THE INVENTION OF HEBREW.

Back in April, Douglas Mangum at Biblia Hebraica et Graeca had a tantalizing post briefly discussing The Invention of Hebrew, by Seth L. Sanders (2009), which Mangum calls the book that “best deals with the question of how, why, and when the Israelites started writing Hebrew and how that impacts our theories of biblical composition.” Now he’s posting a Q&A with Seth Sanders (Part 1, Part 2). It’s full of interesting stuff; among other things, he talks about an article by Sheldon Pollock, “Cosmopolitan and Vernacular in History”:

Pollock makes a very basic point: in most times and places people didn’t read or write the language they spoke. The norm is for there to be a universal, supposedly timeless, written language, what he calls a cosmopolitan language, one implicitly intended for everyone no matter who or where they were. Latin is an example.
So why does Israel’s language and literature outlast its polity? What Pollock points out is that local literatures are actually invented, usually in reaction to these cosmopolitan literatures. A light bulb goes on and people say, “Hey, why don’t we write about our place, our culture?” And what’s so remarkable is it seems to have happened in Western Europe around the 10th century CE when people moved from Latin and invented written German, French, and Spanish and in South Asia, when people moved from Sanskrit to Tamil and Javanese. I realized that maybe Hebrew was part of a similar movement but almost 2,000 years earlier. It means that the Bible may have a different historical significance than we’ve assumed.

I love this kind of thing. Thanks for the link, Paul!

Comments

  1. Truly, in most times and places people didn’t write at all. Newfangled invention, writing; spreading it around the world from the four original foci (Sumer, Egypt, China, the Mayan Empire) is even more recent.

  2. John: a) there was no “the Mayan Empire”, b) various other scripts in the area predate the Maya. It’s probably safest to just say “Mesoamerica” for that one.

  3. “The tradition that Moses wrote the Pentateuch…” is perhaps the scholar’s equivalent of “This bloke I met in the pub said that….”

  4. Seth’s English isn’t much cop. “In the kingdoms of Israel and Judah the new writing had assumed a definitive status.” What precisely does he mean?
    “Yet in the very territory and history Hebrew described, the literary silence from which it emerged had been forgotten.” In the very history the silence had been forgotten. Eh?
    “The most successful product of this new writing, the Bible[,] reads as if written Hebrew had always existed, preserving no memory of its origins or what came before it.” He presumably means that the Bible had preserved no memory, but since the nearest noun to “preserving” is “Hebrew” he’s introduced an ambiguity which makes the (or, at least, this) reader have to re-read the sentence.
    It’s a pity, because his argument is fascinating.

  5. On your webpage posted on Bibal.net recently, I saw these interesting questions: Why did the Israelites start writing in Hebrew? It seems fundamental to the study of biblical literature, yet studies on the origin and composition of biblical texts rarely consider it. Why?
    For 2,000 years most Semitic speakers just wrote Babylonian and never showed any interest in writing their own language.
    I propose the reason these people started to produce literature in a Semitic language goes hand in hand with:
    a) The need to settle the Holy Land (hallow the land itself in a hallowing sermon) after the exodus.
    b) What is embedded in the title of Sheldon Pollock’s book it self: “The Language of the GODS (plural) in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India.” –Minkind’s conclusion at this conjunction in evolution, one god is prefered over many.
    c) The struggle to fight the Roman conquest where the issue was primarily construing an image of creation (Cosmic Image) governed by a ONE god.
    What made a literature even possible, I propose, was the Semitic scribes strugle to have to conceal basic fundemental symbolism regarding the above from authorities.
    The Holy Land is host to the first Cosmic Image of a ONE GOD in history. The ensuing bloody struggle was played out against Rome in Israel and on stages inside the amphitheaters of Rome.
    See:
    http://www.peturhalldorsson.com/papers.html
    Petur Halldorsson

  6. And what’s so remarkable is it seems to have happened in Western Europe around the 10th century CE when people moved from Latin and invented written German, French, and Spanish
    A lot of people think Beowulf was written around 650 a.d., so I find that hard to believe.

  7. marie-lucie says:

    Peter Halldurson: Were not the earliest books of the Bible written long before Rome had imperial ambitions in the Holy Land?

  8. Marie-Lucie: Yes. The Images of Creation, I mention seem to have been even older than that. The one paced in the Holy Land seems to have been the first such venerated by one god.

  9. Charles Perry says:

    People started switching to Tamil around the year 1000? The grammar Tolkappiyam had been written almost a thousand years before that, and the poetry anthologies Ettuttokai and Pattupattu had been compiled by 400.
    No mention of Pali?

  10. English and Irish are special cases, AJP: they had a very old written tradition alongside Latin, because they were immediately recognized and treated as distinct languages, not just bad Latin, and writing was never lost in either country.

  11. David Marjanović says:
    in most times and places people didn’t read or write the language they spoke. The norm is for there to be a universal, supposedly timeless, written language, what he calls a cosmopolitan language, one implicitly intended for everyone no matter who or where they were.

    As usual, history repeats itself. In all normal situations, I speak an unwritten dialect of German, and it’s called “dialect” because of its social position; it’s more distant from the standard than the standards of Czech, Slovak and Polish are from each other.

  12. David Marjanović says:

    English and Irish are special cases, AJP: they had a very old written tradition alongside Latin, because they were immediately recognized and treated as distinct languages, not just bad Latin, and writing was never lost in either country.

    How does German fit? Most Old High German texts are (more or less) bad translations of Bible passages.

  13. Aha. Probably had more pens and paper, or something.

  14. Too early for paper, AJP.

  15. I love to read things like this but I do not see anyone giving a title of any book or PBS series.
    A video you guys would also like from PBS is about Where did the southern accent from USa come from and a linguist traced it all to the Applilacian mountains where the irish first settled down.
    But I also assume that some history will never be known either out of jealousy or pride be it political or whatnot.
    I can only assume that hebrew written language was created in the same fashion and need that the Korean language was created.
    It was said the first artifical language created is Klingon and the first known written language to be created without it being in a evolving nature is Korean. Koreans wanted to be seen as korean and not as HAN chinese.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    Those sources look dubious to me.
    Klingon may be the most popular artificial language nowadays , but people have been “creating” languages for centuries (not many of them have been adopted, even for fun or secret communication, let alone for general communication). Several books have been written on the topic.
    Some of those “creations” were totally artificial (in the sense that they are not structured like any real languages at all), but most of them, including the most successful ones, are based on actual languages (like Esperanto and, yes, Klingon).
    By “written language” you mean “script”. Writing reproduces spoken language, more or less accurately. Most scripts, even the ones that appear to have been composed deliberately (like Korean) were not created out of the blue but in imitation (or improvement) of other scripts, or at least by persons who had seen writing and understood what it was for. Korean was first written with Chinese characters, because of Chinese influence at the time, but the Chinese script was not at all suited to the Korean language, and as a result very few Koreans became literate. The Korean script (perhaps the most successful one ever) was devised specifically to be adapted to the language and to be easy to be read and written by Korean speakers.

  17. David Marjanović says:

    Some of those “creations” were totally artificial (in the sense that they are not structured like any real languages at all), but most of them, including the most successful ones, are based on actual languages (like Esperanto and, yes, Klingon).

    Klingon deliberately uses combinations of features that (as combinations) are rare or absent from natural languages, and most of its vocabulary comes out of nowhere.
    The Korean script was, apparently, not entirely invented out of nowhere; it seems to have started with a reinterpretation of four letters of the ‘Phags-pa script. This reinterpretation was then generalized and used to invent the rest of the letters. Wikipedia knows it all, look it up.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    DM, it is true that Klingon is deliberately unusual, but it was made up by a linguist and has the basic properties of a language, otherwise people could not learn it as another language and use it to communicate with other aficionados.
    The totally artificial languages I am thinking about (thought up in past centuries, and sometimes elaborated by deranged people) were based on the idea that attested languages were imperfect and that an ideal artificial language had to be designed on different, often “philosophical” principles. Some of these systems are described in the book Les fous du langage (translated as Lunatic lovers of language), by the French-Russian linguist Marina Yaguello, and in a few other works on the same topic.

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