Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


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Q: Which letters of the Phoenician or Proto-Canaanite alphabet were used with the lowest letter frequency?

[A2A] Fun exercise.

In biblical (Old Testament) times, the Canaanite alphabet was common to all Canaanite nations—from Moab and Edom in the southeast to Phoenicia in the northwest. The language was substantially the same, as well, throughout that period, with dialectal differences that widened over the centuries, so that by the time of the late First Temple period (750–580 BCE) mutual comprehension was only partial.

There are plenty of references to letter frequency in modern Hebrew (one good English-language one is Stefan Trost’s Character Frequency: Hebrew). However, although linguistically modern Hebrew is very similar to biblical Hebrew, it does contain many words of foreign origin, and tends to use ‘full spelling’ (i.e. use the letters vav and yod to indicate the vowels /o/u/ and /i/, respectively), which can skew the results somewhat.

So a better test would be a certified ancient text of sufficient length to be indicative.

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What is known about the Phoenician language?

It’s important to note that the Phoenicians didn’t self-identify as such, but were simply called that by the Greeks—possibly because they were best known for selling purple-red dye (in Greek, phoinos) which was highly sought after because it was the colour of royalty in ancient Greece.

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Why do Greek, Phoenician, Hebrew, Arabic, etc. have names for their letters like alpha, beta, lamda?

The names of the Hebrew/Phoenician alphabet were given by the ingenious Canaanite slave(s) who first invented them some time in the 1900s BCE, possibly in Wadi El-Hol in Egypt:

wadi_el_hol-inscription-over
Detail of an inscription on a rock face in Wadi El-Hol, Egypt (near the Valley of the Kings)

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How does the Ancient Phoenician Paleo Hebrew tongue differ from modern Hebrew? (It was only written in consonants)

As Aaron Christianson has pointed out, script and language are not the same thing: the Palaeo-Hebrew script is one thing, and the language was another—just as the Roman script is distinct from, say, the English or French or German language.

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How does the Ancient Phoenician/Paleo Hebrew tongue differ from modern Hebrew? (It was only written in consonants)

As Aaron Christianson has pointed out, script and language are not the same thing: the Palaeo-Hebrew script is one thing, and the language was another—just as the Roman script is distinct from, say, the English or French or German language.

Continue reading