Who were the ancient Serbs and Croats, or Danes and Norwegians?

I am thinking here of two groups who work overtime to distinguish themselves from one another precisely because there is so little separating them. Above all, they assert that their ‘languages’ are distinct, whether Danish or Norwegian, Serbian or Croatian. The catch of course is that there is more variation across the dialects within those countries than between them. So Danes and speak with Norwegians, Serbs with Croats and vice versa. Languages? Only in political terms. Compare the fact that some of the ‘dialects’ in China are as distinct as, say, English is from French.

Anyway, who makes up the ancient version? Philistines and Israelites of course. Or is that Phoenicians and Canaanites, Sea Peoples and Hill Peoples? Their ‘languages’ were hardly that at all, for they could understand each other when they spoke their own dialects.


16 thoughts on “Who were the ancient Serbs and Croats, or Danes and Norwegians?

  1. Uh, Roland, Philistines and Israelites didn’t have mutually-intelligible languages. Philistines spoke a Hellenic language.

    Phoenicians and Canaanites, sure. Perhaps you should term Phoenicians as “Coastal Peoples” as the Philistines were the “Sea Peoples.” Archaeologically quite distinct.

  2. Thanks Christine – just what I was about to say! There is a problem, though, that direct evidence for the language of the Philistines is a little hard to come by – the loan word “seren” in the Hebrew of Judges and the Ark Narrative (= Gk. tyrannos?) would be a rare example of indirect evidence. I would be prepared to bet my car, my right foot, and my copy of LSJ that they spoke a version of what we now call Greek. But did they also come to speak a dialect of Canaanite once they had landed?

    1. According to Ephraim Stern, by the seventh century Philistines were writing in Aramaic script with some local peculiarities. Indo-European names continued to be used into this period. Material culture by the seventh century was similar to that of the nearby cultures, but there remained certain local characteristics of a more Hellenic or Cypriot nature. But by then they’d been there over 400 years!

      Israelites, Judahites and Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites were much more like the Danes and Norwegians. Their languages and material cultures are mutually-intelligible. And we know what the biblical texts had to say about the origins of the Ammonites, Moabites and Edomites – and how long it should take for an individual from one of those groups to be accepted into the congregation of Israel.

  3. That was no slip of the typing finger. There’s very limited evidence of Philistine language on arrival (assuming they were the ‘Sea Peoples’), apart from extrapolation from supposed later ‘loan-words’. By the first millennium they seem to have been speaking version of Canaanite – hence my initial observation. But let’s grant them some form of Indo-European language on arrival for the sake of argument. We can’t assume pure lines of language here (the Indo-European hypothesis has rather dubious connections with the idea of a Herrenvolk and Aryan Ursprache), for there seems to have been plenty of Semitic influence on the shape of Indo-European – rather, mutual influence back and forth. In that light, the whole idea of Philistine ‘loan-words’ in the Bible becomes problematic, since it assumes an idea of the purity of languages that simply doesn’t seem to have been the case.

    I must admit to being fascinated by a goodly number of archaeologists, who spend an inordinate amount of time trying to identify ethnic characteristics from the archaeological record – especially Philistine and ‘Israelite’ (leaving aside the problem of whether ‘Israel’ existed at all at the time). Of course, it has nothing to do with the struggle over defining what, exactly, might be the minimal difference between Palestine and Israel today.

    1. I’m not clear on the reasons why talk of “loan-words” implies “purity of languages” – surely all it implies is that at some point a word in whatever “langue” was spoken by group a became current in whatever langue was spoken by group b. The word I referred to above is, as I understand it, only used to refer to leaders of the Philistine Pentapolis – they are seranim, not melakhim or nesi’im or some other title – so presumably it is possible to ask where this word came from and why it was used in certain biblical texts (Judges and Samuel).

      This is surely a separate issue from the matter of the ideology of linguistic purity, which becomes very significant, for example, in Nehemiah.

      As you will clearly see here, I am a revenant escaped from historical critical purgatory.

    2. One of my points is that what looks like a loan-word from a to b may well have been a loan-word earlier from b to a. That is, the ‘loan-word’ is original to b. Of course, given the assumptions with which we operate, we would like to find ‘foreign’ sources for what appear to be odd words.

      1. Yes, of course – that should be uncontroversial. The fact of the matter is that our evidence for both Hebrew [defN?] and Greek [defN?] in the LBA is so sketchy that clear conclusions are very difficult to draw. Part of the problem in this respect is that firm distinctions between, and constructs of, “Greek” and “Hebrew” have been imported from a later period into scholarship on the entire corpus.

        Actually, I think I argue something along these lines for David and Jonathan in my book (which is finally out). I read their covenant alongside a Cretan “abduction” ritual and the oaths taken by Theban male lovers at the tomb of Iolaus and ask – what do we really think Iron Age I Israel looked like?

    1. The US troops in Iran and Afghanistan must have no trouble speaking to the locals, then, George.

      Politics doesn’t account for every difference between Hebrew and Moabite, Danish and Norwegian, etc, etc. There are also real linguistic differences between Hebrew and early Philistine language, such as in the Ashdod seals which are in an Aegean script, not a ‘Canaanite’ script. It’s a complex mix.

      And then you get the added complexity of a (‘political’) tendency towards self-differentiation in later Philistine culture, which presumably includes a real impact on language.

      1. But from where did the Aegean script come? A number of the letters have a decidedly ‘semitic’ temper.

        Later Philistine culture? It seems as though they were speaking a Canaanite dialect by then.

      2. Ultimately – who knows. But in its immediate context in IA1 Ashdod, it didn’t come from the highlands – and that’s the salient point.

        Definitely ‘Canaanite’ by the evidence at Tell es-Safi. But you would expect the survival of certain Aegean-derived titles in the Philistine lexicon, like srn.

      3. Deane, you must be the sole possessor of a Philistine lexicon – quite something. Why haven’t you announced it to the world, since they still haven’t managed to decipher the Ashdod seals. But is it a pre-1st millennium lexicon or post?

      4. Your smoke and mirrors is a bit too obvious this time, Roland. It’s not a bad thing to admit that you were wrong, you know.

        And yet, I wouldn’t want you to stop your act. You are the first Gonzo Biblical Scholar.

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