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Phoenician was a language originally spoken in the coastal region then called "Pūt" in Ancient Egyptian, "Canaan" in Phoenician, Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic, and "Phoeniciamarker" in Greek and Latin. Phoenician is a Semitic language of the Canaanite subgroup; its closest living relative is Hebrew. The area where Phoenician was spoken includes modern-day Lebanonmarker, coastal Syriamarker, northern Israelmarker, Tunisiamarker, Algeriamarker, and Maltamarker.

Phoenician is known only from inscriptions such as Ahiram's coffin, Kilamuwa's tomb, Yehawmilk's in Byblosmarker, and occasional glosses in books written in other languages; Roman authors such as Sallust allude to some books written in Punic, but none have survived except occasionally in translation (e.g., Mago's treatise) or in snippets (e.g., in Plautus' plays). The Cippi of Melqart, discovered in Maltamarker in 1694, were inscribed in two languages, Ancient Greek and Carthaginian. This made it possible for French scholar Abbe Barthelemy to decipher and reconstruct the Carthaginian alphabet.

Punic and its influences

The significantly divergent later-form of the language that was spoken in the Tyrianmarker Phoenician colony of Carthagemarker is known as Punic; it remained in use there for considerably longer than Phoenician did in Phoeniciamarker itself, arguably surviving into Augustine's time. It may have even survived the Arabic conquest of North Africa: the geographer al-Bakrī describes a people speaking a language that was not Berber, Latin or Coptic in the city of Sirtmarker in northern Libyamarker, a region where spoken Punic survived well past written use. [49613]. However it is likely that Arabization of the Punics was facilitated by their language belonging to the same group (the Semitic languages group) as that of the conquerors, and thus having many grammatical and lexical similarities.

The ancient Lybico-Berber alphabet still in irregular use by modern Berber groups such as the Tuareg is known by the native name tifinaġ, possibly a declined form of the borrowed word Pūnic. Still, a direct derivation from the Phoenician-Punic script is debated and far from established, since both writing systems are very different. As far as language (not the script) is concerned, some borrowings from Punic appear in modern Berber dialects: one interesting example is agadir "wall" from Punic gader.

Perhaps the most interesting case of Punic influence is that of the name of Hispania (the Iberian Peninsulamarker, comprising Portugalmarker and Spainmarker), which according to one theory among many derived from the Punic "I-Shaphan" meaning "coast of hyraxes", in turn a misidentification on the part of Phoenician explorers of its numerous rabbits as hyraxes. Another case is the name of a tribe of hostile "hairy people" that Hanno the Navigator found in the Gulf of Guineamarker. The name given to these people by Hanno the Navigator's interpreters was transmitted from Punic into Greek as gorillai and was applied in 1847 by Thomas S. Savage to the Western Gorilla.

Phonology, grammar and vocabulary

It is difficult to evaluate sound-changes in Phoenician dialects over time because writers continued to use archaic "book-spellings" that did not mark vowels in any way. Punic writers fitfully added a system of matres lectionis (vowel letters) at a very late period, but soon thereafter mostly shifted to Latin- or Greek-based scripts, which had their own failings (i.e., the inability to mark emphatic, laryngeal and guttural consonants).

Certain similarities between Phoenician and its related neighbours include the vowel shifts known en masse as the "Canaanite Vowel Shift": Proto-Northwest Semitic ā became ū (and Hebrew ō), while stressed Proto-Semitic a became o (Hebrew å) as shown by Latin and Greek transcriptions like rūs for "head, cape" (Hebrew ראש rôš). Despite this regional-specific name, Ancient Egyptian underwent a similar vowel shift, which is evident in the spellings of late dialects of this language, particularly Coptic.

Phoenician dialects also appear to have merged the three proto-Northwest Semitic sibilants sin, shin and samekh at a fairly early stage. This process was irregular in Hebrew and Aramaic (see shibboleth), leaving later dialects of those languages with two distinct sounds, s and š. In later Punic, the gutturals seem to have been entirely lost (thus merging tzade with unmarked s as well). The loss of emphatic and laryngeals was also present in certain Roman-era Hebrew dialects as well as in some Aramaic dialects.

Unique to Punic of all the Northwest Semitic languages was the shift p>f in all environments (as in proto-Arabic).

Phoenician-Punic did not undergo the consonantal lenition process that most other Northwest Semitic languages did (such as Hebrew and Aramaic) and it maintained many of the "primitive" Northwest Semitic sounds that were merged in other dialects (such as the merger of laryngeals and gutturals as laryngeals). This lenition is visible in the Hebrew verb conjugations listed below, where the underlying p>f (spelled as "ph") in certain forms because of the phonetic environment in which it appears, whereas in Punic the same verb appears simply with an underlying f in all places.

Differences in the grammatical system abound: e.g., the survival of case endings in early Phoenician, the causative Punic verb-form yifʼil or īfʼil (orthographical YPʼL or ʼYPʼL, Hebrew hiphʼīl). There are also interesting vocabulary differences, including the use of the verb KN "to be" (as in Arabic) (rather than Aramaic-Hebrew HYH) and PʼL "to do" (as in Arabic fʼl) (rather than ʼSH) and the (almost) exclusive use of bal "not" (Aramaic-Hebrew *. Also cf. Arabic "bal" = instead, on the contrary; and Hebrew "belial" (beli- ya'al) "without advantage, gain" = worthless ).

The earliest known inscriptions in Phoenician come from Byblosmarker and date back to ca. 1000 BCE. Phoenician and Punic inscriptions are found in Lebanonmarker, Syriamarker, Israelmarker, Cyprusmarker, Sardinia, Maltamarker, Sicily, Tunisiamarker, Moroccomarker, Algeriamarker and other locations such as the Iberian Peninsulamarker as late as the early centuries of the Christian Era.

Knowledge of Hebrew aided the reconstruction of Phoenician inscriptions. One of the earliest essays in Phoenician language studies was Wilhelm Gesenius (1786-1842), Scripturae linguaeque phoeniciae monumenta, 1837, analyzing texts from coins and monumental inscriptions. Today, it is possible to study Phoenician at most universities in the U.S.marker and Canada that teach Semitic Philology; in particular, those that have a Department of Near Eastern Studies, such as Harvardmarker, University of Pennsylvaniamarker, JHU, Berkeleymarker, UCLAmarker, the University of Michiganmarker, The Catholic University of Americamarker, Chicagomarker, and the University of Torontomarker.


See also


  • Krahmalkov Charles R (2001): A Phoenician-Punic Grammar (Handbook of Oriental Studies, Section 1, Vol. 54); Brill Publishing (Leiden, Boston & Köln); ISBN 90-04-11771-7

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