Canaanite shift

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In historical linguistics, the Canaanite shift is a sound change that took place in the Canaanite dialects, which belong to the Northwest Semitic branch of the Semitic languages family. This sound change caused Proto-NW-Semitic *ā (long a) to turn into ō (long o) in Proto-Canaanite. It accounts, for example, for the difference between the second vowel of Hebrew שלום (šalom, Tiberian šālōm) and its Arabic cognate سلام (salām). The original word was probably *šalām-, with the ā preserved in Arabic, but transformed into ō in Hebrew. The change is attested in records from the Amarna Period, dating it to the mid-2nd millennium BCE.[1]

Nature and cause[edit]

This vowel shift is well attested in Hebrew and other Canaanite languages, but its exact nature is unclear and contested.

Theory of unconditioned shift[edit]

Many scholars consider this shift to be unconditioned. This position states that there were no conditioning factors such as stress or surrounding consonants which affected whether or not any given Proto-Semitic became ō in Canaanite. Such scholars point to the fact that Proto-Semitic virtually always reflects as ō in Hebrew.

Theory of stress conditioning[edit]

Some other scholars point to Hebrew words like שמאלי səmālī (an adjective meaning "on the left"), in which the original is thought to be preserved. Since such a preservation would be hard to explain by secondary processes like borrowing or analogy, they often assume that the shift was conditional and took place only in stressed syllables and that later, many words changed their form in analogy to other words in the same paradigm. As a result, the conditional nature of the shift became indistinct.

Responses to stress conditioning theory[edit]

Those who support a theory of unconditioned shift contend that stress conditioning does not account for the fact that often became ō even in positions where it was neither stressed nor part of an inflectional or derivational paradigm, and that such forms as שמאלי may indeed be a secondary development, since שמאל səmōl, the unsuffixed basic form of the word, actually does contain an o. The a of שמאלי, therefore could be explained as having occurred after the vowel shift had ceased to be synchronically productive.

A parallel may be found in the pre-classical history of Latin, where a phenomenon called rhotacism affected all instances of intervocalic /s/ turning them into /r/. Thus rus (countryside), for example, took the oblique form ruri from *rusi. The phenomenon, naturally, failed to affect instances of intervocalic /s/ formed after it had ceased to be productive. Thus essus was not rhotacized because as a leveling of *ed-tus, it did not have an /s/ to be transformed at the time of the rhotic phenomenon.

In much the same way the shape of such words as שמאלי may, in fact, represent a secondary process occurring after the Canaanite shift ceased to be productive.

Hebrew-Arabic parallels[edit]

The shift was so productive in Canaanite languages that it altered their inflectional and derivational morphologies wherever they contained the reflex of a pre-Canaanite *ā, as can be seen in Hebrew, the most attested of Canaanite languages, by comparing it with Arabic, a well-attested non-Canaanite Semitic language.

Present participle of Qal verbs[edit]

Arabic فاعل (fāʻil) vs. Hebrew פועל (pōʻel)[2]

Arabic Translation Hebrew Translation
كاتب kātib Writer כותב kōṯēḇ One who is writing
راقص rāqiṣ Dancer רוקד rōqēḏ Dancer, dancing (attrib.)
كاهن kāhin Soothsayer, augur, priest כהן kōhēn Priest, male descendant of Aaron

Feminine plural[edit]

Classical Arabic ات- (-āt) vs. Tiberian Hebrew ות- (-ōṯ)

Arabic Hebrew Translation
بَنَات banāt בָּנוֹת bānōṯ Girls, daughters
مِئَات miʼāt מֵאוֹת mēʼōṯ Hundreds
أتَانَات ʼatanāt אֲתֹנוֹת ʼăṯōnōṯ Female-donkeys
مَجَلاًّت majallāt מְגִלּוֹת məḡillōṯ Scrolls


Classical Arabic فعال (fi‘āl, fa‘āl) vs. Tiberian Hebrew פעול (pă‘ōl, pā‘ōl)

Akkadian Arabic Hebrew Translation
imēru حمار ḥimār חמור ḥămōr donkey
šalāmu سلام salām שלום šālōm peace
lišānu لسان lisān לשון lāšōn tongue
أَتَان ʼatān אתון ʼāṯōn female donkey

Classical Arabic فأل (faʼl) vs. Tiberian Hebrew פול (pōl)

Akkadian Arabic Hebrew Translation
kāsu كأس kaʼs כוס kōs glass

Other words[edit]

Arabic Hebrew Translation
لا לא No
رأس raʼs ראש rōš Head
ذراع ḏirāʻ זרוע zərōaʻ Arm
عالم ʻālam עולם ʻōlām World, Universe

In two of the above lexical items ( and rōš) one will notice that the shift did not only affect original long vowels, but also original short vowels occurring in the vicinity of a historically attested glottal stop in Canaanite.

The Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation of qamaṣ gadōl as [ɔ] instead of [aː] (as found in other dialects) is regarded by Abraham Zevi Idelsohn as a further extension of the Canaanite shift (on his theory, the Ashkenazic dialect is derived from that of Galilee in the early centuries CE). A similar shift is observable in the coastal dialects of Syrian Arabic (see Levantine Arabic).

Uses of the shift[edit]

Often when new source material in an old Semitic language is uncovered, the Canaanite shift may be used to date the source material or to establish that the source material is written in a specifically Canaanite language. The shift is especially useful since it affects long vowels whose presence is likely to be recorded by matres lectionis such as aleph and waw, even in a defective consonantal script. In languages where the shift occurs, it also gives historical linguists reason to suppose that other shifts may have taken place.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "The Ancient Languages of Syria-Palestine and Arabia - Google Books". Retrieved 2015-02-18 – via Google Books.
  2. ^ Arabic–English Dictionary