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SBL e-journal

Tania Notarius





Amos' Puns in the Northern (Israelite) Dialect



APA e-journal

Tania Notarius





Amos' Puns in the Northern (Israelite) Dialect






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Amos' Puns in the Northern (Israelite) Dialect

And what they reveal about his identity


Amos' Puns in the Northern (Israelite) Dialect

The Prophet Amos, detail from the choir stall at Blaubeuren Abbey. By Jörg Syrlin the Younger (1455–1521) Photo credit, Andreas Praefcke, Wikimedia

Introduction: Amos’ Background

The colophon at the beginning of the book of Amos informs about the name of the oracles’ author, his social status, geographic origin, and historical background.

דִּבְרֵי עָמוֹס אֲשֶׁר הָיָה בַנֹּקְדִים מִתְּקוֹעַ אֲשֶׁר חָזָה עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל בִּימֵי עֻזִּיָּה מֶלֶךְ יְהוּדָה וּבִימֵי יָרָבְעָם בֶּן יוֹאָשׁ מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל שְׁנָתַיִם לִפְנֵי הָרָעַשׁ.
The words of Amos, who was of the stockmen from Teqoa, who prophesized concerning Israel in the days of King Uzziah of Judah and in the days of King Jeroboam son of Joash of Israel, two years before the earthquake.

We learn that Amos was a nōqēd “stockman” – a wealthy breeder of big and small cattle,[1]who prophesized in the first half of the 8th cent BCE, not later than 748 (the approx. year of Jeroboam II’s death), beginning in 762 BCE (two years before the year of the earthquake and the throne abdication of the king Uzziah). This temporal framework turns him into the oldest preserved representative of the so-called “written” prophecy – a model literary production, formative for the First Temple period Judaism.[2]

The Language of Amos

In what kind of Hebrew is the book of Amos written? It has been consistently claimed by many scholars that the book’s language, in contrast to the language of the explicitly Northern prophetic book of Hosea, is strictly close to Classical Biblical Hebrew of the prosaic narrative, namely to the standard Judean literary idiom in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written.[3]I would like to approach the question from the vantage point of one of the books’ salient features: Amos’ use of puns.

Amos’ sophisticated poetic style and his choice for word-plays to make the argument were noticed by commentators: cf. the shift from רֵאשִׁית הַגּוֹיִם rēˀšît haggōyīm “the first among nations” in 6:1 to רֹאשׁ גֹּלִים rōˀš gōlīm “head of exiles” in 6:7. Significantly for the language question, some of his word-plays demonstrate sensitivity to differences between the Southern and Northern dialects of Hebrew. Let’s look at two most lucid examples.

Wordplay 1: אנך – אנכי

כֹּה הִרְאַנִי וְהִנֵּה אֲדֹנָי נִצָּב עַל חוֹמַת אֲנָךְ וּבְיָדוֹ אֲנָךְ. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי מָה אַתָּה רֹאֶה עָמוֹס וָאֹמַר אֲנָךְ וַיֹּאמֶר אֲדֹנָי הִנְנִי שָׂם אֲנָךְ בְּקֶרֶב עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אוֹסִיף עוֹד עֲבוֹר לוֹ.
This is what he showed me: the Lord was standing on a אֲנָךְˀanāk ‘tin’ wall with אֲנָךְ ˀanāk ‘tin’ in his hand. And the Lord said to me, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said: אֲנָךְ ˀanāk /ˀanōk “tin”. Then the Lord said: See, I am שָׂם śām ‘setting’ /šām ‘there’ אֲנָךְ ˀanāk ‘tin’ / ˀanōk ‘I myself’ in the midst of my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” (Amos 7:7-8)

Much has been written about the word אֲנָךְ ˀanāk “tin” in these verses.[4] The text is part of the five visions cycle (see 7:1-3; 4-6; 7-8; 8:1-2; 9:1). The image in this third vision, as well as in the following fourth vision (see below), involves a pun between אֲנָךְ “tin” – אָנֹכִי “I”.[5]

The scholars gather the information about dialectal differences between Northern and Southern Hebrew from biblical and extra biblical sources.[6] Reconstructing the plausible peculiarities of pronunciation of these two words in the Southern (Judean) and the Northern (Israelite) dialects of Hebrew in the First Temple period, I suggest that in the South the pronunciation of these two words was sufficiently contrasted, but in the North these two words sounded practically identical. The latter situation was caused by the fact that Northern Hebrew was under stronger influence of the local Canaanite dialects, particularly of Phoenician language, while the phonetics in the South was more archaic and conservative.

Thus the word אֲנָךְ “tin” (a loan from Akkadian annaku) would be pronounced in Judah asˀanak, while in the North it would sound ˀanōk due to the so-called “Phoenician shift” (the shift of the stressed short into ō or o) that was at work in Northern Hebrew, but not in the South.[7]

The 1st singular pronoun אָנֹכִי “I”, suggested by the pun, sounded ˀanōkī  in the South, but in the North it would be pronounced ˀanōk as a result of the reduction of the final (originally short) vowel,[8] (or even ˀanūk if ō raised to ū as in Phoenician).[9] That means, a Northerner would have pronounced these two words practically with the same accent: ˀanōk “tin” אֲנָךְ, as well as ˀanōk “I” אָנֹכִי!

A Further Word-Play: שָׂם – שָׁם 

An additional nuance of the dialectal pronunciation involved in this pun is implied by the word שָׂם “(I am) setting”: it would be pronounced śām in Southern Hebrew, but in Northern Hebrew, as in Phoenician, the pronunciation will be šām, i.e., homonymous to the word שָׁםšām “there.”[10]

A Pungent Stylistic Device to Deliver a Message

Asked by the Lord about what he has seen in the vision, Amos answers simply: אֲנָךְ “tin,” but pronounced in a Northern manner – ˀanōk – it also carries the meaning of “I.” His interlocutor got the point and responded הִנְנִי שָׂם אֲנָךְ. Literally, this means, “See, I am setting tin,” but again, in the Northern pronunciation it sounds šām ˀanōk, meaning: “See, I myself am there – in the midst of my people of Israel; I will never again pass them by.”

The divine intervention into the national history is proximate and unavoidable.

Wordplay 2: קיץ – קץ

כֹּה הִרְאַנִי אֲדֹנָי יְ-הוִה וְהִנֵּה כְּלוּב קָיִץ. וַיֹּאמֶר מָה אַתָּה רֹאֶה עָמוֹס וָאֹמַר כְּלוּב קָיִץ וַיֹּאמֶר יְ-הוָה אֵלַי בָּא הַקֵּץ אֶל עַמִּי יִשְׂרָאֵל לֹא אוֹסִיף עוֹד עֲבוֹר לוֹ.
“This is what the Lord GOD showed me — כְּלוּב קָיִץ kɘlūb qāyiṣ ‘a basket of summer fruit’. He said, “Amos, what do you see?” And I said, כְּלוּב קָיִץ kɘlūb qāyiṣ / qêṣ ‘A basket of summer fruit’ / ‘end’. Then the LORD said to me, “The קֵץqeṣṣ ‘end’ has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.” (Amos 8:1-2)

The pun in this vision between קַיִץ “summer” and קֵץ “end” is accepted by all and has been broadly discussed in the scholarship.[11] As in the previous case, both words sound almost identical in the Northern dialect, which shares many linguistic features with the local Canaanite speech. (They would sound quite distinct in the Southern dialect.)

The word קַיִץ ‘summer’ in the South would sound qayṣ, namely with the conservatively preserved pronunciation of the diphthong –ay-, but in the North its pronunciation is qêṣ (less probable qīṩ) with the diphthong –ay– contracted to a long vowel ê.[12]

The word קֵץ qēṣ “end,” in its turn, poses another problem. In view of the comparative Semitic data, the word was originally pronounced qiṣṣ, namely with the original short i and word-final consonantal doubling. The original short i vowel in this word was pronounced differently in two dialects.[13] In Northern Hebrew, as in Phoenician, the vowel sounded like e, namely it changed its quality and became more open, but did not change its quantity and did not lengthen (namely it did not turn absolutely into –ê-); the word under discussion would be pronounced qeṣṣ “end” in the North. But in Southern Hebrew that consistently demonstrates more conservative dialectal features and a smaller impact of the local Canaanite vernacular, the pronunciation of the word would be qiṣṣ ‘end’ with the original vowel quality.[14]

Therefore, this pun is again based on a quite distinct pronunciation of these two words – קַיִץ ‘summer’ and קֵץ ‘end’ – in the Southern dialect, but on their (almost!) similar pronunciation in the Northern dialect of Hebrew: a Southerner would say qayṣ ‘summer’ and qiṣṣ ‘end’, while a Northerner’s accent will do qêṣ ‘summer’ and qeṣṣ ‘end’.

As in the previous vision Amos is asked by the Lord what is that he sees and he says: כְּלוּב קָיִץ “summer-fruit basket,” which in the Northern speech would sound something like kɘlūb qêṣ“a basket of end.” They already understand each other well, these two interlocutors. The Lord confirms Amos’ intuition, expanding on the same phonetic technique of the pun: בָּא הַקֵּץ bāˀhaqqeṣṣ “The end qeṣṣ has come upon my people Israel; I will never again pass them by.”

The divine intervention declared in the previous vision promises no good news – it brings the destruction and national disaster.

Evidence from Punning

What do the special expressions and word-plays represented in the text tell us about the dialect of Amos? Before answering this question, we should take a step back and look at what scholars have said about Amos’ origins.

Was Amos Really from Judah?

The colophon of the book of Amos (quoted above) has Amos hailing from Teqoa – a small town in the Judean mountains about 16 kilometers south-east of Jerusalem. Needless to say, not a single piece of information in the colophon remains undisputed in scholarship, among them Amos’ descent from the Southern kingdom of Judah.[15]

Why might his Judean lineage be questioned? To start with, his oracles are not addressed to the people of his motherland Judah, but to the people of the Northern neighbor, the bigger and stronger kingdom of Israel. This split-identity looked suspicious in the eyes of many commentators since the time of Radak (Rabbi David Kimhi 1160-1235) who had claimed that Teqoa of Amos was not in Southern Canaan, but in the territory of the tribe of Asher, namely in Galilee.[16]

Additional arguments have been offered to support a Northern origin:

  • His use of the Northern dialectal features (as discussed above).
  • His big cattle business and possession of sycamores trees (cf. 7:14 כִּי-בוֹקֵר אָנֹכִי וּבוֹלֵס שִׁקְמִים “I am a cowman and a picker of sycamore trees”) – two agricultural activities apparently impossible in the hill-country of Judah due to the climate conditions: sycamore trees do not grow in Judean desert, while the cows business is possible only if the provision for animals is brought from outside.[17]
  • A Southern origin seems questionable considering the historical and cultural setting of Judah and Israel during that period. [18] How could it be that the prophet who addressed the most tangible problems of Israel’s society (poverty, class division, corruption, etc.) and politics—he holds a debate with the high priest and challenges the king himself—came from provincial Judah rather than from the land with a strong prophetic tradition and the legacy of great prophets, like Elijah and Elisha?[19]

Amos as a Southerner Punning on Northern Hebrew

In my view, the two cases of a word-play at the intersection of two dialects of Hebrew posit Amos as a Southerner. One may claim that a ‘native’ speaker of the Northern dialect of Hebrew could also play with his special accent. I maintain there are rhetorical and sociolinguistic arguments against this claim. The two visions discussed above are based on symbols (encoded by word-plays – אֲנָךְ “tin / I” and קַיִץ / קֵץ “summer fruit / end”) that predict national destruction.

Situated in the center of Amos’ visions cycle they have a special rhetorical function and express the very core of Amos’ message. But these word-plays are not just two droll cases of homonymity: they both make sense only in view of Hebrew dialectology. This choice of dialectal puns cannot be a coincidence; not just any word-play, but the dialectal word-play was necessary for the speaker in order to transmit his message. This implies that the speaker was particularly sensitive to the special dialectal pronunciation of the words.

Routinely, speakers of a dialect become aware of their own dialectal speech if they are able to distinguish it from a more prestigious norm or if they want to contrast it to other culturally divergent dialects.[20] In such cases individuals are expected to make use of their distinctive dialectal speech in order to establish and approve their own identity. Although we do not know enough about the sociolinguistic situation in the Hebrew speaking area in the middle 8th cent BCE, in view of the politically and culturally leading position of Israel and the provincial and dependent position of Judah in that period, the impression is that none of these regular motivations would work for a Northern prophet. A Northern speaker would hardly consider the Southern Judean dialect more prestigious. Equally, it is hard to figure out how the contrast of his own pronunciation to the Southern dialect of Hebrew would help him to formulate his identity and to transmit a message for his Northern audience.

Apparently, the lay non-professional prophet Amos[21] arrived from provincial Judah at the great kin-kingdom of Samaria seeking his words to get greater resonance. (Compare Sting or Elton John coming on tour to the US.) There he got exposed to the dialectal differences between two types of Hebrew speech and exploited these differences in his discourse. “I am an alien, I am a legal alien. I am an Englishman in New-York!”

Fingerprints of the Mid-Eighth Century

The question about the language of the book in general, its characteristics in correlation with other cognate dialects, and the social situation in the background of this linguistic considerations goes far beyond the question of Amos’ origin and penetrates different levels of interpretation. Potentially this linguistic and dialectological discussion has more implications than just the geographical origin of the prophet Amos. The sociolinguistic scenario sketched above presupposes the situation when two dialects are living, distinguished, and utilized in different environments. The Southern dialect is peripheral geographically and more conservative linguistically. It retained several archaic features that separate Hebrew from other Canaanite languages, Phoenician in particular. The Northern dialect is more central and innovative and is obviously under stronger impact of the Canaanite vernacular.

When was such a sociolinguistic situation feasible historically? Seemingly, before the destruction of Samaria (in 721-720 BCE) – a disastrous event that marked the end of the Northern kingdom’s history, mass deportation, and also the intensive immigration of the population from North to South. Such national disaster and the mixture of populations would unavoidably lead to the mixture, at least partial, of the correspondent dialects, so that thus neatly set distinctive features between two geographically separated dialects would have been hardly available. These two visions of Amos should be chronologically correlated with the period when these radical sociolinguistic changes had not yet happened.


May 3, 2016


Last Updated

September 15, 2021


View Footnotes

Dr. Tania Notarius is a Lecturer of Hebrew and North-West Semitic languages at the Rothberg International School (Hebrew University) and Polis: The Jerusalem Institute of Languages and Linguistics, as well as an Affiliated Researcher at the University of Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa). She holds a Ph.D. from the Hebrew University (Department of Hebrew Language) and an M.A. and B.A. from Moscow State University (Romance Langauges of Literature). She is the author of The Verb in Archaic Biblical Poetry.