I am not an expert in Semitic languages – but I recognize depth of knowledge when I see it.  A commentator, who goes by the name of “Abu Rashid”, wrote in another topic:

Another thing maybe worth considering is that at least as late as the 3rd. century B.C.E Hebrew still distinguished at least a few more letters. This is known mostly from Greek transliterations in their translation of the Tanakh and also when compared with Arabic it seems to match up. The first letter is the ghayin. Ghayin is not actually an alternate pronunciation of gimel, but is a letter much like ayin, and which merged into ayin in Hebrew sometime after the 3rd. century B.C.E. I think any movement towards restoring Biblical pronunciation of Hebrew would need to take this into account. The problem is knowing which words actually use ayin and which use ghayin, most, if not all, of them could be discovered from Arabic and Ugaritic though. The second is the distinction between Haa and Khaa (both called Het in modern Hebrew). These two letters were still separate in Biblical Hebrew.

Of course there are many more letters that could be distilled back out to their original separate forms, but these two are well known to have been distinct to at least the very latest of Biblical times.

His reference to the third century B.C.E. is, of course, based on the famous translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek: the Septuagint.  There we find clear indications of the double ‘Ayin/Ghayin (ע).  For example, Gaza, which is  ‘Aza in modern Hebrew and Gomorrah, which is ‘Amorah in modern Hebrew.  Similarly, we find indications of the double Heth/Kheth (ח) there.  Both double versions are found in Arabic to this day.  Another double letter, found in Arabic but not in Hebrew, is the double Sad/Dad (ص‎, ض).  I am not aware of any vestiges of this double letter in Hebrew, even from ancient times.

These ancient double letters seem to be in conflict with some of the current double letters of Hebrew; our current soft Ghimel (ג) seems to be too close to the ancient Ghayin for coexistence.  Our current soft Khaf (כ) seems, likewise, to be too close to the ancient Kheth for coexistence.

The Book of Yesirah (probably of ancient origin) states (chapter 3):

Twenty two letters, the foundation of three nations, seven doubles, and twelve simple (letters)… (The) seven doubles are Beth, Gimal, Daleth, Kaf, Pe, Resh and Taw.

The identities of almost all these double letters are well established throughout the Jewish diaspora (with the exception of the Ashkenazi one, which lost the double Daleth long ago, and the double Gimal only about three hundred years ago).  The double Resh (ר) is the only one that no longer has any living tradition of its nature.  There are only a handful of instances where the Resh appears with a dagesh in Scripture.  For those of you familiar with Arabic, the dagesh (in its “strong” form) is the equivalent of the Shadda.  Among Yemeni Jews, these isolated dageshed Resh’s are actually pronounced differently:

ahothi ra’yathi yonathi thammathi shaRRoshi nimla tal… (Song of Songs 5:2)

… with a strong emphasis on the trill.  However, I am fairly certain that it is not those isolated dageshed Resh’s that the Book of Yesirah is referring to.  Instead, my hunch is that the soft Resh was pronounced much like the American “R”, while the hard Resh was flapped or trilled.  I noticed this double pronunciation among Iraqi Jews – though it does not seem to be an officially recognized distinction among them.  My late friend Ben Siyyon Cohen was of the opinion, for a while, that one Resh was supposed to be said near the teeth (as in Arabic and other Semitic languages) while the other with the glottis like most Israelis do now.  I convinced him of his error – fortunately before he wrote his books.  The glottal Resh is an abomination.

Be it as it may, I find it interesting (and somewhat disturbing) that the archaic double letters survived up until the Hellenistic period – and yet there seems to be no written record of any transition.  Surely there must have been some sort of lingering tradition of those lost double letters at the time of Hillel and Shammai.  The simplest explanation would be that the Mishnah mainly concerned itself with matters of Jewish law and did not delve into history or folklore except when it pertained to the law.  By the time it became fashionable to record folklore (as in the Talmud), those traditions had already been forgotten.

I may be way off base here, but there may be an indirect vestige of the ancient form of Hebrew – among Yemeni Jews.  According to their tradition, the letter Beth is called “Beh“, the letter Daleth is called “Dal“, the letter Heth is called “Het“, the letter Teth is called “Tet“, and the letter Samekh is called “Semak“.  There are other differences but these are the ones that interest us – for they all lack the final soft Thaw (or Khaf) at the end.  Is it possible that this is a relic from earlier days when the older double letter system was still in use and there was no distinction between Taw and Thaw or between Kaf and Khaf?

What Abu Rashid wrote about Arabic and Ugaritic is probably also true of Phoenician; for all practical purposes, the Phoenicians spoke a dialect of Hebrew.  I wonder how much of their language has been recorded in historical records.  As an aside, I think it is interesting that for all the effort the ancient Jews put into stamping out the cult of Ba’al, he still exists.  He exists in the modern Lebanese city of Ba’albek and he exists in Hannibal, which is actually Hen Ba’al = the grace of Ba’al.

But by far, the greatest resource we have in understanding ancient Hebrew is Arabic.  Classical Arabic, and it modern counterpart formal Arabic, is a living fossil.  For all its brutality, the birth and spread of Islam did have a silver lining in the preservation of Arabic.  Had Islam never been born, it is possible that the entire Semitic world would have succumbed to Greek or some other foreign tongue.  All that would have remained would be Amharic and maybe some holdouts in Yemen.  For all the destruction it wrought upon non-Semitic peoples, Islam was like Mount Vesuvius for the Semitic world – destroying and preserving at the same time.  It did replace Aramaic and perhaps some other North Semitic languages but this happened very slowly.  Christians cling to Aramaic to this very day.

My impression has always been that Arabic is far more conservative than Hebrew in its spoken form (as Abu Rashid, who is not a native Arabic speaker, says elsewhere).  But the Hebrew alphabet seems to be more ancient than the Arabic one.  The modern Hebrew alphabet is not even Hebrew.  It is traditionally called “Kethav Ashuri“, which means “Assyrian script” – a clear indication that it was adopted while in exile.  Nevertheless, it is of ancient Semitic origin.  While Semitic languages probably had their origins in the South, writing (at least our form of writing) had its origins in the North.

There are many words that are, essentially, the same in Hebrew and Arabic.  There are many other words that are quite similar – but it is not always obvious that this is so.  There are Biblical passages that do not seem to make sense without a knowledge of Arabic.  For example:

Yosef called the firstborn Menasheh, for God has made me forget all my toil and all my father’s house.

The word for “made me forget” is nashani.  No Hebrew speaker would recognize this word if used in another context (unless he happened to remember this verse).  Hebrew uses an entirely different word for “forget” than this one.  But Arabic still uses the Biblical word to this day, in a slightly different pronunciation.

Every name has a meaning; people do not simply assemble random phonemes together and call it a name.  English speakers tend to lose sight of this because most of our names come from other languages.  When we look at the names of ancient Jewish kings, for example, many of them seem to have no meaning.  What does King ‘Omri’s name mean?  A Hebrew speaker would shrug his shoulders and say, “it’s just a name.”  But an Arabic speaker would recognize it as coming from the root ‘amr, which means “life”.  It is the equivalent of the modern Hebrew name Hayyim (and Arabic Omar). There are some very interesting and colorful names in Scripture.  Finding their meanings would be an interesting project indeed.  Arabic would be an essential tool for such an endeavor.  What about the name Abraham?

Abraham’s name first appears as Abram (Hebrew: אַבְרָם, ModernAvramTiberianʾAḇrām), meaning either “exalted father” or “my father is exalted” (compare Abiram). Later in Genesis God renamed him Abraham; the text glosses this as av hamon (goyim), “father of many (nations)”,[4] but it does not have any literal meaning in Hebrew.[5] Many modern interpretations based on textual and linguistic explanations have been offered, including an analysis of a first element abr- “chief”, but this yields a meaningless second element. Johann Friedrich Karl Keil suggests there was once a word raham (רָהָם) in Hebrew, meaning “multitude”, on analogy with the word ruhâm which has this meaning in Arabic, but no evidence that this word existed has been found;[6] and David Rohl suggests the name comes from Akkadian “the father loves.”[7]

It seems to me that there might have been an ancient plural form that involved adding an extra letter to the middle of the word.  This type of plural is foreign to Hebrew speakers – but quite common in Arabic.

The use of Arabic, as a tool to understand Hebrew, does have its limits.  The two languages split apart several thousand years ago and then flourished within completely different environments – for the most part;  in Medieval Andalusia, they reunited once again and the embers from that glow still burn.

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