Canaanite languages

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Levant, Carthage
Linguistic classificationAfro-Asiatic

The Canaanite languages, or Canaanite dialects,[1] are one of three subgroups of the Northwest Semitic languages, the others being Aramaic and Amorite, all originating in the Levant and Mesopotamia. They are attested in Canaanite inscriptions throughout the Levant, Mesopotamia, Anatolia and the East Mediterranean, and after the founding of Carthage by Phoenician colonists, in coastal regions of North Africa and Iberian Peninsula also. Dialects have been labelled primarily with reference to Biblical geography: Hebrew (Israelian, Judean/Biblical, Samaritan), Phoenician/Punic, Amorite, Ammonite, Moabite, Sutean and Edomite; the dialects were all mutually intelligible, being no more differentiated than geographical varieties of Modern English.[2] This family of languages has the distinction of being the first historically attested group of languages to use an alphabet, derived from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, to record their writings, as opposed to the far earlier Cuneiform logographic/syllabic writing of the region, which originated in Mesopotamia.

These extremely closely related tongues were spoken by the ancient Semitic-speaking peoples of Canaan and Levant, an area encompassing what is today Israel, Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and also some areas of southwestern Turkey (Anatolia), western and southern Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia.

The Canaanites are broadly defined to include the Hebrews (including Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans), Amalekites, Ammonites, Amorites, Edomites, Ekronites, Hyksos, Phoenicians (including the Carthaginians), Moabites and Suteans. Although the Amorites are included among the Canaanite peoples, their language is sometimes not considered to be a Canaanite language but very closely related.

The Canaanite languages continued to be everyday spoken languages until at least the 2nd century AD. Hebrew is the only living Canaanite language today. It remained in continuous use by many Jews well into the Middle Ages and up to the present day as both a liturgical and literary language and was used for commerce between disparate diasporic Jewish communities. It has also remained a liturgical language among Samaritans. Hebrew was revived by Jewish political and cultural activists, particularly through the revitalization and cultivation efforts of Zionists throughout Europe and in Palestine, as an everyday spoken language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. By the mid-20th century, Modern Hebrew had become the primary language of the Jews of Palestine and was later made the official language of the State of Israel.

The primary modern reference book for the many extra-biblical Canaanite inscriptions, together with Aramaic inscriptions, is the German-language book Kanaanäische und Aramäische Inschriften, from which inscriptions are often referenced as KAI n (for a number n).[3]

Classification and sources[edit]

The Canaanite languages or dialects can be split into the following:[1][4]

North Canaan[edit]

South Canaan[edit]


Other possible Canaanite languages:

Comparison to Aramaic[edit]

Some distinctive typological features of Canaanite in relation to the still spoken Aramaic are:

  • The prefix h- used as the definite article (Aramaic has a postfixed -a). That seems to be an innovation of Canaanite.
  • The first person pronoun being ʼnk (אנכ anok(i) (which is similar to Akkadian, Ancient Egyptian and Berber) versus Aramaic ʾnʾ/ʾny.
  • The *ā > ō vowel shift (Canaanite shift).


Modern Hebrew, revived in the modern era from an extinct dialect of the ancient Israelites preserved in literature, poetry, liturgy; also known as Classical Hebrew, the oldest form of the language attested in writing. The original pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew is accessible only through reconstruction. It may also include Ancient Samaritan Hebrew, a dialect formerly spoken by the ancient Samaritans. The main sources of Classical Hebrew are the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), and inscriptions such as the Gezer calendar and Khirbet Qeiyafa pottery shard. All of the other Canaanite languages seem to have become extinct by the early 1st millennium AD – except Punic, which survived into late antiquity, or possibly even longer.

Slightly varying forms of Hebrew preserved from the first millennium BC until modern times include:

The Phoenician and Carthaginian expansion spread the Phoenician language and its Punic dialect to the Western Mediterranean for a time, but there too it died out, although it seems to have survived longer than in Phoenicia itself.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Rendsburg 1997, p. 65.
  2. ^ Rendsburg 1997, p. 66.
  3. ^ For example, the Mesha Stele is "KAI 181".
  4. ^ Waltke & O'Connor (1990:8): "The extrabiblical linguistic material from the Iron Age is primarily epigraphic, that is, texts written on hard materials (pottery, stones, walls, etc.). The epigraphic texts from Israelite territory are written in Hebrew in a form of the language which may be called Inscriptional Hebrew; this 'dialect' is not strikingly different from the Hebrew preserved in the Masoretic text. Unfortunately, it is meagerly attested. Similarly limited are the epigraphic materials in the other South Canaanite dialects, Moabite and Ammonite; Edomite is so poorly attested that we are not sure that it is a South Canaanite dialect, though that seems likely. Of greater interest and bulk is the body of Central Canaanite inscriptions, those written in the Phoenician language of Tyre, Sidon, and Byblos, and in the offshoot Punic and Neo-Punic tongues of the Phoenician colonies in North Africa. "An especially problematic body of material is the Deir Alla wall inscriptions referring to a prophet Balaam (c. 700 BC), these texts have both Canaanite and Aramaic features. W. R. Garr has recently proposed that all the Iron Age Canaanite dialects be regarded as forming a chain that actually includes the oldest forms of Aramaic as well."


  • The Semitic Languages. Routledge Language Family Descriptions. Edited by Robert Hetzron. New York: Routledge, 1997.
  • Garnier, Romain; Jacques, Guillaume (2012). "A neglected phonetic law: The assimilation of pretonic yod to a following coronal in North-West Semitic". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 75 (1): 135–145. CiteSeerX doi:10.1017/s0041977x11001261. S2CID 16649580.
  • Rendsburg, Gary (1997). "Ancient Hebrew Phonology". Phonologies of Asia and Africa: Including the Caucasus. Eisenbrauns. ISBN 978-1-57506-019-4.
  • Waltke, Bruce K.; O'Connor, M. (1990). An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, Indiana: Eisenbrauns. ISBN 978-0-931464-31-7.

Further reading[edit]

  • Dallaire, Hélène M. The Syntax of Volitives in Biblical Hebrew and Amarna Canaanite Prose. University Park, USA: Penn State University Press, 2014. doi:10.1515/9781575064000
  • Izre'el, Shlomo. "Canaano-Akkadian: Linguistics and Sociolinguistics". In: Language and Nature. Papers Presented to John Huehnergard on the Occasion of His 60th Birthday. hrsg. v. Rebecca Hasselbach, Na'ama Pat-El (Studies in Ancient Oriental Civilization (SAOC) 67). Chicago, IL: Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago, 2012. pp. 171-218. ISBN 978-1-885923-91-2.
  • Pat-El, Na’ama; Wilson-Wright, Aren (2016). "The Features of Canaanite: A Reevaluation". Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft. 166 (1): 41–55. doi:10.13173/zeitdeutmorggese.166.1.0041. Accessed 18 May 2023.
  • Pat-El, Na’ama; Wilson-Wright, Aren (2018). "Features of Aramaeo-Canaanite". Journal of the American Oriental Society. 138 (4): 781–806. doi:10.7817/jameroriesoci.138.4.0781. Accessed 18 May 2023.

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