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The Sibilants in Old South Arabic

Author(s): William Sanford LaSor

Source: The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 48, No. 2, Dropsie College Jubilee Alumni Issue
(Oct., 1957), pp. 161-173
Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press
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Fuller Theological Seminary

OLD South Arabic is written, as is well known, with an
alphabet of twenty-nine characters. It is therefore the only

extant Semitic language to represent orthographically all

of the phonemes of the parent language.' The importance
of this should be apparent to all Semitists. Classical Arabic

is generally recognized as basic for studies of Semitic

philology. Yet, in that language, the letter s (sin) represents

two parent phonemes: one reflected in Heb s (sdmek), the

other in Heb. S (tn).2 This is a source of confusion in

etymologies, cognates, phonetics, etc. Careful observation

of Old South Arabic cognates at this point is essential.
However, another factor is involved, namely, translitera-

tion. Since OSA type is not generally available, many

lexicons represent OSA cognates in Hebrew type, and
occasionally Arabic type is used for the purpose. But
Hebrew is inadequate to represent Old South Arabic, and
at the point of the parent phoneme of sin Arabic is also
inadequate. Transliteration into Roman characters, with
the addition of diacritical marks, is increasingly popular.
Thus, s can be made to stand for the Arabic letter stn as

well as the Hebrew letter of the same name (although the

two are not phonemically identical). Likewise, s can be

made to represent Heb. sdmek or Arab. sin, and s can be

r There is, of course, the possibility that parent phonemes not yet
identified are covered over in OSA orthography.
2 Heb. s is further complicated in that it also represents the parent
phoneme reflected in Arab. t.

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used to represent Heb. ssn. But what should be used to

represent the corresponding OSA characters? In order to

avoid "prejudging the phonetic and etymological correspondence," Wolf Leslau used sl to represent F, s2 to
represent , and S3 to represent * .3
Leslau's motive is beyond reproach. Yet, it must be

acknowledged that in other cases we have not been careful

to avoid such confusion. We have already seen that s and s

are used regardless of etymological correspondence in

Hebrew and Arabic. The use of .I to transliterate Heb.

bet might be questioned on phonetic grounds. As long as

we have a self-consistent system, we can make transliterations work. We must be careful to make the system self-

consistent, and in addition, we must clearly define its

relationship to other systems.
In the present study, to avoid the cumbersome system of

subscript numbers, the following transliterations are used:

s represents J , or Leslau's s3;

J represents 3 ,or Leslau's s2;

s represents gl, or Leslau's si.
It shall be our task to identify the relationships of these

three phonemes with their counterparts in the cognate

languages. The problem of phonetic correspondence we
must leave for another study.

The study of this problem dates back to 1837, with the

publication of two manuscripts in the Berlin Museum

containing comparative alphabetic tables.4 In this work,

Ernst R6diger identified twenty-three of the twenty-nine

letters. Others gradually identified the remaining letters.
3 Lexique Soqotri, (Paris, 1938), p. [15], n. 3.
4 Zeitschrift fur die Kunde des Morgenlandes, 1 (1837): 332 ff. I am

indebted for the sketch of early history to the article by Dorothy

Stehle, "Sibilants and Emphatics in South Arabic," Journal of the
American Oriental Society, 60 (1940): 507-543.

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But in each case there was some uncertainty about the

identification of the sibilants. R6diger used D to represent
OSA s and w to represent OSA S. He failed to find OSA s.

Hal6vy used D to represent OSA s, but equated it with

both Heb. S and s.S Pratorius established the fact that

three sibilants, s, s, and s, existed in Old South Arabic,

but he was not certain about their cognates. At first he

equated OSA S with Heb. s and OSA s with Heb. s; later

he suggested the identification of OSA S with Heb. s, and
OSA s with Heb. s.6
Fritz Hommel seems to have been the first to make a

clear identification of all three phonemes, specifically

OSA s=Heb. s; OSA s=Heb. s; OSA s=Heb. s.7

Rhodokanakis, however, reversed the equations of

and s, returning to Pratorius' earlier view.8 Miss

returned to the relationships proposed by Homm
my opinion, Miss Stehle's study was definitive and

study of the question should have been unnecess

However, Maria H6fner, in her Altsidarabische Gram

set aside Stehle's work and returned to Rhodokanakis'

identifications as most suitable to her understanding

the relationship, "so far as we can form an opinion.

Since Miss H6fner's publication, both Albright" and
5 Joseph Haldvy, "ltudes Sab6ennes," Journal Asiatique, 7th series,
1 (1873): 467.
6 Franz Pratorius, "Besprechung von Mordtmann's und Miiller's
Sabaischen Denkmalern," Kuhn's Literaturblatt fur orientalistische
Philologie, 1 (1883): 27-32, 162-163.
7 "Das Samech in den minao-sabaischen Inschriften," Zeitschrift
der deutschen Morgenldndischen Gesellschaft, 46 (1892): 528-538; Suidarabische Chrestomathie (Munich, 1893), pp. 3-4.
8 Nikolaus Rhodokanakis, Der Grundsatz der jffentlichkeit in den
siidarabischen Urkunden (Sitzungsberichte der kaiserlichen Akademie
der Wissenschaften in Wien, philosophisch-historische Klasse, 177.
Band, 2. Abhandlung; Wien, 1915), p. 24.
9 D. Stehle, art. cit., p. 542.
10 Altsiidarabische Grammatik (Leipzig, 1943), p. 19.
1 W. F. Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (Pelican Archaeology

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JammeI2 in tables of transliteration have indicated their
acceptance of the Rhodokanakis-H6fner identifications as

over against those of Hommell and Stehle. Having first

become seriously interested in this subject while engaged
in research for my dissertation,'3 and more recently through

teaching elementary courses in Old South Arabic, I wish

to reopen the subject.

A word is in order as to methodology. South Arabic

inscriptions cover a relatively long period of time and are

found in four major dialects. As a result, developments

within the language can be traced, part of which are, in
my opinion, related to the subject under study. In order

to try to avoid the confusion that can be introduced by

such developments, I have made a special effort to study
the problem in the earliest texts and in the most common

words. Unusual words, loan words, and proper names, in

my opinion, are not equivalent in value to common words,
nor are late texts sufficient to offset the evidence of earlier

texts. This is not to deny the value of later texts for the
study of the phonetic developments within the dialects of
Old South Arabic. Nor can we overlook the fact that words

preserved in later texts may accurately record a tradition

which, while not extant in the earlier texts, was nevertheless

early. Our equation of cognates, however, must be made

at the earliest possible level.
The Evidence of the Cognates
Since all necessary data for comparative study are to be

found usually in Old South Arabic, Arabic (i. e., classical

Series; Hammondsworth, 1954), p. 192. Albright does not exactly

follow Rhodokanakis and Hofner, it should be stated.

12 Cf. Wendell Phillips, Qataban and Sheba (New York: 1955), p. 42.

3 W. S. LaSor, "Semitic Phonemes, with Special Reference to

Ugaritic and in the Light of the Egyptian Evidence," an unpublished
Ph.D. dissertation; Philadelphia: Dropsie College, 1949.

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or Quranic), and Hebrew, other cognates are included only

when they present additional pertinent evidence.

(a) OSA = Arab. s = Heb. s

OSA 'St, "one"; cf. Heb. 'aste 'ds'r, "eleven."
OSA hms, "five"; cf. Arab. hams, Heb. #dmes.
OSA Sdt, "six"; cf. Arab. sitt, Heb. sissd. The Heb. word
is formed by assimilation from *Sidsat, the second S being
the regular reflex of an original *t. The Arab. word seems
to have resulted from a partial assimilation of the original t

to the d, with secondary unvoicing. Ugaritic tdt, on the

other hand, resulted from an assimilation of the first radical
to the third.

OSA Sb', "seven"; cf. Arab. sab', Heb. e'ba'.

OSA ts', "nine"; cf. Arab. tis', Heb. tOsa'.
OSA 'yS/'s, "man, one"; cf. Heb. 'is, Moab. and Phoen. 's.

OSA 'ns, "man"; cf. Heb. 'enos, Aram. 'ends.

OSA nfS, "spirit, person"; cf. Arab. nafs, Heb. nefes.

OSA r's, "head"; cf. Arab. ra's, Heb. r8'S.

OSA dbs "honey"; cf. Arab. dibs, Heb. dcbas.
OSA Sm, "name"; cf. Arab. ism, Heb. sem.

OSA Sm' "to hear"; cf. Arab. sami'a, Heb. samea'.

OSA 3'l, "to ask"; cf. Arab. sa'ala, Heb. sa'al.
OSA Sqy, "to carry water"; cf. Arab. saqa, Heb. hisqa.
OSA str, "to write"; cf. Arab. satara, Heb. Soter.

OSA Sby, "to take captive"; cf. Arab. sabd; Heb. sbd.
OSA m3S, "to reach, touch"; cf. Arab. massa, Heb.

OSA msk, "to take"; cf. Arab. masaka, Heb. m2sa4k.

OSA S'r, "other"; cf. Arab. sa'ira, Heb. s2'ar, "to remain."
OSA Sbt, "rod"; cf. Heb. Sbet, Syr. sebtd.

OSA ft, "lowlands"; cf. Arab. sufl, Heb. Sefld.

OSA ybS, "dry earth"; cf. Arab. yabisa, Heb. y2bS.

OSA b's, "evil"; cf. Arab. bi's, Heb. b6's.

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OSA srq, "to steal"; cf. Arab. saraqa, Akk. Sardqu.

OSA ysr, "to direct, delineate"; cf. Heb. yisSr, Akk.


OSA Sqf, "to roof over"; cf. Arab. saqafa, Heb. seqef.

OSA Skn, "to place, consist of"; cf. Arab. sakana, H


OSA Smy, "heaven"; cf. Arab. sama, Heb. Samdyim.

OSA s'm, "sun"; cf. Arab. sams, Heb. semes. In the Heb.
word, the first radical appears to have assimilated to the
third, as also in Syr. SemSd. Since both S and 3 are reflected

in Akk. and Ugar. as s, these words can not rightly be used

as evidence against OSA-Arab.

OSA sty, "drink offering"; cf. Heb. sdtd, Syr. esti.

OSA ms#, "to anoint"; cf. Arab. masaza, Heb. madSa.

OSA qds, "to consecrate"; cf. Heb. qadas, Syr. qaddis.

OSA bsl, "altar for burnt offering"; cf. Arab. basala,
Heb. basal.

OSA Sim, "to be whole, happy"; cf. Arab. salima, Heb.


Many more illustrations could be given. This already

long list has been presented chiefly because of H6fner's
observation that Stehle offers as many examples that violate
the rule as follow it.I4

(b) OSA s= Arab. s= Heb. s

OSA wsf, "to add"; cf. Heb. yasaf, Syr. 'awsef.

OSA ksw, "clothing"; cf. Arab. kuswd, Heb. kdsd. The

form ksw also occurs in OSA.

OSA hss, "loss, damage"; cf. Arab. Jassa, "to decrease

in value, to be vile," and perhaps Ugar. hss (L-stem),
"to excite, arouse."

OSA qsm, "to share"; cf. Arab. qasama, "to divide,"

Heb. qasam, "to decide, divine."
'4 M. Hofner, op. cit., p. 21, n. 1.

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OSA hsr, "to dedicate (a hierodule)"; cf. Arab. hassama,

"to cause a loss to," Heb. hebsir, "to deprive."

OSA sl', "to dedicate; votive offering"; cf. Aram. sall',

"to throw away," and perhaps Arab. sala'a, "to pay to

anyone; to clarify."

OSA mswd, "altar"; cf. Heb. ysod, "foundation," Ugar.

msdt, "foundation"; cf. also Arab. wisdd, "pillow."

OSA mswd, "council"; cf. Arab. sdda, "to speak privately," Heb. sod, "secret."
OSA smk, "to support, uphold"; cf. Arab. samaka, "to
raise a building," Heb. sdmak, "to rest, support."
OSA sd [sdd], "dam"; cf. Arab. sadd, "dam," and perhaps
Aram. sadda, "stocks," Akk. saddum "a blcck."Is
OSA mfrst, "dam"; cf. Heb. paras, "to break," and Akk.
parasu, "to cut off, hold back."'6
OSA swk, "to invest, besiege"; cf. Heb. hestk, "to hedge
about," and perhaps Arab. sdka, "to rub with."

It is recognized at once that evidence for this equation

of phonemes is meagre. However, this should not be looked

upon as a weakening of the total argument. Rather, it

should be viewed as an additional argument in favor of
the equation of OSA s with Heb. s. For an examination of
the lexicons will show that OSA s and Heb. s are both low

frequency phonemes, whereas both OSA S and Heb. S are

found with relatively high frequency.17 It would present

a strange phenomenon indeed if these equations were


5' Archives Royales de Mari, IV (Paris: 1951), 21:9-11.

i6 The Akk. word purussi2m has a technical meaning having to do
with irrigation, cf. Archives Royales de Mari, XV (Paris, 1954),
p. 242.
'7 The Brown-Driver-Briggs Lexicon, for example, contains 28 pages
under sdmek and 80 under sin. The latter contains a number of words

deriving from original t. On the other hand, Conti Rossini's

Chrestomathia Arabica Meridionalis Epigraphica (Rome, 1931) lists
only five columns of words beginning with s compared to 17?2 columns
beginning with 3.

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(c) OSA s=Arab. S=Heb. s

This equation is generally admitted and need not be

established here at length. A few of the most striking

examples are given.
OSA 'sr, "ten"; cf. Arab. 'asr, Heb. e'err.

OSA Sb', "satiety"; cf. Arab. sabi'a, Heb. saba', "to be


OSA sn', "enemy"; cf. Arab. sana'a, Heb. sane', "to


OSA sdw, "field"; cf. Heb. Sade, Ugar. sd.

OSA sym, "to place, establish"; cf. Heb. sim, Akk. Semu.
OSA sqf, "to satisfy, enrich"; cf. Heb. Safaq, "to suffice,"

and perhaps Arab. Safiga, "to be scant."

OSA sqr, "east"; cf. Arab. sarq.

OSA nS', "to lift up"; cf. Arab. naSa'a, Heb. nasa'.
OSA lst, "three"; cf. Arab. talat, Ugar. tlt, where the first
radical has assimilated to the third. In Heb. s los, the

same phenomenon seems to have taken place, either before

or after the shift of original t to S (a regular phonetic shift

in Heb.) Except for the Ethiopic evidence, it would be

possible to look upon OSA as dissimilation of the first
radical from original *tlt.I8

OSA ?ms, "sun"; cf. Arab. Sams, Heb. Smes.'9

OSA srs, "to root out"; cf. Arab. sirs, Heb. s6res, "root."

The Heb. has apparently assimilated the first radical to

the third.

The Evidence of the "S-Dialects"

One important line of evidence does not seem to have

been sufficiently considered. It is well known that the
Old South Arabic dialects are divided into the "h-" and

i8 Of course, both Eth. and OSA may have dissimilated. However,

the evidence of words such as OSA Mdt, .m., and Crk, favors assimilation
of the first to the third radical.

'9 See discussion, p. 6, above.

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"s-dialects," Sabean being the former, and Minean, Qata

banian, and Hadramautic the latter. The divergence is
found in the causative verb stem (haf'el/saf'el) and in the

personal and relative pronouns and pronominal suffixe

Thus, the causative stem in Sabean is hqtl, but in the othe

dialects Sqtl. The demonstrative pronouns are found in th

forms h', hw' and Sw; hmw and Sm; hwt, hyt, and hmt, an

swt, Syt, and Smt, etc. To this could be added as evidence

(although there is no variation within the dialects of OSA

the "tenth" form, or Stqtl.
Illustrations of these dialectal forms could be adduced in

great number. However, the following representatives are

sufficient to introduce the material from which conclusions
will be drawn.

(a) The 3- and St- stems

sqny, "he dedicated [i. e., caused to possess]" found in

the Qatabanian text Gl. 1405:4, and often in many inscriptions, parallelling Sab. hqny in CIH 91:2, and often.
The St-stem is represented by Styf',2o "he exalted," and
bStkmln,2I "in his filling =when he filled."

No single instance has come to my attention wherein s is

used for these stems.

Now, since the Saf'el form in Old South Arabic must be

the reflex of the Akkadian S-stem and the occasional saf'el
forms in Hebrew and Syriac (not to mention a number of
roots listed in the Hebrew lexicon under stn which seem to

be secondary saf'el developments of other roots, e. g.,

sakan possibly from kun, and salak possibly from hdlak,
or even *yalak or *lak), it stands to reason that we must
equate OSA 3 in these stems with Heb. s.22 Similarly, the
Stqtl form in Old South Arabic must be equated with Arab.
20 GI. 1210:1 (Sabean).
21 CIH 308:4 (Sabean).
22 And, ol course, with Akk. and Aram./Syr. s.

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istaqtala, with Akk. and Ugar. St-stems, and with the

unusual form histahawg in Hebrew. Now, Ugar. S and
Akk. s are the reflexes of two phonemes in Proto-Semitic,
hence could be the reflexes of OSA 3 and s. But the Arabic

and Hebrew evidence requires an equation with OSA 3.

The evidence of the OSA 3- and St- stems, then, agrees
with the evidence of the cognates, in the equation OSA =
Arab. s=Heb. S.

(b) The pronouns

The following pronominal suffixes are representative of
the forms found in the 3-dialects:

bms'ls, "in his oracle" ;23

'mSmn, "with both of them";4

wb mr'smy, "and by both their lords";25

w'lysm, "and he made them" ;26

bytsm, "their house."27

The following demonstrative pronouns are likewise rep-

resentative of the forms found in Qatabanian, Minean,

and Hjadramautic:
bRwt mhrmn, "in that sanctuary" ;28

Smt 'ft7n, "those judgments";29

'b'l yt zrbtn, "the lords of that field";30
bsmt mqmnyhn, "in those two assemblies."31

These pronominal forms must be equated with the

Akkadian forms, -su, "his," -sunu, "their, them," su'dti/
Si'dti, "that," sunuti, "those," and the like. We have
already seen, in discussing the 3- and st- stems, that Akk. s
23 BM 6 (=Os. 29) :2 (Had.) 24 GI. 282:2 (Min.)

25 SE 123:4 (Qat.) 26 GI. 1089:5 (Min.)

27 SE 97:2-3 (Qat.) 28 GI. 1606:6 (Qat.)

29 GI. 1606:16 (Qat.) 30 GI. 1396:6 (Qat.)

31 GI. 1606:10 (Qat.)

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can be the reflex of both OSA 3 and OSA s.32 But the

problem is not the identification of OSA S, for that is

already agreed upon by all modern scholars. The problem is

does OSA = Arab. s=Heb. s,
or does OSA S= Arab. s = Heb. s?

If it were the former, then it would be reflected in Akk. s,

as is already established.33 Since it is reflected in Akk S,

we can therefore safely conclude that the evidence of the

pronouns, like the evidence of the derived verbal stems,

supports the second equation.

In this study, I have presented no contrary evidence.

Such material can be found in Rhodokanakis' work,34 and
is reviewed carefully by Miss Stehle.3s That there is still
work to be done on these anomalous forms is readily

admitted. I have found nothing, however, in my own

investigations that seems to have sufficient weight to offs

the combined evidence of the cognates (when this is limite

to the common words) and the S-dialects of Old South

Arabic. The equation: OSA =Arab. s = Heb. S can therefore be integrated with the already established table of
Semitic phonemes36 as follows:

Proto- OSA Eth. Arab. Ugar. Akk. Heb. Aram. Syr.







32 Akk. s is also the reflex of OSA t - but this does not concern us

in the present problem.

33 Cf. Gotthelf Bergstrasser, Einfiihrung in die semitischen Sprachen

(Munich, 1928), p. 4.
34 Cf. N. Rhodokanakis, op. cit., pp. 24 ff.
35 D. Stehle, op. cit., pp. 519-540.

36 In my dissertation already cited, pp. 202-204; cf. C. H. Gordon,

Ugaritic Manual (Rome: 1955), ?5.13.

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I have not attempted a solution of the phonetic pro

of these phonemes. Perhaps this should not be attem

until much further progress has been made both

ganizing and classifying the literature of the Old

Arabic dialects and in comparative Semitic phon

However, I would venture a suggestion as to the dire

in which further studies might profitably be made.

As usually presented, a chiasm has occurred in

South Semitic (i. e., OSA, Eth., Arab.) s (my S) has be

s in the other Semitic languages, while South Sem

has become s/s in Hebrew, Aramaic, and Syriac.3
this suggestion seems impossible to me, for if such a

had occurred, how shall we account for the preser

of the separate phonemes. If the shift was gradual,
must of necessity have been a time when all s's and

were phonetically indistinct. From that moment on

but trained linguists could have kept the phonemes

distinguished. The only solution is to suppose a s

shift, possibly arising out of a deliberate attempt to

the pronunciation (or mispronunciation) of some

personality. That this could have affected such a

spread area seems incredible.

The divergence of h and 3 in the Old South Ar

dialects suggests that 3 may not have been origin

sibilant, but rather some other kind of sound. I sug

the possibility of a sound similar to the German

In such case, we may look upon the North Semiti

as an approximately parallel development, rather

chiasm, in which the original s first moved in the di

of a simple sibilant, ultimately falling together

(as in Syriac), while the Ichlaut (we might designate

*?) moved to '. But this is pure speculation, and

37 Carl Brockelmann, Grundriss der vergleichenden Gramm

semitischen Sprachen (Berlin, 1908), I: 129 ff.

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lines of evidence must be run down before it can be given

serious consideration.

One further conclusion can be briefly stated: the field of

Old South Arabic studies is a fertile one, and can be of

considerable value to Semitists in general and to Hebraists
in particular.

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