Hebrew Language

Hebrew throughout the ages

Over the three millennia of its existence, several languages have left an imprint on Hebrew. Indeed, the story of Hebrew is essentially the political/cultural story of the Jewish people as a whole, until today.

According to A History of the Hebrew Language by Prof. Eduard Yechezkel Kutscher (the main resource for this article), a hypothesis in the language’s early development states that when the Israelite tribes conquered Canaan in the second half of the second millennium BCE and began settling amongst its inhabitants, namely the Canaanites who spoke a North-Semitic language, Hebrew arose through a mixture of this tongue and those spoken by other peoples who inhabited the region.

For example, Akkadian, the languages of the Assyrians and Babylonians, greatly influenced the development and lexicon of Hebrew. Likewise, the Egyptian language left an imprint during that period of Israelite history.

The later dominance of Aramaic as the language of diplomacy and trade also impacted Hebrew and, according to Kutscher, “Hebrew’s make-up was profoundly altered during the succeeding millennium.”

Later, when the Near East was ruled by the Persians and Greeks, their languages influenced Hebrew in the absorption of numerous foreign loanwords, many of which are still used today.

In more recent history, Turkish Ottoman rule, followed by the British Mandate over Palestine, and the different waves of immigration from such far-flung places as Russia or the United States vastly influenced the vernacular of Modern Hebrew.

One of the tasks of the Academy of the Hebrew Language is to weigh whether the inevitable foreign loanwords that enter the language should be replaced with new words with Hebrew roots, an endless job in today’s ever-evolving global village.

For Further Reading

  • A. Sáenz-Badillos, A History of the Hebrew Language. Tr. J. Elwolde. Cambridge 1993.
  • J. M. Hoffman, In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language. New York 2004.
  • E.Y. Kutscher, A History of the Hebrew Language. Jerusalem 1982.
  • C. Rabin, A Short History of the Hebrew Language. Jerusalem 1973.
  • C. Rabin, The Development of the Syntax of Post-Biblical Hebrew. Leiden 2000.
  • N. Waldman, The Recent Study of Hebrew: A Survey of the Literature with Selected Bibliography. Cincinnati 1989.