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Bible Encyclopedias

The 1901 Jewish Encyclopedia

Hebrew Language

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The designation "Hebrew language" for the language in which are written the Old Testament (with the exception of Ezra 4:8-6:18; Daniel 2:4 [after the fourth word]-7:38; Jeremiah 10:11; and a proper name in Genesis 31:47), part of the Apocryphal and pseudepigraphic writings, and the greatest part of later Jewish literature, is first found in Hellenistic literature (Prologue to Ecclesiasticus [Sirach]; Josephus, "Ant." 1:1, § 2; Revelation 9:11). The same designation is frequently used by Hellenistic authors to denote the Aramaic language spoken at a later time by the "Hebrews," as the Jews were called by non-Jewish writers. In Hebrew literature the term is first met in the Mishnah (Yad. 5:4; Giṭ, 9:8); Biblical writers use the expression "the language of Canaan" (Isaiah 19:18) or "the Jews' language" (2 Kings 18:26,28; comp. Isaiah 36:11,13; Nehemiah 13:24; comp. also the modern use of "Yiddish"). More frequently, however, the language is called in later Jewish literature "the Holy Tongue," to distinguish it from the Aramaic vernacular or other "profane languages" spoken in later times by the Jews (Targ. Yer. to Genesis 31:11; Soṭah 7:11). This designation seems to be an abbreviation of "lishan bet ḳudsha" = "the language of the sanctuary" (Targ. pseudo-Jonathan to Genesis 31:47). The Assyrians called Hebrew "the language of the west country" (comp. Hastings, "Dict. Bible," 3:25).

The Hebrew language might be appropriately called the Israelitish dialect of Canaanitish, a branch of the See See SEMITIC LANGUAGES spoken in Palestine and in the Phenician colonies. Almost identical with it is Moabitish, as seen in the stele of Mesha (MOABITE STONE). Closely akin to it was Phenician, and in all probability also the languages of Ammon, Edom, and Philistia. The language used in the Zenjirli inscriptions approaches Hebrew closely.

Relationship and Characteristics.

Phonetically Hebrew occupies a middle place between Arabic, on the one hand, and Aramaic, on the other. Of the original Semitic consonants some appear to have been wholly or partly lost; at least the distinction between certain related but different sounds is not indicated in writing. Thus there is only one character in Hebrew (ח) for the Arabic "ḥa" and "kha," only one (ע) for the Arabic "'ain" and "ghain" (though from transcriptions of proper names in the Septuagint it seems that, like Arabic, it once had the two ע sounds), only one (צ) for the Arabic "ṣad" and "ḍad," and only one (ט) for the Arabic "ṭa" and "ẓa." Like Aramaic, Hebrew has a double pronunciation of the letters —explosive and spirant. Like Arabic, it has a double sound of ד (comp. Merx, "Zeitschrift für Assyriologie," 14:308). From the פ at the end of the alphabet in certain alphabetic compositions in the Old Testament some assume the existence of the emphatic "p" known in Syriac and Ethiopic. Initial radical ו, as in Aramaic, has largely passed into י. AlthoughHebrew has lost some of the original vowels still retained in classical Arabic, that loss has not assumed such proportions as in the case of Aramaic. This is due chiefly to the retention in Hebrew of the pretonic "a" vowel (see Shewa). Of case-endings, entirely lost in Aramaic, Hebrew has preserved some remnants, although these have become meaningless.

The passive verb-forms, produced by internal vowel-change, only remnants of which are preserved in the oldest Aramaic, are still full of life in Hebrew. An exception to this is found only in the passive of the first conjugation, which has been largely replaced by a reflexive form. Similarly, in the case of the formation of a jussive mode, Hebrew holds an intermediate position between Aramaic and Arabic. Hebrew has in common with Arabic a prefixal definite article and an inseparable interrogative particle.

Hebrew Syntax and Vocabulary.

Syntactically, Biblical Hebrew remained in a very primitive stage, lacking long and artificially constructed periods. The sentences are short and are connected with one another by the conjunction "and," which particle has various logical meanings. This frequent use of "and" has, however, also developed in Hebrew some very fine and expressive forms of construction, which, though occurring here and there also in cognate dialects, have found their highest development in Hebrew. One of these is the peculiar consecutive use of "and" to connect a series of clauses with an initial clause, which latter defines them temporally. On the whole, the particles in Biblical Hebrew are little developed and frequently ambiguous. In later Hebrew this fault has to a large extent been remedied. As in all Semitic languages, the concrete meanings of the word-stems are more or less apparent and present in the consciousness of the speaker or writer in all the derived word-forms. Hebrew, moreover, admits of almost no compounds, except in proper names. There is a great lack of adjectives and adverbs, especially of the latter; and the so-called tenses are rather modalities of action. All these facts make Hebrew, indeed, a vehicle for narration of great vividness, expressiveness, and beauty, and cause it as a language of poetry, especially of religious poetry, to stand unsurpassed. On the other hand, it is, at least in its Biblical form, ill adapted for the expression of abstract ideas and involved philosophical thought—a deficiency but partially overcome by medieval writers by the invention of abstract terms and adjectival and adverbial forms.


In the Middle Ages it was a prevailing opinion that Hebrew was the primitive speech of mankind. This view was based on "etymologies and other data in the early chapters of Genesis [comp. Berliner, "Beiträge zur Hebräischen Grammatik," p. 9; König, "Hebräisch und Semitisch," pp. 113 et seq.], which, however, were as plausibly turned by Syriac writers in favor of their own tongue" ("Encyc. Bibl." 2:1987; comp. Audo, "Syriac Dict." Preface). A similar opinion was expressed by Rab (Sanh. 38b). Medieval Jewish scholars considered Arabic and Aramaic, the only cognate languages known to them, as corruptions of Hebrew. In more recent times, however, two opposing theories have been held. One, whose chief exponent is S. D. Luzzatto, is that Hebrew is derived from Aramaic; the other, whose chief exponent is Olshausen, is that it is derived from Arabic. D. S. Margoliouth ("Lines of Defense of Biblical Tradition," and "Language of the Old Testament," in Hastings, "Dict. Bible," 3:25 et seq.) claims that Hebrew is nothing but a vulgar dialect of Arabic. Not only, however, can the question concerning the relative age of a language whose origin lies in prehistoric times not be answered positively, but the necessity of the question itself is problematical: cognate languages may be parallel developments of one mother tongue instead of being derived from one another. All that can be said is, that by the testimony of the El-Amarna tablets (15th cent. B.C.), which contain Canaanitish or Hebrew glosses, and by the evidence of Egyptian, which contains Canaanitish loan-words borrowed some centuries before those tablets were written, Canaanitish or Hebrew was spoken in Palestine as early as the beginning of the second millennium B.C.

Language of the Patriarchs.

The other question, however, whether the Israelites brought their language with them from their original home or adopted it after the conquest of Palestine, as the Philistines seem to have done, is quite pertinent. From ṭhe facts that Abraham was connected with Haran, that Jacob is called an Aramean (Deuteronomy 26:5), and that the language is designated as Canaanitish and, as mentioned above, was spoken in Palestine centuries before the Exodus, one might assume, as some scholars have done, that the Israelites' language in patriarchal times was Aramaic. Hommel ("The Ancient Hebrew Tradition") maintains that Aramaic is a later development; that in patriarchal times Aramaic was but an Arabic dialect; and that originally the Israelites spoke Arabic. From the fact, however, that the Phenicians claimed to have come from the border of the Persian Gulf, where Abraham also is said to have had his home, and from the fact that Assyro-Babylonian is in both phonetics and vocabulary closely connected with Canaanitish, the probability of the Israelites having brought their language along with them is not to be denied.

Since Israel was a conglomeration of tribes, one expects to find their language showing dialectic differences. Such differences are distinctly mentioned in the case of the Ephraimites (Judges 12:6), who could not pronounce ש. In some books expressions occur which show perhaps local coloring, on the basis of which some distinguish a Judaic and an Ephraitic dialect; others, an Ephraitic, a Judaic, and a Simeonic dialect. But there is no certainty that such expressions are not rather characteristics of the individual authors. Differences that may have existed in the pronunciation of the various localities were obliterated by a later leveling vocalization. That such obliteration has taken place in some cases is apparent from the differences in the vocalization of proper names existing between the Masoretic text and the Septuagint.

The literature of Hebrew covers a period of about3,000 yeạrs, from the earliest documents of the Bible down to modern times. In so long a period the language has naturally undergone many changes. One may reckon broadly two phases of linguistic development: (1) the creative period, during the life of the language as the people's speech, and (2) the reproductive period, during its life in literary monuments only.

Biblical Hebrew.

The creative period of Hebrew may be divided into three phases: pre-exilic, post-exilic, and Mishnaic (the justification for including the last-named phase in this period is given below). The limited literature preserved in the Bible and the nature of most of its books, which are the products of schools rather than of individuals, as well as the uncertainty as to the time and place of their composition, make the historical tracing of the development of Biblical Hebrew a hazardous undertaking. In a general way it may be said that the language underwent little change during the first commonwealth; but with the growth of the arts and the development of professions and trade, new expressions had probably to be coined and foreign words borrowed. Accordingly loan-words from Assyrian and Egyptian, from the languages of India and Persia, and perhaps from Greek are successively found. Whether such borrowing was done directly or through the mediation of Phenician can not be ascertained positively. Direct borrowing need be assumed only in the case of Aramaic loan-words. The Arameans were the immediate neighbors of northern Israel from the very beginning. The foreign settlers who were domiciled in Israel after the downfall of the kingdom of the Ten Tribes probably also spoke Aramaic.

The correctness of the view that Aramaic was the international language of anterior Asia as early as the eighth century B.C. is not certain (comp. A. Ehrlich's commentary to 2 Kings 18:26), but there is no doubt that this was the fact after the Babylonian exile. Gradually Aramaic gained predominance in the Persian empire, displacing local forms of speech, and Hebrew, like other languages, had to succumb to its influence and ceased to be spoken. As was to be expected from such close relationship between the two languages, one borrowed from the other during the entire period that Hebrew and later Aramaic were together alive in Palestine. Even the oldest Biblical writings, as the Book of Judges, the Elohistic document, and Isaiah, show Aramaisms (, etc.). It is interesting in this connection to notice that the oldest Canaanitish inscription known, the patera of Ba'al Lebanon, contains also an Aramaic loan-word ().

By the post-exilic writers pre-exilic literature seems to have been recognized as already classic. Their language differs from that of the preceding period in three respects: (1) there is conscious imitation of earlier works (as in Daniel, the late Psalms, Ecclesiasticus [Sirach]); (2) the borrowings from Aramaic increase in volume and Persian words come in (some of the Aramaisms are not taken over bodily, but are translated into Hebrew, e.g., in Ecclesiastes); (3) the popular language gains entrance into literature and thus leads Biblical or literary Hebrew into Mishnaic or popular speech.

Mishnaic Hebrew.

As mentioned above, beginning with exilic times Aramaic influence began to be felt in Palestine. Nehemiah complains that the children from mixed marriages are unable to speak Hebrew (Nehemiah 13:24). For some centuries the two languages were spoken side by side, somewhat like Low and High German in certain states of Germany to-day. But as time went on the circle of the Hebrew-speaking population narrowed down, in spite of that language having sole control of the school, the synagogue, and the literature, until Hebrew became exclusively the language of literature and prayer. In the house of the patriarch Judah I. the maid servant still spoke Hebrew (Meg. 18a). The literary monuments of this last phase of living Hebrew have been preserved in tannaitic literature, the chief work of which is the Mishnah.

The "language of the Mishnah" ("Pereḳ Ḳinyan Torah"), or "the language of the sages" ('Ab. Zarah 58b; Ḥul. 137b; Ḳid. 2b), as the language of tannaitic literature is called in later generations, is not an artificial product of the schools, but is the living language of the last centuries of Jewish independence. This has been convincingly shown by S. D. Luzzatto (in "Orient, Lit." 1846, col. 829; 1847, cols. 1 et seq.). Mishnaic Hebrew differs from Biblical in the following particulars: in admitting a greater contingent of Aramaic loan-words; in borrowing to a considerable extent (about 300 vocables) from Greek and Latin; in the greater Aramaization of its syntax; in the larger substitution of the reflexive verb-forms for the internal passives; in the loss of the feminine plural forms of the imperfect; in the use of the plural ending "-in" for "-im" and of the plural suffix "-n" for "-m"; in the more definitely temporal use of the tenses; in the wider use of the participle; in the introduction of periphrastic verb-forms; in the substitution of the relative particle for the construct state; in the more definite use of prepositions and conjunctions, and in the augmentation of their number; and frequently in a different use of the gender of nouns. Words are frequently used in their pausal forms outside of pause; Biblical words are used in other than Biblical senses, and new forms are built from Biblical stems. The laws of word-formation are, however, the same as in Biblical Hebrew. A conscious imitation of Biblical language is noticeable in the liturgy only. In the rest of tannaitic literature such imitation is expressly avoided (comp. Ḥul. 137b).


The term "New Hebrew" or "Neo-Hebraic," by which post-Biblical Hebrew is usually designated, should properly be used only for the language of the reproductive period, beginning with amoraic literature (early in the third century of the common era) and continuing until the present. This period is of no interest to the student of Hebrew philology, but is of great importance for the study of Hebrew literature. New Hebrew presents a variety of styles differing not only according to periods, but also, and perhaps even in a greater degree, according to the subjects treated. In the treatment of this form ofthe language, periods and departments of literature must naturally cross one another. In the first place, prose must be separated from poetry. As regards linguistic peculiarities the prose literature may be divided into six groups; the poetical, into five.

Original work in midrashic literature is not the rule: the greatest part of it is compilation from older works. Probably most of these works were originally written in Aramaic and translated by the compiler into Hebrew. This is especially the case in the later Midrashim, while in the earlier compilations considerable Aramaic material has been preserved. The language differs little from that of the haggadic portion of tannaitic literature, and in some cases it has preserved linguistic material from tannaitic times which is not found in any extant tannaitic literature. Words which belong neither to Aramaic, Persian, Greek, nor Latin, although not found in Mishnaic Hebrew, are certainly tannaitic. Here belong also the halakic code (Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah) of Maimonides, the language of which is based on the language of the Mishnah, and the later codes imitating that of Maimonides.

The writers on Talmudic subjects, especially the commentators of the Talmud and the Poseḳim or legal authorities, who adopted Mishnaic Hebrew and avoided Biblical language, imitated to a great extent the Babylonian Talmud, interspersing their Hebrew not infrequently with Aramaic. The necessary lack of esthetic qualities in such a mixture is not very noticeable to one familiar from his youth with the Talmud. But the application of this style of writing to other than Talmudical subjects among medieval German Jews, loaded as it was with tasteless plays upon words and tessellated with Biblical phrases wrongly used, presents an unesthetic result difficult to understand and not very pleasing to a modern reader.

The language used chiefly by writers on philological and Biblical subjects shows in its earliest forms the influence of the Bible and of the payyeṭanim (comp., e.g., Ben Asher, Saadia, "Yosippon," and the Ahimaaz Chronicle). But the payyeṭanic influence soon disappears and leaves a midrashic Hebrew somewhat influenced by the Bible and by philosophic Hebrew. The use of Aramaic elements is very rare.

Philosophic and Rhetorical Hebrew.

The preceding phases contributed little to the increase of the vocabulary. On syntax they had no influence whatsoever. This can not be said of the philosophic phase, which differs so much from the preceding that a new name was applied to it by medieval writers. It has been called "the language of the translators," or "the language of astronomy" ("leshon tekunah"). This phase is a product of the translation of Arabic works on philosophy and science. The insufficiency of the old language for the treatment of scientific subjects was supplied by the creation of new word-forms, especially of abstract terms and adjectives, by giving new meanings to old words, and by borrowing from the Arabic. The new extensions of meanings were modeled on the cognate Arabic; and, the translations being slavishly literal, the Hebrew received the imprint of Arabic syntax. In many cases a familiarity with Arabic is necessary to understand this kind of writing. This style was successfully imitated by philosophical and scientific writers who wrote originally in Hebrew.

Closely akin to this form of language is that which appears in the writings of the Karaites, except that Karaitic literature uses some payyeṭanic word-forms—a legacy of geonic times—and a number of terms peculiar to itself.

The Samaritans also attempted to write Hebrew; but, with one notable exception (comp. the Samaritan Chronicle, published in "R. E. J." 44:188 et seq.), their Hebrew is only an object of curiosity.

In the last quarter of the eighteenth century a reaction set in against the corrupt style of the German rabbis (see above). The writers of those days desired to influence the people in the direction of estheticism. They therefore introduced a style chiefly based on the Bible, the "rhetorical" style ("meliẓah"), as it is called. This style occurs indeed even earlier, but in very rare cases (comp., e.g., Archevolti, Oliveyra). Since the vocabulary of the Bible, taken in its proper sense, is entirely insufficient to express modern ideas, resort was had to periphrases, whose terms, taken from the Bible, frequently meant something quite different in their original context. As a consequence the style became stilted and bombastic, incapable of giving an exact expression to ideas and things, and forcing the writer to be unnatural and to limit himself to jejune subjects. This style dominated Hebrew literature for three generations.

The necessities of Jewish life in Russia and the rise of national consciousness throughout European Jewry required a better-adapted vehicle of expression than was offered by the rhetorical style; and this demand was supplied by the creation of modern Hebrew. This style combines philological with philosophic Hebrew, eliminating from the latter its Arabic syntax. It has created a number of new terms to express modern ideas and things, drawing upon all phases of Hebrew, and, through the Hebrew writers in Palestine, upon Arabic. Scientific terms for which it has no equivalent it adopts from the modern languages. The periodic structure of the sentence is successfully cultivated.


Later Hebrew poetry may be divided into (1) payyeṭanic or liturgical, frequently having rime but no meter, and (2) metrical, first introduced by Dunash b. Labraṭ. The language of the payyeṭanim may again be subdivided into an earlier and a later period. The earlier period (c. 800-1100) presents a language based on the whole on the Bible, but enriched with a multitude of new forms. The number of new nounformations in the piyyuṭ amount to more than forty. New verbs are formed from nouns and particles; new verb-forms are used for or alongside of older ones; defective stems are treated as biconsonantal, or more correctly as middle-waw stems; the inseparable prepositions are used with the finite verb; new plural forms are used where the older language has only the singular, or the singular is used where the older language has only the plural; masculine nouns are abstracted from older feminine forms, andnew feminine forms are built from older masculine forms. Some nouns have double plural endings; the masculine ending is sometimes used where the older language has the feminine, and vice versa.

The later piyyuṭ literature, especially the penitential hymns, abandons a number of payyeṭanic word-forms and uses more Talmudic expressions.

The language used in metrical poetry presents, broadly speaking, three styles: the Spanish, the German, and the Russian. The language of the Spanish school follows the philosophic style and, though chiefly based on the Bible, contains a number of Arabisms in the significations of words, in phraseology and, more rarely, in syntactical constructions. The German style imitates chiefly the rhetorical style, is smoother in construction and purer in diction, but nerveless. The Russian or modern style strives after realism; it can not, therefore, limit itself to Biblical phrases, but uses the resources of all periods, even the latest coining of words.

Revival of Hebrew as a Spoken Language.

The national and realistic tendencies of the present generation have inspired many writers to try to enlarge the vocabulary of the language by the coinage of new terms and to revive Hebrew as a spoken language. Throughout Europe circles were formed that had as their object the cultivation of Hebrew conversation. It was in the nature of conditions that in Europe such efforts could meet with no signal success. It was otherwise in Palestine. There the resurrection of Hebrew as the tongue of the home and of the school has been realized to a considerable degree. Dictionaries; GRAMMAR, HEBREW; LITERATURE, HEBREW; Poetry, Didactic; Pronunciation of Hebrew; SEMITIC LANGUAGES; VOCALIZATION.

  • For Biblical Hebrew: Gesenius, Gesch. der Hebräischen Sprache und Schrift, 1815;
  • the various encyclopedias, s. On Aramaisms in the Bible: Kautzsch, Die Aramaismen im Alten Testament, 1902, where older literature is given. On Hebrew loan-words in Palestinian Aramaic:
  • Jacob, in Stade's Zeitschrift, 22:83 et seq. On the relation between Hebrew and Phenician:
  • Stade, in Morgenländische Forschungen, 1875, pp. 167-232. On Hebrew and Ethiopic:
  • Halévy, Maḥberet Meliẓah wa-Shir, 1894, pp. 33-44.
  • On Mishnaic Hebrew: A. Geiger, Lehr- und Lesebuch zur Sprache der Mischnah, 1845;
  • L. Dukes, Die Sprache der Mischnah, 1846;
  • S. D. Luzzatto, in Orient, Lit. 1846, cols. 829 et seq.; 1847, cols. 1 et seq.;
  • Weiss, Mishpaṭ Leshon ha-Mishnah, 1867;
  • Siegfried and Strack, Lehrbuch der Neuhebräischen Sprache und Literatur, 1884;
  • Siegfried, in Kohut Memorial Volume. pp. 543-556;
  • S. Stein, Das Verbum der Mischnahsprache, 1888;
  • F. Hillel, Die Nominalbildungen in der Mischnah, 1891;
  • H. Sachs, Die Partikeln der Mischnah, 1897.
  • On terminology of Mishnaic Hebrew: W. Bacher, Die Aelteste Terminologie der Jüdischen Schriftauslegung, 1899;
  • P. Rieger, Versuch einer Technologie und Terminologie der Handwerke in der Mischnah, 1894;
  • H. Vogelstein, Die Landwirtschaft in Palästina zur Zeit der Mischnah, 1894;
  • J. Krengel, Das Hausgeräth in der Mischnah, 1898.
  • G. Löwy, Die Technologie und Terminologie der Müller und Bäcker in den Rabbinischen Quellen, 1899. On philosophic Hebrew:
  • Goldenthal's preface to his edition of Ibn Roshd's commentary on Aristotle's Rhetoric, 1842. On scientific, especially philosophic, terminology:
  • Bonafos, Sefer ha-Gedarim, ed. 1798;
  • glossaries at the end of some modern works on medieval Hebrew literature, as Steinschneider, at the end of R. Hillel's Tagmule ha-Nefesh;
  • D. Kaufmann, in his Attributenlehre and Die Sinne, and others. On Karaitic terminology:
  • Gottlober, Biḳḳoret le-Toledot ha-Ḳara'im, Glossary;
  • Steinschneider's glossary at the end of Delitzsch's edition of Aaron of Nicomedia's Eẓ Ḥayyim.
  • On philological Hebrew: Levias, A Dictionary of Philological Terminology in Hebrew (in preparation).
  • On modern Hebrew: Klausner, Sefat 'Eber Safah Ḥayyah, in Oẓar ha-Sifrut, , also printed separately;
  • Ben-Yehudah, Hebrew Dictionary (in course of publication).
  • On payyeṭanic Hebrew: Zunz, S. P. pp. 118 et seq., 365 et seq.;
  • idem, Ritus, pp. 234 et seq.
  • On later poetic Hebrew: Albrecht in Stade's Zeitschrift, 19:134 et seq.
C. L.

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Bibliography Information
Singer, Isidore, Ph.D, Projector and Managing Editor. Entry for 'Hebrew Language'. 1901 The Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901.

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