A Brief History Of Hebrew
Hebrew is the last surviving Canaanite language, outliving its fellow Canaanite languages Aramaic and Amorite. The Canaanite languages themselves are a subgroup of the Semitic group, which in turn belong to the Afroasiatic language family. This language family is the originator of a number of languages spoken throughout North Africa and West Asia. There are a number of Afroasiatic languages still around today; the most spoken is Arabic, and there’s also Hausa, Somali and Amharic.
The earliest sample of writing that is considered Hebrew comes from about 3,000 years ago. It could be more aptly called proto-Canaanite, because the divisions between the various Canaanite languages were less clear at the time, but it does seem to show the script that would later evolve into Classical Hebrew.
Classical Hebrew was the status of the language between the 10th century BCE and the 1st century CE. This Classical Hebrew encompasses Biblical Hebrew — which is the Hebrew dialect used in the Torah and the Hebrew Bible — as well as Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew, the last of which is the language used in the Talmud. While all of these Hebrew dialects correlate to specific texts, Hebrew was a spoken language throughout this period. But because the texts are all we have left to study, the classifications are heavily based on these religious documents.
Throughout this period, Hebrew continued to change, but it also began to shrink in usage toward the turn of the millennium from BCE to CE. Aramaic became the more popular Canaanite language, especially when the Neo-Babylonian Empire captured most of Jerusalem. And by the end of the 2nd century CE, the Hebrew language was considered dead.
Well, Hebrew was mostly dead. Medieval Hebrew lived on for the next several hundred years as a literary and religious language, as it continued to play an important role in Judaism. The language also went through a few different literary revivals, like the Haskalah movement in 19th-century Germany. During this period, Hebrew evolved and started to go in various directions, absorbing words and features from other languages. It’s because Medieval Hebrew wasn’t used by anyone to really communicate that the language was considered dead.
In the 19th century, however, there was a movement in Jerusalem to bring the language back into the world of the living. As Jewish people from all over the world moved there, the region became a mishmash of various languages, whether they be Hebrew-influenced — Ladino and Yiddish, for example — or just languages from other regions, like Russian and Arabic. The Jewish activist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who happened to be a lexicographer, led a particular charge to modernize the Hebrew language. Since then, it’s continued to grow and evolve into the language now spoken in Israel.
How Close Are Classical Hebrew And Modern Hebrew?
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda based the modern form of Hebrew on Sephardi pronunciation and Mishnaic spelling. But because language doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it didn’t adhere to Ben-Yehuda’s vision for long. Modern Hebrew — especially its pronunciation — was influenced by Yiddish, which many people spoke before learning Hebrew. And like any language, it evolved and was influenced by other languages. Biblical Hebrew is still used in liturgical settings, but Modern Hebrew is now its own entity. One of the more unique features of Hebrew — that it’s read from right to left — has also remained consistent.
How Many People Speak Hebrew?
In Israel, where Hebrew was made the official language in 1922, Hebrew is spoken by pretty much all (roughly) 8.3 million residents. Only half of those who speak it in Israel use it as their first language, but it is widespread throughout the country. Because of various patterns of immigration, the other half speak languages including Yiddish, English, Polish and Arabic, among others.
There are about a million people outside of Israel who speak Hebrew, as well. Poland recognizes it as a minority language, and there are communities in the United States that use the language regularly.