The Canaanite languages or Canaanite dialects are one of the two subgroups of the Northwest Semitic languages, the other being the Aramaic language. They are thought to have been spoken by the ancient peoples of the Canaan region, the Canaanites, broadly defined to include the Israelites, Phoenicians, Amorites, Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites.
All of them seem to have become extinct as native languages by the early 1st millennium CE, although distinct forms of Hebrew remained in continuous literary and religious use among Jews and Samaritans, and Punic remained in use in the Mediterranean.
This family of languages has the distinction of being the first group of languages to use an alphabet, derived from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, to record their writings.
The primary reference for extra-biblical Canaanite inscriptions, together with Aramaic inscriptions, is the German-language book "Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften", from which inscriptions are often referenced as KAI n (for a number n).
Classification and Sources
The Canaanite languages or dialects can be split into the following:
- Phoenician. The main sources are Ahiram sarcophagus inscription, sarcophagus of Eshmunazar, the Tabnit sarcophagus, the Kilamuwa inscription, the Cippi of Melqart, the other Byblian royal inscriptions. For later Punic: in Plautus' play Poenulus at the beginning of the fifth act.
- Hebrew – extinct Hebraic dialect of the ancient Jewish Israelites. Literary, poetical, liturgical; also known as Classical Hebrew, the oldest form of the language attested in writing. The original pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew is only accessible through reconstruction. May also include Ancient Samaritan Hebrew – extinct dialect spoken by the ancient Samaritan Israelites. The main sources are the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), and inscriptions such as Gezer calendar, Khirbet Qeiyafa pottery sherd
- Ammonite – extinct Hebraic dialect of the Ammonite people mentioned in the Bible (not a distinct language)
- Moabite – extinct Hebraic dialect of the Moabite people mentioned in the Bible (not a distinct language) The main sources are the Mesha Stele and El-Kerak Stela.
- Edomite – extinct Hebraic dialect of the Edomite people mentioned in the Bible (not a distinct language)
- Ugaritic, although the inclusion of this dialect within Canaanite is disputed
- The Deir Alla Inscription, written in a dialect with Aramaic and South Canaanite characteristics, which is classified as Canaanite in Hetzron.
Other possible Canaanite languages:
- Ekronite or Philistine Semitic - not to be confused with the pre-Semitic Philistine language. It is attested by several dozen inscriptions in Phoenician script scattered along Israel's southwest coast, in particular the Ekron Royal Dedicatory Inscription.
Comparison versus Aramaic
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Some distinctive typological features of Canaanite in relation to Aramaic are:
- The prefix h- used as the definite article (whereas Aramaic has a postfixed -a). This seems to be an innovation of Canaanite.
- The first person pronoun being ʼnk (אנכ anok(i), versus Aramaic ʼnʼ/ʼny) – which is similar to Akkadian, Ancient Egyptian and Berber.
- The *ā > ō vowel shift (Canaanite shift).
The Phoenician and Carthaginian expansion spread the Phoenician language and its Punic dialect to the for a time, but there too it died out, although it seems to have survived slightly longer than in Phoenicia itself.
Various liturgical Hebrew languages survived into the modern era:
- Tiberian Hebrew – Masoretic scholars living in the Jewish community of Tiberias in Palestine c. 750-950 CE.
- Mizrahi Hebrew – Mizrahi Jews, liturgical
- Yemenite Hebrew – Yemenite Jews, liturgical
- Sephardi Hebrew – Sephardi Jews, liturgical
- Ashkenazi Hebrew – Ashkenazi Jews, liturgical
- Mishnaic Hebrew (Rabbinical Hebrew) – Jews, liturgical, rabbinical, any of the Hebrew dialects found in the Talmud.
- Medieval Hebrew – Jews, liturgical, poetical, rabbinical, scientific, literary; lingua franca based on Bible, Mishna and neologisms forms created by translators and commentators
- Haskala Hebrew – Jews, scientific, literary and journalistic language based on Biblical but enriched with neologisms created by writers and journalists, a transition to the later
- Samaritan Hebrew – Samaritans, liturgical
Modern Hebrew as a spoken language is the result of a revival by Jews in the 19th and 20th centuries in an effort spearheaded by Eliezer Ben Yehuda. It is currently spoken as the colloquial language by the majority of the Israeli population.
- The Semitic Languages. Routledge Language Family Descriptions. Edited by Robert Hetzron. New York: Routledge, 1997.
- Garnier, Romain; Jacques, Guillaume (2012). "A neglected phonetic law: The assimilation of pretonic yod to a following coronal in North-West Semitic". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies 75.1: 135–145. doi:10.1017/s0041977x11001261.
- Rendsburg, Gary (1997). "Ancient Hebrew Phonology". Phonologies of Asia and Africa: Including the Caucasus. Eisenbrauns. p. 65. ISBN 978-1-57506-019-4.
- Some West Semitic Inscriptions
- How the Alphabet Was Born from Hieroglyphs Biblical Archaeology Review