Phoenician languages

Phoenician (dabarīm Pōnnīm/Kana'nīm)
Spoken in: Formerly spoken in Lebanon, Tunisia, Spain, Malta, Southern France and Sicily and other coastal outposts and islands throughout the Mediterranean.
Region: Coastal region
Total speakers: extinct
Ranking: Not in top 100
Genetic classification: Afro-Asiatic languages

 Semitic languages
   Canaanite languages

Official status
Official language of: -
Regulated by: -
Language codes
ISO 639-1-
ISO 639-2phn
See also: LanguageList of languages

Phoenician was a language originally spoken in the coastal region then called Pūt in Phoenician, Canaan in Phoenician, Hebrew and Aramaic, and Phoenicia in Greek and Latin. Phoenician is a Semitic language of the Canaanite subgroup, closely related to Hebrew and Aramaic. This area includes modern-day Lebanon, coastal Syria and northern Israel.

Phoenician is known only from inscriptions such as Ahiram's coffin, Kilamuwa's tomb, Yehawmilk's in Byblos, 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 (eg. Mago's treatise) or in snippets (eg. in Plautus' plays).


Punic and its influences

The significantly divergent later-form of the language that was spoken in the Tyrian Phoenician colony of Carthage is known as Punic; it remained in use there for considerably longer than Phoenician did in Phoenicia itself, surviving certainly into Augustine's time. It may have even survived the [Arab]ic conquest of North Africa: the geographer al-Bakri describes a people speaking a language that was not Berber, Latin or Coptic in a city in northern Libya, a region where spoken Punic survived well past written use. [1] (

The ancient Lybico-Berber alphabet derived from the Punic script still in irregular use by modern Berber groups such as the Touareg is known by the native name tifinaġ, possibly a declined form of the borrowed word Pūnic. Direct borrowings from Punic appear in modern Berber dialects: one interesting example is agadir "wall" from Punic gader. This term was also borrowed into Spanish as a placename: the modern city of Cádiz comes from Punic (Qart-)Gadir "The Walled (City).

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 (ie. the inability to mark emphatic, laryngeal and gutteral 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 rôš). Despite this regional-specific name, Ancient Egyptian underwent this same 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 (such as at Qumran) and common to all medieval ("Rabbinical") forms of the language, but not in Aramaic.

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 gutterals 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: eg. the survival of case endings in early Phoenician, the causative Punic verb-form yif‘il or īf‘il (orthographical YP‘L or ‘YP‘L, Hebrew hiph‘īl). There are also interesting vocabulary differences, including the use of the verb KN "to be" (as in Arabic) (rather than Aramaic-Hebrew HYH) and P‘L "to do" (rather than ‘SH) and the exclusive use of bal "not" (Aramaic-Hebrew < *lā‘).

The earliest known inscriptions in Phoenician come from Byblos and date back to ca. 1000 BCE. Phoenician and Punic inscriptions are found in Lebanon, Syria, Israel, Cyprus, Sardinia, Sicily, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria, Malta and other locations such as the Iberian Peninsula 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. Nowadays, one can study Phoenician in the U.S. at Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Michigan and University of Chicago.

See also


nl:Fenicisch pl:Język fenicki sv:Fenikiska


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