How Did Hebrew Develop?

Ancient Hebrew writing.
Ancient Hebrew writing.

The Jewish people are one of the most studied people in the world, with their language, culture, and religious beliefs and practices being of great interest. The Jews are part of the Israelites of the Ancient Near East. The population of the Jewish people reached its peak of 17 million people before the World War II. However, about 6 million of them were killed during the Holocaust. Currently, there are approximately 14.4 million Jews worldwide according to the 2016 Berman Jewish DataBank, accounting for less than 0.2% of the world’s population. About 44% of the Jewish population resides in Israel and approximately 40% in the US.

Jewish Languages

For centuries, the Jewish population has spoken the local language spoken in the areas they migrated to and often develop a distinct dialect or branch that eventually become an independent language. Due to several factors that led to the emigration of Jewish people, some of the ancient and distinct Jewish languages spoken in other communities include Judaeo-Georgian, Krymchak, and Judaeo-Arabic among other languages. Most of these languages have largely diminished over time. The local non-Jewish population in Israel mainly speaks the Judeo-Aramaic language. The Jewish languages vary in their distance and divergence from the non-Jewish languages.

The Hebrew Language

For a long time now, the Hebrew language has been used as a liturgical language and in writing of most books in Judaism. It is the official language of Israel and one of the oldest existing languages in the world spoken by over nine million people. Historically, the Hebrew language was referred to as Tanakh, which was regarded as the language of the Israelites. The Hebrew language is a member of Northwest Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic family of languages and the only surviving Canaanite language. Hebrew is also the only example of a successfully revived dead language. It ceased to be an everyday language around 200 and 400 CE after the Bar Kokhba revolt and was revived in the 19th century as a spoken and literary language. In 1998, the Hebrew language was spoken by around 5 million people, with the majority of the speakers living in Israel. Today, the US has the second largest Hebrew-speakers in the world, with over 200,000 fluent speakers.

History Of The Hebrew Language

Hebrew is a Canaanite language which belongs to the Northwest Semitic family. The earliest Hebrew texts can be traced back to the 2nd millennium BCE with evidence suggesting that the Israelites who invaded Canaan spoke Hebrew. It flourished as a language of the Kingdom of Israel between 1200 and 586 BCE or until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE. The Hebrew language began to disappear following the Babylonian exile with the Old Aramaic language coincidentally gaining prominence. However, it was still preserved in some of the Jewish writings including prayers and holy texts. Hebrew was mainly used for Liturgical purposes during the Second Temple Period and was mainly considered a “holy language” with some believing it was the language of the angels. The rabbis believed that Hebrew was the language spoken by the first man and was also the language of humanity until the Tower of Babel when different languages were created by God.

The Revival Of The Hebrew Language

In the 19th century, a man by the name Eliezer Ben-Yehuda made it his personal ambition to revive the Hebrew language. He believed that the Jewish people were relevant in the world’s history and needed to have their own language in case they were to have a land of their own. Ben Yehuda has studied Hebrew as a Yeshiva student and was well versed with languages. When he moved his family to Palestine, he decided that they would only speak Hebrew. He set about creating new words and eventually published the Modern Hebrew dictionary based on Mishnaic spelling. He is often credited for the Modern Hebrew language. When the State of Israel was established in 1948, Hebrew was made the country’s official language.

Modern Hebrew

Hebrew alphabet has only 22 letters and is often read from right to left. The pronunciation of the Modern Hebrew is based on Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation. The vocabulary has been altered by the introduction of other cultures through the ages. Modern Hebrew is currently taught in several institutions known as Ulpanim which are either private or government owned. As of 2013, about 9 million people worldwide speak the Hebrew language, of which about 7 million are fluent speakers. About 90% of Israeli Jews are proficient in the language. To keep Hebrew a primary language in Israel and to prevent it from external influence, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem invents over 2,000 new Hebrew words annually for the modern Hebrew words from the original Hebrew. Officials in the Haifa municipality have been banned from using English words on official documents while businesses are also discouraged from using English signs in marketing.


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