By William M. Schniedewind
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Additional info for A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period (The Anchor Yale Bible Reference Library)
In ancient societies, especially those without alphabetic writing (for example, Egyptian hieroglyphs or Mesopotamian cuneiform), the relationship between speech and written symbols was at best approximate. 38 The situation is much more complicated among other Levantine cultures that adopted the Phoenician consonantal alphabet, even though they had different and fuller phonetic inventories. This is somewhat analogous to cuneiform writing, where the writing system was invented by the Sumerians and borrowed for the Akkadian language even though Sumerian is an Indo-European language and Akkadian is Semitic.
The problem of writing as a surrogate for language begins with the inadequacy of writing itself, namely, the problem of representing sounds with letters. Or, to use technical jargon, the graphemic inventory (that is, the letters) of Hebrew are an imprecise representation of the phonemic inventory (that is, the sounds) of the classical Hebrew language. The twenty-two-letter Hebrew alphabet was borrowed from Phoenician, which seems to have had a more limited inventory of phonemes than Hebrew. Furthermore, the Phoenician alphabet did not represent vowels, and this creates its own problems.
As Bakhtin observed, “What is important about the word in this regard is not so much its sign purity as its social ubiquity. The word is implicated in literally each and every act or contact between people—in collaboration on the job, in ideological exchanges, in the chance contacts of ordinary life, in political relationships, and so on. Countless ideological threads running through all areas of social intercourse register effect in the word. ”90 Following Bakhtin’s supposition that the historical explanation of language change must directly follow changes in social life, the present study is organized by the fundamental 26 Language, Land, and People social changes in the history of the Jewish people over the course of nearly two millennia.