Hebrew and Moabite Language Drift

Credit: BiblePlaces.com

In Genesis 32 Jacob wrestled with a man after crossing the Jabbok. Heading south across the Jabbok River, today’s Zarqa River, would place Jacob in the Transjordan, in the region of Ammon.

Languages evolve over time. Regional dialects develop and can evolve over time to become mutually unintelligible languages. Latin evolved over time in isolated regions to become French, Spanish, Portuguese and Italian. In the Iron Age IIA, the people of the Levant spoke dialects of an earlier Canaanite language. These closely related languages included Ammonite, Moabite, Edomite, Phoenician and Hebrew.

The Mesha Stele is a 9th century BCE inscription written by the Moabite king of Moab, recounting his victory over Israel and the men of Gad. It is important for understanding the Moabite language and its writing system.

The Mesha Stele demonstrates that Moabite language was very similar to ancient Hebrew, but it had notable differences in its suffixes. Whereas in Hebrew plural words ended with the suffix –im, in Moabite, plural words ended in –in. Thus represented in English sounds and without vowels, the plural word for kings, “Malahchim” in Hebrew is written as MLKN in Moabite. Another difference between suffixes in Hebrew and Moabite was in the female ending suffix. In Hebrew this was limited to –ah endings, while in Moabite the female suffix could be with an ‘–ah’ or ‘–at’ ending.

Differences also emerged in the Phoenician/Archaic Hebrew writing system. In the Old Hebrew script, the letter ‘Heh’ was written with a single vertical line and three horizontal lines on the left starting at the top and moving down. The El-Kerak Inscription was unearthed in Moabite territory. In this inscription, the letter ‘Heh’ was written with four horizontal lines.

The Khirbet el-Mudeyine Incense Altar Inscription discovered in Moabite territory shows further regional deviations in the writing system. The letters Yud, Tav and Lamed all feature differences from earlier forms of the script.

These are all examples of two languages, born from the same language, gradually drifting away from each other over time.

The image above is of a replica of the Mesha Stele, housed at the Jordan Museum