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Hebrew

The Hebrew language is written from right to left in an alphabet of twenty‐two letters. They all originally denoted only consonants, but w, y, and h have also been used to represent certain long vowels at the end of words (w = “u”; y = “i”; h = “a,” “o,” and “e”; w and y were later used for “o” and “e,” respectively) since at least the tenth century BCE and w and y within words since the ninth. In texts from Qumran and in later writings, letters are used more extensively to represent vowels. The full system of representing vowels by adding points to the consonants developed much later, between the fifth and the tenth centuries CE. The present system of vocalization thus reproduces the pronunciation current about a thousand years after the end of the biblical period, though it is doubtless based on earlier traditions of reading the Bible.

Among the differences between Hebrew (along with other Semitic languages) and English are the presence in the former of the guttural consonants ʿayin and ḥēt (the latter is like “ch” in Scottish “loch”); the emphatic consonants ṭēt, and ⊡ādeh and qōp (kinds of “t” and “s” that do not occur in English, and a kind of “k” that is not distinguished in English from any other kind of “k”); the sibilant śîn (probably the same as a consonant in Modern South Arabian dialects) alongside sāmek (s) and šîn (š); the presence of two grammatical genders, masculine and feminine; the use of the dual form for certain nouns that go in pairs (e.g., eyes, ears, and feet); the fact that many words are derived from roots of three consonants; and a verbal system in which the use of certain vowels and consonants denotes differences in meaning (e.g., kātab “he wrote”; niktab “it was written”; hiktîb “he caused to write”), and in which there are two forms, the so‐called perfect and imperfect, which were used in later times to denote the past and the future, but were employed in earlier times in ways that are still debated.

Within the Northwest Semitic group of languages, Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite family, which includes Phoenician, Moabite, and Ammonite (some would add Ugaritic). The other major Northwest Semitic language family is Aramaic. The word “Hebrew” (ʿibrît) is not used of the language until the Hellenistic period, but we read of “the language of Canaan” in Isaiah 19.18; and in 2 Kings 18.26, 28 (= Isa. 36.11, 13; 2 Chron. 32.18) and Nehemiah 13.24 Jerusalemites speak yĕhûdît, that is, “Judean” (later “Jewish”). Certainly, the similarity between Biblical Hebrew and Phoenician and some Canaanite words that appear in the Amarna letters from the fourteenth century BCE shows that the Israelites' language did not differ much, if at all, from that of the Canaanites. Some have inferred from the common characteristics of Hebrew and Canaanite, and from the words “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut. 26.5) that the ancestors of the Israelites spoke Aramaic and that they adopted from the Canaanites the language later known as Hebrew. It is doubtful, however, whether Deuteronomy 26.5 is intended to convey information about linguistic history, and the affinities of Hebrew with what was spoken by the Canaanites may be explained on the hypothesis that the Israelites and their ancestors already spoke a language closely related to that of the Canaanites.

While the Bible is the principal source for Classical Hebrew, the same language is used in inscriptions. Among the best known are the Gezer Calendar (tenth century BCE), a list of months defined by the characteristic agricultural work performed in them—this text may not have been written by an Israelite; the Kuntillet ʿAjrud and Khirbet el‐Qom inscriptions (late ninth or early eighth century BCE), which mention Yahweh and his Asherah; the Samaria ostraca (eighth century BCE) recording payments of wine, oil, and so on; the Siloam Tunnel inscription (late eighth century BCE), found in the tunnel built by Hezekiah under the city of David to bring water from the spring of Gihon to the Pool of Siloam; the Lachish ostraca (early sixth century BCE) with military messages before the Babylonian invasion; and the Arad ostraca (same period) recording the provisions supplied to soldiers. The Moabite Stone (ca. 830 BCE), in which King Mesha of Moab boasts of his victories over the Israelites, is in a language almost identical with Biblical Hebrew.

There were differences of dialect among the Israelites. Judges 11.5–6 reports that the Ephraimite fugitives were unable to say “shibboleth” but said “sibboleth” and so betrayed their origin to their Gileadite enemies. The Hebrew Bible was transmitted by people in Judah, but traces of another—presumably northern—dialect have been preserved in the Bible. The Song of Deborah (Judg. 5), which appears to be of northern origin, uses the masculine plural ending ‐în in v. 10, and the relative particle šă‐ in v. 7, where the dialect of Judah would have used ‐îm and ʾăšer, respectively. There were other differences between southern and northern Hebrew, as in the second‐person feminine singular pronoun and pronominal suffix. A northern story such as 2 Kings 4 (in which the northern prophet Elisha appears) has thus retained something of its northern dialect. Further, northern inscriptions show dialectal differences. For example, the Biblical Hebrew word for house is bayit, but northern inscriptions have bt, which probably reflects a pronunciation bēt, and “year” is št in contrast to the southern šnh. The book of Hosea contains many linguistic and textual difficulties, and some of them can probably be explained as resulting from the prophet's northern dialect.

Hebrew changed with the passing of time. The language of the books of Chronicles, for example, is different from that of Kings. Aramaic became the dominant language in the Syro‐Palestinian region and it influenced Hebrew and eventually displaced it in some areas. Nehemiah 13.24 complains that some children of mixed marriages could no longer speak the language of Judah but spoke “the language of Ashdod.” It is possible that this refers not to a survival of the Philistine language (though that cannot be excluded) but to Aramaic. The language of Ecclesiastes differs markedly from that of preexilic texts, and the linguistic peculiarities of the Song of Solomon are often attributed to a late date. Some people, however, could still write in the earlier style, as may be seen in the wisdom of Jesus ben Sira, written around 180 BCE (see Sirach), and in the sectarian writing from Qumran. Yet such essays in composition in Classical Hebrew were attempts at archaizing. The prologue to the Greek translation of Sirach also contains the earliest use of the term Hebrew for the language of ancient Israel; see also 4 Maccabees 12.7.

Rabbinical writings of the first few centuries CE use a form of Hebrew that is usually known as Mishnaic Hebrew (from the collection of legal tractates known as the Mishnah, of ca. 200 CE). It was once widely believed that this language was never used by the common people but was a scholarly language created under the influence of Aramaic. Now it is generally recognized that the rabbis did not concoct a scholarly language but used a form of Hebrew that developed in the last few centuries BCE. This conclusion arises from a study of the nature of the language and from references in rabbinic texts to its use by ordinary people, and this vernacular use doubtless lies behind its presence in the Copper Scroll from Qumran and in some letters from the Second Jewish Revolt (132–35 CE). Although Hebrew was used in Judah in the first century CE as a vernacular, Aramaic and Greek were also spoken, and there is evidence that Aramaic was dominant in Galilee in the north. Jesus came from Galilee, and normally he probably spoke Aramaic. Indeed, some of his words quoted in the Gospels are Aramaic, though some (such as “abba” and “ephphatha”) can be explained as either Hebrew or Aramaic. It is not unlikely that he also spoke Hebrew, especially when visiting Judea.

Several verses in the New Testament appear at first sight to refer to the Hebrew language, and the Greek word translated as “Hebrew” (hebraisti) does indeed refer to that language in Revelation 9.11; 10.16. But it is also used of the Aramaic words Gabbatha and Golgotha in John 19.13, 17, and it probably denotes a Semitic (as distinct from Greek) language spoken by Jews, including both Hebrew and Aramaic, rather than referring to Hebrew in distinction from Aramaic. Similarly, the Aramaic expression Akeldema is said in Acts 1.19 to be “in their language,” that is, the language of the people of Jerusalem.

Some time after the Second Jewish Revolt, Hebrew died out as a vernacular in Palestine, probably in the late second or the third century CE. It continued, however, to be used by Jews as a religious, scholarly, and literary language, and was also spoken in certain circumstances. It was revived as a vernacular only in the later nineteenth century CE, and it is now the living language of the state of Israel.

See also Hebrews

.

J. A. Emerton

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