The Hebrew language has been an essential cultural aspect of the Jewish people’s religion, education, and literature since as far back as the 11th century BC. Throughout the dispersion of the Jewish peoples from Palestine and the persecution suffered in the Holocaust, the Hebrew language has been preserved and is still actively used to this day.
Origins and Classification of the Hebrew Language
The Hebrew language is classified as part of the Semitic language subfamily, which is categorized among the Afroasiatic language family. Linguists divide the Semitic language group into four sections: the South Central group, the South Peripheral group, the North Peripheral group, and the North Central group.
Hebrew belongs to the North Central group of Semitic languages, along with Aramaic language and ancient languages like Phoenician. It is believed that the Hebrew language was adopted by the Israelites when they took the land of Canaan; for this reason, the Hebrew language is further classified specifically as a Canaanite language.
Early History of the Hebrew Language
The oldest known examples of the written Hebrew language date from circa the 11th or 10th century BC – much earlier than most other contemporary world languages. Much of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew. In biblical times, the Ancient Hebrew language, also referred to as Biblical Hebrew, was used by the Jewish people, and much of the Old Testament was written in Ancient Hebrew.
Most scholars believe that Ancient Hebrew survived as a living language – meaning it was still developing and undergoing changes – from about the 12th to 2nd centuries BC. Around the 3rd century BC, the Jewish peoples of Palestine began using Aramaic as a spoken language. While Aramaic also came to be used for secular writings, Hebrew was preserved as the language of the Jewish religion.
Development of Mishnaic Hebrew
Mishnaic Hebrew, also known as Rabbinic Hebrew, dates from circa 200 AD. It was the language of the Mishna, or Shas, which is considered to be the first major written chronicle of the Jewish oral traditions of the Old Torah.
According to the Talmud, the project of the Mishna was undertaken due to fears that old Jewish oral traditions would be lost or forgotten due to the passage of time and the persecution of Jews. Mishnaic Hebrew, which had strong roots in the Aramaic, was adopted solely as a written language.
Being more adaptable than Ancient Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew borrowed from other languages, such as Greek and Persian. Later, Arabic influences were also seen, thanks to translations of Arabic scholarly works.
The Role of Zionism in the Revival of Hebrew
Although the Hebrew language was preserved as the language of the Jewish religion and literature, spoken Hebrew became less common over time. However with the efforts of Zionism, the movement aimed to unite the Jewish people of the Diaspora to settle in Palestine, the late 19th century saw a revival of spoken Hebrew.
The Zionist movement peaked when the Jewish Agency proclaimed the independent State of Israel in 1948. Hebrew was named the official language of the country. Along with Arabic, Hebrew is still one of the official languages of the modern country of Israel, where it is spoken today by nearly 5 million Jewish inhabitants.
Development of Spoken Hebrew
The development of a common spoken Hebrew language in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was due largely to the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. After immigrating to Palestine in 1881, Ben-Yehuda recognized the need for an everyday spoken Hebrew language and set out to develop such a Hebrew language based on the literary and religious written Hebrew.
Many saw Ben-Yehuda’s work as pointless or even blasphemous, because they believed that Hebrew should be retained strictly as the holy language of the Torah, rather than being adapted for use in everyday conversation. As an increasing number of Jews immigrated to Palestine from a diverse variety of countries and speaking different languages, however, the need for a common language between Jewish peoples in Palestine became glaringly obvious. This spurred on the movement for a development of a common spoken Hebrew vernacular.
The Hebrew Alphabet and Written Hebrew Language
The earliest known alphabet used for writing Hebrew is one belonging to the Canaanite group of Semitic languages. With the Jewish peoples’ adaptation of Aramaic script, this Early Hebrew later evolved into a script known as Square Hebrew. Square Hebrew is the source of modern written Hebrew, although today’s written Hebrew generally uses a more recently developed cursive-style script.
Modern written Hebrew utilizes an alphabet of 22 characters. There are no vowels in the Hebrew alphabet; long vowels are often expressed with unpronounced consonant sounds, while some works use masoretic points (dashes or dots) to indicate the presence of a vowel.
A series of adaptations from Biblical Hebrew have allowed the modern Hebrew language to continue to function in the modern context. Yiddish, Ashkenazi (a language spoken by Jews in Eastern Europe), and other languages spoken by immigrants in Israel have all influenced the modern Hebrew language we know now.
Hebrew in the Dead Sea Scrolls
The Dead Sea Scrolls are a batch of approximately 900 documents discovered in the late 1940s to 1950s in eleven caves located on the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Along with Aramaic and Greek, Hebrew is one of the languages comprising the ancient documents, which are written on parchment and papyrus.
Hebrew sections of the Dead Sea Scrolls include Biblical excerpts from the Hebrew Bible, which make up approximately 40 percent of the scrolls’ content. The discovery of the documents was a landmark event for Jewish and Hebrew language culture and history.
Hebrew Quick Facts
Alternate Names & Spellings: Ivrit
Language Family: Afro-Asiatic, Semitic, Central, South, Canaanite
Official Language of: Israel
Spoken by Approximately 5,055,000 people
Also Spoken In: United States
- Amharic Translation
- Arabic Translation
- Aramaic Translation
- English Translation
- Hebrew Translation
- Yiddish Translation
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