Present and Future of the Hebrew Past – By Aaron Koller

Aaron Koller on William M. Schniedewind’s A Social History of Hebrew

William M. Schniedewind, A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period, Yale University Press, 2013, 280pp., $35
William M. Schniedewind, A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins through the Rabbinic Period, Yale University Press, 2013, 280pp., $35

The philologist sat with his back hunched, staring, now through a looking glass, now with just his eyes, at the letters in front of him. The manuscript’s yellowed pages offered up their secrets, one after the other, as the words and then the sentences of the dead language and the archaic script yielded to his unrelenting focus. The dry bones of a text from a thousand years ago were coming alive in his hands.

But there was a dot. A single dot under a single letter, which changed the meaning. This troubled him. Could that really have been what the writer meant? It sent the philologist to the lexicon, which sent him to another text, only slightly younger, and this started a hunt. He recited texts he had committed to memory, searching for a comparable word. He rifled through pages of various volumes. Soon he had a dozen books open on his desk, his heart was beating slightly faster, and he was growing less sure of everything he thought he understood.

His wife came in to the room to say that she had made a soup for lunch. He couldn’t think of soup, and gestured to the text, to the word, to the dot. His wife leaned in for a better look and exhaled. And the dot, a speck of something, blew across the page and was gone. The philologist was stunned, and then smiled lovingly at his wife. He followed her into the kitchen for soup.

If this is what philology is, philology may be dead. Today’s world has little patience for philology for its own sake, for the massive erudition that is needed just to decipher a text whose significance even in its own time was minimal, and there is even less money for such study. “Philology” has become a term against which some contemporary scholars define themselves. The term itself is used in a derogatory manner; one scholar maligned philology as the “incredible ability to read philosophy and poetry as an exercise in grammar.”

This is a poor characterization of what scholars of written texts actually do, of course, and in fact, this is not what philology ever really was, as James Turner has recently reminded us in his study of the discipline and all it has spawned. Contemporary textual scholars, informed by theory and animated by the concerns of the broader modern and post-modern academy, produce research that is in many cases quite relevant and resonant – not “mere philology.”

In some cases, the search for relevance produces work that is overwrought and unfounded, but in others, new life is breathed into old texts through the application of novel methodologies and approaches. William Schniedewind’s A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins through the Rabbinic Period is an excellent example of the latter. Drawing on sociolinguistics, in addition to historical linguistics and other tools of “old-fashioned philology,” Schniedewind sets out to write a social history of a dead language. He does not aim to describe the grammar of the language in full or to trace features of the morphology or syntax through the centuries. Instead, he wants to use language as a key to unlocking an ancient society.

In biblical parlance, a “language” (lashon) is a “nation,” and there is much to this metonym. A nation, a people, may define itself in various ways, but a cohesive sense of identity is crucial for the maintenance of peoplehood, and language is a way of fostering such identity. Schniedewind shows how the questions of language and identity accompanied the Jews from the beginnings of their history as a nation through the beginning of the rabbinic period, more than a millennium later.

What is a social history of a language? Rather than just a diachronic descriptive grammar, Schniedewind aims to describe the life of ancient Hebrew. One can imagine it as a biography of the language. Like any comprehensive biography, the book should describe the birth of the language, including something about its ancestors; the development and growth of the language; the use of the language, including who spoke it and in what contexts, questions of literacy and who wrote what about what to whom; the diversity of the language during its lifetime; and the death of the language, including the social and historical factors that led to that death. In the case of Hebrew, there is also a type of life-in-death and then a rebirth to reckon with, but these are well beyond the chronological scope of the book.

What is known about each of these stages in the life of the language? Linguistically speaking, Hebrew is classified as a Canaanite language, but that is to say nothing about the ethnicity of Hebrew speakers; English, one recalls, is a Germanic language, but this does not mean that English-speakers are originally German. The Canaanite languages share certain distinctive innovations, such as the lengthening of the long vowel /ā/ to /ō/ under stress, and the reflex of / ḍ / as / ṣ /. In this regard, the position of Hebrew on the Semitic family tree fits well with its geographic location between Phoenician and Moabite, other Canaanite languages. Dating the emergence of Hebrew as an independent language would require identifying what marks Hebrew as different from its cousins and trying to figure out exactly when those differences emerged. When did Canaanite languages and the ancestor of Aramaic diverge? When did Proto-Canaanite break into the different branches, such that Hebrew can said to have been born? These questions are not broached in this book.

Having just said that Hebrew is a Canaanite language, it also needs to be said that real languages often do not fit well on evolutionary trees. The problem is that languages are spoken by actual people, and people trade, conquer, and migrate, among other activities, and these have linguistic repercussions. Anson Rainey, of blessed memory, drew attention to features that align Hebrew with Aramaic, against Canaanite languages. Much of the evidence cited has to do with basic vocabulary, such as the word for “to be”: Hebrew and Aramaic use hwh, while Canaanite languages such as Phoenician use the older Semitic root kwn. There are aspects of narrative syntax, too, that unite Hebrew and Aramaic against Phoenician.

Languages are spoken by actual people, and people trade, conquer, and migrate. These activities have linguistic repercussions.

Of course, it would be misguided to take this as an either/or question, as if either Hebrew must either be a Canaanite language or share features in common with Aramaic. Instead, one has to grapple with the messy history of a language, which in this case seems to include an origin as a Canaanite dialect and some influence from the languages of the Transjordan. The attempts to deny the significance of Rainey’s points fixate on static evolutionary models which cannot account for all the data.

To return to English for an example: if one didn’t know of the massive influence of French on English over the past thousand years, one might argue that phonological, syntactic, and lexical correspondences set French and English apart from other European languages, thus proving a “North Atlantic” sub-branch of Indo-European. The basic problem is that looking at the language only at a certain stage of its development and using that for comparative purposes is risky business. Languages contain layers within themselves, evidence of language contact, demographic shifts, political alliances, and population movements. Only reconstructed proto-languages are useful for language family trees. Social history is concerned with the differences that develop after that.

Questions like these are unfortunately not engaged in the early part of the book. Instead, Schniedewind begins with a focus on the script in which Hebrew was written — itself a fascinating question, but not properly a linguistic one. His treatment of the topic also does not fully exploit what we know: for example, the Israelites used a script descended from the Late Bronze Age Canaanite scripts until the tenth century BCE but then adopted Phoenician script. This important fact is ripe for social analysis but not discussed in the book. (It should be added that the hieratic numerals found in both Judean and Israelite texts throughout the Iron Age [ca 1200-550 BCE] may well have been borrowed in the tenth century rather than the twelfth, as Schniedewind argues.) The tenth century is the time of the United Monarchy according to the biblical narrative, and while this has been questioned or dismissed by many scholars, it is clear archaeologically that the tenth century saw building and writing in Israel quite different than what is seen for the centuries preceding — something a social history ought to discuss.

The book is organized in chronological order, moving through the early Iron Age down to the end of that era, when, according to Schniedewind, the bulk of the Bible was written, then to the Persian and Hellenistic eras, and finally the Roman period, when Hebrew “died” and rabbinic literature was born. In each chapter of the book we read of the evidence, or lack thereof, for scribalism and scribal schools, and of literary compositions and linguistic developments. Each chapter ends with a brief list of features that are distinctive to the time period discussed in the chapter — although these are sometimes more problematic than Schniedewind lets on.

Once we get past the question of origins and to the heart of the book, we are looking not at the sources of Hebrew but at how it was used, by whom, when, and for what. The Bible looms large here, of course, both as a source of information and as a problem to be solved. Who wrote long epic narratives in ancient Hebrew? Were these written in the Iron Age, or later? Were there literary prophecies? Laws? And were these written in different dialects, or in a homogenized literary dialect? Who could have written them? How restricted was literacy?

Reproduction of Lachish Letter III. Image via Wikimedia Commons.
Reproduction of Lachish Letter III. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Part of the book rests on Schniedewind’s own previous work, in which he has argued that the bulk of the Bible dates from the late Iron Age rather than earlier or — as is more commonly proposed as an alternative — later. His argument is summarized here as a sociolinguistic claim: ancient cultures in exile do not respond to such trauma with textual reification of traditions, and the notion that this is natural is a “post-Gutenberg” phenomenon. I am not sure how to assess this claim, since it seems to be based on certain assumptions that are themselves the question to be answered, but it is a thought-provoking argument that adds an important dimension to the discussions of the textualization of the Bible. In the chapter on “The Democratization of Hebrew,” Schniedewind ably shows that literacy in ancient Israel was more widespread than might have been expected. He includes a brief study of Lachish letter 3, the “letter of a literate soldier.” While I have some reservations about the specifics of the translation offered, the conclusion reached — “that illiteracy had a social stigma” — is surely correct, and fundamentally important for understanding Israelite society.

At the same time, the discussion of variable spellings in that chapter (and others) is somewhat confused. Schniedewind repeatedly avers that “writing is not a transcription system.” Granting the obvious truth of that statement, it does not follow that spelling is actually entirely random, or merely a way of marking identity, without any basis in phonological realities, as is suggested in the book. To take one example where this arises, the notion that the final vav on some of the nouns in the Gezer Calendar reflects nothing in the phonological realities of the language, but is only an “arbitrary sign,” seems to reflect this misunderstanding of the notion that writing is not a transcription system.

Moving on in history, Schniedewind discusses the use of Hebrew in exile, beginning in the sixth century BCE and continuing from there. The chapter includes helpful discussions of the shift within the chancelleries from Hebrew to Aramaic and the question of Akkadian influence on Hebrew. The latter issue is oversimplified here, since even in Babylonia itself Akkadian was no longer the commonly spoken language. If there really is “pervasive influence of Akkadian,” it is likely channeled through Aramaic, the lingua franca of the age and the language in which Babylonians and Judeans would have conversed (if they did).

The preservation of Hebrew at all through a prolonged period of diaspora is the social fact most worthy of note, and Schniedewind not only notes but probes this fact. Scholars of diasporas have investigated the power of language in a diaspora community to preserve identity and enable a community to remain coherent and (to some extent) distinct from its new surroundings. My own university is located in Washington Heights, where the majority population is bilingual, and Dominican Spanish is heard on the streets as often as English. It is no wonder that the community in the neighborhood has retained a sense of coherence and of otherness vis-à-vis America more broadly. Of course, there is a chicken-and-egg problem here: is the language preserved because of the otherness, or is the otherness the result of the language preservation? Or, as the Talmud sometimes says, can we cut the Gordion knot and say “this and this come together”?

In Babylonian- and Persian-era Jewish society, it is not clear how or to what extent Hebrew was preserved. Schniedewind argues for a fairly substantial gap in scribal training, but this cannot be confused with the question of actual speakers of the language. The author of Esther, who was presumably located in the eastern diaspora nearly two hundred years after the exile, had no trouble writing a book in Hebrew prose (albeit a recognizably later dialect than earlier biblical books). He was also able to allude repeatedly to earlier biblical texts, which may provide indirect evidence for the kind of education he received.

Probing more deeply, we may notice that the Hebrew dialect of Esther is different from that of Chronicles, which is roughly a contemporary composition, and we may wonder whether geography plays a part in this difference. In fact, it is clear that two-dimensional models of linguistic variation, taking into account only the diachronic aspects, are insufficient. Schniedewind importantly adds a third dimension: linguistic ideology. A fourth is also salutary: geography. David Talshir has sought the origin of Late Biblical Hebrew among those Jews who returned to Judea from Babylonia in the fifth century BCE. Yet another important variable is genre: it seems clear that royal inscriptions were composed in a dialect (or register) different from what people commonly spoke, and which may be better reflected in letters; biblical narratives sometimes show grammatical differences between quoted speech and the narrator’s voice. This multi-dimensionality, with at least five variables, makes our dialect maps nearly impossible to draw, but gets us somewhat closer to the truth.

Of course, sociolinguists are particularly attuned to the complexity of real languages. The studies of William Labov, beginning half a century ago, taught us just how much language varies within a society, by class, gender, and other variables. Labov is cited throughout the book, although the level of Schniedewind’s engagement with his approach and with the rest of the field of sociolinguistics is open to some question. The speakers whose language forms the data sets for Labov’s studies are typically not conscious of the minor features that distinguish their dialects or sociolects from others; this is what makes it such rich data. Schniedewind seems to think of scribes and speakers of ancient Hebrew not as comparable to the people studied by sociolinguists, but as sociolinguists themselves, consciously and programmatically altering their grammar and even their spelling to make statements of identity. (Schniedewind’s teacher Chaim Rabin also seemed to believe, in a number of articles on texts from Hosea to Qumran, that all linguistic choices were conscious and self-reflective methods of marking identity.)

To take two brief examples, Schniedewind believes that the introduction of vowel letters was an act of a “nationalist and separatist movement,” and that the word for “land” was written differently in different dialects as the result of “social, political, and ideological factors.” Vowel letters, along with many other details and developments in written texts, are most fruitfully explained as unconscious linguistic developments rather than hyper-conscious political moves. And the different spellings of the word for “land” in the Northwest Semitic languages are simply the results of the different reflexes of the phoneme / ḍ / in these languages, and the same phenomena are found in every word containing that phoneme. This has nothing to do with the ideological force of the word “land.”

A further consistent problem is the use of basic linguistic terminology in non-linguistic ways, and this occasionally really leads to confusion in the analysis. He refers to deep structure and surface structure a number of times, but explains that surface structure refers to the lexicon and deep structure refers to syntax. The book also systematically confuses “linguistic competence” with “scribal competence.” In discussing Lachish letter 3, for example, he argues that it was written by a “junior military officer with rudimentary linguistic skills,” and cites as evidence the fact that the opening does not conform to standard epistolary style. But this has nothing to do with linguistic skills. All of the features identified as aberrant have to do with scribal training. And that’s exactly the point: the writer was perfectly literate and of course a native speaker of Hebrew; he just wasn’t a scribe. So he writes good Hebrew, but with imperfect spelling measured against the bar of Standard Biblical Hebrew, and inferior epistolary style.

The last part of the book turns to rabbinic literature. The use of Hebrew in the literature of the early Rabbis (the “Tannaim,” c. 100-200 CE) presents the biographer of Hebrew with a number of elements that are ripe for sociolinguistic analysis. First is the question of the vernacular in Roman Palestine. Had people really been speaking Hebrew, rather than Aramaic, throughout? Second is the massive Aramaic influence on Tannaitic Hebrew, from the lexicon through morphology and into syntax. Third, and more complicated, is the fact that there are features in this late dialect that are typologically earlier than what is found in Biblical Hebrew. These include details of morphology (such as the third feminine singular perfect ending) and of syntax (such as the presence of the definite article in simple noun-adjective constructions). Where did this dialect come from that it was not affected by these changes in a neighboring dialect of Hebrew centuries, perhaps a millennium, earlier? And fourth, now that we have a corpus of epigraphic Hebrew from second century Judea, and especially now with Uri Mor’s thorough grammar of those texts, it is clear that it is not that dialect reflected in rabbinic literature. But if rabbinic Hebrew is not the spoken dialect of Judea from the second century, what is it? In theory any of the other variables may be operable here: is it from a different time (perhaps reflecting linguistic updating over the following centuries) or a different genre (legal texts vs. colloquial letters) or a different place (the Galilee vs. Judea)? Or all of the above?

All in all, this is an exciting, and frustrating, book. The questions it raises show that the study of ancient Hebrew has moved into a more sophisticated phase, where language history is not segregated from the history of society or culture. At the same time, it highlights the fact that larger questions that are broached have to be addressed on the basis of solid, old-fashioned philology. The study of the languages is no longer enough, but it is pre-requisite to anything else.

Philology is dead. Long live philology!