Grammar Part 2: Semitic languages

The 22 Foundational Glyphs in "Milhamah" depict the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. Get ready to enter a study of Hebrew grammar.

As we continue last week’s examination of Joüon and Muraoka’s book “A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew,” the authors remind us that Hebrew is a Semitic language that is similar to neighboring tongues.

For instance, Semitic languages’ shared traits include:

  1. Gutturals like ḥet (ח) and ‘ayin (ע)
  2. emphatics like  ṭet (ט), tzadi (צ) and qof (ק)
  3. Root sequences usually composed of three consonants that suggest specific motifs that are conjugated by adding vowels

According to the book, the oldest Semitic languages were born in the northeast, such as Akkadian (Assyrian and Babylonian) and Eblaite.

Next the book says the South Semitic languages generally arose, such as Hadrami, Minaic, Qatabanic  and Sabean. The Southern family also includes Ge’ez, which South Arabian emigrants to Ethiopia spoke, according to the book.

Finally the Central (or Northwestern) Semitic languages came to be, such as Canaanite, Aramaic and Arabic. While Hebrew was home to the land of Canaan, the book says proto-Hebrew and ancient Canaanite differed in some ways, like how they conjugated the qal passive verb.

Hebrew is very similar to Moabite and also related to Phoenician. Ugaritic, spoken to the north of Canaan, is a separate language with a cuneiform alphabet.

The Bible refers to Hebrew (‘Ivrit) as Yehudit. Besides the Bible, we know about ancient Hebrew through Babylonian and Akkadian documents. Ostraca and archaeological finds like the Gezer Calendar and the Siloam inscription offer more evidence.

Other languages like ancient Egyptian and Berber have some things in common with Semitic languages, but not enough to part of the family.

Where the languages fit in ‘Milhamah’

As “Milhamah: Fighting Words” begins its first year, expect to see Hebrew explained in depth, along with a smattering of Akkadian.

In our fictional world, several other languages have their own insurgencies and resistance movements against Bavel too. While virtually all of these movements are (at least temporary) allies of the Holy Tongue Society, their activities happen off-camera. “Milhamah” will only deal with Semitic languages, and specifically ones that I study in great detail.

Why Semitic languages? They have features that inspire artistic creativity and make good gameplay mechanics. For example, look at the trilateral shoresh roots, in which three consonants combine to make words with similar meanings.

This concept will make more sense in the weeks to come. The comic’s Episode 9 will be released Tuesday, and I hope to begin showing very early development screenshots or videos of the roguelike game in December.

Meanwhile, if you have any questions or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment!

Hebrew grammar study Part 1: The naqdanim

The 22 Foundational Glyphs in "Milhamah" depict the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. Get ready to enter a study of Hebrew grammar.

Today begins a weekly series through a huge tome on A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew by Paul Joüon and Takamitsu Muraoka. While it’s not the best book for learning modern, conversational Hebrew, this book is exhaustive for anyone who wants to master the language.

So from here, I’ll summarize the book’s passages to brush up on my own studies, and I’ll also getting ideas for “Milhamah” characters and plot details. After this book, I hope to move on to study other languages such as Aramaic, Akkadian or Arabic.

So let’s start with Section 1, which is “Hebrew Grammar Defined.” which credits the seventh-century Tiberians, known as naqdanim, for inventing nequdot. Those are vowel symbols under consonants that show words’ pronunciation, syllables and stress.

Other Babylonian, Palestinian and Samaritan groups came up with their own vocalization systems. But this book deems the Tiberians reliable for describing Hebrew’s pronunciation.

The root definitions 

So where might the naqdanim come into play in “Milhamah”? So far this is just in my tentative draft notes, but here it goes…

First of all, the naqdanim and nequdot come from the shoresh root nun-qof-dalet (נקד). According to the Academy of the Hebrew Language’s Ma’agarim Historical Dictionary Project, this root carries a variety of meanings.

The most popular meaning is to mark a dot, and this carries derived meanings of punctuating or vocalizing, which is what the naqdanim do.  (Klein’s dictionary gives “pedant” as another definition of naqdan.) And interestingly, the root’s pointlike connotations tie into neqed, coccus bacteria.

Another root meaning includes shepherding flocks, so shepherds fall into this category. A rarer definition involves stabbing or penetration, which might relate to making a point. There also is a rare definition that seems to be a sunrise or sunshine, but I’ll need to study the context more.

When you permute the root’s letters, you also get dalet-nun-qof (דנק), which seems to be a rare root pertaining to agony. According to the Academy’s more modern Hebrew Terms Database, the root dalet-qof-nun (דקן) is tied to the word for dean.

The worldbuilding approach in ‘Milhamah’

OK, so for “Milhamah,” let’s imagine one of the intersecting paths between Bavel’s gates leads to a place, basically a dot on the map called Nequddah. It’s a sunny pastoral place for sheepherding, so it doesn’t attract many visitors.

The naqdanim are a forgotten group of orators, critics and self-styled linguists. Before Bavel, they might’ve been the traditional guardians of the old order.

But these days, they gather in the fields to pedantically debate the finer points of speech. They basically do nothing while the Bavel Empire threatens and oppresses the world.

While the naqdanim might not be villains, they act more like sheep than the shepherds they believe they are. I’m not sure where the bacteria would play in such a setting, but surely the land carries physical and spiritual sicknesses.

Anyway, that should inspire me to eventually do some art of Nequddah and its inhabitants. It’ll be awhile before we see it in the comic, but maybe they’ll appear in my roguelike soon.