Many Peoples of Obscure Speech and Difficult Language: Attitudes towards Linguistic Diversity in the Hebrew Bible
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CitationPower, Cian Joseph. 2015. Many Peoples of Obscure Speech and Difficult Language: Attitudes towards Linguistic Diversity in the Hebrew Bible. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University, Graduate School of Arts & Sciences.
AbstractThe subject of this dissertation is the awareness of linguistic diversity in the Hebrew Bible—that is, the recognition evident in certain biblical texts that the world’s languages differ from one another. Given the frequent role of language in conceptions of identity, the biblical authors’ reflections on language are important to examine.
Of the biblical texts that explicitly address the subject of linguistic diversity, some are specific, as in references to particular languages (e.g., “Aramaic”), while others refer to linguistic multiplicity generally, as in the Tower of Babel episode (Gen 11:1–9). Linguistic difference is also indicated implicitly, as when the speech of Laban in Gen 29–31 exhibits Aramaic-like features that emphasize his foreignness.
Building on previous studies of limited scope, my approach is to collect and analyse the evidence for awareness of linguistic diversity in the biblical books comprehensively. Drawing on concepts from sociolinguistics, including style-switching, code-switching, and language ideology, I categorize such evidence and explain its significance with respect to its literary and historical contexts. I thus contribute to wider debates on the sociolinguistics of ancient Hebrew, the development of the concept of the “holy language” in Judaism, and the topic of linguistic diversity in the broader ancient Near East.
I find that the notion of linguistic diversity is used in the Hebrew Bible to set up, and also to challenge, boundaries of various kinds, be they territorial, as in the Shibboleth test (Judg 12:5–6), ethnic, as with the Judaean-Ashdodite children (Neh 13:23–4), or theological, as in Jeremiah’s Aramaic oracle against idols (Jer 10:11). My analysis shows that references to linguistic diversity are concentrated in texts of the Achaemenid Persian period and later, reflecting changes in the sociolinguistic circumstances of Judaeans. Yet in all periods Israel and Judah’s encounters with the empires Assyria, Babylonia, and Persia influenced attitudes towards linguistic diversity, whether this influence be manifested in fear (Jer 5:15) or ridicule (Esth 8:9). Overall, linguistic difference is not the primary means by which the biblical authors distinguish Israel from the nations, nor do they attribute a unique religious function to their own language.
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