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Linguistic Evidence for the Northern Origin of Selected Psalms.

How does one go about isolating two forms of a language? A normal minimum requirement is a group of data (oral or written) from each of at least two different sources, to be defined according to the requirements of the situation or according to the sources themselves. The two groups of data are analyzed for distinguishing features, frequently termed isoglosses, though the latter term refers strictly speaking to lexical distinctions. In modern dialect geography, for example, utterances are solicited from native speakers and isoglosses are defined on the basis of actual usage. Complicated isogloss maps may result, with one feature having one distribution, another a partially overlapping distribution, with others overlapping in various ways. In the study of dead languages the task of defining dialect and language boundaries is usually much more difficult because (1) the sources are only written, thus reflecting spoken usage in varying degrees, (2) the quantity and quality of the sources may vary considerably, (3) the graphic representation of the language may be insufficient for close analysis of various features, and (4) there may be problems in the transmission of the texts themselves.

All of the problems just listed plague the attempts at dialect/language identification among the group known as the Northwest Semitic languages (Hebrew, Aramaic, Phoenician, Ugaritic), particularly among the ancient forms of these languages. The distinctions between the four principal languages are relatively clear, though debates continue as to the proper linguistic classification of Ugaritic, in particular. But when it comes to defining the sub-groupings or dialects of Hebrew, Phoenician, and Aramaic, and the proper identification and classification of some of the more sparsely attested of the related languages (e.g., Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite), the data are often improper and insufficient to permit meaningful distinctions. To cite but one example: because of the paucity of inscriptions, only one clear isogloss is known to exist between Judaean and Samarian Hebrew, viz., the reduction of the /ay/ diphthong in accented position in the latter language ('wine' is written {yyn} = /yayn/ in Judaean, {yn} = /yen/? in the Samaria Ostraca. And because this one feature is shared by Phoenician, it has even been proposed that the economic documents from Samaria were written in the Phoenician language, rather than in Hebrew (cf. the brief review of the question by F. Israel in Journal asiatique 274 |1986~: 478-79, and the longer study by the same author in Langues orientales anciennes, philologie et linguistique 2 |1989~: 37-67).

Within the study of Hebrew in the biblical period, the only widely agreed upon set of distinctions is chronological, for a series of studies over the last two decades has defined isoglosses upon which most scholars have agreed. This agreement is owing largely to the fact that a general consensus existed before these studies were undertaken that the material in Samuel-Kings could be dated at least two to three centuries before the material in Chronicles. On the basis of that consensus, the two bodies of material could be analyzed for distinguishing features and those features could then be used in further defining the corpus and variations thereof.

In the present book Rendsburg has attempted to prove by linguistic arguments that a group of psalms is northern in origin, but he has not first provided a detailed linguistic definition of the northern dialect(s). I have no doubt that he would have done so had the data existed, but they do not; he nonetheless forged ahead with his project. In order for such a definition to be possible, texts written in the northern dialect would have to exist, either primary ancient texts, such as the Samaria Ostraca already mentioned (insufficient for the purpose), or else traditional texts of which the northern origin is certain (although certain biblical texts may have originated in the north, their present form is essentially that of the texts of Judaean origin). Such data are not present, however, and Rendsburg's claim to adopt the procedures used for chronological differentiation is therefore unacceptable. In the absence of such data, this study is based on a plausible hypothesis, viz., that the northern dialect would have been influenced by its nearest neighbors. Since texts from the various neighboring regions are extant, all one need do is examine the biblical texts which for other reasons may be thought to be of northern origin and identify linguistic features characteristic of the neighboring languages. If a certain concentration of such features be present, the text may be labeled as northern. In his introduction the author speaks of "Israelian Hebrew" and of "isolating grammatical elements of I|sraelian~ H|ebrew~" and he provides an appendix entitled "Features of Israelian Hebrew Isolated in This Study". It is thus clear that he intends to be defining a dialect, not simply describing isolated cases of feature-borrowing from other dialects/languages.

The method must unfortunately be likened to hunting for a gnat with a shotgun. Israel was surrounded by at least five distinct linguistic entities: Phoenician, Aramaic, Ammonite, Moabite, and the language of the plaster texts from Deir Alla, to which Rendsburg adds, circumspectly, the evidence from the Amarna texts (fourteenth century B.C.E.) and from Ugaritic (fourteenth to twelfth centuries B.C.E.)--problematic because of the chronological separation and, in the case of Ugaritic, the geographic distance. Now, either the northern dialect of Hebrew contained features of all five/seven of these languages ('seven' here is too few because the Amarna texts themselves reflect a multiplicity of local dialects) or else there was a multiplicity of northern Hebrew dialects, each resembling its neighbor. The first alternative would constitute an impossible linguistic monster for several of the features are mutually exclusive. In the latter case, the indiscriminate identification of linguistic features from these five/seven languages in texts from the Hebrew Bible for the purpose of labeling the latter as "northern" is of no probative value, for a given dialect would have had only some of the features; multiplicity of features in a given text negate the attempt to attribute the text to a given dialect.

Rendsburg refers in his introduction to "style-switching" or "code-switching," terms for the mimicking in one language of features characteristic in another. He is not, however, proposing that the characteristic features of these "northern" texts came about by imitation of surrounding dialects. Rather, though he is not explicit about this, he appears to believe that these texts were composed in the northern dialect and were subsequently transformed into Judaean Hebrew, with certain features escaping the leveling process. But since there is virtually no empirical basis for definition of the northern dialect(s), and since the features identified by the author do not constitute a coherent linguistic entity, the hypothesis as it stands cannot be accepted. Some form of "style-switching" appears to be a more plausible explanation of the data as distributed (imitations of dialects/languages are usually imprecise). Or one might see these texts as composed by Northerners who had moved to the south but not fully assimilated the southern dialect (the "Northerners" would represent various dialects or even languages, hence the heterogeneity of the present features). But until the entity being imitated or that has been incompletely shed be properly defined, little can be attained beyond what the pioneers of modern exegesis, so effusively praised in the introduction, were already able to say. A reminder that the Massoretic text may not have transmitted every nuance of every text with absolute precision is also in order here, for though 'working with what we've got' is a proper and even necessary stance for much linguistic and literary research, a realistic view also requires that a collection of mostly minute data such as Rendsburg has put together may be little more than linguistic fantasy--the old dictum that a large number of weak arguments does not constitute a strong case appears particularly relevant here.

One of the principal problems to be solved is that of the distribution of the data, for virtually all of the features here claimed to be characteristic of the northern dialect are also present in texts for which no northern origin is likely. Nor does Rendsburg make that claim. Rather, he argues from concentration: most of his features are more frequent in texts he claims to be northern, or under northern influence of some kind, and he only lays claim to a given feature when it is accompanied by several others. But how to account for the presence of the feature in what appear to be solidly Judaean texts? To cite a not particularly characteristic example: there is only one claimed token of the /d/ |is greater than~ /???/ development here, but there are many such items, generally explained as Aramaisms, in biblical Hebrew. That being the case, the presence of one token of the phenomenon in Psalms 9-10 is evidence for nothing more than lateness of composition (on the assumption that Aramaisms are relatively late). And all that Rendsburg could possibly claim for the word (r = 'adversary') in any case is that it is an Aramaic loanword, for it is highly unlikely that the northern dialect of Hebrew had an Aramaic phonetic system (indeed the opposite can be proven for the Samarian dialect, where RHS |is less than~ RHD is spelled RHS, whereas in Old Aramaic inscriptions /d/ = {q}). It may for geographical reasons be plausible to posit a higher concentration of Aramaic loanwords in northern dialects than in southern ones--but Rendsburg does not present the case of r in that light ("For our interpretation of Ps. 9:7 to be correct, we will have to assume that in some areas of northern Israel the reflex of proto-Smitic d was also").

Are the details of the argumentation any better than the theoretical underpinning? Not really. Much of the philology is of the 'anything goes' variety that seemed for a time to be waning in Northwest Semitic studies. Take for example the claim on pp. 21-23 that md b means 'stand from' in Ps. 10:1. A laudable attempt is made to link the preposition up with established idioms, but this is done uniquely in terms of the substantive following the preposition, with no apparent recognition that the verb/preposition combination is at least as important and that md b is a frequently attested formula. The basic approach is translational, viz., b in one token of the phrase md b may be translated 'from' in English, therefore it 'means "from"' in Hebrew. It is somewhat disingenuous to cite James Barr approvingly in the introduction, then to omit the very pertinent criticisms leveled by Barr against the whole approach adopted by Rendsburg in his analysis of prepositional usage (e.g., in the very work cited, Comparative Philology and the Text of the Old Testament |Oxford, 1968~, 177).

Or, take the example of the claimed retention of the old feminine singular nominal ending -at in the absolute state. The argument is first made with regard to |ga.sup.a~wat in Ps. 10:2, where forms ending in both -at and -at are cited; on p. 30 the ending -ot is added to the repertory. All three forms could not, of course, have co-existed in the "Israelian" Hebrew dialect. Which is the "Israelian" form and which represent loanwords from other languages/dialects? Part of the author's methodological stance is to refrain from criticizing the Massoretic pointing, so he cannot ascribe these variations to confusions within the transmission process. Indeed two of the three forms (-at and -ot) are cited in the appendix devoted to "Features of Israelian Hebrew Isolated in This Study" (p. 105--the reason for the omission of -at is unclear).

In summary, one may wish to argue for the northern origin of these Psalms, and one may indeed wish to use some of the data cited in this work as part of the argument. But if these data are used it will have to be under the heading of "style-shifting," for Rendsburg's claim to have isolated the northern dialect itself is totally without foundation. The reason is simple: nothing has been "isolated."
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Author:Pardee, Dennis
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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