Monday, December 03, 2007

Evolution - Language of the Torah

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,
Si þin nama gehalgod.
To becume þin rice,
gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,
and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele.

The text above is the Lord's Prayer written in Old English - a language that was spoken between 1600 and 900 years ago. I cannot make out anything that I could recognize out of it, can you?

What struck as odd, sitting in shul this Shabbos, is why do we not see larger variations between the Biblical Hebrew of the Torah and subsequent Mishnaic, and post-Mishnaic Hebrew. I can theorize that as the usage of Hebrew in everyday speech dropped off in favor of Aramaic and Greek, the language essentially ossified. But prior to that time, I would assume that as a living and changing language, it would have changed no less drastically in the thousand plus years since Moses.

Is the Old English example just an odd case, do other languages not evolve that dramatically? It seems like in the question of dating the Torah, the characteristics of the language would have been an easy map marker.


Blogger Shoshana said...

I just left a comment and it didn't take :(

What I said was something along the lines of that I would be surprised to find out that Hebrew didn't change in the same way English has. There are plenty of examples of languages that have changed a lot over the years, many of which can be demonstrated by the regional dialects that render those who speak the same general language unable to communicate with each other (for example, Chinese or Spanish).

Are you certain that Hebrew has not changed? Could it be that the texts you use have been updated to be understandable? Whenever I have seen archaeological findings, I have struggled to identify the Hebrew characters.

December 03, 2007 11:55 AM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

Let me clarify what I mean. I am not talking about the script of the language. Even if I rewrote the Old English with modern english characters, I don't think we would be able to really figure it out.

Secondly, I do recognize that Mishnaic Hebrew is different from Biblical, but I do not think that it is dramatically different, as in the Old English example, or Old Slavonic, or Old French. So why is that?

December 03, 2007 12:04 PM  
Blogger Baal Habos said...

I don't have a clue as to what I'm talking about, but I'll take a stab. Once religious fealty had been established, it would not change much. But I am surprized as to how much the pronunciation of the same text has evolved between different group, i.e, Separdim, Yemenite, Litvish, Chassidic.

December 03, 2007 12:52 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


What I mean to say has more to do with dating the text of the Torah by looking at the language evolution timeline. I am not saying that the text of the Torah would evolve.

My question is really this - if I find a text that looks like this:

"She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that for the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise."

I can be fairly certain it was written in the last 100 years.

If I see this:
"Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
Whan zephirus eek with his sweete breeth..."

I can guess that it is probably 14th century.

Why can we not do the same with the Torah?

December 03, 2007 1:45 PM  
Anonymous B. Spinoza said...

>Why can we not do the same with the Torah?

I'm not linguist, but are you sure we can't? From what I read in Kugel's new book it seems that they can identify parts which are noticeably earlier than the surrounding text. One example he brings is the song that the Israelites sung at the splitting of the sea. In general, scholars say that the songs are earlier than the stories

December 03, 2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger Tobie said...

Um, so I'm not an expert or anything, but I'm pretty sure that language analysis is a major part of biblical criticism. I think that they base it on sentence structure and vocabulary, but I've never actually had a class or anything so I don't know.

As to why the language evolved comparatively little (if that's so- I wonder how you quantify these things), my only suggestion is that viewing the language as somehow inherently holy (as we see glimpses of in Talmudic literature) pushes towards preservation of the language as much as is possible. I guess this only makes sense if we say that this philosophy existed pretty far back, of which I have no proof at all.

December 03, 2007 2:30 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...

I guess the point I was trying to make is how dramatically different the language is in other samples like English and Russian. I would expect the language to have evolved enough that the language of the Torah should look as strange to the Chazal as Chaucer or Beowulf looks to us.

December 03, 2007 2:56 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Fæder ure þu þe eart on heofonum,
[Vader ours you that art 'in' heaven]
Si þin nama gehalgod.
[x dein nomen iz geheiligd'
To becume þin rice,
[Tot bekomen deine ryk]
gewurþe ðin willa, on eorðan swa swa on heofonum.
[zal worden deine wille, 'op' aarde (earth) zo-als 'in' heaven]
Urne gedæghwamlican hlaf syle us todæg,
[Earn daily loaf x us today]
and forgyf us ure gyltas, swa swa we forgyfað urum gyltendum.
[And forgive us our guilt, zo als we forgiveth other's guiltiness]
And ne gelæd þu us on costnunge, ac alys us of yfele.
[And (further) guide thou us in somethingorothering, x x of evil]

December 03, 2007 3:38 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Okay, so it makes sense..... if you are familiar with Dutch, English, and a few other oddments.

I suspect that the reason Anglo-Saxon changed so much on its way to modern English is because of the primitiveness of Anglo-Saxon culture, the frequent shifting of dominance from group to group spread out over England, the near total illiteracy of the populace, the brutishness of existence, and the absence of any sense of unity founded upon literacy and a literary tradition. Once things quieted down and society stabilized, and especially once the dominant class had given birth to a literate class, the language stabilized also.

Consider that what has come down to us of the language(s) that the Agnles and Saxons spoke is actually not the direct ancestor of English, but a related language that has no actual modern descendant; that the centre of English life switched from the south to the north during Viking times, went into abeyance after the Norman conquest, and then switched back to the south by the time of Chaucer (by which time it had become Middle-English and had started 'borrowing' from mediaeval French). By Elizabethan times it had become recognizable as the language we speak today - and by that time, several of the deviant dialects were starting to shift into variants of English rather than survivals of other versions of Anglo-Saxon.

Turbulent little Island.

December 03, 2007 3:49 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Other languages mirror both the Anglo-Saxon path, and the Hebrew path.

As an example of the first case, most Indonesian languages derive from one common version of Malayo-Polynesian - some languages didn't start diverging into unintelligibility untill about a thousnand years ago, or even in some cases less than five hundred years ago.

As an example of the second case, consider that modern Cantonese has a sound-system quite close to T'ang dynasty Chinese, Fujianese still clearly shows Zhou phonetics, and Mandarin represents deviant northern gibberish that became dominant during the division of China between Souther Sung and the Chin dynasty - although it had been recorded as uncivilized versions of Chinese as early as the five dynasties period.

Cantonese, by the way, shows the most deviance grammatically from the classic language - it actually has a more fully formed system of indicating tense, time, aspect than Mandarin. Which means that whereas Mandarin adheres fairly closely to word-order formats to indicate how the words function and relate to each other, Cantonese has locutions and shades of meaning that sometimes veer widely off the derech.

December 03, 2007 3:56 PM  
Blogger e-kvetcher said...


I knew that a Dutchman would be at an advantage for understanding Old English :)

Is what you're saying that some languages did not go through such a dramatic change as English, for example?

December 03, 2007 9:50 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Not a few languages have changed less than English.

Modern Icelandic, for example, is basically Old-Norse. The only major difference is a far larger vocabulary - they did not have computers or telephones in Eric the Red's day.
Once a language becomes a significant literary medium, change is slower and less. Pronunciation may eventually vary considerably, but the up-to-date spoken vocabulary is always reinforced by the written vocabulary.

Exception being Chinese, where much of the classic vocabulary is mono-syllabic and has too many homophones - just look up all the words that are pronounced 'zhi' in Mandarin; a good dictionary will have over sixty separate characters (words, or word-parts) for that one phoneme alone. Because Mandarin has such a limited sound system (only about six hundred phonemes, times four tones, or only three tones in some dialects) compared to Cantonese (over nine-hundred phonemes, times seven, or eight, or nine tones, depending on dialect), the number of bi-syllabic constructs in Mandarin is necessarily huge when compared to Cantonese.

December 04, 2007 1:09 PM  
Blogger The back of the hill said...

Some languages change "politically". Both Urdu and Hindustani are close derivations of Deccani Urdu as it had developed from earlier demotized Sanskrit-based vernaculars by the fourteenth century. But whereas 'modern' Urdu joyfully takes on every Arabic and Persian word, phrase, or construction that it can possibly swallow, Hindi has deliberately been trimmed of all that foreign (Muslim) accretion. Officially, of course. Unofficially, many northern Hindus still speak Delhwi or Lacknawi Urdu, many hill-people have more rustic speech and simpler vocabularies. But if you spoke the vernacular of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, you would sound barely more peculiar than somebody from an out-of-the-way country district.

At the Indian restaurant where I worked, the owner's wife would often address the kitchen staff in her allegedly pure Hindi. After she left, the chef would ask me what on earth that woman had said - every other word was Persian or Arabic, and her phrasing was a bit too high-flown for easy comprehension.

Dutch has had much the same sound for the last six or seven centuries, the grammar has changed somwhat, the vocabulary has lost some and gained much. But the late-mediaeval literature is quite transparent to a graduate of an old-style Gymnasium or Atheneum.

December 04, 2007 1:09 PM  

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