The Beginnings of the Hebrew Language

It's difficult to pinpoint the moment Hebrew emerged as a unique language.


Reprinted from A History of the Hebrew Language with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

Within Biblical Hebrew itself, subdivisions can be made according to the period or stage of the language. The earliest Hebrew texts that have reached us date from the end of the second millennium B.C.E. The Israelite tribes that settled in Canaan from the 14th to 13th centuries B.C.E.–regardless of what their language might have been before they established themselves there–used Hebrew as a spoken and a literary language until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.

It is quite likely that during the First Temple period [1006-587 B.C.E.] there would have been significant differences between the spoken and the written language, although this is hardly something about which we can be exact. What we know as Biblical Hebrew is without doubt basically a literary language, which until the Babylonian exile [following the fall of Jerusalem] existed alongside living, spoken, dialects.

The exile marks the disappearance of this language from everyday life and its subsequent use for literary and liturgical purposes only during the Second Temple period [515 B.C.E.-70 CE]. The latest biblical texts date from the second century B.C.E., if we disregard Biblical Hebrew’s survival in a more or less artificial way in the Dead Sea Scrolls, for example, and in certain kinds of medieval literature.

The Hebrew of the poetic sections of the Bible, some of which are very old despite possible post‑exilic revision, as well as the oldest epigraphic material in inscriptions dating from the 10th to sixth centuries B.C.E., we call Archaic Hebrew, although we realize that there is no general agreement among scholars regarding this term.The language used in the prose sections of the Pentateuch and in the Prophets and the Writings before the exile we call Classical Biblical Hebrew, or Biblical Hebrew proper. Late Biblical Hebrew refers to the language of the books of the Bible written after the exile.

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Dr. Angel Saenz-Badillos is Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Universidad Complutense, Madrid.

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