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Hebrew Language

History of the Hebrew language. Moreover, you will find other useful resources about Hebrew like words, schools, Hebrew literature and more


Early History

Hebrew strongly resembles Aramaic and to a lesser extent South-Central Arabic, sharing many linguistic features with them.

Hebrew is an Afro-Asiatic language. This language family is generally thought by linguists to have originated somewhere in northeastern Africa, and began to diverge around the 8th millennium BCE, although there is much debate about the exact date and place. One branch of this family, Semitic, eventually reached the Middle East; it gradually differentiated into a variety of related languages.

The first written evidence of distinctive Hebrew, the Gezer calendar, dates back to the 10th century BCE, the traditional time of the reign of David and Solomon, even if the most famous work originally written in Hebrew is the Hebrew Bible, though the time at which it was written is a matter of dispute.

The formal language of the Babylonian Empire was Aramaic. The Persian Empire, which had captured Babylonia a few decades later under Cyrus, adopted Aramaic as the official language. Aramaic is also a North-West Semitic language and has contributed many words and expressions to Hebrew, mainly as the language of commentary in the Talmud and other religious works.

In addition to numerous words and expressions, Hebrew also borrowed the Aramaic writing system. Although the original Aramaic letter forms were derived from the same Phoenician alphabet that was used in ancient Israel, they had changed significantly, both in the hands of the Mesopotamians and of the Jews, assuming the forms familiar to us today around the first century CE. Writings of that era (most notably, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran) are written in a script very similar to the "square" one still used today.

Later history

The Jews living in the Persian Empire adopted Aramaic, and Hebrew quickly fell into disuse. It was preserved, however, as the literary language of Bible study. Aramaic became the vernacular language of the renewed Judaea for the following 700 years.

Hebrew was not used as a spoken language for roughly 2300 years. However the Jews have always devoted much effort to maintaining high standards of literacy among themselves, the main purpose being to let any Jew read the Hebrew Bible and the accompanying religious works in the original. It is interesting to note that the languages that the Jews adopted from their adopted nations, namely Ladino and Yiddish were not directly connected to Hebrew (the former being based on Spanish and Arabic borrowings, latter being a remote dialect of Middle High German), however, both were written from right to left using the Hebrew script. Hebrew was also used as a language of communication among Jews from different countries, particularly for the purpose of international trade.


The revival of Hebrew as a mother tongue was initiated by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922). Ben-Yehuda, previously an ardent revolutionary in Tsarist Russia, had joined the Jewish national movement and emigrated to Palestine in 1881 (which was later to become Israel). Motivated by the surrounding ideals of renovation and rejection of the diaspora lifestyle, Ben-Yehuda set out to develop tools for vernacularizing the literary language for everyday communication. However, his brand of Hebrew followed norms that had been replaced in Eastern Europe by more modern grammar and style, in the writings of people like Achad Ha-Am and others.

Modern Hebrew

Ben-Yehuda based Modern Hebrew on Biblical Hebrew. Often new words were coined by applying unused word-patterns to existing roots (Biblical k-t-v, "write," gave rise to Modern Hebrew hikhtiv, "dictated," and hitkatev, "corresponded.") When this did not suffice, the Committee set out to invent a new word for a certain concept, it searched through the Biblical word-indexes and foreign dictionaries, particularly Arabic. While Ben-Yehuda preferred Semitic roots to European ones, the abundance of European Hebrew speakers led to the introduction of numerous foreign words. Other changes which had taken place as Hebrew came back to life were the systematization of the grammar - the Biblical syntax was sometimes limited and ambiguous -- and the adoption of standard Western punctuation.

Modern Hebrew shows influences from Russian (for example, the Russian suffix -acia is used in nouns where English has the suffix -ation); German (particularly in combination words like "tapuakh-adama," meaning potato (German Erdapfel) or "dme-shtia," meaning tip (German Trinkgeld). English has been a very strong influence, both from British influence during the period of the Mandate and American influence in the present day. Finally, Arabic, being the language of numerous Mizrahic and Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Arab countries as well as of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, has also had an important influence on Hebrew, especially in slang ((for example, "sababa", meaning "excellent", or "y'alla", meaning "come on.")

Modern Hebrew is printed with a script known as "square". It is the same script, ultimately derived from Aramaic, which was used for copying of Bible books in Hebrew for two thousand years. This script also has a cursive version, which is used for handwriting.

Hebrew has been the language of numerous poets, which include Rachel, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Shaul Tchernihovsky, Lea Goldberg, Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman. Hebrew was also the language of hundreds of authors, one of whom is the Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

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