The Beginnings of the Hebrew Language

It's difficult to pinpoint the moment Hebrew emerged as a unique language.

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Similarly, in the linguistic system of the Masoretes [sages who lived between the sixth and 10th century and were responsible for establishing a system of vowels for the consonants-only Bible] features of Aramaic pronunciation have been superimposed on Hebrew.

If, in various ways, we recognize in Hebrew elements that differentiate it from the neighboring Canaanite dialects, we do not believe that these are derived from the Aramaic or Amorite that the Israelites might perhaps have spoken before they settled in Canaan, but instead that they result, for example, from linguistic conservativism, from independent linguistic developments within Hebrew, and from dialect diversity (about which we are acquiring ever more evidence).

Increasingly it is believed that whereas Biblical Hebrew was the language of literature and administration, the spoken language even before the exile might have been an early version of what would later become Rabbinic Hebrew. There are notable differences between the type of language used for poetry (which seems to be closer to the languages found in neighboring countries) and that employed by classical prose, as well as differences between the northern and southern or Jerusalemite dialects. A further significant feature is the influence of various foreign languages on Hebrew over the centuries.

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Angel Saenz-Badillos

Dr. Angel Saenz-Badillos is Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Universidad Complutense, Madrid.