The Heap of Witness (Gen 31)

Discussion in 'Languages' started by JennyG, Apr 11, 2011.

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  1. JennyG

    JennyG Puritan Board Graduate

    v 47:
    And Laban called it Jegarsahadutha: but Jacob called it Galeed.

    This suggests that they were speakers of two different languages. Would those languages have been close enough for easy mutual understanding? If not, is there any way of knowing in which language they would have communicated, especially on first meeting? (same question for Isaac and Rebecca).
    This has only just occurred to me. Well after Babel, different peoples often seem to communicate with ease (cf eg Joseph in Egypt, Samson among the Philistines).
    How did that work? I may be wrong, but I can't recall linguistic comprehension's even being mentioned as a possible issue, until the visit of the Assyrians to Hezekiah.
  2. JennyG

    JennyG Puritan Board Graduate

    I'd love to know more about this, even just speculation!
  3. py3ak

    py3ak They're stalling and plotting against me Staff Member

    It occurs to me that there is an instance earlier than the Babylonian visit that shows the possibility of linguistic incomprehension: Joseph at first speaks to his brothers through an interpreter

    With the caveat that this is mostly bait to tempt someone learned to take up your question, some varieties of Aramaic are mutually intelligible and some are not: given their family connections, it seems likely that Jacob and Laban's varieties would not have required too much adaptation to follow. Adam Clarke deduces from this text that Chaldee and Hebrew are nearly coequal.
  4. JennyG

    JennyG Puritan Board Graduate

    Thank you Ruben, that's very interesting! I'd forgotten how Joseph did that. Of course he didn't actually need to have his brothers' speech translated and that was the point of its being mentioned, but you're right, it means there were interpreters there.
    I wonder how Moses managed? He couldn't have grown up speaking hebrew, but he would surely have had to learn it before he could present himself as a leader from God to his people (who probably would have had to be bilingual)

    I suppose a big part of the answer must also be that as you say, many different tongues as far back as that were still more like dialects than separate languages. I know it's sometimes difficult to draw the line.. For eg, the EU declared a while back that Scots is a language distinct from English, but not everyone was convinced.
    Without those passingly-mentioned interpreters though, the scenario might occasionally seem like something out of Star Trek
  5. TimV

    TimV Puritanboard Botanist

    I think the point was that it was taken for granted that Egyptians couldn't understand Hebrew. Joseph was a slave, and had to learn quickly to be treated with any amount of decency.

    When I first moved to SA I had to promise to learn Zulu within a few months. Everyone with large numbers of unskilled labor ended up learning at least two languages because you pretty much have to.

    Laban was called "The Syrian", and as Jacob's mom and grandpa were also Chaldee/Aramaic speakers it would be stranger than not if he couldn't switch back and forth between Aramaic and Hebrew with ease. BTW K&D figures this as proof that Abraham and his family learned Hebrew in Canaan. As to Scots, Scots is clearly English like Yiddish is German, but Gaelic just isn't, and whether the Egyptian upper class was speaking Egyptian or the IndoEuropean Hyksos the time frames involved, plus evidence we have put Egyptian and Hyksos even further removed from Hebrew than Gaelic is from English.
  6. JennyG

    JennyG Puritan Board Graduate

    I was thinking that whereas the people whose business it was actually to oversee labour would obviously need the slaves' language, as a general rule (as you also said), Egyptians wouldn't be expected to understand Hebrew. Plus it would surely have been beneath the dignity of the household of Pharaoh.
    If so then Moses would have had to take steps to learn it on his own initiative. Maybe that was one reason he wasn't very well received by his own people at first - if he wasn't fluent enough yet to seem like one of them! maybe his accent was wrong.

    Thanks for your input, Tim. I think it's a fascinating subject.
  7. TimV

    TimV Puritanboard Botanist

    'course being raised by his mom would have given him a head's up :)
  8. JennyG

    JennyG Puritan Board Graduate

    I was thinking about that before - it seemed too easy. i assume he would have been returned to the palace as soon as weaned,.. and however relatively late that might have been, how pleased would Pharaoh's daughter have been to take delivery of a little monoglot Hebrew-speaker? Or even if he did speak it, she could soon have taught him how very non-U it was.
    I don't think it can be unreasonable to speculate that the "slowness of speech" Moses talks about came from not being easily bilingual. Children who are fluent in a second language as babies don't always retain it if they then go years without using that language.
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