Traces of Linguistic Development in Biblical Hebrew
Eskhult, Mats, Hebrew Studies Journal
This article discusses some constructions that are characteristic of the late biblical prose literature and focuses on the more or less unconscious use of verbal syntax. The linguistic competence of the post-exilic authors was not enough to guide them to handle the complicated system of tense, aspect, and modality in the old way, because their current vernacular had developed new strategies to express these categories. Also, the linguistic expression of "point of view," seems to be linked to the development of the narrative as genre. It is, thus, argued that the indisputably late authors produced a Hebrew that displays traces of linguistic development in comparison to the language found in other parts of the Biblical Hebrew narrative prose.
Biblical Hebrew, in contrast to, for example, Ugaritic, was handed down during a period of slow but steady standardization of spelling and pronunciation. From the outset, the unified linguistic norm was, in all probability, the official language used in the administration of the monarchy. It is no wonder then that Biblical Hebrew shows few geographical varieties. (1) The poetic books though, display some divergences that are not likely found in prose. (2) The Hebrew (and Moabite) epigraphic material points to slightly different dialects in Israel, Judah, and Moab. There is little reason then for contending that these dialects were not mutually comprehensible. The epigraphic texts, albeit few in number and length, show that ancient Hebrew, the language used in central and southern Palestine, is the same language as that which we call Biblical Hebrew.
Books like Samuel and Kings display a mode of expression similar to that found in the Mesha inscription (ca 840 B.C.E.). This mode, however, contrasts with that found in the incontestably late prose writings Ezra-Nehemiah, Esther, and the non-parallel portions of Chronicles. In all likelihood, these late authored writings reflect a later stage of Biblical Hebrew. In other words, there is a correlation between differences in mode of expression and linguistic usage, on the one hand, and the time when texts were written, on the other. The question under discussion, however, is whether authors of late biblical prose were able to adapt themselves to the classical mode of expression, or whether they were constrained in doing so by the linguistic usage of their own time.
Syntax and the point of intersection between contents and form, that is, style, cannot easily be separated in the discussion of possible diachronically significant changes within Biblical Hebrew. Syntax and vocabulary depend on subject matter and genre; accordingly, contents and form influence the style of a document. Style is also associated with genre inasmuch as each genre is characterized by its particular style. It would appear that there is a subsequent development of the various genres in the Bible, and that this development stands in a mutual relationship to the development of the language as such. This article is limited to a discussion of narrative prose and linguistic developments that may be discerned in this text type. Since different text types and genres do not likely develop at the same pace, it is possible that diachronic changes are more overt in one type of text and less in another. (3) Vocabulary, too, is important, since especially loanwords reveal a great deal about shifting cultural influences that exerted their influence on the Hebrew used in ancient Israel.
2. STATE OF RESEARCH
Arno Kropat's study, published in 1909, is a good starting point for an investigation of linguistic development within Biblical Hebrew. Also, Hans Striedl's competent account of the style encountered in Esther, 1937, gives good guidelines for approaching the problem. Outstanding among the older investigations is, however, the regrettably overlooked study by Rebecca Corwin, published the same year as Kropat's study. …