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About Hebrew Language

Hebrew (עִבְרִית, Ivrit, Hebrew pronunciation) is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Culturally, it is considered the Jewish language. Hebrew in its modern form is spoken by most of the seven million people in Israel while Classical Hebrew has been used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world for over two thousand years. It is one of the official languages of Israel, along with Arabic. Ancient Hebrew is also the liturgical tongue of the Samaritans, while modern Hebrew or Palestinian Arabic is their vernacular, though today about 700 Samaritans remain. As a foreign language it is studied mostly by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by theologians, and in Christian seminaries.

The core of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is written in Classical Hebrew, and much of its present form is specifically the dialect of Biblical Hebrew that scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BCE, around the time of the Babylonian exile. For this reason, Hebrew has been referred to by Jews as Leshon HaKodesh (לשון הקודש), "The Holy Tongue", since ancient times.

The name of the language

The modern word "Hebrew" is derived from the word "ivri" (plural "ivrim") one of several names for the Jewish people. It is traditionally understood to be an adjective based on the name of Abraham's ancestor, Eber mentioned in Genesis 10:21. This name is possibly based upon the root "`avar" (עבר) meaning "to cross over" and homiletical interpretations of the term "ivrim" link it to this verb. In the Bible "Hebrew" is called Yehudith (יהודית) because Judah (Yehuda) was the surviving kingdom at the time of the quotation, late 8th century BCE (Is 36, 2 Kings 18). In Isaiah 19:18, it is also called the "Language of Canaan" (שְׂפַת כְּנַעַן).

Grammar

Hebrew grammar is partly analytic, expressing such forms as dative, ablative, and accusative using prepositional particles rather than grammatical cases. However, inflection plays a decisive role in the formation of the verbs and nouns. E.g. nouns have a construct state, called "smikhut", to denote the relationship of "belonging to": this is the converse of the genitive case of more inflected languages. Words in smikhut are often combined with hyphens. In modern speech, the use of the construct is sometimes interchangeable with the preposition "shel", meaning "of". There are many cases, however, where older declined forms are retained (especially in idiomatic expressions and the like), and "person"-enclitics are widely used to "decline" prepositions.

Writing system

Modern Hebrew is written from right to left using the Hebrew alphabet, which is an abjad, or consonant-only script of 22 letters. The ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet is similar to those used for Canaanite and Phoenician. Modern scripts are based on the "square" letter form, known as Ashurit (Assyrian), which was developed from the Aramaic script. A cursive Hebrew script is used in handwriting: the letters tend to be more circular in form when written in cursive, and sometimes vary markedly from their printed equivalents. The medieval version of the cursive script forms the basis of another style, known as Rashi script. When necessary, vowels are indicated by diacritic marks above or below the letter representing the syllabic onset, or by use of matres lectionis, which are consonantal letters used as vowels. Further diacritics are used to indicate variations in the pronunciation of the consonants (e.g. bet/vet, shin/sin); and, in some contexts, to indicate the punctuation, accentuation and musical rendition of Biblical texts (see Cantillation).

History

As a language, Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite group of languages. In turn the Canaanite languages are a branch of the Northwest Semitic family of languages. Hebrew (Israel) and Moabite (Jordan) are Southern Canaanite while Phoenician (Lebanon) is Northern Canaanite. Canaanite is closely related to Aramaic and to a lesser extent South-Central Arabic. Whereas other Canaanite languages became extinct, Hebrew flourished as a spoken language in Israel from an uncertain date before the 10th century BCE, Scholars debate the degree to which Hebrew was a spoken vernacular in ancient times following the Babylonian exile.

Around the 6th century BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered the ancient Kingdom of Judah, destroying much of Jerusalem and exiling its population far to the East in Babylon. During the Babylonian captivity, many Israelites were enslaved within the Babylonian Empire and learned the closely related Semitic language of their captors, Aramaic. The Babylonians had taken mainly the governing classes of Israel while leaving behind in Israel presumably more-compliant farmers and laborers to work the land. Thus for a significant period, the Jewish elite became influenced by Aramaic.

After Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, he released the Jewish people from captivity. The King of Kings or Great King of Persia, later gave the Israelites permission to return. Hebrew came to be spoken alongside new dialects of Hebrew and a local version of Aramaic. Yet, Aramaic represented the hated language of slavery, conquest, and occupation, while Hebrew remained the language of Israel's history and national pride. Preserved largely by the remnant in Israel proper, Hebrew continued to be a thriving language until shortly before the Byzantine era.

Hebrew has been in continuous use as a religious and literary language since the 10th-century BCE. It faded as a spoken language at a disputed point in antiquity (sometime between the-century BCE and the Roman period) but continued to be used as a lingua franca among scholars and Jews traveling in foreign countries throughout history. It was revived as a spoken language in the early 20th century.[9] After the 2nd century CE when the Roman Empire exiled most of the Jewish population of Jerusalem following the Bar Kokhba revolt, the Israelites adapted to the societies in which they found themselves, yet letters, contracts, commerce, science, philosophy, medicine, poetry, and laws continued to be written in Hebrew, which adapted by borrowing and inventing terms.

Hebrew persevered along the ages as the main language for written purposes by all Jewish communities around the world for a large range of uses (poetry, philosophy, science and medicine, commerce, daily correspondence and contracts, in addition to liturgy). This meant not only that well-educated Jews in all parts of the world could correspond in a mutually intelligible language, and that books and legal documents published or written in any part of the world could be read by Jews in all other parts, but that an educated Jew could travel and converse with Jews in distant places, just as priests and other educated Christians could once converse in Latin. It has been 'revived' several times as a literary language, and most significantly by the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement of early and mid-19th century. Near the end of that century the Jewish activist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, owing to the ideology of the national revival (Hibbat Tziyon, later Zionism), began reviving Hebrew as a modern spoken language. Eventually, as a result of the local movement he created, but more significantly as a result of the new groups of immigrants known under the name of the Second Aliyah, it replaced a score of languages spoken by Jews at that time. Those languages were Jewish dialects such as the Judeo-Spanish language (also called Judezmo or Ladino), Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and Bukharian language, or local languages spoken in the Jewish diaspora such as Russian, Persian, and Arabic.

The major result of the literary work of the Hebrew intellectuals along the 19th century was a lexical modernization of Hebrew. New words and expressions were adapted as neologisms from the large corpus of Hebrew writings since the Hebrew Bible, or borrowed from Arabic (mainly by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) and Aramaic. Many new words were either borrowed from or coined after European languages, especially English, Russian, German, and French. Modern Hebrew became an official language in British-ruled Palestine in 1921 (along with English and Arabic), and then in 1948 became an official language of the newly declared State of Israel. Hebrew is the most widely spoken language in Israel today.

Origins

Hebrew is a Semitic language and as such a member of the larger Afro-Asiatic phylum.

Within Semitic, the Northwest Semitic languages formed around the 3rd millennium BCE, grouped along 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. Another Canaanite sub-group contains Phoenician and its descendant Punic.

Classical Hebrew

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 (Tanach), notably the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). Also called Old Hebrew or Paleo-Hebrew. It was written in a form of the Canaanite script. (A script descended from this is still used by the Samaritans, see Samaritan Hebrew language.)
  • 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. Also called Classical Biblical Hebrew (or Classical Hebrew in the narrowest sense).
  • 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. Basically similar to Classical Biblical Hebrew, apart from a few foreign words adopted for mainly governmental terms, and some syntactical innovations such as the use of the particle shel (of, belonging to). It adopted the Imperial Aramaic script.
  • Israelian Hebrew is a proposed northern dialect of biblical Hebrew, attested in all eras of the language, in some cases competing with late biblical Hebrew as an explanation for non-standard linguistic features of biblical texts.
  • 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, also known as ketav Ashuri (Assyrian script), 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 regularly 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.

Modern dialects and accents

Hebrew has two dialects; a Jewish one and a Samaritan one. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Samaritan dialect nearly became extinct, along with the Samaritan population itself. It is now generally used only for Samaritan religion purposes.

According to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, in 1880s (the time of the beginning of the Zionist movement and the Hebrew revival) there were mainly three groups of Hebrew regional accents: The Ashkenazi (European), The Sephardi (Hispanic/Mediterranean) and that of Jewish communities who had little influence from those two groups of Jews, mostly in Iraq and Yemen. Ben-Yehuda decided that the standard accent would be the Sephardi one, but eventually, the standard accent became something in between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi one.

In the 2010s most Hebrew speakers have that standard accent. Most of the other Hebrew speakers have an accent with more Sephardi/Iraqi/Yemenite influence since they try to keep on with non-Ashkenazi tradition, and since they try to avoid the ambiguity that the standard accent force, by making various consonants sound alike. This accent can be called Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) accent. A third group has an accent with more Ashkenazi influence. It includes mostly a minority group within the Hasidic Ashkenazi Jews.

Phonologically, standard Hebrew accent may most accurately be described as an amalgam of pronunciations preserving Sephardic vowel sounds and some Ashkenazic consonant sounds with Yiddish-style influence, its recurring feature being simplification of differences among a wide array of pronunciations. This simplifying tendency also accounts for the collapse of the Ashkenazic [t] and [s] allophones of ת (/t/) into the single phone [t]. Most Sephardic and Mizrahi accents share this feature, though some (such as those of Iraq and Yemen) differentiate between these two pronunciations as /t/ and /θ/. Within Israel, however, the pronunciation of Hebrew more often reflects the diasporic origin of the individual speaker, rather than the specific recommendations of the Academy. For this reason, over half the population pronounces ר as [ʀ] (a uvular trill, as in Yiddish and French) or as [ʁ] (a voiced uvular fricative, as in Standard German), rather than as [r], an alveolar trill, as in Spanish and Italian.

There are mixed views on the status of the two accents. On the one hand, prominent Israelis of Sephardic or Oriental origin are admired for the purity of their speech and Yemenite Jews are often employed as newsreaders.[citation needed] On the other hand, the speech of middle-class Ashkenazim is regarded as having a certain Central European sophistication, and many speakers of Mizrahi origin have moved nearer to this version of Standard Hebrew, in some cases even adopting the uvular resh.

 

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