Re: New contribution

From: Kenneth Whistler (
Date: Fri Apr 30 2004 - 19:32:34 EDT

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    John Hudson said:

    > but all I'm personally questioning is the one
    > sentence in which he says the new Phoenician characters should be used used for
    > Palaeo-Hebrew.

    Actually, as long as we are all pretending expertise in philology ;-), we
    should refer to the *original* text:

    "The twenty-two letters in the Phoenician block may be used, with appropriate
    changes, to express Punic, Neo-Punic, Phoenician proper, Late Phoenician cursive,
    Phoenician papyrus, Siloam Hebrew, Hebrew seals, Ammonite, Moabite, and

    There is a world of difference, in terms of prescriptive implications,
    between a "should" and a "may" in that context.

    > I'm not sure that this is the best recommendation to make to the people who
    > actually work with Palaeo-Hebrew.

    Palaeo-Hebrew (or what others apparently prefer to refer to as "Ancient
    Hebrew language text written in the Phoenician script") is appearing
    to me to be an edge case of an edge case.

    And as all matters Middle East, I'm suspecting that we have stumbled
    into a *religious* matter here than nobody is ever going to resolve
    on technical grounds.

    One side is viewing this back from the Hebrew perspective and saying
    the material in question is Hebrew, we've always used Hebrew letters
    for it, this is just an old form of the Hebrew script, and at that
    point in time there was no significant distinction between Hebrew,
    Phoenician, and Aramaic (writing). And besides, if we wanted to call
    this old form of writing anything, it should be called "Canaanite",
    but we're not sure we need any encoding for it anyway, because,
    as we keep telling you, we've always used Hebrew letters for it.

    The other side is viewing this from the Phoenician perspective and
    saying the material in question is Ancient Hebrew language text
    written in the Phoenician script, which is utterly evident from
    the historic record, because the Ancient Hebrews (and Moabites,
    and, and, ...) borrowed the Phoenician script and used it to write
    their language, later further adapting and changing it for each
    local tradition.

    But we are talking edge case here, because through all the double-talk
    going on, there still seems an obvious consensus that there *is*
    a Phoenician script (well illustrated in the examples in the
    proposal), used for an extensive period, adapted for various
    languages, and precursor to many other writing systems. But the
    hoo-haw seems to focus on the identity of "Palaeo-Hebrew" and
    how *it* should be encoded, even though it is but one of many
    varieties covered by the proposed encoding.

    Michael keeps pointing out (and others, including the Johns, have
    recognized) that encoding a set of Phoenician letters does not
    *require* any Semitic scholar to represent Palaeo-Hebrew text
    using those letters.

    It does *permit* them (or anyone else) to do so -- an option that
    they do not have today because, of course, no Phoenician letters
    are encoded in the Unicode Standard. Today, one has no option
    *except* to use Hebrew letters and choose an appropriate
    (non-square-Hebrew) font to display them.

    Whether anyone *should* do so is, I would think, be a determination
    to be made outside the context of the Unicode Standard, if
    a "Phoenician" (or "Canaanite" or "Old Western Semitic") script
    is encoded in the standard. Semiticists could, if they so wish,
    establish a de facto rule that they will drum anyone clear out
    of the discipline if they encounter any professional Semiticist
    daring to use Phoenician letters to represent Palaeo-Hebrew
    text. Frankly, I doubt it will come to that. Frankly, I doubt
    it will ever be much of an issue at all, any more than it is
    much of an issue whether, as has been mentioned before, someone
    chooses to represent the text of Wulfila's Bible using the Gothic
    script (encoded in Unicode) or the Latin script (encoded in
    Unicode) displayed with a Gothic font.

    If there is some serious confusion here, it is less in the
    details of the Phoenician encoding proposal, its historic analysis
    of the scripts, or its potential usage in encoding of particular
    texts, than it is in people's assumptions about what any
    encoding of any script in the Unicode Standard *requires* of them.

    The grand project that is the Unicode Standard should, I believe,
    be viewed as an IT enabler. It makes it *possible* to represent
    textual data on modern computers using original "scripts". And
    it makes it possible to do so with characters identified as
    belonging to those scripts, instead of with masquerading font
    hacks, so that other processes have a chance to properly interpret
    the text in an interoperable way.

    The Unicode Standard is, however, often *misapprehended*, by
    expert scholastics and by communities of script users alike,
    as attempting to impose analysis of scripts upon them, as
    forcing orthographic choices, as precluding their preferred
    encoding, and/or as dictating spelling.

    Ironically, some of the same communities which object to the
    Unicode Standard forcing a particular analysis down their
    throats often turn around and appeal to the Unicode Standard
    to specify in more detail exactly *how* their written material
    "should" be represented in the standard.

    I believe most such considerations ought to be outside the context
    of the character standardization per se.

    In the particular case under consideration, Phoenician (or Canaanite
    or Old Western Semitic), the *encoding* issues are trivial. We
    have 22 letters of an abjad, their representative shapes are
    not causing anyone any heartburn, there are no complications
    in terms of text layout or interaction of letters (*holds up hand*
    Yes, yes, I know the nitpickers can immediately set to work on that
    statement, but please refrain for a moment), and it is utterly
    obvious how to "spell" Phoenician text in the Phoenician script,
    so we don't have to write any complicated script rendering rules
    for it.

    Given that, it seems to me that the case for a Phoenician
    script encoding seems pretty good. And if someone needs to
    write appropriate annotative material regarding the edge case
    of Palaeo-Hebrew, so that well-meaning scholars will find it
    easier to understand that the intent is that alternative
    representations are *allowed*, *may* be encountered, and
    indeed *may* be appropriate under different circumstances,
    then somebody can get onto the task of writing whatever it
    takes to make that clear to everyone using the standard.

    Or shall we just continue debating this issue forever, trying
    to decide which half of the baby to give to which party
    in the dispute?


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