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2 (2010): 173188



Jo Ann Hackett and Naama Pat-El



In a series of recent articles, Anson Rainey has challenged the com-

monly-held opinion that Hebrew is a Canaanite language and its clos-
est attested relative is Phoenician.1 Rainey argues that in fact Hebrew
and Moabite are closer to Aramaic and should be classified under
Transjordanian languages.2 We disagree with Raineys conclusions as

* A version of this paper was read at the North American Conference on Afroasiatic
Linguistics (NACAL) annual meeting, which was held in Austin, TX, February 12, 2011.
We had been working on this paper for over a year, not aware of Anson Raineys grave
illness. Hackett presented a form of this paper in the spring of 2009, and Pat-El had been
in email contact with Rainey to discuss his ideas. We did not intend for this paper to be
published after his death; rather, we always assumed that he would have the opportunity
to respond to our objections. Unfortunately, that is not to be. Despite Ansons untimely
passing, we feel that it is beneficial to publish our response to his latest work since his
intellectual contribution is so influential.
A. Rainey, Redefining HebrewA Transjordanian Language, Maarav 14.2 (2007):
6781; idem, Whence Came the Israelites and Their Language, IEJ 57.1 (2007): 41
64; idem, The Northwest Semitic Literary Repertoire and its Acquaintance by Judean
Writers, Maarav 15.2 (2008): 193205.
See, for example, Rainey, Redefining Hebrew (n 1): 67: the present essay is an at-
tempt to present some preliminary observations that point to Hebrew as a language from the
eastern steppe lands in contrast to the Cis-Jordanan language employed by the Canaanites
(Phoenician) in the twelfth century b.c.e. and later. Or Rainey, Whence Came (n 1): 52:
. . . my study of North-west Semitic languages, especially more recent discoveries in the
late twelfth century, has led me to the conclusion that ancient Hebrew has more affinities
174 MAARAV 17.2 (2010)

well as with his methodology. While Rainey uses arguments of various

types (archaeological, linguistic, etc.), we will specifically address his
linguistic arguments, which we believe to be the only relevant arguments
for language subgrouping. In section 2 below we will first explain the
methodology linguists conventionally use to determine how languages
are related to each other. In section 3.1 we will review the arguments
in favor of Hebrew and Phoenician having branched off from a single
language, as well as their linguistic separation from Aramaic. In section
3.2 we will address Raineys arguments and explain why we find them
questionable from a linguistic perspective. On the basis of these sections
we intend to show that according to the data currently known to us, there
is no reason to change the subgrouping of Northwest Semitic (NWS).
Finally, in sections 4 and 5 we offer some notes on the state of the schol-
arship in the field of Semitic linguistics and the effect studies such as
those under discussion have on it.



Before addressing Raineys arguments directly, it is essential to under-

stand how historical linguists typically determine genetic relationships
between languages. First and foremost, any external, i.e., non-linguistic,
feature of a group of people is irrelevant. That includes everything from
material culture, to names, to writing. There are, however, a number of
principles that do guide the historical linguist in this quest.3 The basic
relationships between languages are established through regular sound
correspondences, but in order to evaluate the exact branching of a family
the most important principle is shared innovations. Shared innovations
are traits that arise in certain languages and are not, therefore, part of the
repertoire of traits of the common ancestral language (or, consequently,
those of other languages descending from the same ancestral language).
If two languages share an innovative feature, that feature is indicative of
their genetic closeness, i.e., they both share an ancestor in which the in-
novation occurred. When one language differs from another because of

with Aramaic and Moabite than with Phoenician (the real Canaanite of the Iron Age).
For the theoretical and methodological basis of our arguments in this section, we re-
fer the reader to L. Campbell, Historical Linguistics: An Introduction (Cambridge: MIT,
1998); H. H. Hock, Principles of Historical Linguistics (Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter,
1991); and P. Kiparsky, The Phonological Basis of Sound Change, in The Handbook
of Historical Linguistics (B. D. Joseph and R. D. Janda, eds.; Oxford: Blackwell, 2006);
313342, as representative examples.

an innovation, it is indicative that they split from the ancestral language

at different times. A classic example of a shared innovation is the forma-
tion of the suffix conjugation, or perfect (Arabic katabtu I wrote)
from a conjugated adjective (Akkadian marku I am sick) which
pushed the old *yaqtul (Akkadian iprus) to secondary functions. This
innovation is attested in all West Semitic languages, but not in Akkadian,
so it must have taken place in Proto-West Semitic, after it split from the
mother language.4
On the other hand, many features that seem to be innovations are in
fact shared retentions. A shared retention is a feature that is an inheri-
tance from an ancestral language. When it can be proved that a feature
exists in an ancestral language, all descendant languages have the pos-
sibility of exhibiting it. A given language may lose the feature or replace
it, but if it was extant in an ancestral language, it is inconsequential to
the subgrouping of that language since the feature existed prior to the
splitting-off of the descendant languages. The feature, therefore, was not
innovated by the descendant languages that share it; they simply have
a common ancestor from which they have inherited the feature. Such
shared retentions tell us nothing about these languages subgrouping. For
example, in Hebrew, Ugaritic, Old Aramaic, Arabic, and perhaps some
OSA dialects the suffix on the imperfect is -na, while in Akkadian,
later Aramaic, and Ethiopic it is --. This may superficially seem like
a classic example of a shared innovation; but in fact, the - ending in
Akkadian, later Aramaic, and Ethiopic is a result of analogy with plural
forms of the suffix conjugation: *qatul- : *qatvl- ::
*yaqtul- : X = *yaqtul-. Thus the forms in Hebrew, Ugaritic, Old
Aramaic, OSA, and Arabic reflect the original Semitic suffix rather than
an innovation, and cannot therefore be used to establish a closer connec-
tion between the Central Semitic languages.5

J. Huehnergard, Features of Central Semitic, in Biblical and Oriental Essays in
Memory of William L. Moran (A. Gianto, ed.; Rome: PBI, 2005): 163.
G. Goldenberg, The Semitic Languages of Ethiopia and their Classification,
BSO(A)S 40 (1977): 477; Huehnergard, Central Semitic (n 4): 169170. For a clear
methodological discussion on shared innovations see R. Hetzron, Two Principles of
Genetic Reconstruction, Lingua 38 (1976): 89198. For more cases of shared reten-
tions and shared innovations see J. Huehnergard, What is Aramaic? Aram 7 (1995):
261282, and On the Etymology of the Hebrew Relative e-, in Biblical Hebrew in Its
Northwest Semitic Setting: Typological and Historical Perspectives (A. Hurvitz and S.
Fassberg, eds.; Jerusalem: Hebrew Univ. Magnes, 2005): 103126, using shared innova-
tions to define Aramaic and East Semitic respectively; J. Fox, The Relationships of the
Eastern Neo-Aramaic Dialects, JAOS 114.2 (1994): 154162, using shared innovations
for the subgrouping of Neo-Aramaic (North Eastern Neo-Aramaic [NENA]); R. Radcliffe,
Morphological Isoglosses: The Broken Plural and Semitic Subclassification, JNES 57.2
176 MAARAV 17.2 (2010)

It is important to note in regard to Raineys arguments that histori-

cal linguists tend to avoid the lexicon as a feature that is useful in sub-
grouping.6 Although lexical items are essential in determining sound
changes, by themselves they are almost useless for linguistic classifica-
tion. Lexical items are too easily transferrable from language to language
even with casual and inconstant contact. With languages that reside in
close proximity to each other, as the NWS languages did, and are in sus-
tained contact, it is almost impossible to determine what is indigenous
and what is borrowed.7 Thus the value of lexemes is highly problematic.
These principles and guidelines are of course a simplification of his-
torical linguistics, used in order to clarify some of our comments below.
We do not aim to give here a full description of the field, but rather to
illustrate some of the most crucial principles of genetic subgrouping.



So far, it has been the consensus that Hebrew and Phoenician, along
with far less well-documented languages, such as Ammonite and Moabite,
belong to a group called Canaanite.8 Rainey argues that this subgroup-
ing is wrong, and that in fact Hebrew is far closer to Aramaic than to
Phoenician. In the following we will evaluate the arguments in favor of
the consensus (Canaanite) and Raineys arguments (Transjordanian)
according to the principles outlined above.

(1998): 81123 on broken plurals; N. Pat-El, On Verbal Negation in Semitic, ZDMG 162
(2012): ???? on verbal negation.
For a detailed discussion of Raineys lexical examples, see pp. 8588.
S. G. Thomason, Language Contact: An Introduction (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ.,
2001): 70.
Hetzrons seminal 1976 paper (n 5) put to rest the matter of the subgrouping of the
Northwest Semitic languages. Many others have followed, but after Hetzron the subgroup-
ing of this node is no longer an issue in the field of Semitics. For more works see among oth-
ers the following: J. Huehnergard, Remarks on the Classification of the Northwest Semitic
Languages, in The Balaam Text from Deir Alla Re-Evaluated (J. Hoftijzer and G. van der
Kooij, eds.; Leiden: Brill, 1991): 282293; idem, Historical Phonology and the Hebrew
Piel, in Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew (W. R. Bodine, ed.; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns,
1992): 209229 and idem, Central Semitic (n 4); A. Faber, Genetic Subgrouping of the
Semitic Languages, in The Semitic Languages (R. Hetzron, ed.; New York: Routledge,
1997): 315; R. Hasselbach, Final Vowels of Pronominal Suffixes and Independent
Personal Pronouns in Semitic, JSS 49.1 (2004): 119; A. Rubin, The Subgrouping of the
Semitic Languages, in Language and Linguistics Compass 2.1 (2008): 79102.

3.1 Hebrew and Phoenician are Canaanite

The case for a close genetic relation between Canaanite and Hebrew
(as well as other less well attested languages) is one of the least contro-
versial in the Semitic languages and has been unchallenged since the
earliest attempts to subgroup the Semitic languages. The arguments in
favor of subgrouping Hebrew and Phoenician under Canaanite are the

1. The Suffix Conjugation of the D and C stems: Huehnergard10 con-

vincingly showed that we must reconstruct a similar Proto-Northwest
Semitic (PNWS) pattern for the Suffix Conjugation of the D and C
stems, *qattila and *haqtila. (The D and C stems are the piel and
hipil in Hebrew, the 2nd and 4th Forms in Arabic.) These PNWS
forms are reflected in the Proto-Aramaic forms *qattil and *haqtil,
in Ugaritic a-li-ma (D),11 and in vestigial I-weak forms in Hebrew
(hb < *hawtib).12 The only languages to deviate from these pat-
terns are Hebrew (D qittl, C hiqtl) and Phoenician (D *qittil, C
*yiqtil).13 These forms correspond to those in Amarna Canaanite, like
Causative i-i-b-e (EA 256:7), which Huehnergard normalizes as 3
m.s. Suffix Conjugation hibia.14 This is an innovation which con-
nects Phoenician, Hebrew, and Amarna Canaanite against other NWS
2. Generalization of 1 c.p. n: in Hebrew and Phoenician, the 1 c.p. suf-
fix on Suffix Conjugation verbs is n (as in mrn), corresponding
to the ending of the personal pronoun *nin;15 they generalized the
suffix n16 to all positions. This suffix is also attested in Amarna
Canaanite: ru-u-nu (EA 264:18) our head and ti-mi-tu-na-nu (EA
238:33) you kill us.17 Aramaic, on the other hand, generalized the

See a very brief summary in Faber (n 8): 10.
Huehnergard, Historical Phonology (n 8).
This is reflected in Ugaritic in cuneiform; see J. Huehnergard, Ugaritic Vocabulary in
Syllabic Transcription: Revised Edition (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2008): 321.
J. Blau, Studies in Hebrew Verb Formation, HUCA 42 (1971): 133153.
See J. Friedrich, W. Rllig, and M. G. Amadasi Guzzo, Phnizisch-Punische
Grammatik (Rome: PBI, 1999): 88 for D with Greek transliterations, and 93, for C with
Latin transliterations.
Huehnergard, Historical Phonology (n 8): 219 n. 43.
Huehnergard, Central Semitic (n 4): 167.
For the question of length here, see Hasselbach (n 8): 14.
A. Rainey, Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets: A Linguistic Analysis of the Mixed
Dialect used by Scribes from Canaan (4 vols.; Leiden: Brill. 1996): 1.8588.
178 MAARAV 17.2 (2010)

suffix n. Again, the former is an innovation that is unique to those

languages normally called Canaanite.
3. The Canaanite shift (* > ): the shift of Proto-Semitic (PS) * to
is attested in Hebrew, Phoenician, and Amarna Canaanite (but not
Aramaic). This shift also operated on any vowel which developed
prior to the operation of the shift, e.g., through compensatory length-
ening (*ra- > *r > Hebrew r).18 The shift must be earlier than
the fourteenth century b.c.e., as it is attested at El-Amarna (s-ki-ni
for /sokini/).19
4. Perfect 1 c.s. *-tu > -ti: most Semitic languages have a Perfect (or
stative in the case of Akkadian) 1 c.s. with a final -u vowel (Akkadian
ku, Arabic tu, etc.), probably corresponding to the ending of the
personal pronoun anku.20 The Canaanite languages all have an
ending with a final -i: Hebrew ktab-t, Punic corathi (Late Punic
illamt21), Moabite mlkty (KAI 181:2), Amarna Canaanite na-ad-na-
ti (EA 73:38).22 This innovation is related to the Canaanite shift and
the changes in the pronominal system of the Canaanite languages: PS
*ank > P-Can. *ank > Can. ank (after dissimilation).23 The
final - vowel spread to the other 1 c.s. pronoun *an > Hebrew n
and to the 1 c.s. suffix on the Suffix Conjugation.

These four innovations group Hebrew, Phoenician, and Amarna

Canaanite into one branch as descendants of a single proto-language,
which broke off from the NWS branch. None of these features is attested
in any other Semitic language and at least two of them (3 and 4) are

Some cases of compensatory lengthening are dated later than the operation of the
shift and hence do not reflect the Canaanite shift (J. Fox, A Sequence of Vowel Shifts in
Phoenician and Other Languages, JNES 55 [1996]: 40).
See Hasselbach, Final Vowels (n 8) and more references there.
Friedrich et al. (n 13): 7576.
Rainey, Canaanite (n 17): 2.284 states that [o]ver eighty percent of 1st c.s. qtl forms
in the EA [el-Amarna] texts from Canaan have a personal suffix ti. There is even an
example where an Akkadian ku is glossed with a Canaanite form with ti (EA 127:25).
This pronoun is attested in Hebrew nok, Phoenician nky (KAI 49:6), Amarna
Canaanite a-nu-ki (EA 287:66), while in Ugaritic the pronoun is a-na-ku (Huehnergard,
Ugaritic Vocabulary [n 11]: 293.)

3.2 Hebrew and Aramaic are Transjordanian

Against the commonly-held view, Rainey argues that Hebrew,

Moabite, and Aramaic form a branch, called Transjordanian, which split
off from NWS and is different in a number of ways from Phoenician.24
As is well known to anyone who has followed the discussion of Semitic
sub-grouping, new branches have been suggested in the past, some ac-
cepted (Central Semitic), some rejected (Arabo-Canaanite).25 Thus, the
idea of readjusting the genetic tree is not foreign to the field. Rainey
lists a number of features that he thinks merit grouping Hebrew with
Aramaic. In the following we will review his arguments and show that
they in fact do not withstand scientific scrutiny.

1. Consonant repertoire: Rainey believes that both Hebrew and Aramaic

borrowed the Phoenician writing system, but that writing system con-
sisted of only 22 characters, presumably the number of consonants
in Phoenician. He points out that since Hebrew had 25 consonants in
its phonological system it is obvious that [t]he speakers of Hebrew
did not speak the same dialect as those from whom they borrowed the
alphabet. The same can be said, of course, of the speakers of Aramaic,
whose language had at least 26 consonants.26 In other words, speak-
ers of Hebrew and Aramaic did not speak Phoenician. He concludes
by saying that these people adopted the Phoenician alphabet because

See for example, Rainey (Redefining Hebrew [n 1]: 68): Certain features that
distinguish Phoenician from Hebrew, Moabite and Aramaic have not been taken into ac-
count in the dialect geography of the Levant. These points lead me to conclude that an-
cient Hebrew has strong affinities with the languages of Trans-Jordan and Central Syria.
Regarding the prefix preterite, Rainey concludes, It is, in fact, a very strong argument for
classifying ancient Hebrew and Moabite not as Canaanite dialects, but as Trans-Jordanian
languages (81). Rainey (Whence Came [n 1]: 53): There are several features that make
it clear that ancient Hebrew has strong affinities with the languages of Transjordan and
Central Syria. Regarding the prefix preterite, Rainey concludes, It is, in fact, a very
strong argument for classifying ancient Hebrew and Moabite not as Canaanite dialects,
but as Transjordanian languages (55). Rainey further opens his 2008 paper (Northwest
Semitic Literary Repertoire [n 1]: 193) on the literary repertoire of Judean writers by stat-
ing: In previous studies evidence was presented indicating that ancient Hebrew had been
brought to Cis-Jordan by pastoralists immigrants/invaders from Trans-Jordan. Stress was
placed on the differences between ancient Hebrew and Canaanite/Phoenician alongside
affinities with Moabite and Aramaic. . . . [I]t is the contention of this present paper and
its predecessors that the language of the Early Iron Age settlers throughout the country
derived from Trans-Jordan.
Both names were suggested by Hetzron, Two Principles (n 5).
Rainey, Whence Came (n 1): 53.
180 MAARAV 17.2 (2010)

Phoenician was the prestige language of the area because of the high
degree of Phoenician literacy.27
One reason we find his discussion of the consonant repertoires of
Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic curious is that it is inconsequential
to linguistic subgrouping. Rainey claims that the fact that both Hebrew
and Aramaic adopted the Phoenician alphabet for languages that had
more consonants than Phoenician means that Hebrew and Aramaic
share something. But of course that is not true. The vast use of the
Latin alphabet for all sorts of languages can serve as a simple rebuttal.
He further affirms that Hebrew and Aramaic had different numbers of
consonants so, using his own argument, that should suggest that they,
too, are not related. But the point of Raineys article is to prove not
only that Hebrew and Aramaic are unrelated to Phoenician, but also
to prove that they are related to each other. It seems to us that he has
misunderstood the relationship between languages and their writing
systems, as well as the meaning of lost or retained consonants in the
determination of genetic relationships between languages.
2. Phonology: Rainey is, of course, not the first to note that the pho-
nology of Old Aramaic is almost identical to that of Canaanite. Old
Aramaic inscriptions were at first argued to be a mix of Aramaic and
Canaanite, with Canaanite the prominent language because of the
consonant inventory of the inscriptions.28 In most, PS * was written
with z (later Aramaic d), PS * was written with (later Aramaic t),
PS * was written with (later Aramaic s), PS was written with
(later Aramaic ). These writings agree with Canaanite languages for
the most part, but not with later Aramaic, in which several mergers
took place. Let us summarize the resemblance between the phonology
of Hebrew and Aramaic:29

See M. Lidzbarski (Ephemeris fr semitische Epigraphik [3 vols.; Giessen:
Tpelmann, 19021915]: 3.3): In der neugefundenen Inschrift [Zakkur] sind es besonders
religise Wendungen, die einen kanaanischen, ja geradezu hebrischen Charakter tragen;
R. A. Bowman (Arameans, Aramaic, and the Bible, JNES 7 [1948]: 71): Syria has al-
ways been a melting-pot in which the diverse cultures, Semitic and non-Semitic, of the ad-
jacent areas have blended into curious mixtures. It is thus with the so-called Old Aramaic
of the region, which is almost completely Canaanite rather than Aramaic; F. M. Cross and
D. N. Freedman (Early Hebrew Orthography [New Haven: AOS, 1952]: 22): Because
of its affinities with contemporary Canaanite, and its considerable divergences from later
Aramaic, the language of these inscriptions [Old Aramaic] was regarded by most scholars
as an artificial mixture of some kind.
In the following chart, angle brackets note the letters with which the phoneme was
written, rather than the actual pronunciation of the phoneme.

Proto-Semitic Hebrew Old Aramaic (Later Aramaic)

* < Z > < Z > (<D>)

* < > < > (<T>)

* < > < > (<S>)

* < > < > (<>)

Although the Hebrew and Old Aramaic systems seem similar, the
reflexes of PS * (Hebrew , Old Aramaic q, later Aramaic )30 con-
vinced linguists that despite the consonant inventory of Sefire and
Zakkur, the language they were written in was in fact an early form of
Aramaic.31 The representations of the PS consonants in these inscrip-
tions did not reflect mergers, but rather simply the closest the scribe
could come to the pronunciation of the phoneme at the time. They
were in flux, in other words, and had not truly merged with the sounds
represented by the letters used to write them. We know this is so be-
cause in later times they would truly merge with other phonemes, but
not the ones used in the Old Aramaic inscriptions. This is one obvious
example where the phonology of a language may have nothing to say
about its genetic relationship to other languages.
3. Vocabulary: A large part of Raineys discussion is his use of lexi-
cal similarities and differences among several languages in an at-
tempt to derive genetic subgrouping from these lexical relationships.
For instance, he discusses a number of doublets, where one lexical
item is common in Aramaic, Moabite, and Hebrew and the other in
Phoenician. But while etymology is used in historical linguistics, it
is used not for uncovering lexical content, but rather because of the
sound correspondences they reflect. As we noted above, lexical items
by themselves are not useful for subgrouping by scholars trained in
historical linguistics, primarily because lexicon is most susceptible to

For example, Hebrew ere land, Old Aramaic <RQ> , later Aramaic ar;
Hebrew emer wool, Old Aramaic <QMR>, later Aramaic amr.
See, for example, R. Degen, Altaramische Grammatik: Der Inschriften des 10.
8. Jh. v. Chr. (Wiesbaden: Deutsche Morgenlndische, 1969): 3031; S. E. Fassberg,
Aramaic, in The Semitic Languages (C. Rabin, ed.; Jerusalem: Bialik, 1993): 7980
[Hebr.]; S. Segert, Old Aramaic Phonology, in Phonologies of Asia and Africa (2 vols.;
A. S. Kaye and P. T. Daniels, eds.; Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1997): 1.118.
182 MAARAV 17.2 (2010)

being affected by borrowing and contact. Sociolinguists draw elabo-

rate maps of isoglosses showing lexical boundaries, which are rarely
correlated with language boundaries; a well known example of inter-
nal dialect boundaries is the soda/pop isogloss in the US, which of
course is not indicative of two different languages. Borrowing cannot
be used for subgrouping, because it does not reflect genetic relations,
just as horn implants do not transform humans into gazelles. Raineys
doublets, then, as mere lexical items, are not helpful for grouping lan-
guages or dialects together. Nevertheless, we will examine his dou-
blets and explain how precisely they function in the languages under
a) Hebr. hyy / Ph. kwn: Rainey32 claims that hwy/hyy to be is an in-
novation33 of Aramaic, Hebrew and possibly Moabite, which he
thinks is a derivation from the 3rd person pronoun.34 Phoenician,
however, uses kwn for to be. Rainey does note that kwn is regu-
larly used in Arabic, but he neglects to mention that it is also used in
Hebrew (nkn), Aramaic (kawwen), Ethiopic (kna), Sabean (kwn),
and Akkadian (knu). Furthermore, the root hwy/hyy is also attested
outside NWS, in Arabic (haw). Thus we have to assume that kwn is
PS, and hwy/hyy is at least Central Semitic. Since these verbs are in-
herited from a previous node, they are shared retentions, and neither
root can be used for the internal sub-grouping of NWS.
b) Hebr. y / Ph. pl: Another of the doublets Rainey discusses is differ-
ent words for to do, make in Phoenician and Hebrew.35 In Phoenician,
the verb used is pl, which, Rainey points out, is rarely used as a fi-
nite verb in biblical or epigraphic Hebrew, although the root itself
is not uncommon. The finite verb that Hebrew (and Moabite) uses
in its place is from the root y. The first obstacle to Raineys claim,
however, is that Hebrew uses both roots for the verb to do, both as
inflected verbs and nouns. The root pl is less common than y, but
it is attested over one hundred times in the Bible, including one of the
oldest Hebrew texts: Exod 15:17 (Song of the Sea). Rainey, how-
ever, dismisses this evidence and claims [o]bviously the root is not
native to Hebrew.36 He also somehow finds fault with the fact that

Rainey, Redefining Hebrew (n 1): 4.
Rainey uses the word innovation quite often. But he is misusing the nomenclature,
rather like a Biblical Hebrew poet who uses what he sees as older forms in the language but
uses them incorrectly, so that we can say that the poems are archaizing, but not archaic.
Rainey, Whence Came (n 1): 53.
Rainey, Redefining Hebrew (n 1): 7173.
Ibid., 73.

the root occurs mostly in poetic texts.37 In order for Raineys point
that pl is not native to Hebrew to stand, he claims that the use of
pl in Hebrew reflect[s] the cultural and political contacts with the
Phoenicians, especially during the monarchy or later.38 Besides the
fact that Hebrew actually attests to both roots, these roots also appear
in other languages: pl appears in Arabic and the root y appears
in Old South Arabic (as both III- and III-y). Thus both roots are com-
mon Central Semitic and cannot be used for the internal subgrouping
of NWS. Again, they are simply shared retentions from the Central
Semitic node. Finally, Aramaic prefers a different root altogether
bdand only to a lesser extent pl.
c) Hebr. zhb/Ph. r: Rainey correctly notes that Hebrew zhb and
Aramaic ahab have the same etymon.39 But the root hb also ap-
pears in Sabean and Arabic, so its appearance in any NWS language
is an inheritance. The root r is an even worse choice. Since even
Rainey observes40 that it occurs in Ugaritic (r) and Akkadian, be-
sides the Phoenician that he is interested in, it is clearly a retention
from PS, which any language had access to. Whether or not a given
language actually used the root is immaterial in language subgroup-
d) Hebr. er / Ph. : Rainey dismisses the connection between the
Hebrew relative particle er and the Phoenician relative particle ,41
though the reasoning for his rejection is not explained. Rainey claims
that the Phoenician form is simply the -v with prothetic alef.42
There are problems with his statement, though. Even if Phoenician
is built on -, as Rainey suggests,43 it is still related to Hebrew -.
The Phoenician relative pronoun is also attested in Moabite and
Ammonite, but most importantly probably in Deir All.44Thus, the
particle is not a unique feature of the Canaanite languages, but
perhaps a regional one.45 As in doublet b), his argument also car-
ries less weight since Aramaic does not use either of these particles

Ibid., 72.

Ibid., 73; he offers no proof whatsoever for this assertion.


Ibid., 7374.
Ibid., 74.
Ibid., 75.
Rainey, Whence Came (n 1): 53.
See Huehnergard (On the Etymology of the Hebrew Relative e- [n 5]) for a thor-
oughly-argued opposite opinion.
J. A. Hackett, The Balaam Text from Deir All (Chico, CA: Scholars, 1984): 31.
Cf. Huehnergard, Central Semitic (n 4): 184186 on the definite article.
184 MAARAV 17.2 (2010)

as a relative pronoun. Furthermore, different relative pronouns are

not indicative of different languages, if the change is a mere lexical
e) Hebr. er al habbayit / Ph. skn: Rainey47 claims that the word for
administrator in Phoenician differs from the phrase for the same
function in Hebrew. We note, however, that the noun skn is attested
in the Bible three times, as well as in Aramaic (KAI 203) and Amarna
Canaanite (EA 256:9). The verbal root is further attested in Ugaritic
and Hebrew, as Rainey himself notes. Thus, it is unclear how the fact
that it is attested more often in Phoenician proves that it is not part
of the Hebrew lexicon. It is certainly common NWS. Furthermore,
the Hebrew phrase er al habbayit is not a calque of Akkadian,
but rather a reflection of a PS pattern, relative + prepositional phrase,
found in every Semitic language, without exception.48 In short, both
forms of expression are attested in various languages, and cannot be
used for the internal subgrouping of NWS.

To repeat, Raineys list of lexical differences between Hebrew and

Phoenician has no bearing on these languages genetic relations.
Moreover, whenever a certain root is known to have been attested out-
side NWS, it cannot be used for the internal subgrouping of NWS, be-
cause it is a retention from a higher node. In order for a root to have any
meaning in this discussion it needs to be an innovation of one of these
languages, and none of these words fills this requirement, as we have
proven above.

4. Narrative preterite: Rainey49 notes that both early Aramaic (the Tel
Dan inscription), Moabite, and Hebrew (biblical and epigraphic) uti-
lize as a past-tense verb the short form of the Prefix Conjugation,
generally referred to as yaqtul as opposed to yaqtul-u. In the Tel Dan
inscription we find such words as yhk he went and w-ykb and he

The Scandinavian languages present a similar situation. Norwegian, Danish and
Swedish are very close relatives, some may say dialects; however, each one of them
uses a different relative particle: Norwegian som, Danish dar and Swedish vilken (som is
used in Swedish but has a restricted distribution). The syntax of the relative clause in the
Scandinavian languages is identical. It is only the marker of relative clause that is different.
In short, the fact that each language uses a different particle is irrelevant for the subgroup-
ing of these languages.
Rainey, Redefining Hebrew (n 1): 7576.
N. Pat-El and A. Treiger, On Adnominalization of Prepositional Phrases and Adverbs
in Semitic, ZDMG 158.2 (2008): 265283.
Rainey, Redefining Hebrew (n 1): 7681.

lay down, both Prefix Conjugation verbs with past-tense meaning.

In biblical Hebrew and Moabite we find the famous converted imper-
fect/consecutive preterite, which also utilizes the old yaqtul, apoco-
pated or short form of the Prefix Conjugation, to express the past
tense: way-yob and he returned; wat-t()mer and she spoke
and so on. The form, however, is not used in Phoenician.
The use of yaqtul may look like an important feature, but it is not,
at least not as far as subgrouping is concerned. It is a shared reten-
tion, that goes all the way back to PS. These forms are eventually lost
in both Aramaic and Hebrew, as they had been in Phoenician, but in
the first-millennium texts that Rainey is concerned with, they are still
used. This same form, however, is also used in Amarna Canaanite, as
Rainey noted, and in Ugaritic.50 Ugaritic is neither a Canaanite nor an
Aramaic language, but all of these languagesAmarna Canaanite,
Aramaic, Hebrew, Moabite, and Ugariticare NWS languages. For
that matter, this same form is used in Arabic, as Rainey notes, which
is not a NWS language, but is related to the NWS languages at a
point higher up in the tree: they are all Central Semitic languages. So
it is perfectly possible that all Central Semitic languages could use
this yaqtul preterite form, since they inherited it from their ancestor.
Finally, we know the same morphological form in the Akkadian iprus
verb, which means that the form is used (or is available for use) in
both East and West Semitic languages, the definition of a PS form.
The yaqtul preterite is a retention from PS and not an innovation in
any of the languages.
Raineys claim, however, is that Hebrew, Moabite, and Aramaic in-
novated the use of these forms to express a sequence of actions,51
but the use of yhk in the Aramaic Tel Dan inscription, with no w- at
the beginning, suggests that it means he went whether in a sequence
or not. In Hebrew and Moabite, the fact that the yaqtul is usually used
in a sequence is not an innovation, but rather occurs because the
converted imperfect/consecutive preterite uses the retention of yaq-
tul as a frozen form. Such a use has nothing whatsoever to do with
the relationships of the daughter languages to each other. It is always

J. A. Hackett, yaqtul and a Ugaritic Incantation Text, in Language and Nature:
Papers Presented to John Huehnergard on the Occasion of his 60th Birthday (R.
Hasselbach and N. Pat-El, eds.; Chicago: Oriental Institute, 2012): ??; C. Gordon, Ugaritic
Textbook (rev. repr.; Rome: PBI, 1998): 72; E. Verreet, Modi ugaritici (Leuven: Peeters,
1998): 7; D. Sivan, A Grammar of the Ugaritic Language (Anson Rainey, trans.; Leiden:
Brill, 1997): 99; J. Tropper, Ugaritische Grammatik (Mnster: Ugarit, 2000): 73.25; J.
Huehnergard, An Introduction to Ugaritic (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2012): ??.
Rainey, Redefining Hebrew (n 1): 76.
186 MAARAV 17.2 (2010)

tempting to use shared retentions in classifying languages, but as we

have argued above, this is inconsequential to the question of genetic
relationship; Raineys claim that the sequential use of the form is
somehow innovative and important is therefore not true.

So none of the linguistic arguments outlined by Rainey to support his

Transjordanian branch is valid. Beyond the linguistic issues that have
been dealt with here there is another problem with Raineys work, which
we would like to note briefly in the next section.


Although the exact sub-division of the Semitic languages is an on-go-

ing debate, papers such as Raineys do not move the debate forward, and
it can be argued that to the extent that it is read or heard (and accepted)
by untrained readers, his work is in fact a step backwards.
There are a number of substantial problems with his approach, which
are mostly methodological. The basic problem is that Rainey seems not
to take into account the relevant discussions conducted in the field for
the past thirty years. Rainey fails to refer to a single article that deals
with the subdivision of the Semitic languages. Ignoring scholars such
as Hetzron,52 Voigt,53 Huehnergard,54 or even the basic introductions to
the Semitic languages by Wright, Kienast, Lipiski, or Bennett55 is para-
mount to writing about Amarna without referencing Moran or Rainey.
When discussing specific points, the author invalidates his arguments
when he does not address the relevant literature and major discussions.
For example, in his discussion of the relative pronoun, it is hard to un-
derstand why Rainey only quotes himself and a paper by Garbini from
1960,56 when this particle has been the subject of a number of recent

R. Hetzron, La division des langues smitiques, in Actes du premier congrs inter-
national de linguistique smitique et chamito-smitique (A. Caquot and D. Cohen, eds.;
Berlin: de Gruyter, 1974): 181194; idem, Two Principles (n 5).
R. Voigt, The Classification of Central Semitic, JSS 32.1 (1987): 121, and many
other studies.
Huehnergard, Northwest Semitic (n 8); Aramaic (n 5); and many other studies.
W. Wright, Lectures on the Comparative Grammar of the Semitic Languages
(Cambridge: Cambridge Univ., 1890, with several reprints); B. Kienast, Historische semi-
tische Sprachwissenschaft (with contributions from E. Graefe and G. Gragg; Wiesbaden:
Harrassowitz, 2001); E. Lipiski, Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar
(2nd ed.; Leuven: Peeters, 2001); P. Bennett, Comparative Semitic Linguistics: A Manual
(Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 1998).
G. Garbini, Il semitico di nord-ouest (Naples: Istituto Univ. Or. de Napoli, 1960): 105;

studies dealing with its origin.57 Even the discussion about the preterite,
which should be familiar to Rainey, who contributed to the understand-
ing of this form in Amarna, is far too circumscribed. Except for papers
by Rainey himself and Moran, no other reference is consulted.
This is not a matter to be dismissed; if we wish to conduct a construc-
tive informative discussion in this field and hope for our arguments to
be taken seriously, we cannot disregard the work of others, especially
when that work so clearly rigorously argues a strong case that is the
exact opposite of what Rainey contends. Rainey for all intents and pur-
poses argues against the consensus without once laying out what the
arguments of the consensus are. Rainey knows that the vast majority
of historical linguists believe Hebrew to be a Canaanite language, but
he ignores the whys entirely and proposes as counter-arguments spe-
cious lexical similarities, as if they somehow invalidate, or even matter
to, the consensus.
We find it ironic that Rainey criticizes Dever for his use of the Amarna
letters, claiming that his citations are incomplete and that he does not
use the latest transcription and translation. He states: such glaring mis-
takes show that Dever is trying to use materials for which he has no
competence.58 Rainey is upset when Dever, an accomplished archaeolo-
gist, makes mistakes citing and interpreting the Amarna letters; why then
is he himself willing to bypass years of research in a field which is not his
own and overlooking very basic facts?


Genetic relations between languages have been a topic of research

for over a century. Linguists have developed a variety of principles to
evaluate relations between languages. The subgrouping of the Semitic
languages has been debated since the end of the nineteenth century,
and while the debate is not over yet and the positions of languages such
as Deir All and Arabic are still not settled, the subgrouping of the
Northwest Semitic languages has not been in doubt since Hetzrons sem-
inal 1976 paper. Rainey, however, has recently suggested that we aban-
don Hetzrons work and the work of those who follow him by redefining

Rainey, Canaanite in the Amarna Tablets (n 17).

See R. D. Holmstedt, The Story of Ancient Hebrew er, JANES 43 (2006):
726; idem, The Etymologies of Hebrew er and eC-, JNES 66.3 (2007): 177192;
Huehnergard, The Hebrew Relative e- (n 5) and the abundance of references cited
Rainey, Whence Came (n 1): 58n5.
188 MAARAV 17.2 (2010)

the Canaanite sub-branch of the Northwest Semitic languages and add-

ing a new one, Transjordanian, which would include Aramaic, Hebrew,
and Moabite. This proposal rests on a number of arguments: linguistic,
archaeological, and textual. We have briefly argued that archaeological
and textual evidence is irrelevant for a debate about linguistic subgroup-
ing, and we have therefore concentrated on his linguistic arguments.
At the heart of Raineys arguments is a misunderstanding of historical
linguistics. We have pointed to three problems in Raineys methodology:
(1) Rainey primarily uses lexical items and writing systems to show that
Hebrew and Moabite are closer to Aramaic than to Phoenician. These
features, for a variety of reasons detailed above, cannot be used for ge-
netic subgrouping; (2) Rainey suggests a new branch without defining
its unique innovative features, i.e., which linguistic features separate it
from Northwest Semitic. All of Raineys suggested items are either com-
mon Northwest Semitic or common Semitic, which makes them useless
for subgrouping; (3) Rainey seems unaware of the literature regarding
the subgrouping of Northwest Semitic, or even generally, of Semitic.
He argues against the consensus without engaging with any consensual
argument, without even acknowledging any argument in favor of sub-
grouping Hebrew and Phoenician under a single node.
Our arguments in this paper are not new; nothing we have presented
here is novel in any way. These are all easily-accessible arguments found
in well known studies published in the last forty years by prominent and
recognized scholars. Raineys failure to mention them specifically and
respond to them is indicative of his problematic line of argumentation.
No matter who the author is, poorly researched papers should not pass
a serious review.We believe Raineys articles would not have been so
readily published had the author been an unknown scholar. We there-
fore conclude by encouraging our distinguished host, Maarav, and other
venues to redouble their efforts to give all the papers that are submitted
to them a thorough and earnest review, for the sake of the field and its