Jewish Language Research Website

Hebrew

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Description by Tsvi Sadan (Tsuguya Sasaki)

Extending over three thousand years, the history of Hebrew is intertwined with that of the Jewish people first in the Land of Israel, then in the Diaspora, and again in the Land of Israel. It is generally divided into four main periods:

  1. Biblical Hebrew לשון מקרא (ca. 1000BCE-200BCE): attested in the Hebrew Bible and a few inscriptions from the First Temple period
    1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew: attested in the verses of the Pentateuch and the Early Prophets
    2. Standard Biblical Hebrew: attested in the prose before the Babylonian Exile (597BCE-538BCE)
    3. Late Biblical Hebrew: attested in the Chronicles and other later books of the Hebrew Bible composed between after the Babylonian Exile and the birth of the Rabbinic Judaism, i.e., Pharisees
  2. Mishnaic Hebrew לשון חכמים (ca. 200BCE-500CE): attested in the Mishna and the Hebrew parts of the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds
    1. Mishnaic Hebrew I / Tannaitic Hebrew (ca. 200BCE-200CE): from the birth of the Rabbinic Judaism until about the compilation of the Mishna, i.e., pre-Tannaitic and Tannaitic periods
    2. Mishnaic Hebrew II / Amoraic Hebrew (ca. 200CE-500CE): from after the compilation of the Mishna until the compilation of the Babylonian Talmud
  3. Medieval Hebrew לשון תקופת הביניים (ca. 500-1780)
  4. Modern Hebrew עברית חדשה (ca. 1780- )
    1. Maskilic Hebrew (ca. 1780-1880): Haskala period
    2. Modern Hebrew proper (1881- ): after the immigration of Eliezer Ben Yehuda to the Land of Israel, a central figure for the restoration of Hebrew as a spoken language commonly known as "language revival"

In the periods of Mishnaic Hebrew II, Medieval Hebrew, and Maskilic Hebrew (200CE-1880), Hebrew essentially had no function as a spoken language, and served as a high variety, i.e., written or liturgical language, in diglossia with a Jewish language as the low variety in traditional Jewish communities. During these periods the Bible and the Mishna as well as the Talmud, which constitute the literary backbone of Judaism, were studied and recited in various Jewish communities scattered in the Middle East, North Africa, and Europe, and each community developed its unique oral tradition of the Bible and the Mishna. This has also contributed to the existence of the Hebrew (and Aramaic) component in a number of Jewish languages such as Yiddish, Judezmo (Judeo-Spanish), etc.

The traditional linguistic situation in the East European Jewish communities, where the idea to "revive" Hebrew was born, was diglossia with Hebrew (and Aramaic) as the high variety and Yiddish as the low variety, and coterritorial languages such as Russian, Polish, German, etc. were also used for extracommunal communication. After the Haskala period, two competing linguistic ideologies were born to unify the high and low varieties in this traditional diglossia: 1) Hebraism and 2) Yiddishism. They strove to make Hebrew and Yiddish respectively the sole language in their speech communities, while the traditionalists claimed the maintenance of the traditional diglossia of Hebrew and Yiddish, which can still be found in some Hasidic enclaves in Israel. At the turn of the 19th century, the situation in the Land of Israel, where the idea of the "revival" was actually implemented, was multilingualism with no single dominant language. There coexisted non-Jewish languages such as Turkish as the official language of the Ottoman Empire, the ruler of the Land of Israel then, and (literary and spoken) Arabic as the language of the indigenous Arabs, as well as Jewish languages such as Yiddish as the vernacular of the Ashkenazim and Judezmo (Judeo-Spanish) as the vernacular of the (Eastern) Sephardim. There was, however, no single lingua franca dominating the land.

The "revival" of Hebrew underwent the following three functional phases. The first phase is the Ausbau of the written language in the Haskala period in Eastern Europe. Until then the use of Hebrew had been restricted mainly to religious spheres, but it was expanded to non-religious areas such as secular literature, etc., laying the foundation for the functioning of Hebrew as a spoken language later. In the beginning they employed a pseudoclassical style imitating solely Biblical Hebrew, but Mendele, who is considered the founder of both modern Hebrew and Yiddish literatures, established a synthetic style combining various historical layers of Hebrew, and succeeded in imparting the naturalness of a spoken language to Hebrew. The second phase is the appearance of individuals, mainly after 1881, who tried to use Hebrew as both spoken and written language in their daily lives; Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who is often mythologized, is the prime example of these implementers. And the last phase is the appearance of a speech community after the Second Aliya (1904-1914) where Hebrew started to be used as its main spoken and written language at the communal level.

Structurally speaking, Modern Hebrew may be defined as a fusion language comprising the intracommunal classical components of Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Medieval Hebrew, and Babylonian Aramaic, with Yiddish as its main susbtratum. These historical layers of Hebrew and Aramaic were involved in the fusion of Modern Hebrew either directly or indirectly through the Hebrew-Aramaic component in Yiddish. The substratal Yiddish influence is pervasive in all the levels of structure, especially in consonants, accent of proper nouns, intonation, syntax, "inner forms" of the lexicon, discourse, and paralanguage, but less in vowels, accent of general words, morphology (inflection), and "outer forms" of the lexicon. Modern Hebrew has also been influenced both structurally and lexically by Russian, German, and Polish, which were the second or first languages of the first immigrants, and lexically by spoken Arabic and English.

As Hebrew, which had been used as the high variety in diglossia until then, became the language of specific individuals and later the language of a society, it has widened its societal functions. It has become not only the mother tongue or main language of several million people but also a contemporary language serving the many linguistic demands of a modern society. If we consider the fact that Hebrew had virtually no native speakers until about a century ago, this is a unique phenomenon worthy of further linguistic and sociolinguistic studies without partisan ideologies and myths.

Selected Bibliography

1 General
2 Biblical Hebrew
3 Mishnaic Hebrew
4 Medieval Hebrew
5 Traditions of Hebrew
6 Modern Hebrew
6.1 General
6.2 Textbooks
6.3 Dictionaries
6.4 Grammar
6.5 Lexicon
6.6 Sociolinguistics
6.7 Miscellaneous
7 Periodicals

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