Hebrew Language

1. The Name and Literature

Hebrew is the usual name of the language spoken by the Israelites up to a few centuries before the birth of Christ. The tongue which was spoken or written by the learned later than this, a somewhat artificial continuation of the earlier language, is called in distinction the New Hebrew. The term Hebrew language is not in the Old Testament; it is found first in the prologue to Ecclesiasticus, then in Josephus, and afterward in the New Testament, where, however, it denotes the Aramaic speech of the Jews. Isa. 19:18 has the phrase “the language of Canaan,” 2 Kings 18:26 and Neh. 13:24 have “the Jews’ language” to express the tongue used by the Hebrews of those times. In later times the Jews called the Hebrew “the holy language.” The phrase “Hebrew language,” therefore, goes back not to the Old Testament, but to the common designation “Hebrews” as the name of the people, and is the equivalent of “the Israelitic tongue.” The Hebrew word ‘Ibri (Gen. 10:11.), to which “Hebrew” goes back, comprises a number of Arabic and Aramaic stocks to which, among others, Terah and Abraham belonged. Recent scholars see in the term an appellative denoting “the people from the other side” (of the river Euphrates—so Stade—or of the Jordan). The Old Testament is the main source of knowledge of this tongue, in which all of it is written except Ezra 4:8–6:18, 7:12–26, Dan. 2:4–7:28, Jer. 10:11. Besides this are the Siloam inscription, some inscribed stones from Assyria and Babylon, the coins of the Maccabeans, and the fragments of the Hebrew of Ecclesiasticus (see APOCRYPHA, A, IV., 12). The Moabitic Stone may be reckoned here, since its language is practically identical with the Hebrew.

2. The Semitic Languages

This language belongs to a large family of languages to which, since the time of Eichhorn, the name Semitic has been given, i.e., The tongues of the descendants of Shem. According to Old Testament usage, this name is inexact, since some of the people who used a language belonging to this group were descendants of Ham. But no thoroughly adequate name has yet been found. The relationship of the original Semitic speech to others, e.g., the Egyptian language, is yet an open question. The nearest relatives of the Hebrew were the Moabitic, practically identical with it, and the Phenician. Doubtless the other peoples immediately east and west of the Jordan spoke dialects of the same tongue, so that this group may be called the Canaanitic. A comparison of Phenician inscriptions with the Hebrew shows divergent dialectic peculiarities, while Neh. 13:23–24 makes clear that by the time of Nehemiah the dialects had become so changed as not to be mutually intelligible to those speaking them. Nearest to the Canaanitic group came the Aramaic, the early history of which is obscure, but which developed a rich literature, divided into the East and the West Aramaic. The latter was used by the later inhabitants of Palestine—Jews, Samaritans, and Christians—and by Nabatæans and Palmyrenes. The East Aramaic was used by Babylonian Jews, Mandæans (q.v.), and the people of Edessa, the last developing a considerable Christian literature. The Aramaic tongues were superseded by the Arabic. A third branch is the South Semitic languages, including the Arabic, Sabean, Minæan, Ethiopic, and Amharic. The East Semitic group comprises the Assyrian-Baby-Ionian of the cuneiform inscriptions.

3. Characteristics of Semitic Languages

These related branches point backward to an original Semitic tongue, the characteristics of which remain more or less plainly evident in the later forms, to which original of speech the Arabic seems the most nearly related. The chief characteristic of Semitic languages is the triconsonantal form of the roots; possibly originally the roots consisted of two consonants subsequently built up by the addition of another consonant. The language was then formed by vocalic changes inside the word or by additions or prefixes. Another characteristic of these languages is that only the consonants were written, the reader supplying the vocalization in accordance with the native utterance. Word-building was complex, secondary formations being very numerous. The verbs are lacking in tenses, only two main forms being used. The personal pronouns in the genitive and accusative become mere enclitics, there are but two genders, and a dual is sparingly employed. The syntax is simple, though the use of the numerals is rather complicated.

4. Characteristics and History of the Hebrew Language

The Hebrew language holds a position midway between the Arabic and the Aramaic. It has fewer original vocals than the Arabic, more than the Aramaic, while it retains case-endings and passive forms which the Aramaic has lost, though both have in use a jussive, the Hebrew using it more frequently than the Aramaic. Some of the original consonants are lost to the Hebrew, though it had a double pronunciation for the Ayin. Six other letters had a double pronunciation, a hard and an aspirated. The Hebrew did not develop in its syntax a complicated period, while the usual connective is the simple “and,” which implies various relationships. Historical narrative usually opens with the phrase “and it came to pass,” while delineations of the future begin with “and it shall come to pass.” The particles are few, little developed, and therefore ambiguous. Before the Hebrews entered either the East-Jordanic or West-Jordanic territory, the Canaanitic tongue, closely related to the Hebrew, was spoken there, as is shown both by the place-names and by interesting glosses to the Amarna Tablets. Whether the Hebrews got their language from the Canaanites when they settled in Canaan, or already possessed it, is a difficult problem; but at any rate it remained their usual speech till the exile, and during the exile and after it was still cultivated. But in postexilic times it was dislodged by the Aramaic.
The cause of this is to be sought in the diffusion of the Aramaic as the official and commercial tongue of the Persian empire. The first witness to this is in the sources of the Book of Ezra, followed by the Aramaic portions of the Book of Daniel. In the time of Christ Aramaic was the common speech, and such it continued till the Arabic conquest; though meanwhile Hebrew had been cultivated as a written language, as is proved by the Hebrew portion of Daniel and by the recovered parts of the original of Ecclesiasticus, as well as by indications in I Maccabees, the Psalms of Solomon, and various pseudepigrapha. It is clear that the supersession of Hebrew was preceded by a period when the land was bilingual, a large part of the people still using Hebrew. But this condition came to an end, and the reading of Hebrew in the synagogue had to be accompanied by translation into the vernacular Aramaic. It was in this way that Hebrew became gradually the speech of the learned only; but it is to be remarked that the Hebrew of the later sort has no more interest for the history of Hebrew than the Latin of the schoolmen for the history of Latin.

5. Development of the Hebrew Language

Since the Canaanitic existed in different dialects spoken by peoples living under different conditions, it might be expected that differences would appear in the Old Testament. Moreover, since a period of 1,000 years is covered by Hebrew literature, a difference would be looked for between the earliest and the latest writings. While this can be shown in only a limited degree, the reason is partly that only consonantal representation of these writings exists, and partly that later recension obliterated differences. The vocalised text represents only the late tradition of a pronunciation which had lost many of the peculiarities of the early speech, as is proved by the Canaanitic glosses to the Amarna Tablets, above referred to. Differences of dialect are proven by such passages as Judges 12:6, 18:3, in the latter of which passages “voice” possibly means method of speech, dialect. When differences caused by time are considered, it is evident that the differences between the language of the Song of Deborah and Daniel are less than those between the “English” of the ninth and of the nineteenth century; yet it is seen that there was a history of the Hebrew language. This is well illustrated by the language of Ecclesiastes. Further development was checked by the imitation by later writers of the early models, even to the reintroduction of archaic and disused forms. But even between the earlier and the later prophets there appear indications of a development toward a more flexible form of expression. The introduction of Aramaisms, preferences for one or another form of the personal pronouns, and other peculiarities mark periods in the language.

6. Early Study of Hebrew

The history of the study of the Hebrew language began really at the time when it ceased to be a vernacular, and naturally with the Jews of the dispersion, by whom Hebrew had been forgotten. The Septuagint gives insight into the knowledge of Hebrew and the understanding of the text of those who made it, and the translation differs greatly in the different parts. Even in the case of Ecclesiasticus the grandson misunderstood the writing of the grandfather, a fact due in part to an unpointed text. Further testimony of this character is derived from the explanations of personal and place names as exhibited in the various Onomastica sacra. Meanwhile in Palestine also Hebrew had become a language which had to be learned, as is shown by the Aramaic paraphrases of Scripture in the synagogues, the development of which the Targums were, and these show in general an excellent understanding of the Hebrew. Similar testimony is borne by the Syriac version, by the versions of Aquila and Symmachus, and by the knowledge of Hebrew of Jerome, who was taught by a Jew. For close grammatical study, however, the Masoretic works were the cradle, since they collected and remarked upon word-forms and grammatical constructions. This sprang, not from interest in linguistic study, but from desire for preservation of the true text, and one result of this work was a systematic vocalization of the text. Real grammatical study began with the contact of Jews with Arabic grammarians (eighth century), and issued in Aaron ben Moses ben Asher’s Diḳduḳe ha-te‘amim of the tenth century, which contains much grammatical material. The first grammarian was Saadia Gaon (d. 942), of whose works on linguistics only a small part is extant. He was under the influence of Arabic linguistics, and laid stress upon comparison of Arabic and Hebrew. Even more strongly was this emphasized by Judah ben Ḳuraish in North Africa, who used both Arabic and Aramaic in lexical and grammatical comparisons. About the middle of the tenth century the Spanish Jew Menahem ben Saruk compiled a Hebrew lexicon with grammatical introduction, in which he sought to free Hebrew lexicography from its Arabic bonds. His great scholar, Judah Ḥayyuj ben David, about the year 1000, made special contributions to knowledge of the weak verbs. Beside the Spanish Abraham ibn Ezra (d. 1167) must be named the great David Ḳimḥi (d. 1235), whose grammatical-lexicographic Miklol is still of value. Ḳimḥi’s father, Joseph, and his brother Moses were noted grammarians. Worthy of mention also are Profiat Duran (Isaac ben Moses Duran), at the end of the fourteenth century, and Elias Levita (d. 1549). At this time the humanists began to busy themselves with Hebrew. The way was broken by the preachermonk Peter Nigri (1477), the priest Johannes Böhm (1490), Konrad Pellican (1501–04), and Reuchlin (1506). The lexical and grammatical works of the elder Buxtorf (d. 1629) closed this period, in which the Christian world sought to reproduce Jewish learning.
Samuel Macauley Jackson, ed., The New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge: Embracing Biblical, Historical, Doctrinal, and Practical Theology and Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Biography from the Earliest Times to the Present Day (New York; London: Funk & Wagnalls, 1908–1914), 183–185.