As a language, Hebrew refers to one of several dialects of the Canaanite language. Hebrew (Israel) and Moabite (Jordan) can be called Southern Canaanite dialects while Phoenician (Lebanon) can be called a Northern Canaanite dialect. Canaanite is closely related to Aramaic and to a lesser extent South-Central Arabic. Whereas other Canaanite dialects have become extinct, Hebrew survived. Hebrew flourished as a spoken language in Israel from the 10th century BCE until just before the Byzantine Period in the 3rd or 4th century CE. (See below, Aramaic displacing Hebrew as a spoken language.) Afterward Hebrew continued as a literary language until the Modern Era when it was revived as a spoken language in the 19th century.
Hebrew is a Semitic language, and as such a member of the larger Afro-Asiatic phylum. Proto-Semitic was probably spoken around the 4th millennium BCE in the Arabian peninsula.
Within Semitic, the Northwest Semitic languages formed around the 3rd millennium BCE, grouped with the Arabic languages as Central Semitic. The Canaanite languages are a group within Northwest Semitic, emerging in the 2nd millennium BCE in the Levant, gradually separating from Aramaic and Ugaritic.
Within the Canaanite group, Hebrew belongs to the sub-group also containing Edomite, Ammonite and Moabite: see Hebrew languages. Another Canaanite sub-group contains Phoenician and its descendant Punic.
The first written evidence of distinctive Hebrew, the Gezer calendar, dates back to the 10th century BCE at the beginning of the Monarchic Period, the traditional time of the reign of David and Solomon. Classified as Archaic Biblical Hebrew, the calendar presents a list of seasons and related agricultural activities. The Gezer calendar (named after the city in whose proximity it was found) is written in an old Semitic script, akin to the Phoenician one that through the Greeks and Etruscans later became the Roman script. The Gezer calendar is written without any vowels, and it does not use consonants to imply vowels even in the places where later Hebrew spelling requires it.
The Shebna lintel, from the tomb of a royal steward found in Siloam, dates to the 7th century BCE.
The Shebna lintel, from the tomb of a royal steward found in Siloam, dates to the 7th century BCE.
Numerous older tablets have been found in the region with similar scripts written in other Semitic languages, for example Protosinaitic. It is believed that the original shapes of the script go back to the hieroglyphs of the Egyptian writing, though the phonetic values are instead inspired by the acrophonic principle. The common ancestor of Hebrew and Phoenician is called Canaanite, and was the first to use a Semitic alphabet distinct from Egyptian. One ancient document is the famous Moabite Stone written in the Moabite dialect; the Siloam Inscription, found near Jerusalem, is an early example of Hebrew. Less ancient samples of Archaic Hebrew include the ostraka found near Lachish which describe events preceding the final capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity of 586 BCE.
In its widest sense, Classical Hebrew means the spoken language of ancient Israel flourishing between the 10th century BCE and the turn of the 4th century CE. It comprises several evolving and overlapping dialects. The phases of Classical Hebrew are often named after important literary works associated with them.
* Archaic Biblical Hebrew from the 10th to the 6th century BCE, corresponding to the Monarchic Period until the Babylonian Exile and represented by certain texts in the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh), notably the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). Also called Old Hebrew or Paleo-Hebrew. Historically, it used a form of the Canaanite script.
* Biblical Hebrew around the 6th century BCE, corresponding to the Babylonian Exile and represented by the bulk of the Hebrew Bible that attains much of its present form around this time, give-or-take. Also called Classical Biblical Hebrew (or Classical Hebrew in the narrowest sense). It adopted the Imperial Aramaic script.
* Late Biblical Hebrew from the 6th to the 4th century BCE, that corresponds to the Persian Period and is represented by certain texts in the Hebrew Bible, notably the books of Ezra and Nehemiah.
* Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew from the 3rd century BCE to the 1st century CE, corresponding to the Hellenistic and Roman Periods before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and represented by the Qumran Scrolls that form most (but not all) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Commonly abbreviated as DSS Hebrew, also called Qumran Hebrew. The Imperial Aramaic script of the earlier scrolls in the 3rd century BCE evolved into the Hebrew square script of the later scrolls in the 1st century CE, still in use today.
* Mishnaic Hebrew from the 1st to the 3rd or 4th century CE, corresponding to the Roman Period after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and represented by the bulk of the Mishnah and Tosefta within the Talmud and by the Dead Sea Scrolls, notably the Bar Kokhba Letters and the Copper Scroll. Also called Tannaitic Hebrew or Early Rabbinic Hebrew.
Sometimes the above phases of spoken Classical Hebrew are simplified into "Biblical Hebrew" (including several dialects from the tenth century BCE to 2nd century BCE and extant in certain Dead Sea Scrolls) and "Mishnaic Hebrew" (including several dialects from the 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century CE and extant in certain other Dead Sea Scrolls). However today, most Hebrew linguists classify Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew as a set of dialects evolving out of Late Biblical Hebrew and into Mishnaic Hebrew, thus including elements from both but remaining distinct from either. By the start of the Byzantine Period in the 4th century CE, Classical Hebrew ceases as a spoken language, roughly a century after the publication of the Mishnah, apparently declining since the aftermath of the catastrophic Bar Kokhba War around 135 CE.
The term Rabbinic Hebrew generally refers to the Hebrew dialects found in the Talmud תלמוד, excepting quotations pulled from the Hebrew Bible. The dialects organize into Mishnaic Hebrew (also called Tannaitic Hebrew, Early Rabbinic Hebrew, or Mishnaic Hebrew I), which was a spoken language, and Amoraic Hebrew (also called Late Rabbinic Hebrew or Mishnaic Hebrew II), which was a literary language.
The earlier section of the Talmud is the Mishnah משנה that was published around 200 CE and was written in the earlier Mishnaic dialect. The Talmud also adds the Tosefta תוספתא being other texts from this dialect. The dialect is also found in certain Dead Sea Scrolls. Mishnaic Hebrew is considered one of the dialects of Classical Hebrew that functioned as a living language in the land of Israel.
About a century after the publication of the Mishnah, Mishnaic Hebrew fell into disuse as a spoken language. The later section of the Talmud, the Gemara גמרא, generally comments on the Mishnah and Tosefta in Aramaic. Nevertheless, Hebrew survived as a liturgical and literary language in the form of later Amoraic Hebrew, which sometimes occurs in the text of the Gemara.
After the Talmud, various regional literary dialects of Medieval Hebrew evolved. The most important is Tiberian Hebrew or Masoretic Hebrew, a local dialect of Tiberias in Galilee that became the standard for vocalizing the Hebrew Bible and thus still influences all other regional dialects of Hebrew. This Tiberian Hebrew from the 7th to 10th century CE is sometimes called "Biblical Hebrew" because it is used to pronounce the Hebrew Bible, however properly it should be distinguished from the historical Biblical Hebrew of the 6th century BCE, whose original pronunciation must be reconstructed.
Tiberian Hebrew incorporates the remarkable scholarship of the Masoretes (from masoret meaning "tradition"), who added vowel points and grammar points to the Hebrew letters to preserve much earlier features of Hebrew, for use in chanting the Hebrew Bible. The Masoretes inherited a biblical text whose letters were considered too sacred to be altered, so their markings were in the form of pointing in and around the letters. The Syriac script, precursor to the Arabic script, also developed vowel pointing systems around this time. The Aleppo Codex, a Hebrew Bible with the Masoretic pointing, was written in the 10th century likely in Tiberias and survives to this day. It is perhaps the most important Hebrew manuscript in existence.
In the Golden age of Jewish culture in the Iberian Peninsula important work was done by grammarians in explaining the grammar and vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew; much of this was based on the work of the grammarians of Classical Arabic. Important Hebrew grammarians were Judah ben David Hayyuj and Jonah ibn Janah. A great deal of poetry was written, by poets such as Dunash ben Labrat, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Judah ha-Levi and the two Ibn Ezras, in a "purified" Hebrew based on the work of these grammarians, and in Arabic quantitative metres. This literary Hebrew was later used by Italian Jewish poets.
The need to express scientific and philosophical concepts from Classical Greek and Medieval Arabic motivated Medieval Hebrew to borrow terminology and grammar from these other languages, or to coin equivalent terms from existing Hebrew roots, giving rise to a distinct style of philosophical Hebrew. This is used in the translations made by the Ibn Tibbon family. (Original Jewish philosophical works were usually written in Arabic.)
Another important influence was Maimonides, who developed a simple style based on Mishnaic Hebrew for use in his law code, the Mishneh Torah. Subsequent rabbinic literature is written in a blend between this style and the Aramaized Rabbinic Hebrew of the Talmud.
Hebrew was also used as a language of communication among Jews from different countries, particularly for the purpose of international trade.
Hebrew has always been used as the language of prayer and study, and the following pronunciation systems are found.
Ashkenazi Hebrew, originating in Central and Eastern Europe, is still widely used in Ashkenazi Jewish religious services and studies in Israel and abroad, particularly in the Haredi and other Orthodox communities. It was influenced by the Yiddish language.
Sephardi Hebrew is the traditional pronunciation of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews as well as Sephardi Jews in the countries of the former Ottoman Empire. This pronunciation, in the form used by the Jerusalem Sephardic community, is the basis of the Hebrew phonology of Israeli native speakers. It was influenced by the Ladino language. (The "Sephardic" pronunciation of Hebrew in American schools and synagogues retains several elements of its Ashkenazi substrate, especially the distinction between tsere and segol.)
Mizrahi (Oriental) Hebrew is actually a collection of dialects spoken liturgically by Jews in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world. It was possibly influenced by the Aramaic and Arabic languages, and in some cases by Sephardi Hebrew, although some linguists maintain that it is the direct heir of Biblical Hebrew and thus represents the true dialect of Hebrew. The same claim is sometimes made for Yemenite Hebrew or Temanit, which differs from other Mizrahi dialects by having a radically different vowel system.
These pronunciations are still used in synagogue ritual and religious study, in Israel and elsewhere, mostly by people who are not native speakers of Hebrew, though some traditionalist Israelis are bi-dialectal.
In the Modern Period, from the 19th century onward, the literary Hebrew tradition as pronounced in Jerusalem revived as the spoken language of modern Israel, called variously Israeli Hebrew, Modern Israeli Hebrew, Modern Hebrew, New Hebrew, Israeli Standard Hebrew, Standard Hebrew, and so on. Israeli Hebrew exhibits many features of Sephardic Hebrew from its local Jerusalemite tradition but adapts it with numerous neologisms and borrows (often technical) terms from European languages and (often colloquial) terms from Palestinian Arabic to function as a modern language.
The literary and narrative use of Hebrew was revived beginning with the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement of the mid-19th century, with the publication of several Eastern European Hebrew-language newspapers (e.g. HaMagid, founded in Lyck, Prussia, in 1856). Prominent poets were Chaim Nachman Bialik and Saul Tshernikovsky; there were also novels written in the language.
The revival of Hebrew language as a mother tongue was initiated by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) (אליעזר בן–יהודה). He joined the Jewish national movement and in 1881 immigrated to Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Motivated by the surrounding ideals of renovation and rejection of the diaspora "shtetl" lifestyle, Ben-Yehuda set out to develop tools for making the literary and liturgical language into everyday spoken language.
However, his brand of Hebrew followed norms that had been replaced in Eastern Europe by different grammar and style, in the writings of people like Achad Ha-Am and others. His organizational efforts and involvement with the establishment of schools and the writing of textbooks pushed the vernacularization activity into a gradually accepted movement. It was not, however, until the 1904-1914 "Second aliyah" that Hebrew had caught real momentum in Ottoman Palestine with the more highly organized enterprises set forth by the new group of immigrants. When the British Mandate of Palestine recognized Hebrew as one of the country's three official languages (English, Arabic, and Hebrew, in 1922), its new formal status contributed to its diffusion. A constructed modern language with a truly Semitic vocabulary and written appearance, although often European in syntax and form, was to take its place among the current languages of the nations.
While many saw his work as fanciful or even blasphemous (due to the fact that Hebrew was the holy language of the Torah and therefore some thought that it should not be used to discuss common everyday matters), many soon understood the need for a common language amongst Jews of the Palestine Mandate who at the turn of the 20th century were arriving in large numbers from diverse countries and speaking different languages. However, it has been said that Hebrew unified the new immigrants coming to Mandate Palestine, creating a common language and "culture." A Committee of the Hebrew Language was established. Later it became the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an organization that exists today. The results of his and the Committee's work were published in a dictionary (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew). Ben-Yehuda's work fell on fertile ground, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew was well on its way to becoming the main language of the Jewish population of both Ottoman and British Palestine.
The Soviet authorities considered the use of Hebrew "reactionary" since it was associated with both Judaism and Zionism, and the teaching of Hebrew at primary and secondary schools was officially banned by the Narkompros (Commissariat of Education) as early as 1919, as part of an overall agenda aiming to secularize education (the language itself didn't cease to be studied at universities for historical and linguistic purposes). The official ordinance stated that Yiddish, being the spoken language of the Russian Jews, should be treated as their only national language, while Hebrew was to be treated as a foreign language. Hebrew books and periodicals ceased to be published and were seized from the libraries, although liturgical texts were still published until the 1930s. Despite numerous protests in the West, teachers and students who attempted to study the Hebrew language were pilloried and sentenced for "counter revolutionary" and later for "anti-Soviet" activities.
Standard Hebrew, as developed by Eliezer Ben Yehuda, was intended to be based on Mishnaic spelling and Sephardi Hebrew pronunciation. However, the earliest speakers of Modern Hebrew had Yiddish as their native tongue and often brought into Hebrew idioms and literal translations from Yiddish. Similarly, the language as spoken in Israel has adapted to Ashkenazi Hebrew phonology in the following respects:
* the elimination of pharyngeal articulation in the letters chet and ayin
* the conversion of /r/ from an alveolar flap to a voiced uvular fricative or trill (see Guttural R)
* the pronunciation of tzere as [eɪ] in some contexts (sifrey and teysha instead of Sephardic sifré and tésha' )
* the elimination of vocal sheva (zman instead of Sephardic zĕman)
* some of the letter names (yud and kuf instead of Sephardic yod and qof)
* in popular speech, penultimate stress in proper names (Dvóra instead of Dĕvorá; Máhane Yehúda instead of Mahané Yĕhudá).