Reference: Hebrew Language
the language of the Hebrew nation, and that in which the Old Testament is written, with the exception of a few portions in Chaldee. In the Old Testament it is only spoken of as "Jewish" (2Ki 18:26,28; Isa 36:11,13; 2Ch 32:18). This name is first used by the Jews in times subsequent to the close of the Old Testament.
It is one of the class of languages called Semitic, because they were chiefly spoken among the descendants of Shem.
When Abraham entered Canaan it is obvious that he found the language of its inhabitants closely allied to his own. Isaiah (Isa 19:18) calls it "the language of Canaan." Whether this language, as seen in the earliest books of the Old Testament, was the very dialect which Abraham brought with him into Canaan, or whether it was the common tongue of the Canaanitish nations which he only adopted, is uncertain; probably the latter opinion is the correct one. For the thousand years between Moses and the Babylonian exile the Hebrew language underwent little or no modification. It preserves all through a remarkable uniformity of structure. From the first it appears in its full maturity of development. But through intercourse with Damascus, Assyria, and Babylon, from the time of David, and more particularly from the period of the Exile, it comes under the influence of the Aramaic idiom, and this is seen in the writings which date from this period. It was never spoken in its purity by the Jews after their return from Babylon. They now spoke Hebrew with a large admixture of Aramaic or Chaldee, which latterly became the predominant element in the national language.
The Hebrew of the Old Testament has only about six thousand words, all derived from about five hundred roots. Hence the same word has sometimes a great variety of meanings. So long as it was a living language, and for ages after, only the consonants of the words were written. This also has been a source of difficulty in interpreting certain words, for the meaning varies according to the vowels which may be supplied. The Hebrew is one of the oldest languages of which we have any knowledge. It is essentially identical with the Phoenician language. (See Moabite Stone.) The Semitic languages, to which class the Hebrew and Phoenician belonged, were spoken over a very wide area: in Babylonia, Mesopotamia, Syria, Palestine and Arabia, in all the countries from the Mediterranean to the borders of Assyria, and from the mountains of Armenia to the Indian Ocean. The rounded form of the letters, as seen in the Moabite stone, was probably that in which the ancient Hebrew was written down to the time of the Exile, when the present square or Chaldean form was adopted.
Called "the language of Canaan" (Isa 19:18), as distinguished from that of Egypt; "the Jewish" as distinguished from Aramean (2Ki 18:26,28). (See HEBREW above.) Internal evidence also favors its Palestinian origin; as yam "the sea," in oldest documents used for the west. It is Semitic, as distinguished from the Indo-Germanic, Indo-European, Aryan, or Japhetic languages. The Semitic includes Aramaean or Chaldee and Syriac on the N.E., the Arabic on the S., the Ethiopic between the Hebrew and Arabic, the Hebrew, and kindred Phoenician or Canaanite. In Hebrew and the other Semitic languages gutturals preponderate. Consonants are not grouped round one vowel, yet a consonant always begins a syllable. The Semitic languages are less matured and polished, and more impulsive than deliberative. The roots have three letters. The conjugations of verbs are threefold:
1. Expressing intensity or repetition by a change within the root.
2. Reflexiveness or causation by addition to the root.
3. Passives by "u" or "a" in the first syllable. Modifications of the root idea are marked by changes within the root, not by additions. The a sound marks activity; the "e" and "o" sounds rest or passiveness. Intensity and repeated action are expressed by doubling the consonant. The neuter gender is unknown, because Semitic imagination endows with life every object in nature and makes it male or female. Mental qualities are represented by physical members: strength by the "hand" or "arm"; anger by the "nostril" (aph); favor by the "shining face"; displeasure by the "falling of the countenance." Go, way, walk, course express spiritual motion. Tenses or times of verbs are twofold (not three as with us, past, present, future).
What the mind realizes is put in the past, even though it may be future; what the mind regards as about to be, or being, realized is put in the future; so that the future may be used of the historic past, and the preterite of the prophetic future. The vowels were not originally written; latterly they were put as points under the consonants, which are read from right to left. The particles are few; hence subtle reasonings cannot be expressed. The Greek is the language of philosophy; the Hebrew of imagination and intuition. The sentences are a succession of coordinate propositions, not of propositions molded by interdependence and mutual subordination into complete periods. The style is pictorial: "Behold!" is of frequent occurrence; and the process of doing, as well as the act, is stated, as "he arose and went," "he put forth his hand and took," "he lifted up his voice and wept."
Symbolical phrases are frequent: "incline the ear"; "stiffen the neck," i.e. to be perverse; "to uncover the ear," i.e. to reveal. Adam, Eve, Abel, etc., are pictorial names, possibly Hebrew equivalents for the original names. The fall has among its evil effects caused a severance between names and things. The Bible retains some of the original connection, all the ancient names being significant of things. The choice of essentially the same language as that of commercial Sidon and Tyre for the divine revelation was a providential arrangement for diffusing the knowledge of His law widely among the Gentiles. There may be a Hamitic element in Hebrew, considering that the Canaanites who spoke it when Abram entered Canaan were Hamites; even though they probably acquired it from earlier Semitic occupants of Canaan, they would infuse a Hamitic element themselves.
The vocabulary of the oldest Babel monuments is Hamitic. The Aramaic is decidedly Semitic, and was Abraham's original tongue. The Hamites and Nimrod took the lead in building Babel, which entailed the confusion of tongues; their tongue accordingly is found more confounded into endless varieties of dialect than the Semitic and Japhetic, whose dialects bear a nearer resemblance among themselves than the Turanian and other Hamitic dialects. As Hebrew sprang from the confusion of Babel, it cannot have been the language of Adam and the whole earth when there was but one speech; still, though an offshoot like the rest, it may retain most of the primitive type, a view which the Hebrew Bible names favor, though these be modified from the original form.
The Shemites and Japhetites have had a higher moral civilization, and so a purer language. The Hebrew terms for SIN; ATONEMENT; GOD; JEHOVAH, and many such theological ideas, must have conveyed to the Gentiles, wherever fragments of the Hob. revelation reached, many fruitful germs of divine truth. The sacred books of Moses gave a fixity to the language, so that no essential change of language is observable in the books of different ages until the Babylonian captivity; thenceforward Chaldee became largely mixed with Hebrew (See Ne 8:8.)
The books of the Old Testament are written almost entirely in the Hebrew language. It is a branch of the Shemitic language, one of the three great divisions into which all languages have been reduced. It is one of the earliest of known languages, and some suppose that it was the original language of man.
HEBREW LANGUAGE, called also absolutely Hebrew, is the language spoken by the Hebrews, and in which all the books of the Old Testament are written; whence it is also called the holy or sacred language. It is said to have been preserved in the midst of the confusion at Babel, in the family of Heber, or Eber, who, as it is alleged, was not concerned in the building of Babel, and, consequently, did not share in the punishment inflicted on the actual transgressors. The Jews, in general, have been of opinion, that the Hebrew was the language of Heber's family, from whom Abraham sprung. On the other hand, it has been maintained that Heber's family, in the fourth generation after the dispersion, lived in Chaldea, where Abraham was born, Ge 11:27-28, and that there is no reason to think they used a different language from their neighbours around them. It appears, moreover, that the Chaldee, and not the Hebrew, was the language of Abraham's country, and of his kindred, Ge 24:4; 31:46-47; and it is probable that Abraham's native language was Chaldee, and that the Hebrew was the language of the Canaanites, which Abraham and his posterity learned by travelling among them. It is surprising that this adoption of the Phenician language by the patriarchs should have escaped the notice of several intelligent readers of the Bible. Jacob and Laban, it is clear, by the names they gave to the cairn, or memorial of stones, spoke two different dialects; and it is nearly equally evident, that the language of Laban was the dialect of Ur of the Chaldees, the original speech of the Hebrew race. As the patriarchs disused the true Hebrew dialect, it is manifest that they had conformed to the speech of Canaan; and that this conformity was complete, is proved by the identity between all the remains of Canaanitish names. At the same time, it must be remarked, that the Phenician and the Chaldean were merely different dialects of the same primitive language which had been spoken by the first ancestors of mankind.
2. There is no work in all antiquity written in pure Hebrew, beside the books of the Old Testament; and even some parts of those are in Chaldee. The Hebrew appears to be the most ancient of all the languages in the world; at least it is so with regard to us, who know of no older. Dr. Sharpe adopts the opinion, that the Hebrew was the original language; not indeed that the Hebrew is the unvaried language of our first parents, but that it was the general language of men at the dispersion; and, however it might have been improved and altered from the first speech of our first parents, it was the original of all the languages, or almost all the languages, rather dialects, that have since arisen in the world. Arguments have also been deduced from the nature and genius of the Hebrew language, in order to prove that it was the original language, neither improved nor debased by foreign idioms. The words of which it is composed are short, and admit of very little flexion. The names of places are descriptive of their nature, situation, accidental circumstances, &c. The compounds are few, and inartificially conjoined; and it is less burdened with those artificial affixes which distinguish other cognate dialects, such as the Chaldean, Syrian, Arabian, Phenician, &c.
The period, from the age of Moses to that of David, has been considered the golden age of the Hebrew language, which declined in purity from that time to the reign of Hezekiah or Manasseh, having received several foreign words, particularly Aramean, from the commercial and political intercourse of the Jews and Israelites with the Assyrians and Babylonians. This period has been termed the silver age of the Hebrew language. In the interval between the reign of Hezekiah and the Babylonish captivity, the purity of the language was neglected, and so many foreign words were introduced into it, that this period has not ineptly been designated its iron age. During the seventy years' captivity, though it does not appear that the Hebrews entirely lost their native tongue, yet it underwent so considerable a change from their adoption of the vernacular languages of the countries where they had resided, that afterward, on their return from exile, they spoke a dialect of Chaldee mixed with Hebrew words. On this account it was, that, when the Scriptures were read, it was found necessary to interpret them to the people in the Chaldean language; as, when Ezra the scribe brought the book of the law of Moses before the congregation, the Levites are said to have caused the people to understand the law, because "they read in the book, in the law of God, distinctly, and gave the sense, and caused them to understand the reading," Ne 8:8. Some time after the return from the great captivity, Hebrew ceased to be spoken altogether; though it continued to be cultivated and studied by the priests and Levites, as a learned language, that they might be enabled to expound the law and the prophets to the people, who, it appears from the New Testament, were well acquainted with their general contents and tenor: this last mentioned period has been called the leaden age of the language.
The present Hebrew characters, or letters, are twenty-two in number, and of a square form; but the antiquity of these letters is a point that has been most severely contested by many learned men. From a passage in Eusebius's Chronicle, and another in St. Jerom, it was inferred by Joseph Scaliger, that Ezra, when he reformed the Jewish church, transcribed the ancient characters of the Hebrews into the square letters of the Chaldeans; and that this was done for the use of those Jews who, being born during the captivity, knew no other alphabet than that of the people among whom they had been educated. Consequently, the old character, which we call the Samaritan, fell into total disuse. This opinion Scaliger supported by passages from both the Talmuds, as well as from rabbinical writers, in which it is expressly affirmed that such characters were adopted by Ezra. But the most decisive confirmation of this point is to be found in the ancient Hebrew coins, which were struck before the captivity, and even previously to the revolt of the ten tribes. The characters engraven on all of them are manifestly the same with the modern Samaritan, though with some trifling variations in their forms, occasioned by the depredations of time.