The Uncanny Tension of Research


Richard Franklin Bishop


© Copyright 2016 by Richard Franklin  Bishop      

Photo of part of the Prygi Golden Tablet.

Mr. C. W. Ceram (Kurt W. Marek), on pp. x & xi, in Gods, Graves, and  Scholars - The Story of Archaeology, BANTAM BOOKS, New York, 2nd Ed., 1972, documented the idea that the Reader could become interested in the driest, most boring technical research information, if presented as a “dramatic process.” He wrote:

. . . . . it was Paul de Kruif (author of The Microbe Hunters ) who first undertook to trace the development of a highly specialized science so that one could read about it with genuine excitement, with the sort of  response too often produced, in our times, only by detective thrillers. De Kruif found that even the most highly involved scientific problems can be quite simply and understandably presented if their working out is described as a dramatic process. That means, in effect, leading the reader by the hand along the same road that the scientists themselves have traversed from the moment truth was first glimpsed until the goal was gained . De Kruif found that an account of  the detours, crossways, and blind alleys that confused the scientists . . . could achieve a dynamic and dramatic quality capable of evoking uncanny tension in the reader.”

The following is an example of a tangled web that started with the hair on the back of my neck standing up while “taking on” the experts, the slam-bang research necessary to uncover the truth, and an ending showing that there was a very historical and logical explanation for the anomaly (an abnormal deviation from the common rule):

Taming the Phoenician Alphabet
(Who Were The Phoenicians?)

The Phoenicians were part of a civilization centered in the North of ancient Canaan. Its center was along the coastal regions of modern day Lebanon but spread out to Palestine, Syria and Israel. Where they originally came from is, even now, unclear. They were a maritime culture with expert sailors that fanned-out all across the Mediterranean Sea from 1550 B.C. to 300 B.C.. Their ships were called a “galley” and were both sail-powered and
Their civilization was organized into city-states which were independent units but which could be linked to other city-states in times of trouble. Trading was their specialty as also was their production of purple dye (which colored the purple robes of Royalty). Over time, their trading centers went from the Red Sea as far West as Carthage. They were also trading partners with the Greeks. Their influence and trading network effectively ended when Alexander The Great took the important city-state of Tyre in 332 B.C.. Carthage was destroyed by Rome in 146 B.C..

Their Writing and Language

The Phoenicians were a literate folk. Their writing appeared very early in history (sometime before the 13th 
Century B.C.). The language lasted a long time; two thousand years or until about the beginning of the 7th Century A.D.. It is often labeled by language specialists as “Northwest Semitic.” It is written from Right to Left in the style of other Semitic languages such as Hebrew, Aramaic, Assyrian and Arabic.

The earliest Phoenician decipherment was the Ahiram inscription from the 13th Century B.C. and was engraved in an alphabetic form of writing. This kind of writing eventually replaced Cuneiform (little wedge-shaped marks made on wet clay tablets and later baked to hardness) in parts of the Middle East. Most modern alphabets owe their origin to the Phoenicians. You might say that the Phoenician alphabet was the “Mother of all alphabets.” This is because it was adopted very early by the Greeks (12th or 11th Century B.C.), who later passed it on to the Etruscans and Romans. We now commonly refer to our 26-letter English alphabet as Roman (Latin) characters.
The Phoenician script was a true alphabet consisting of 22 characters and therefore very efficient for the scribes to use (especially since it consisted only of consonants -- the vowels were left out -- making extremely short words). That fact (economy of expression), together with wide-ranging commerce (the Phoenicians were noteworthy travelers and traders), caused wide-spread usage within just a few centuries.

Also, each letter was acrophonic -- i.e., every letter had a name which began with the sound of that letter: ALEPH (A), BET (B), GIMEL(G), DALET (D), etc., perhaps making it possible for persons other than professional Scribes to "catch-on" to the system and learn the language easier and faster. Over its usage span of 2,000 years, there was some evolutionary change in the 22 shapes of the alphabetic script (but very slowly-- professional Scribes were very conservative) -- this feature now actually helps in the dating of an inscription.
In the Western part of the Mediterranean, beginning about the 5th Century B.C., the language was called Punic (and the users developed their own distinctive script). With the decline of Phoenician trade, especially after the
Third (and final) Punic War which ended with the fall of Carthage in 146 B.C., the language began to be replaced by Aramaic in the Near East. It continued on tenaciously as Neo-Punic (and, according to Professor Harris,
became: "cursive to the point of illegibility" , i.e., very hard to read), especially in North Africa, until the Arab Conquest (beginning 646 A.D.).

The Alphabetic Script

As cited above, the Phoenician alphabet consists of just 22 letters. This contrasts to the Hebrew Alphabet which uses 28 characters. The difference is because five letters in Hebrew use a different character for letters called
final forms”. The sixth difference is the Hebrew letter for Shin שׁ ( š ) which also has a second form; Sin שׂ ( ś ). (see Attachment 2 for Phoenician and Hebrew Alphabets - -any place where you see “or” then a final form of a
Hebrew character follows - - there are five of them - - and they are used only at the end of a word).  We regularly compare Phoenician to Hebrew because, while the alphabetic scripts are so different, the languages have many similarities (early Phoenician and ancient Hebrew are very close). Professor Harris said: “The correspondence between Phoenician and Hebrew in particular is so complete that after correcting for the known differences between the two, we can project our Phoenician material along lines parallel to the Hebrew and so reconstruct the language”  After “transliterating” the Phoenician characters of an inscription directly into Hebrew letters, the next step, usually, is to separate groups of letters into words. And this can be done with some effort with the help of a  Hebrew-English Dictionary. If the professional Scribe had placed vertical marks in the original inscription serving as word separators, then the process is much easier.

See Attachment 3 which compares Phoenician characters to Hebrew letters using as an example the Pyrgi Gold Plate (5th Century B.C.), which was discovered at Santa Severa, Italy (near Rome), in 1964 by Professor
Massimo Pallotino, University of Rome. Transliteration was done by the present Author. Here the words are now separated by white spaces. You can plainly see that this was not the case in the original Phoenician inscription - - where the characters are all contiguous (adjoining).

One of the interesting sidelights concerning the Phoenician alphabet which has received little notice over the years is the variation in the handling of a group of characters we would call “S” in our Roman (Latin) letters. In
transliterating the Hebrew letters to Roman (Latin) characters, there are three letters in the “S” group: ס = s and שׂ = ś and שׁ = š.  In the Phoenician characters, there are only two. As will be shown,  this causes some problems.
Professor Zellig S. Harris, University of Pennsylvania, wrote a book entitled: DEVELOPMENT OF THE CANAANITE DIALECTS (American Oriental Series, Volume 16, American Oriental Society , New Haven, 1939).   In this book Dr. Harris documented the empirical evidence of historical changes to the “S” type characters that had evolved in Canaan (and Phoenicia in particular) as far back as the 14th Century B. C.. That's thirty-four hundred years ago!
Wow, the quotations in Attachment 1 are heavy plowing! So, what does this explanatory text and all these footnotes mean (in plain English) when using the Phoenician alphabet?

It means that, when transliterating from Phoenician to Roman (Latin) characters, you would hardly ever use “ ś ”, since as far back as the 14th Century B.C., that usage was never picked up by the Phoenicians (this was also true in all the rest of Canaan) except in texts from Jerusalem, itself -- but even there it went out of style, only a few years later. In other words, do not use the character “ ś ” when transliterating Phoenician to Roman (Latin) letters.

Ok, now let us try testing out this described evolution of characters on an actual inscription. The following are three lines of the Paraiba inscription (allegedly found in Brazil) in right-to- left Semitic order but in Roman (or
Latin) characters modified to the academic style of pp. 75 and 85, “Riddles in History ” by Cyrus H. Gordon (1972). Notice that black dots are used as word separators here:

Oh, oh! What’s this? Something is wrong.

ś really should be Changed to š because, according to the above table, the Phoenician text showed  for this character.  It looks like a pitchfork.

Oh, oh! What’s this? Something is wrong.

ś really should be Changed to š because, according to the above table, the Phoenician text showed  for this character.   It looks like a pitchfork

Oh, oh! What’s this? Something is wrong.

ś should really be Changed to S because, according to the above table, the Phoenician text showed  for this character.  It looks like a crazy headed spear.

The colors show where corrections would be necessary if this Roman (Latin) intermediate stage is to be displayed (instead of transliterating directly to and displaying Hebrew characters). These proposed corrections would align Dr. Gordon’s work with the way the Scribes of the 5th Century B.C. actually engraved their work.

I said to myself: “Oh, Oh ! It can’t be . . . Experts like Dr. Cyrus H. Gordon don’t make such slips !” Temporarily, we'll just have to call them "alleged " printing errors. But the alarm bells had already rung and I was positive that
they were mistakes made by somebody because I had read and re-read Dr. Harris’s Book from 1939, cited above.
On the Trail of the Anomaly
(Anomaly: an abnormal deviation from the common rule)

I noticed that all three alleged “mistakes” had resulted in displaying the Roman (Latin) character “ ś ” (śin) in Dr. Gordon’s book even though there were two different Phoenician letters involved in the original inscription. Looking past the characters (at the forest instead of  the individual trees), I could see that these three alleged character “errors” were all wrapped up in the translation of one word -- the Phoenician word for the number "ten (10)."

Let’s give Dr. Gordon the benefit of the doubt. Could it be that somewhere there is a basic spelling convention for certain words like “ten” in some form of standard usage that would force the character “ ś ” (śin) to show up in all transliterations of Phoenician letters to Roman (Latin) characters (even though we now know that the Phoenicians never used “ ś ”)?
So I searched through A Grammar of the Phoenician Language by Zellig S. Harris (the very same author as quoted above, but published three years earlier in 1936), University of Pennsylvania (AMERICAN ORIENTAL
SERIES, Volume 8, AMERICAN ORIENTAL SOCIETY, New Haven, Ct, 1936).


This contradictive information was published in 1936 (or three years earlier) by the same author of the evolutionary historical data (i.e., the empirical evidence he found and documented representing the actual usage of the Scribes ) published in his 1939 Study. Hold on here ! From where did Dr. Harris get that particular usage back in 1936 ? And then, he probably changed his mind in 1939, based upon the refinements of the empirical evidence in his study when he actually published these three years later ?

Well, in spite of these conflicting conditions, there apparently was no academic “uproar” about a glaring mistake in Dr. Gordon’s book ( I should have gotten a clue from that).This new “standard” usage:

 ( and = ś = שׂ)

occurred regularly and was given priority in
all modern transliterations despite the lengthy “documented
evolution” described and presented as empirical evidence in the 1939 book.

But supposing there really is such a source for this kind of handling “by exception.” What kind of august authority would everybody yield to and adopt by accolade despite the empirical evidence which, I thought,
represented actual “real-life” circumstances?

Well then, for that kind of towering authority , we must look somewhere else besides in the Glossary of a modest Phoenician Grammar.

Nailing the Solution

Then I had a conversation with my wife as I often do when I’m at the end of  my rope. When I mentioned this dilemma to her, she briefly mulled it over in her mind.

She asked: “You’re seeing the conversion of Phoenician characters to Roman (Latin) letters in a way that seems to ignore the actual usage by the ancient Scribes?

I said: “Yes.”

She said: “And everybody breaks those rules and transliterates the Phoenician arriving at the Roman (Latin) equivalents -- in exactly the same way?”

I said: “Yes.”

She said: “Well, of course, it’s the Bible !”

I said: "You’ve hit it !”

That’s how I “woke up” to the source of the standard usage ! I should have known it all along. The key to all this was right there on page 26 of his 1939 book (in the first quote in Attachment 1) and it went right over my head. Here is the quoted passage again: Naturally, it was the Hebrew Bible; The Old Testament (The Tanakh in the Hebrew language). Every usage therein of the numeral “ten” (where combined with another number to equal eleven through nineteen) uses שׂ
which is ś.

The Masoretes

The Old Testament had been by and large finalized already by the first century A.D. ( see Page 4, Abegg, Martin Jr.; Flint, Peter; and Ulrich, Eugene: The Dead Seas Scrolls Bible . New York,1999).

From the eighth century A.D. until the end of the Middle Ages, a group of Jewish scholars known as the Masoretes set out again to review and finish a standard text of the Hebrew Bible (once and for all).They were successful and most modern Biblical translations of the Old Testament are taken from the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (or the earlier Rabbinic Biblia Hebraica) and, as a consequence, all current printed texts of the Hebrew Old Testament are virtually identical; the few variations usually being treated simply as footnotes. This is now called the latest critical edition of the “Masoretic Text” (or “rabbinic Text”) of the Hebrew Bible.

Long ago the major work of the Masoretes had added verse numbers as well as tiny dots (and a few other symbols) to each character as pronunciation aids. This “Masoretic Text” (or “rabbinic Text”) was prepared from the Leningrad Codex, dating back to 1008 A.D., and is archived in the Leningrad Public Library as Manuscript B19a (L).
But the empirical evolutionary changes to the usage of the characters documented by Professor Zellig S. Harris and published in 1939 had happened fifteen hundred years before that ! Perhaps, the Masoretes had no direct knowledge of such ancient changes . . . . or, if they did  know, they moved ahead and forged their own "masoretic” tradition, i.e.  all numbers from eleven through nineteen should use שׂ (which is ś) if  found in ancient manuscripts or inscriptions using Phoenician script (which is how the Hebrew Bible was devolved).

For our transliterations from Phoenician to Roman/Latin to Hebrew , the Hebrew Bible would be pretty much the last word on “standard” usage. And all of the Phoenician and Hebrew Specialists knew this because it was so elemental that they had learned it early on in their school language education.

Besides, modern Hebrew dictionaries follow the same tradition (see Dov Ben-Abba, Editor, HEBREW/ENGLISH ENGLISH/HEBREW DICTIONARY, A Signet Book, New American Library, Times Mirror, Masada Press Ltd., New York, 1977).

Back to the Status Quo

Well then, this was a “tempest in a teapot” only in my house. The reputations are saved. Nobody changed their mind. We now know where the 1936 translation came from (all the Experts handled it in the Masoretic way by tacit agreement). From then on, Dr. Harris’s 1939 Book was ignored or handled as an interesting footnote. My heartfelt apologies to Dr. Harris and Dr. Gordon. How dare I ever question the Experts -- if only in my mind? We Dilettantes have to really watch ourselves. A professional who has worked with Phoenician or Biblical Hebrew for scores of years probably knows a thing or two about the language that we dilettante amateurs could never know. Some groups of letters are transliterated following a certain tradition (for example the Hebrew Bible). Other characters are not.

It’s only right -- when dealing with ancient inscriptions and languages; no wild guessing allowed, you’ve just got to know which traditions are which! Experience might just be the best Teacher (but as I learned the hard  way, not necessarily through empirical studies like the 1939 Book!). So maybe I’d better give up Phoenician -- oh, well, there’s always Etruscan!

Attachment 1

Here included are quotations from the book (with permission):
DEVELOPMENT OF THE CANAANITE DIALECTS (American Oriental Series, Volume 16, American Oriental Society , New Haven, 1939, by Professor Zellig S. Harris, University of Pennsylvania). My notations or commentary are in BOLD:

Linguistic Conditions in Syria-Palestine”:
Page 26 “. . . The Hebrew bible is written in the Phoenician alphabet with certain diacritical marks, chiefly one over the š-sign [שׂ] to indicate ś, and a very late system of vowel and stress marks based upon the pronunciations
which had been preserved in the reading of the bible.” (Dr. Harris described here the Masoretic text).

List of Linguistic Changes”

Page 34 “ . . . continuation of Note 4. Merging of [ ś ] with [ š ].”

. . . Finally, the masoretic distinction of the š-sign [שׂ] as representing variously two late Jerusalem phonemes [ š ] and [ s ], and the occasional late confusions of spelling between ś (śin) and s (samek) 16, a confusion which never arises in words with [ š ], shows that [ ś ] (later became [ s ]) and [ š ] were distinct in Jerusalem.”

Footnote 16: BHG I 6s: BL 114-6. In Phoenician the indications are that the š-sign always represented [ š ] [ שׁ] (GP 22).”

TIME: . . . . . then the shift is perhaps before the second millennium. In any case, it took place in Ugaritic before 1500 , and in Phoenician before the borrowing of the alphabet by the Greeks (at which time it had no  ś - sign), and probably the Amarna period. There is no evidence that the Phoenician or Ugaritic alphabet ever had a sign for [ ś ].”

(Amarna period = 14th Century B.C.)
(Greek borrowing of the Phoenician alphabet = 12th--11th Century

Attachment 2
Phoenician and Hebrew Alphabets

Where you see “or” then a final form of a Hebrew character follows - - there are five of them - - and they are used only at the end of a word.

Attachment 3

A Comparison of  Hebrew (brush script) letters and Phoenician characters

(Read each document Right to Left)

1. Hebrew final forms are shown (at the ends of words), if appropriate.

2. Hyphens (at Left) show words split between lines.

Attachment 4

Attachment 4

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