By Jeff A. Benner
Hebrew is classified as a Semitic (or Shemitic, from Shem, the son of Noah) language. Was Hebrew just one of the many Semitic languages such as Canaanite, Aramaic, Phoenician, Akkadian, etc., that evolved out of a more ancient unknown language? Or, was Hebrew, and the Semitic family of languages, the original language of man?
According to the Bible all people spoke one language (Genesis 11:1) until the construction of the Tower of Babel, in southern Mesopotamia which occurred sometime around 4000 BCE. During the construction of the Tower, God confused the language of man and scattered the nations (Genesis 11:7,8).
It is at this time that the Sumerians (from the land of Sumer, known as Shinar in the Bible - Genesis 10:10), speaking a non-Semitic language, appear in southern Mesopotamia. It is believed that the Sumerians are related to the people living between the Black and Caspian Seas, known as the Scythians, ancestors of Noah's son Japheth.
At approximately the same time the Sumerians appeared in Mesopotamia, another civilization emerges in the South, the Egyptians. The original language of the Egyptians is Hamitic (From Ham, the second son of Noah) and is also unrelated to the Semitic languages.
During the time of the Sumerians and the Egyptians, the Semitic peoples lived in Sumeria and traveled west into the land of Canaan.
It would appear that after the Tower of Babel, the descendants of Japheth traveled north with their language, the descendants of Ham traveled southwest with their language and the Semites traveled west with their language.
"That is why it was called Babel - because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11.9).
What was the one language spoken prior to the Tower of Babel? When God created Adam he spoke to him (Genesis 2:16) indicating that God gave Adam a language and this language came from God himself, not through the evolution of grunts and groans of cave men. When we look at all the names of Adam's descendent we find that all the names from Adam to Noah and his children are Hebrew names, meaning that their name has a meaning in Hebrew. For instance, Methuselah (Genesis 5:21) is Hebrew for "his death brings" (The flood occurred the year that he died). It is not until we come to Noah's grandchildren that we find names that are of a language other then Hebrew. For instance, the name Nimrod (Genesis 11:18), who was from Babylon/Sumer/Shinar and possibly the Tower of Babel, is a non-Hebrew name. According to the Biblical record of names, Adam and his descendants spoke Hebrew.
In addition, Jewish tradition as well as some Christian Scholars, believed that Hebrew was the original language of man.
More about History of the Hebrew Language
Hebrew is a very ancient language. Its evolution can be divided up into six distinctive periods. The Hebrew language underwent some changes during each of these periods, but it remained basically the same. The six periods are:
1. Pre-biblical Hebrew
2. Biblical Hebrew
3. The Dead Sea Scrolls
4. Mishnaic Hebrew
5. Medieval Hebrew
6. Modern Hebrew
The words ‘Hebrew language’ do not actually appear in the Bible. Instead, the terms used are ‘Language of Canaan’ and ‘Judean’. Biblical Hebrew is sometimes referred to as ‘early Hebrew’, in contrast to the spoken and written ‘middle Hebrew’ which is reflected in the Mishnah, Talmud and Midrash.
The very first book that we have that was written in Hebrew is the Bible. We learn from the Bible that other books did exist before it, but none of them still exist. One of the most important ancient Hebrew inscriptions is the ‘Gezer Calendar’. This document lists the months of the year and all the agricultural occupations that are relevant to them. Another example of early Hebrew literature is the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were written by small communities which had broken away from the mainstream of Jewish life and had created their own ways of writing.
The Dead Sea Scrolls
The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls was made by a Bedouin shepherd from Ta’amra who was exploring the cliffs of Qumran which overlook the northwestern shore of the Dead Sea. This was one of the greatest archaeological finds in history. Before it, the only extant text from the period were fragments of the Book of Ben Sira which were found in the Cairo Genizah.
Seven parchment and papyrus scrolls were found inside earthenware jars. Part of these scrolls can be seen today in the Shrine of the Book in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.
The Middle Ages
During the Middle Ages, although Hebrew was not a spoken language, there was literary activity and a large number of literary texts emerged. There was, however, great controversy as to how Hebrew was being written. Some felt that the Biblical way of writing Hebrew should be adopted, whereas others, especially poets, tended to adopt their own styles.
During this period many of the Midrashim (interpretive stories based on the Bible) were composed. Many books were written in Hebrew on many different subjects including travel. Hebrew translations were also made of important Arabic books. Hebrew poetry began to be written in all styles and on all different topics, including friendship, love and religion. Religious poems were called ‘piyyutim’.
At the beginning of the modern period the first Hebrew plays and periodicals were produced by ‘maskalim’ (followers of a movement in Europe called ‘Haskalah’). This movement taught that the ways of the Jews in Europe were ‘backward’ and this belief is reflected in many novels that were written.
Writers of this time drew upon their knowledge of both the Bible and the Talmud when writing their pieces. They tried to convey messages rather than just tell stories. Many authors of this time believed more in educating than entertaining their audiences. Thus their work constituted very heavy reading.
A very influential man of this period, Asher Ginsberg (better known as Ahad Ha-Am) wrote essays about the Jews and Zionism. His essays were of a social and philosophical nature. Another important writer was Shalom Abramovich (better known as Mendele Mokher Seforim, or Mendele the Bookseller). He wrote many satirical novels in both Hebrew and Yiddish about the Jewish life in Eastern Europe.
Many of these great writers moved to Israel where they could speak their own language and feel at home. They continued to write about Eastern Europe, but from this distance they wrote with nostalgia and far more compassion.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew once again became a spoken language. Due to the fact that so many people today speak Hebrew (and with television and radio), new words and phrases have entered it from other languages. Today in Israel there are many institutes which help people learn the language. These are called ‘ulpanim’ and they teach thousands of immigrants who come to the land with no or little Hebrew knowledge.
by Learning Hebrew
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