The Beginnings of the Hebrew Language

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

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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.

hebrew lettersIt has often been stated that Biblical Hebrew is not a language in the full sense of the word but merely a "fragment of language," only a part of the language actually used by the Israelites prior to the exile. This is without doubt one of the most serious limitations for an adequate study of its history. Ten centuries ago, the Jews of Spain were fully conscious of this, as demonstrated by the words of some Cordoban scholars: "Had we not left our country as exiles, we should today possess the whole of our language as in former times."

The approximately 8,000 lexical items preserved in the books of the Bible would not have been enough to meet the needs of a living language.

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Angel Saenz-Badillos

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