Encyclopedia > History of the Hebrew language

  Article Content

History of the Hebrew language

Table of contents

Introduction The Hebrew language is a language belonging to the North-Central branch of the Semitic family of languages. It strongly resembles Aramaic and Arabic, sharing many linguistical features with them. Hebrew is currently spoken by a community of about 10 million people, of whom about 5 million live in the State of Israel, and the rest in the various countries of the Jewish diaspora. Hebrew is one of the three official languages of Israel, alongside with English and Arabic.

Early history The first written evidence of Hebrew, the Gezer calendar, dates back to the 10th century BC, the period of the reign of David and Solomon. It presents a list of seasons and related agricultural activities. The Gezer calendar (named after the city in whose proximity it was found) is written in an old Semitic script, akin to the Phoenician one that through the Greeks and Etruscans later became the Roman script used today in almost all European languages. The Gezer calendar is written without any vowels, and it does not have consonants to imply vowels even in the places where more modern spelling requires it (see below).

Numerous older tablets were found in the region with similar scripts written in other Semitic languages, for example Ancient Egyptian. It is believed that the original shapes of the script go back to the hieroglyphs of the Egyptian writing. Less ancient samples of Old Hebrew include the tablets found near Lakhish and the famous Shiloah inscription which describe events preceding the final capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity of 586 BC.

The most famous work originally written in Hebrew is the Bible. Although the texts of the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) were written down relatively late, perhaps as late as 500 BC, it is apparent that some of them date back to as early as the 9th century BC. We can know less, however, about the more ancient Hebrew language of the early texts due to the editing that the texts must have undergone in the process of being written down.

The formal language of the Babylonian Empire[?] was Aramaic (its name is related to "Aram Naharayim", Mesopotamia). The Persian Empire, which had captured Babylonia a few decades later under Cyrus, adopted Aramaic as the official language. Aramaic is also a Semitic language, quite similar to Hebrew. Aramaic has contributed many words and expressions to Hebrew, mainly since it was the language of the Talmud and other religious works.

In addition to numerous words and expressions, Hebrew has also borrowed the Aramaic writing. Although original Aramaic letter forms were derived from the same Phoenician alphabet that was used in ancient Israel, they have changed significantly both in the hands of the Mesopotamians and of the Jews, coming to the forms familiar to us today at around the first century A.D.. Writings of that era (most notably, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran) are written in a script very similar to the "square" one still used today.

Later history The Jews living in the Persian Empire adopted Aramaic, and quickly enough Hebrew fell into disuse. It was preserved, however, as the literary language of the Bible. Aramaic became the vernacular language of the renewed Judaea for the following 700 years. Famous works written in Aramaic include the Jewish Talmud and Josephus Flavius[?]' books (the latter were not preserved, however, in the original). Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple[?] in AD 70, the Jews gradually began to disperse from Judaea into foreign countries. For many hundreds of years Aramaic remained the spoken language of Mesopotamian Jews; however gradually it gave way to Arabic, as it had given way to other local languages wherever the Jews had gone.

Hebrew was not used as a spoken language for about 2300 years. However the Jews have always devoted much effort to maintaining high standards of literacy among themselves, the main purpose being to let any Jew read the Hebrew Bible and the accompanying religious works in the original. It is interesting to note that the dialects that the Jews have adopted from their environment, namely Ladino and Yiddish were not directly connected to Hebrew (former being based on Spanish and Arabic borrowings, latter being a remote dialect of Middle High German), however both were written from right to left using Hebrew script. Hebrew was also used as a language of communication among Jews from different countries, particularly for the purpose of international trade.

Revival Hebrew was revived as a spoken language by the efforts of a single man, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda[?] (1858-1922). Ben-Yehuda, previously an ardent revolutionary in Tsarist Russia[?], had joined the Jewish national movement and emigrated to Palestine in 1881. Motivated by the surrounding ideals of renovation and rejection of the diaspora lifestyle, Ben-Yehuda set out to develop a new language that the Jews could use for everyday communication.

While at first many considered his work as fancy, the need for a common language was soon understood by many. A Committee of the Hebrew Language was established. Later it became the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an organization that still exists today. The results of his work and the Committee's were published in a dictionary (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew). Ben-Yehuda's work fell on fertile ground, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew was well on its way to becoming the main language of the Jewish population in Palestine.

Modern Hebrew Ben-Yehuda based Modern Hebrew on Biblical Hebrew. When the Committee set out to invent a new word for a certain concept, it searched through the Biblical word-indexes and foreign dictionaries, particularly Arabic. While Ben-Yehuda preferred Semitic roots to European ones, the abundance of European Hebrew speakers led to the introduction of numerous foreign words. Other changes which had taken place as Hebrew came back to life were the systematization of the grammar (due to the Biblical syntax sometimes being limited and ambiguous) and the adoption of standard Western punctuation.

Russian influence is particularly evident in Hebrew. For example, the Russian suffix -acia is used in nouns where English has the suffix -ation. It is so both in direct borrowings from Russian, for example "industrializacia", industrialization, and in words that do not exist in Russian (thus, colloquial English "cannibalization" turns into Hebrew "canibalizatcia"). English influence is also very strong, perhaps due to the thirty years of British rule under the Mandate and the dense ties with the United States. Finally, Arabic, being the language of numerous Sephardic Jewish immigrants, has also had an important influence on Hebrew.

Modern Hebrew is printed with a script known as "square". It is the same script, ultimately derived from Aramaic, that was used for copying of Bible books in Hebrew for two thousands years. This script also has a cursive version, which is used for handwriting.

Modern Hebrew has a rich jargon, which is a direct result of the flourishing youth culture. The two main features of this jargon are the Arabic borrowings (for example, "sababa", "excellent"), and the obfuscated idioms (thus, "sof haderekh", "end of the road", "pzaza", "bomb" and "xaval a'l hazman", "a waste of time" all mean "wonderful").

Due to the relatively small size of the vocabulary, numerous foreign borrowings and simple inflexional rules, Hebrew is an easy language to learn. Foreign accents are usually treated with patience by Israeli Hebrew speakers.

Hebrew has been the language of numerous poets, which include Rahel[?], Hayim Nahman Byalik[?], Shaul Tchernihovsky[?], Lea Goldberg, Avraham Shlonsky[?] and Natan Alterman[?]. Hebrew was also the language of hundreds of authors, one of whom is the Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

See also : Hebrew language

All Wikipedia text is available under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License

  Search Encyclopedia

Search over one million articles, find something about almost anything!
  Featured Article
Reformed churches

... Nigeria Reformed Church[?] - (Dutch Reformed) The various Reformed churches of Nigeria formed the Reformed Ecumenical Council of Nigeria[?] in 1991 to further ...

This page was created in 23.7 ms