Language and Culture
Religion and Theology
Orality and Literacy
Iam responding here to an article from the web site of the Trinitarian Bible Society. This is a very interesting document. Mr. Watts ludicrously suggests that Hebrew was probably the original language, spoken by Adam and still spoken by Abraham. I thought this incredible claim and associated ideas worthy of comment.
The Lord Gave the Word: A Study in the History of the Biblical Text
by Malcolm H. Watts
The article begins thus:
The Old Testament
The greater part of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, sometimes called "the language of Canaan" (Isaiah 19:18) or "the Jews' language" (Isaiah 36:11). It probably developed from the old Hebrew spoken by Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 14:13) and a number of scholars believe that this old Hebrew pre-dated Abraham and that it was the "one language" and "one speech" of pre-Babel times (Genesis 11:1). In other words, they believe it was the original language of man.
These comments ignore the information in the Bible about the languages and peoples of that time, as well as the well-documented common characteristics of languages. Abraham, precisely because he was from Ur, would not have known the Hebrew language. And who are these "scholars" he refers to? They certainly are not aware of the science of linguistics.
Historically and linguistically, "Hebrew" is a term denoting a late form of Canaanitish, associated with the nation of Israel, descendants of the patriarch Jacob, renamed Israel. The forms of speech we know of in the Bible are from centuries after Abraham.
That speech form is considerably different from any language spoken in Abraham's time in Babylon, or likewise in Haran (what is now eastern Turkey), where – according to the Bible story – Abraham's father had moved the family before Abraham received the call to go to Canaan.
No Biblical or Linguistic Basis
I wonder what gave him the idea that Hebrew was spoken in ancient Babylon? The Bible does not claim this, and no linguistic information we have about Babylon indicates this. The languages of Babylon were in the same Semitic family, but are not very similar to Hebrew.
Cushite and Semite
Some scholars have thought that the original language of the actual "Chaldeans," in the southern gulf area of Mesopotamia, was not even Semitic, but Cushitic. Others have thought it was a Semitic language. Amorite was the earliest Semitic language of Babylon, under the Semitic invader-conquerors, most famous in relation to the emperor Hammurabi, thought to be represented in the Genesis king Amraphel.
The Chaldean Cushitic language was thought to be related to old Egyptian, or today's Beja or Somali languages. These Chaldeans established the dynasty represented by Nebuchadnezzar, who took the Judeans into exile. When the Chaldeans took over the old Assyrian domains, they continued to use the Assyrian Empire's Semitic language of Aramaic as the language of administration.
I do not know of any view among linguists that Hebrew is the original human language. A few centuries ago there was an unfounded theological view that claimed all languages came from Hebrew.
This, however, was not based on any evidence from any languages. It was simply someone's imaginative idea, and lost favor in the face of the systematic analysis of languages from the late 1700s.
This was before the development of comparative linguistics, before British scholars began studying the Indian languages and discovered their similarity to Latin and Greek. In the past 200 years, a generally agreed-upon family relationship has been discovered between the various languages of the world. View such language families in the Ethnologue.
Mr Watts continues his comments about the first language:
The first language
Supporting evidence for this view is quite substantial. First of all, in Hebrew the names of animals express very accurately their nature and characteristics – more so, indeed, than in any other ancient language. This would tie in with the fact that Adam, soon after his creation, gave names to the animals by observing the peculiar qualities and characteristics of each species (Genesis 2:19-20).
What "nature" and "characteristics"? The Hebrew names are just the Hebrew words for these animals, just as the English "names" are just the English words. Should we stop using the English words for the animals and use the Hebrew names instead? Of course, words for animals are descriptive in many languages, not just Hebrew.
His second paragraph here is a well-crafted example of inverse reasoning. He figures from the language in which the record was written (Hebrew) then assumes this means that those were the actual words spoken in the story that was recorded.
This is like reading the story in English and concluding that Adam was actually using English and giving the animals English names.
He continues on this fascinating scenario:
Second, proper names, like Adam, Eve, and Cain, have significant meanings in Hebrew, some of which are actually assigned to them in the Old Testament Scriptures (Genesis 2:23; 3:20; 4:1).
Yes, almost all the names of people and places in Genesis are symbolic, often for humorous or sarcastic, as well as historical, purposes in the story. The names are an integral part of the story – as they often are in the stories of all oral, relational cultures.
The names are part of the drama, part of the meaning of the story. This is not at all remarkable, but is a common feature of Semitic culture, as well as most non-western peoples of the world.
Thus Adam is the Hebrew word for "Human" – "God created the Human..., he created them male and female" (Gen. 1:27). Then the Hebrew words for male person (man) and female person (woman) are used for the two individuals. Even these words form a poetic pair, as they would be in many languages that note gender in their word forms: ish-man, isha-woman.
The name of the female is Hawa, the Hebrew word for Life. Thus in the oral, poetic beauty of the story, captured in writing to hand down for the generations, we are told Human married Life and they had children. Yes, this powerful testimonial symbolism to God's plan is very difficult to adequately translate into other languages.
Traditional English translators have done us a great disservice, by transliterating the words/names, instead of translating their full, rich meaning to bring out the dynamic story in the names of people and places!
Meaning of Life
These symbolic names throughout the Genesis sagas indicate that this is "gospel." The primary purpose of this book of "Beginnings" (Hebrew "Bereshith" or Greek "Genesis") is not history in our modern sense, but cosmic, beyond history – addressing the meaning of life and existence.
Yet this has nothing to do with what the first language was. It comments only on the revelation story as we have it, in the Hebrew it was written in.
Here is the third stage on this exciting logical safari:
Third, the names of various ancient nations appear to be of Hebrew origin, being derived from the sons and grandsons of Shem, Ham and Japheth: as, for example, the Assyrians from Ashur; the Elamites from Elam; and the Aramaeans from Aram.
Well, of course – the text was written in Hebrew! It was written by Hebrews for a Hebrew audience!
So of course, the Hebrew forms were used. If the story had been written for an English-speaking audience, then they would have to use the English names to make sense.
An Analogy – French and English
This was a hilarious claim – it sounds at first like he is joking. But then it becomes clear that the writer is serious! But look at it this way.
Say a movie is made about the resistance in France in WWII. Because the movie is made in America for an English-speaking audience, of course the actors will be speaking English, perhaps with a French accent to add a realistic flavor.
What this writer claims about Hebrew is like claiming that because the actors in the movie spoke English, this means that the French in WWII spoke English!
Biblical Evidence Overlooked
More important, he overlooks evidence actually in the biblical text itself that refutes his claim.
In Genesis, some pre-Hebrew names are used then the Hebrew word is given, for the Hebrew audience it was originally written for. Many place names are interpreted this way – the original name, then the name it was now called in Hebrew. This is common in the Old Testament, but particularly in Genesis and in Joshua through 2 Samuel.
Even so, Mr. Watts concludes thus:
An argument can therefore be made for some form of Hebrew having been the first language spoken and heard in this world; but be that as it may, it is an indisputable fact that practically the whole of the Old Testament is written in the Hebrew.
All his cited examples prove is that the Bible was written in Hebrew. They are not indications that Hebrew was the first human language. The Genesis text never gives a name to the original speech. That was never a point or purpose of the story. The role of God and relationship to God are the point of the whole book.
What is the Point?
That first speech form is directly referred to only in the Babel story, and no name or description is ever given there. I don't know of anyone who denies that the Bible was originally written in Hebrew. So what is the point here?
Many Languages Before Abraham
This writer's claim overlooks the actual evidence in the biblical text itself that people spoke many different languages. For example, Genesis 10 has long list of descendants of Shem, closing with the summary: "These are the sons of Shem by their clans and languages, in their territories and nations" (v. 31).
Shem's descendants already spoke many languages, according to Genesis, many generations before we would get down to Abraham.
Likewise the other sons of Noah: v. 5, "Japheth ... each with its own language," and v. 20, "Ham ... by their clans and languages."
The language of Ur was NOT Hebrew, nor was it the language of Aram, where Abraham's father moved the family.
Hebrew – Wanderer
Moreso, it is unclear when the term "Hebrew" ("habiru") came to be used in history. The term Hebrew comes from the Semitic word meaning "wanderer." Abraham is referred to as "the Hebrew" one time in Genesis, in the context of the many ethnic groups in Southern Canaan during his lifetime (Genesis 14:13). Look for more on the "Habiru."
It is even less clear when it came to be applied to a specific lineage of people within that broader ethnic stream. The form of speech of these "wanderers" who had left Egypt came to be called by the same term the people did.
Abraham may have been part of a broader movement of "habiru" migrating or nomadic peoples referred to in various contemporary sources. Look for details in Internet or printed sources on this question.
Before this time they were referred to (at least in the biblical record) only as "children of Israel." We do not have any documentation of the actual speech of the people who left Egypt. That is, we do not even know what language they spoke at that time. Keep in mind, they had been living in Egypt for about 450 years (or by some accounts 250 years)! They likely spoke Egyptian.
Concerning the fact that most of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, Mr. Watts continues:
The only exceptions are in Aramaic (a close, cognate language to Hebrew) which did, in fact, supersede Hebrew at the time of the captivity.
These exceptions are two parts of the book of Ezra (4:8-6:18; 7:12-26), accounted for by Aramaic being the official language of the Persian Empire; a verse in Jeremiah (10:11), where there is a quotation of an Aramaic proverb; and quite a large section of the book of Daniel (2:4 to 7:28), where Aramaic is used, probably because the entire section deals with the nations of the world.
Yes, almost the whole Old Testament was written in Hebrew. Yes, Aramaic and Hebrew are cognate languages. But what difference does that make? What relevance that fact would have to his premise is a mystery.
What does this fact have to do with what the first language was? That is a whole separate question.
If he means to allow Aramaic into a special relationship with Hebrew in regard to some of the Old Testament being written in it, this puts him on a very slippery slope of logic.
Comparing Hebrew and Aramaic indicates they both are slightly different variations of what must have been an earlier common form of language. When you compare these to neighboring languages, their obvious similarity leads to the whole group being designated Semitic. These are all cognate languages.
If you allow Aramaic on the basis that it is a cognate language of Hebrew, then the "cognate language" principle applies to every other Semitic language: Ugaritic, Canaanitish, Arabic, Assyrian, etc. It becomes just a matter of how closely cognate they are.
If you follow the family tree of related languages to the next level, you find you are in the broader Afro-Asiatic family, which includes about 1/3 of the languages of Africa. Where does that leave him? Everybody speaks some language.
The Hebrew language is simply one historical "reflex," or expression, of the process. Hebrew is just one of the group of related dialects of speech in the Eastern Mediterranean area of Asia.
Hebrew and Aramaic
The Tanakh (Old Testament) was written in Hebrew because that was the language of the Hebrews for whom it was written. Parts of it were written in Aramaic because Aramaic had become the language of the Judeans.
Many Aramaic words and place names appear even in the Hebrew of the Bible. This in turn gives us clues as to when the final forms of the scrolls were written in the form we know them.
Hebrew and Aramaic are just languages, like other languages in the great stream of ever-changing human speech.
Even the word for God itself – Elohim – is an Aramaic word, not Hebrew. The Hebrew plural never appears. Both Hebrew singulars are used: elah (feminine) and eloah (masculine). You can learn more about this from the authorities in an Internet search or by consulting the printed sources.
God Has His Own Track
Besides that, all through the Old Testament record, God continually tells Israel he is working on his own track with other nations too. God is not limited to any language or culture, and is free to reveal himself to his creatures however and whenever he wants to.
God can use Cyrus the pagan for his ends, and even call Cyrus, the King of the Medes and the Persians, his Messiah (Anointed) (Isaiah 45:1). What language Cyrus spoke had nothing to do with it. God can even use English-speaking people.
In his "Inverse Reasoning," Mr. Watts reasoned back from his perception on the Hebrew record, then assumed the Hebrew record as the starting point for what was being recorded. He ignores the point in history at which this record was set down in writing. (Of course, we do not know how early in history the oral versions of this were developed and conveyed before being written down.)
"Hebrew" a Later Language
In reality, "Hebrew" language, as such, would not have existed until about the time of the Exodus. What form their Semitic dialect(s) were in at that time is uncertain. But that language was certainly different from that spoken by Abraham's family before they left their homeland, and what they would have needed to speak in Haran, then learned in addition to speak to the Canaanites.
The Speech of Canaan
What we now know as "Hebrew" from the biblical record is a dialect of Canaanite. (This is underlined by the quote from Isaiah 19:18, calling it "the language of Canaan.") Note that the prophet actually calls the land Canaan (not Israel) – very late in the history of the tribes of Jacob.
This means that either the speech of the people who lived in Canaan was very similar to the speech of the Habiru (Hebrews) who invaded (or migrated in over a period), or that the Habiru learned the local language, and their variety of it was captured in the writings of the Bible and other historical documents.
This latter scenario fits much better with what we know about how languages actual work and how one speech form relates to another.
The term "Hebrew" refers to the form of speech associated with the nation of Israel. In the books of Judges and Samuel we have references to differences in language between the different tribes. The most famous of these is the "Shibboleth" incident. Some pronounced the word Sibboleth and others Shibboleth. It became a matter of life and death when the Ephraimites were at war with the Manassehites east of the Jordan, in Gilead (Judges 12:5-6).
This, of course, is certainly way later than Abraham, about 450 years or so! So even the form of Canaanite speech Abraham might have learned when he migrated there from Haran (in what is now southeastern Turkey), would have been considerably different from what came to be called Hebrew in later centuries.
Even if their speech was the same actual language spoken by someone as far back as Joseph, or Isaac or even Abraham, it certainly would have been a different language by the time the descendents left Egypt about 500 years later.
Languages change rapidly over the course of history. What they are called at any particular time and place by any particular people is a whim of culture, politics, power and pronunciation problems!
For example the English language cannot be said to even have existed until around 900 or maybe 1000 AD. And even that language would be a totally foreign language to "English" speakers now. There are various names by which the ancestor speech of modern English was called by different peoples in different eras.
What was called English in 1300 cannot even be understood today. Modern readers cannot even read it, without special training. Hebrew is the same way, just like every form of human speech.
Language changes with every generation. Different languages change at different rates. Modern literacy and broad exchange of news enables larger groups with similar speech to remain in touch, and common language tends to grow among the various varieties. Literacy as we know it is a recent phenomenon in history.
Two Hebrew Alphabets
The written copies we have of manuscripts of the Old Testament texts are from after the Babylonian Exile (400s BC). We know this, for one reason, because they are all written in the Aramaic script.
In earlier times, a specific Hebrew script was used (called Southern Hebrew, or Old Hebrew). The new Aramaic-based script was already in use sometime before the Exile, since Aramaic was the common language of the Assyrian Empire, which preceded the neo-Babylonian (Chaldean) Empire of Nebuchadnezzar.
No biblical texts survive in the older script. We have no way of knowing if any were ever written in the Old Hebrew Script. A couple of other texts in Old Hebrew script were found among the Qumran scrolls.
Literacy – A Modern Phenomenon
It was only in the last two centuries or so that literacy became common enough to give us an external written representation of our world of knowledge. It has become universal in the western world only in the 20th century. Literacy is only a formal artifact in most cultures, which are primarily oral in worldview and communication style.
Ironically, even America and Western Europe are declining in formal literacy, as the "post-literate" era progresses. Visual literacy and relational concepts are becoming primary once again, largely due to heavily visual media in our era.
Formal literacy is becoming more of a support to visual literacy and orality. Its primary value in the post-literate era is to record and maintain information for reference. The amazing accumulated total volume of knowledge available is actually one of the disincentives to maintenance of high formal literacy.
Literacy is now primarily for recognition and learning purposes. Because there is so much knowledge, it is now impossible for anyone to learn it all, so focus shifts to simple look-up on necessary points as they come up.
Even this information is highly oral – presented in story, drama, narration or dialogue, not simple dry information. The skills necessary for this are recognition, not expression. Recognition literacy is very different from expression literacy. We can call this Passive Literacy.
Western youth are less articulate, and poorly literate in self-expression, but orally, they can energetically and animatedly express themselves!
See my article on this topic Orality and the Post-literate West
See Related Articles on Orality and Literacy
Different Literacy – Different World
(Are Older Bible Manuscripts More Reliable?)
Eye Learning or Ear Learning?
Oral Greek Styles in Paul's Writings
Orality in Christian Mission
Orality, Literacy and the Bible
It's in the Story
Let me put it this way: Everyone can relate to a story. Everyone can learn from a story. Even the very literate. Only a small minority, even of the literate current society, can concentrate on an abstract analytical systems approach to information.
Linear thinking, point-by-point arguments, formal outline approaches to knowledge – these are all declining in effectiveness as communication and thought methods.
Problem of Western Literacy
The main problem with the perspective revealed by Mr. Watts is that it arises totally from within the limited history of universal literacy. This experience of literacy in western society skews one's view of the nature of an oral society, which is actually the majority of the world, even today.
In contrast, the Bible itself focuses on the Living Word, spoken by God, heard by humans (however that is figuratively or literally intended in various situations). The writing is secondary. The writing is simply the record of God's acts and man's perceptions. That is why it is in story form.
The language used does not seem to have any sacred significance. Otherwise why is it in a real human language, instead of a special, esoteric, spiritual language? Why would so much of the Old Testament have been written in Aramaic, a language of pagan oppressors?
Aramaic was used because it was the common inter-language of all the peoples. Aramaic had become the primary language (the one most used in daily activities in society), then a native language of the Hebrews while in exile. (See article on related topic: What is Koine Greek?)
God's Living Word
In Genesis – and the whole Old Testament – it was God's message and the record of God's work in the world that was in focus. Most people throughout history never learned to read and write. Stories and lineages and religious heritage were tansmitted through the amazing memory capacity still exhibited by oral peoples today.
Literacy was the privilege and responsibility of the elite. This is one reason, ironically, that "Writings" were so precious and revered.
They reclaimed for the present generation all the legacy from the time the recording began. Various writings were read on special holy occasions to the whole people who could not read it for themselves.
In the common western ethno-centrism, we find people commonly reasoning, as Mr. Watts does, from our present experience, rather than starting with the original context of the writings themselves.
The views expressed in Mr. Watts' paper emerge from within the bondage of a literate view of the world, history and truth. This inverse reasoning is not worthy of someone (such as a Bible Society) who solicits the trust and support of those who wish to help make God's message available to people in their own language.
Some of these theories seem to arise out a mystical vacuum within someone's imagination. Such ideas sometimes seem to have no connection to the reality God put us here to participate in.
They reason back from their current experience, read that into the record of revelation, and infer concepts of God out of that. This actually prevents the record from speaking to us. We limit it to our limited human reasoning.
Let the writings stand on their own. Let them establish their own context – not meet our external 21st-century standards.
God's Freeing Word
If we could leave the ancient Holy Writings free to speak to us in their own way, they would expand our human insights to a higher level. New spiritual uncertainties might offer us a rare kind of freedom in faith beyond scientific reason.
God's word from beyond could strike through the ordered, structured and limited thought our cultural traditions and expectations have tried to impose upon it. As we enter that ancient cosmic view of reality beyond but within history, we get glimmers of God's marvelous "otherness!"See Related Articles
Related on the Internet:
The Canaanite Linguistic Group – The Ethnologue
The Hebrew Language – The Ethnologue Modern Linguistic Classification
Languages of the Bible – Wayne Jackson, Christian Courier
Terrible, Horrible Book – Book Review on the topic and extensive comments
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 21 December 2004
Last revised 17 August 2011
Last edited 28 February 2014
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © Orville Boyd Jenkins 2004
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.