The Canaanite languages or Canaanite dialects are one of the two subgroups of the Northwest Semitic languages, the other being the Aramaic language. They were spoken by the ancient peoples of the Canaan region, the Canaanites, broadly defined to include the Israelites, Phoenicians, Amorites, Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites.
All of them seem to have become extinct as native languages by the early 1st millennium CE, although distinct forms of Hebrew remained in continuous literary and religious use among Jews and Samaritans, and Punic remained in use in the Mediterranean.
This family of languages has the distinction of being the first group of languages to use an alphabet, derived from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, to record their writings.
The primary reference for extra-biblical Canaanite inscriptions, together with Aramaic inscriptions, is the German-language book "Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften", from which inscriptions are often referenced as KAI n (for a number n).
Classification and sources
- Phoenician. The main sources are Ahiram sarcophagus inscription, sarcophagus of Eshmunazar, the Tabnit sarcophagus, the Kilamuwa inscription, the Cippi of Melqart, the other Byblian royal inscriptions. For later Punic: in Plautus' play Poenulus at the beginning of the fifth act.
- Hebrew – revived in the modern era from an extinct dialect of the ancient Israelites preserved in literature, poetry, liturgy; also known as Classical Hebrew, the oldest form of the language attested in writing. The original pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew is accessible only through reconstruction. It may also include Ancient Samaritan Hebrew, an extinct dialect spoken by the ancient Samaritan Israelites replaced by Aramaic and Arabic. The main sources of Classical Hebrew are the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), and inscriptions such as Gezer calendar, Khirbet Qeiyafa pottery shard.
- Ammonite – an extinct Hebraic dialect of the Ammonite people mentioned in the Bible.
- Moabite – an extinct Hebraic dialect of the Moabite people mentioned in the Bible. The main sources are the Mesha Stele and El-Kerak Stela.
- Edomite – an extinct Hebraic dialect of the Edomite people mentioned in the Bible.
Other possible Canaanite languages:
- Ugaritic, although the inclusion of this dialect within Canaanite is disputed
- The Deir Alla Inscription, written in a dialect with Aramaic and South Canaanite characteristics, which is classified as Canaanite in Hetzron.
- Ekronite or Philistine Semitic - not to be confused with the non-Semitic (assumed Indo-European) Philistine language. It is attested by several dozen inscriptions in Phoenician script scattered along Israel's southwest coast, in particular the Ekron Royal Dedicatory Inscription.
Comparison versus Aramaic
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Some distinctive typological features of Canaanite in relation to Aramaic are:
- The prefix h- used as the definite article (whereas Aramaic has a postfixed -a). This seems to be an innovation of Canaanite.
- The first person pronoun being ʼnk (אנכ anok(i), versus Aramaic ʼnʼ/ʼny) – which is similar to Akkadian, Ancient Egyptian and Berber.
- The *ā > ō vowel shift (Canaanite shift).
Modern Hebrew as a spoken language is the result of a revival by Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries in an effort spearheaded by Eliezer Ben Yehuda. It is currently spoken as the colloquial language by the majority of the Israeli population.
Various liturgical Hebrew languages survived into the modern era:
- Tiberian Hebrew – Masoretic scholars living in the Jewish community of Tiberias in Palestine c. 750-950 CE.
- Mizrahi Hebrew – Mizrahi Jews, liturgical
- Yemenite Hebrew – Yemenite Jews, liturgical
- Sephardi Hebrew – Sephardi Jews, liturgical
- Ashkenazi Hebrew – Ashkenazi Jews, liturgical
- Mishnaic Hebrew (Rabbinical Hebrew) – Jews, liturgical, rabbinical, any of the Hebrew dialects found in the Talmud.
- Medieval Hebrew – Jews, liturgical, poetical, rabbinical, scientific, literary; lingua franca based on Bible, Mishna and neologisms forms created by translators and commentators
- Haskala Hebrew – Jews, scientific, literary and journalistic language based on Biblical but enriched with neologisms created by writers and journalists, a transition to the later
- Samaritan Hebrew – Samaritans, liturgical
The Phoenician and Carthaginian expansion spread the Phoenician language and its Punic dialect to the Western Mediterranean for a time, but there too it died out, although it seems to have survived slightly longer than in Phoenicia itself.
- Hammarström, Harald; Forkel, Robert; Haspelmath, Martin; Bank, Sebastian, eds. (2016). "Canaanite". Glottolog 2.7. Jena: Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History.
- Rendsburg 1997, p. 65.
- For example, the Mesha Stele is "KAI 181".
- Waltke & O'Connor (1990:8): "The extrabiblical linguistic material from the iron Age is primarily epigraphic, that is, texts written on hard materials (pottery, stones, walls, etc.). The epigraphic texts from Israelite territory are written in Hebrew in a form of the language which may be called Inscriptional Hebrew; this "dialect" is not strikingly different from the Hebrew preserved in the Masoretic text. Unfortunately, it is meagerly attested. Similarly limited are the epigraphic materials in the other South Canaanite dialects, Moabite and Ammonite; Edomite is so poorly attested that we are not sure that it is a South Canaanite dialect, though that seems likely. Of greater interest and bulk is the body of Central Canaanite inscriptions, those written in the Phoenician language of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, and in the offshoot Punic and Neo-Punic tongues of the Phoenician colonies in North Africa. An especially problematic body of material is the Deir Alla wall inscriptions referring to a prophet Balaam (ca. 700 B.C.E.), these texts have both Canaanite and Aramaic features. W. R. Garr has recently proposed that all the Iron Age Canaanite dialects be regarded as forming a chain that actually includes the oldest forms of Aramaic as well."
- The Semitic Languages. Routledge Language Family Descriptions. Edited by Robert Hetzron. New York: Routledge, 1997.
- Garnier, Romain; Jacques, Guillaume (2012). "A neglected phonetic law: The assimilation of pretonic yod to a following coronal in North-West Semitic". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 75.1: 135–145. doi:10.1017/s0041977x11001261.
- Rendsburg, Gary (1997). "Ancient Hebrew Phonology". Phonologies of Asia and Africa: Including the Caucasus. Eisenbrauns. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-57506-019-4.
- Waltke, Bruce K.; O'Connor, M. (1990). An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. ISBN 0-931464-31-5.