To begin the 2021 conference on Ancient Near Eastern Languages in Contact, Ohad Cohen (University of Haifa) shared a presentation entitled The Canaanite Melting Pot – the Theoretical Implications of ‘Languages in Contact’ to the Understanding of Late Biblical Hebrew. If you are interested in reading more on Canaanite Language or Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH) by Cohen, check out his book, The Verbal Tense System in Late Biblical Hebrew Prose.
Cohen advocates for a clear understanding of the regional distribution of language among cultures in Levantine Canaan as a basis to discover which dialects were being used due to cultural heritage. His ‘melting pot’ theory applies to LBH. Cohen proposes that while Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH) is an early and uniquely situated dialect, LBH is influenced by a melting together of cultural and linguistic styles. As a working example, Cohen looks at the use of an LBH word (ש/אשר) in texts that are “late”—Chronicles and Qohelet (Ecclesiastes). He concludes that in LBH texts like Chronicles, the author tries to align the language with the canonical literature, rather than with the vernacular of its contemporary Qohelet.
Canaanite Language in Time & Space
By looking at how language was distributed geographically, Cohen suggests that we can better understand the evolution of language in context. This also happens in the modern world when neighboring cultures increasingly engage in trade, exogamous marriages, economic partnerships, and travel. Language evolves, and there is no reason to think that different words and phrases were not regularly incorporated into regional dialects from other linguistic originations. For evidence, he points to the modern Palestinian situation as similar to their geographical ancestors, the ancient Levantine Canaanites. They have administrative language, a literary language, and a language of speech. By looking at regional dialects in today’s society, we can imagine the linguistic and dialectical situation of the ancient settlers of the Levant. One attendee made the connection that this happens in other cultures as well, for example, in the history of colonial conquests by Norse, Roman, French, and other cultures.
Cohen’s presentation offered some big-picture intuitions about language development via geographical connection in the ancient Near East. Still, he also offered some ideas about how we might apply this knowledge to classifying genres of LBH texts as administrative or colloquial, and beyond that, marginal or central. He described this analysis as largely based on intuition and advocates for Biblical Hebrew scholars to observe the regional linguistic influences before concluding how and when a text is scribed.
Reflections on Canaanite Language
Even though Cohen’s presentation included some very detailed and specialized linguistic evidence, the implications of his study for big picture reasoning are actually fascinating. When I teach a course on ancient literature like the Hebrew Bible text, I begin with geography. Throughout years of studying the biblical context of Judeo Christianity, I have found that very little has more impact on how a text is translated than a clear picture of its historiographic setting. Knowing where, when, and how a language was developed regionally provides insight into biblical literature that originated in that same language family. It is for this reason that linguistic scholarship is so closely related to archaeology. Epigraphic and literary evidence of language with its regional position is key to exploring and understanding other cultural realities, particularly a community’s political, economic, and social features. All of which, in turn, provides insight for the reader of the biblical text, an important beginning for any hermeneutic approach.