Canaanite languages

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Levant, Carthage
Linguistic classificationAfroasiatic

The Canaanite languages, sometimes referred to as Canaanite dialects,[1] are one of three subgroups of the Northwest Semitic languages, the others being Aramaic and Amorite. These closely related languages originate in the Levant and Mesopotamia, and were spoken by the ancient Semitic-speaking peoples of an area encompassing what is today Israel, Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, as well as some areas of southwestern Turkey (Anatolia), western and southern Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia.

The Canaanites are broadly defined to include the Hebrews (including Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans), Amalekites, Ammonites, Amorites, Edomites, Ekronites, Hyksos, Phoenicians (including the Carthaginians), Moabites, Suteans and sometimes the Ugarites.

The Canaanite languages continued to be everyday spoken languages until at least the 2nd century AD. Hebrew is the only living Canaanite language today. It remained in continuous use by many Jews well into the Middle Ages and up to the present day as both a liturgical and literary language and was used for commerce between disparate diasporic Jewish communities. It has also remained a liturgical language among Samaritans. Hebrew as a secular language in daily use was revived by Jewish political and cultural activists, particularly through the revitalization and cultivation efforts of Zionists throughout Europe and in Palestine, as an everyday spoken language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the mid-20th century, Modern Hebrew had become the primary language of the Jews of Palestine and was later made the official language of the State of Israel.


Analogous to the Romance languages, the Canaanite languages operate on a spectrum of mutual intelligibility with one another, with significant overlap occurring in syntax, morphology, phonetics, and semantics. This family of languages also has the distinction of being the first historically attested group of languages to use an alphabet, derived from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, to record their writings, as opposed to the far earlier Cuneiform logographic/syllabic writing of the region, which originated in Mesopotamia and was used to record Sumerian, Akkadian, Eblaite, Elamite, Hurrian and Hittite.

They are heavily attested in Canaanite inscriptions throughout the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the East Mediterranean, and after the founding of Carthage by Phoenician colonists, in coastal regions of North Africa and Iberian Peninsula also. Dialects have been labelled primarily with reference to Biblical geography: Hebrew (Israelian, Judean/Biblical, Samaritan), Phoenician/Punic, Amorite, Ammonite, Moabite, Sutean and Edomite; the dialects were all mutually intelligible, being no more differentiated than geographical varieties of Modern English.[2]

The Canaanite languages or dialects can be split into the following:[1][3]

North Canaan[edit]

South Canaan[edit]


Other possible Canaanite languages:

Comparison to Aramaic[edit]

Some distinctive typological features of Canaanite in relation to the still spoken Aramaic are:

  • The prefix h- is the definite article (Aramaic has a postfixed -a), which seems to be an innovation of Canaanite.
  • The first person pronoun is ʼnk (אנכ anok(i), which is similar to Akkadian, Ancient Egyptian and Berber, versus Aramaic ʾnʾ/ʾny.
  • The change of *ā > ō, called the Canaanite shift.


Modern 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 Samaritan Hebrew, a variety formerly spoken by the Samaritans. The main sources of Classical Hebrew are the Hebrew Bible and inscriptions such as the Gezer calendar and Khirbet Qeiyafa pottery shard. All of the other Canaanite languages seem to have become extinct by the early first millennium AD except Punic, which survived into late antiquity (or possibly even longer).

Slightly varying forms of Hebrew preserved from the first millennium BC until modern times include:

The Phoenician and Carthaginian expansion spread the Phoenician language and the Punic variety spoken in the antique-era colonies in Western Mediterranean for a time, but there too it died out, although it seems to have survived longer than in Phoenicia itself.


The primary modern reference book for the many 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).[6]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rendsburg 1997, p. 65.
  2. ^ Rendsburg 1997, p. 66.
  3. ^ 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 (c. 700 BC), 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."
  4. ^ Sivan, D. (2001). A Grammar of the Ugaritic Language: Second impression with corrections. Handbook of Oriental Studies. Section 1 The Near and Middle East. Brill. pp. 2–3. ISBN 978-90-474-2721-6.
  5. ^ Lipiński, Edward (2001). Semitic Languages: Outline of a Comparative Grammar. Peeters Publishers. p. 50. ISBN 978-90-429-0815-4.
  6. ^ For example, the Mesha Stele is "KAI 181".


Further reading[edit]

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