The Beginnings of the Hebrew Language

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

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The Origins of Hebrew

The historical problem of the origins of Hebrew--sometimes raised as a question of the kind "What was the language spoken by the Patriarchs?" or "What was the language of the conquerors of Canaan?"--is beyond the scope of this study, which is concerned only with more narrowly linguistic issues. Whatever the truth of the matter, we have to recognize that the exact beginnings of the Hebrew language are still surrounded by mystery.

From the moment of its appearance in a documented written form, Hebrew offers clear evidence that it belongs to the Canaanite group of languages, with certain peculiarities of its own. Possibly this means that when the Israelite tribes settled in Canaan they adopted the language of that country, at least for their written documents. Ancient, and certainly anachronistic, traditions about these semi‑nomads allude to Aramaean ancestors (see Deuteronomy 26:5), but inferences of a linguistic nature should not, in principle, be drawn from this.

In the passage where Jacob and his descendants are portrayed as making a final break from Laban (the Aramaean, Genesis 31:47), various writers have seen an allusion to the time when the Israelites abandoned Aramaic and adopted the Canaanite language of the country they were living in.

In any case, there is a clear continuity between Hebrew as it is historically attested and the language of the El‑Amarna letters [cuneiform tablets discovered in 1887], which date from before the settlement of the Israelites in Canaan. This is not to deny that Israel's monotheism could have had clear implications for particular semantic fields, thus distinguishing Hebrew from the languages of other Canaanite peoples.

Combining historical and linguistic issues, it was suggested in the first decades of this century that Hebrew is not a homogeneous linguistic system but a Mischsprache [hybrid language], in which it is possible to distinguish an early Canaanite layer, very close to Akkadian, and another more recent layer, closer to Aramaic and Southern Semitic…

As well as modified versions of the Mischsprache hypothesis which continued to receive a measure of support until recently, there have also been claims by various scholars, often led by considerations of an allegedly historical nature, that clear traces of Aramaic can be found in the origins of Hebrew. However, the various rebuttals of the Mischsprache theory have ensured that it is no longer generally regarded as very plausible nowadays, and a different kind of approach to the problems which fuelled the theory is favored.

Various recent studies have emphasized that Aramaic might have influenced Hebrew very strongly, not when Hebrew first emerged but many centuries later, in the second half of the first millennium B.C.E. up to the beginnings of the Common Era. Thus, it is generally accepted that in the phonology [sound], morphology [structure], and lexicon [vocabulary] of Late Biblical Hebrew, as well as in Rabbinic Hebrew, there is a significant Aramaic component.

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Angel Saenz-Badillos

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