew?<2>  The damaged state of the text makes philological analysis difficult, but it may be that even with a complete and lengthy corpus of texts the question as phrased would be insoluble.  Perhaps it is simply the dialect of the people in the vicinity of the sanctuary that contained the texts; a dialect that never became a language because it never acquired the requisite social and political clout.

 

Thus, I see relatively little utility in following Gary Rendsburg in speaking very broadly of an Israelian Hebrew language that covers both northern and Transjordanian dialects (including that of Deir Alla).<3>  I do not doubt that Rendsburg has isolated survivals from variant dialects in his analysis of the Psalms, but I strongly suspect that the influence of more than one (northern or otherwise) dialect is at work.  I would certainly not identify the language of Deir Alla with a generic dialect of northern Hebrew.  Rather than our defining this broad area of the dialect continuum explicitly in opposition to Judean Hebrew, it seems more useful to take a more inductive approach that allows for a greater dialectal diversity outside of Judah.

 

The second dimension of the synchronic aspect of Hebrew dialectology is the social one.  By this I mean not political influence over a geographical area, but social stratification of the language in a given community, and, especially, the contrast between a written literary language and a colloquial spoken one.  The technical linguistic term for this division is diglossia.  Rendsburg, in his recently published dissertation, Diglossia in Ancient Israel , argues, reasonably persuasively in my opinion, that this diglossia existed in biblical Hebrew and that elements of the colloquial dialect can be isolated in the Hebrew Bible.<4>

 

Rendsburg asserts that just as modern Arabic has a formal written dialect (essentially Qur'anic Arabic) and colloquial spoken dialects in the various Arab countries, so the Hebrew of the biblical period had both a formal written dialect, found in most of the Bible, and a colloquial dialect that eventually emerged as Mishnaic Hebrew.  He defends this proposal by isolating a series of nonstandard grammatical forms in biblical Hebrew that anticipate forms that are normal in Mishnaic Hebrew.  Often these forms have analogues in colloquial developments in other semitic languages, such as Arabic.  There is an especially high density of colloquial forms in narrative and orational passages in the Bible (which would be more likely to preserve elements of the spoken language), but they are less common in prophetic, poetic, and cultic or legal material.  The density of colloquialisms also increases steadily in later biblical Hebrew.

 

Without necessarily endorsing every detail of Rendsburg's monograph, I think that his basic thesis has a good deal of explanatory power.  In particular, his case for the origins of Mishnaic Hebrew seems more persuasive than attempts to derive it from a regional dialect.  This, of course, does not exclude the possibility that regional features played a part as well.  Presumably classical biblical Hebrew is the written form of the Jerusalem dialect used by the collectors and editors of most of the Bible.  But underlying this dialect are substrates of both written and colloquial forms of the language from the various parts of the country where biblical documents originated, and these substrates occasionally rise to the surface.

 

An interesting question that arises indirectly from Rendsburg's analysis is whether the northern kingdom had a formal literary dialect analogous to the Judean dialect that produced biblical Hebrew.  Could the dialect of Samaria, for example, have had the same importance in the north as the dialect of Jerusalem did in the south?  Unfortunately, the royal chronicles of Samaria do not survive, if they ever existed, and the few scraps of information left to us are not decisive.  The materials in the Deuteronomistic History with the highest density of non-Judean linguistic features seem to be concentrated in folkloric traditions such as the Elijah--Elisha cycle or stories about the Judges.  It is probable that royal chronicles or some sort were kept at Samaria, but how much of the information in Dtr comes from them, and how much this information was passed down in its original linguistic form, are open questions.

 

Hosea wrote in a literary dialect that sometimes differs from biblical Hebrew, but our present text of his book is generally thought to be very corrupt, making analysis difficult, and it is not clear to me that Hosea's Hebrew has much more than a bit of a northern "accent" to it.  The Elohistic source in the Pentateuch (if one accepts its existence and northern provenance) does not seem to me to have clear northern features in its language.  Given that the royal court at Jerusalem was well established by the time of the founding of the northern kingdom by Jeroboam I, it is not impossible that Judean Hebrew continued to be used as the literary language of the north as well.  Witness the use of Standard Babylonian Akkadian as a literary language by the Assyrians.  And there is one tiny bit of epigraphic evidence from Samaria that supports the latter conclusion.  A small fragment of a stone monumental inscription from the Iron Age bears a single Hebrew word:  <H>)$R<H>, the Judean Hebrew relative pronoun, followed by a word divider.  The fact that <H>$E<H> is <E>not<E> used here may indicate that Judean Hebrew was being used even by the Samarian royal court.<5>

 

The third dimension of dialectology of ancient Hebrew is the diachronic one; the development of the language over time roughly from the beginning of the Iron Age to the writing of the Mishnah around 200 C.E.  This development has been studied in particular by David Robertson, Robert Polzin, and Avi Hurvitz<6>  Daniel Fredericks has also attempted to place the dialect of Qoheleth in a diachronic context.<7>  This research divides ancient Hebrew into several chronological levels:  Early Biblical Hebrew (exemplified most clearly by the poem in Exodus 15) belongs to the premonarchical period; Classical Biblical Hebrew (including, inter alia, the Yahwist, Deuteronomy, and most epigraphic Hebrew of the Iron Age II) comes from the monarchical period ending with the Babylonian exile; Late Biblical Hebrew (for example, the books of Chronicles) extends approximately from the exile to the Maccabean period.  Finally, Mishnaic Hebrew is best known, of course, from the Mishnah, but something like this form of the language seems to be found in the Copper Scroll and 4QMMT.  Archaizing literature also tends to muddy this picture at times:  much of the Qumran sectarian literature seems to be written in a pastiche of Classical Hebrew rather than Late Biblical Hebrew.  Likewise, the dialogues in the book of Job have early elements in them, especially in the use of verbal tenses, but they may well be archaistic rather than genuinely archaic.

 

Thus a real linguistic analysis of a given Hebrew text must be conducted along a grid with a minimum of three dimensions:  the geographic, the social, and the chronological.  For epigraphic Hebrew we usually have some outside control over the chronological dimension, thanks to paleography, and sometimes the location of discovery can help us with the geographical coordinate.  With texts from the Hebrew Bible, however, we are completely dependent on philology (and sometimes orthography) for establishing the location of a given text on all three coordinates of our grid.

 

The tendency of past research, and for the most part legitimately so, has been to concentrate on one dimension of this grid in order to establish criteria for locating a Hebrew text geographically, socially, or chronologically.  But we must now begin to take the further step of consolidating these approaches.  Thus, it is not enough to say that the language of the dialogues of Job is archaic (or archaistic).  Is it a colloquial or formal stratum of the language?  In this case the literary context, as well as the exalted content of the dialogues would seem to argue for their being formal.  But is this an archaic (or archaistic) formal form of the Jerusalem dialect?  My inclination is to say no, but the question can really only be answered after we factor out the elements that make the dialect archaic and formal.

 

Finally, I would like to make some observations on the language of the book of Qoheleth with reference to its geographically, socially, and chronologically conditioned features.  I have argued elsewhere on the basis of linguistic features in Qoheleth that are paralleled in Phoenician, Aramaic, and biblical passages set in the north, that the Hebrew of Qoheleth was strongly influenced by a northern dialect.<8>  Some of these features are the relative pronoun <H>$E-<H>, the feminine demonstrative pronoun <H>ZOH<H>, the use of the infinitive absolute with a pronoun as a finite verb, non-syncopation of the article, and various vocabulary items.

 

In Rendsburg's analysis, Qoheleth has the highest density of colloquial features of any book in the Bible (with a standard deviation of +976.9%).<9>  A number of these elements, such as the relative pronoun <H>$E-<H> and the feminine demonstrative pronoun <H>ZOH<H> tend to appear in northern settings in classical biblical Hebrew, then become more widespread in later Hebrew.  It seems likely that the influx of northern refugees after the destruction of the northern kingdom in 722 BCE led to the absorbtion of northernisms into the colloquial level of Judean Hebrew before the exile.  If Rendsburg is right, this colloquial Hebrew gradually infiltrated the literary language, until a very late form of it took over entirely in the Mishnah.  This process makes dialectal analysis of post-exilic Hebrew, such as that of Qoheleth, very messy.  Nehemiah tells us in Neh 13:23 that pockets of speakers of non-Judean dialects (Ashdodite or the like) existed in his time even in the vicinity of Jerusalem, and I have suggested elsewhere that Qoheleth may have been a post-exilic native speaker of a late northern dialect.<10>  In any case, the impression we get of him from his book is that he was a proud iconoclast, and it is not hard to imagine him as a sage who insisted on talking like real folks and not the highbrows in Jerusalem.

 

There is still debate over the date of Qoheleth.  Until fairly recently, the consensus was to date the book quite late, perhaps in the third century BCE.<11>  Then in 1988 Daniel Fredericks argued that the language of the book indicates, at latest, composition in the exile, and that a pre-exilic date (eighth or seventh century BCE) is more likely.<12>  In a lengthy review of Frederick's book, I have re-examined his evidence and concluded that the language of Qoheleth fits somewhere between Classical and Late Biblical Hebrew and suggested a date in the fifth century.  The two Persian words in the book make a pre-exilic date vanishingly unlikely.<12>  As Fredericks has recognized, some of the difficulty of analysis comes from the unique nature of the language of the book, and, especially, its vernacular character.

 

In conclusion, I have suggested that any dialectal analysis of ancient Hebrew must take into account not only geographical elements, but also, at minimum, social levels and chronological developments in the language.  Other dimensions may have to be factored in as well.  The sharp divides of the Assyrian conquest and the Babylonian exile may have mixed the pre-exilic Judean language with other dialects in a way that could be most difficult to sort out.  The use of Aramaic as the diplomatic language of the Persian empire and its consequent influence on post-exilic Hebrew is another complicating factor.<14>  Our current knowledge does not always allow us to distinguish between geographical, social, and chronological differences in ancient Hebrew, and this makes dialectal analysis of books like Job and Qoheleth very problematic.  And I have not even touched on literary factors such as Kaufman's "style switching":  the tendency of an author to make foreign characters, such as Lemuel's mother in Proverbs 31, speak in something approximating their own dialect.<15> We can only hope that further epigraphic discoveries and refinements in our methods of analysis will enable us gradually to tease out the different strands of Hebrew in all their relevant dimensions.

 

______________________________

 

NOTES

 

<1> See in particular W. Randall Garr, Dialect Geography of Syria-Palestine:  100-586 B.C.E.   (Philadelphia:  University of Pennsylvania Press, 1985) especially chapters 1 and 5; Stephen A. Kaufman, "The Classification of the North West Semitic Dialects of the Biblical Period and Some Implications Thereof," in The Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress of Jewish Studies:  Panel Sessions, Hebrew and Aramaic (Jerusalem:  Magnes, 1988) 41-57.

 

<2>See Baruch Halpern, "Dialect Distribution in Canaan and the Deir Alla Inscriptions," in "Working with No Data":  Semitic and Egyptian Studies Presented to Thomas O. Lambdin , ed. David M. Golomb and Susan T. Hollis (Winona Lake, Indiana:  Eisenbrauns, 1987); Kaufman, "The Classification of the North West Semitic Dialects" (N. 1); Gary A. Rendsburg, "The Dialect of the Deir Alla Inscription,"  Bibliotheca Orientalis 50 (1993) 309-28.

 

<3>Gary Rendsburg, Linguistic Evidence for the Northern Origins of Selected Psalms (Atlanta:  Scholars Press, 1990); "The Dialect of the Deir Alla Inscription"  (N. 2).

 

<4> Gary A. Rendsburg, Diglossia in Ancient Israel (New Haven:  American Oriental Society, 1990).

 

<5> E. Carmon. Inscriptions Reveal (Hebrew) (Catalogue of the Israel Museum; Jerusalem:  Israel Museum, 1972) #43.

 

<6>David A. Robertson, Linguistic Evidence in Dating Early Hebrew Poetry (Missoula, Montana:  Society of Biblical Literature, 1972); Robert Polzin, Late Biblical Hebrew:  Toward an Historical Typology of Biblical Hebrew Prose (Missoula, Montana:  Scholars Press, 1976); Avi Hurvitz, A Linguistic Study of the Relationship Between the Priestly Source and the Book of Ezekiel:  A New Approach to an Old Problem (Paris:  Gabalda, 1982).

 

<7>Daniel C. Fredericks, Qoheleth's Language:  Re-evaluating its Nature and Date (Lewiston, New York:  Mellen, 1988).

 

<8>James R. Davila, "Qoheleth and Northern Hebrew," Maarav 5-6 (1990) (Segert Festschrift) 69-87.

 

<9>Rendsburg, Diglossia in Ancient Israel (N. 4) 169.

 

<10>James R. Davila, Review of Fredericks, Qoheleth's Language:  Re-evaluating its Nature and Date (see N. 7, above), JAOS 111 (1991) 821-24, esp. 824.

 

<11>See, for example, Michael O. Wise, "A Calque from Aramaic in Qoheleth 6:12, 7:12, and 8:13," JBL 109 (1990)249-57, esp. 249-50.

 

<12>Fredericks, Qoheleth's Language (N. 7) 262-63.

 

<13>See N. 9.  See also James L. Kugel, "Qohelet and Money," CBQ 51 (1989) 32-49, esp. 46-49.

 

<14>C. H. Gordon, "North Israelite Influence on Postexilic Hebrew," IEJ 5 (1955) 85-88; A. Hurvitz, "The Chronological Significance of 'Aramaisms' in Biblical Hebrew," IEJ 18 (1968) 234-40

 

<15>Kaufman, "The Classification of the North West Semitic Dialects" (N. 1 above) 55-56.

 

Contact details

St Mary's College
The School of Divinity
University of St Andrews
South Street
St Andrews
Fife KY16 9JU
Scotland, United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)1334 462850
Fax: +44 (0)1334 462852