Monday, April 30, 2007

Did the Ancient Egyptians Speak Hebrew?

[Egyptian papyrus with hieroglyphics c. 1200 BCE]

According to the commentary of Rashi on Genesis 11:1, at the time of the Tower of Babel, c 1765 BCE, everyone spoke Hebrew. Today, archeologists have discovered that other languages such as Egyptian and Sumerian were spoken long prior to that time.

One question I have is: How do we know that the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians did not in fact speak Hebrew?

Until about 1800 BCE, writing was primarily pictographic. This means that each character represented a word, not a sound. This system is still used in eastern Asia today. Therefore, how do we know what ancient Egyptian or Sumerian sounded like? For example, today, Japanese writing is derived partly from Chinese characters, although the two spoken languages are entirely different. The written language may have no connection to the spoken language in some cases.

I don’t know what the answer to this question is. I’m just asking.


Henry said...

As long ago as that, many languages which are now separate could have been one language, just as American and British English are, but will in due course differentiate as the Germanic and Latinate languages have over the past 1600 years.

So for what it is worth, think about how similar Arabic and the languages of Ethiopia are today and ask if they might have descended from a common ancestral language something like Hebrew. Which does not answer the question.

Joebaum said...

Who says they spoke at all a language?

badrabbi said...

I know you are asking - I have no convincing answers but...

It is interesting how Genesis 11:1 starts out by saying that everyone in this world spoke one language. But if you look merely one chapter preceding 11:1, ie., if you look at chapter 10, you see written the following:

The Torah talks about Noah and his sons, saying;
Chapter 10:5 "Of these were the isles of the nations...everyone after his their nations".

Similarly, in 10:20: “These are the sons of Ham, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, in their nations”

Finally, in 10:31: “These are the sons of Shem, after their families, after their tongues, in their lands, after their nations”.

Now correct me if I am wrong, but “after their tongues” means “after their languages”. It is curious then how the very next chapter contradicts the previous chapter and claims that the whole world was of one tongue.

I too have no answers, but those who claim that the Torah is a redaction – compiled by a group of people - rather than by a single person have some ammunition here. This sort of evidence, by itself, amounts to not much, but sure makes one wonder whether the Torah is the true word of God.

jewish philosopher said...

I think the previous chapter is explaining what happened eventually after the dispersion.

badrabbi said...

No, it explains what heppened to children of Noah. The geneology is clear.

zw said...

badrabbi - read R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch for a traditional interpretation that doesn't need to resort to redaction. He says that the people had acquired different l'shonos which are different dialects. He explains in length that lashon - the tongue - represents the single organ that regulates breath, while s'fas - the lip - designates the oral cavity and thus speech in general. In the 400 years after the flood, there were various dialects but s'fas echas (Ber.11:1) - one language.

badrabbi said...

ZW - I commend you for attempting to directly answer my question. Your answer is clear and concise. However, I am not sure that I agree with you.

If I understand you correctly, you are saying that according to Rav Hirsch, lashon is to be taken to mean 'dialect' whereas s'fas is to mean "language". If this is so, one need only to look at other occurrences of the word "lashon" and see the context of its meaning.

When a search is made for the word 'lashon', it turns out that the Torah seldoms mentions it. In Deuteronomy 28:49, there is the word mentioned, and I think it clearly has the meaning of ‘language’ and not ‘dialect’:

49 The LORD will bring a nation against thee from far, from the end of the earth, as the vulture swoopeth down; a nation whose tongue thou shalt not understand

Similarly, in Ezra and in Nehemia 13:24, the word is used, and again, the plain reading of the word is ‘language’ and not ‘dialect’.

Furthermore, your explanation, while it tends to resolve the apparent contradiction, does not wholly make sense. In Chapter 10 of Genesis, the geneology of the children of Noah are mentioned. The Torah describes them as becoming separate ‘nations’ divided into their lands. It would be funny (though not inconceivable) to describe them as having different dialects. For example, ‘Cush’ is mentioned as a descendent of Noah. We have come to know that ‘Cush’ is regarded to mean Ethiopia. It is hard to think that Ethiopians spoke a ‘dialect’ of Hebrew. ‘Ashur’ or Assyrians, as I understand, speak Aramaic. It is hard to say that the latter is a ‘dialect’ of Hebrew.

In any case, while your explanation tends to clear this difficulty, you must admit that at best, this explanation is somewhat tortuous and apologetic in nature.

Steve said...

See Ramban's perush to Bereishit 45:12. He raises the possibility that even the Avot didn't speak Hebrew.

SJ said...

Maybe the ancient Egyptians and Sumerians spoke a language that was structured as a semetic language in general or some kind of proto-semetic?