Hebrew Language #2 The name “Hebrew” and Speech of Canaan

Hebrew Language by Arthur Ernest Cowley

The name “Hebrew” is derived, through the Greek Ἑβραῖος, from ʽibhray, the Aramaic equivalent of the Old Testament word ʽibhrī, denoting the people who commonly spoke of themselves as Israel or Children of Israel from the name of their common ancestor (see Jews). The later derivative Yisra’elī, Israelite, from Yisra’el, is not found in the Old Testament.[In 2 Sam. xvii. 25 Israelite should be Ishmaelite, as in the parallel passage 1 Chron. ii. 17.] Other names used for the language of Israel are speech of Canaan (Isa. xix. 18) and Yehūdhīth, Jewish, (2 Kings xviii. 26). In later times it was called the holy tongue.

The real meaning of the word ʽibhrī must ultimately be sought in the root ʽabhar, to pass across, to go beyond, from which is derived the noun ʽebher, meaning the “farther bank” of a river. The usual explanation of the term is that of Jewish tradition that ʽibhrī means the man “from the other side,” i.e. either of the Euphrates or the Jordan. Hence the Septuagint in Gen. xiv. 13 render Abram haibhrī by ὁ περάτης, the “crosser,” and Aquila, following the same tradition, has ὁ περαἴτης, the man “from beyond.” This view of course implies that the term was originally applied to Abram or his descendants by a people living on the west of the Euphrates or of the Jordan. It has been suggested that the root ‘abhar is to be taken in the sense of “travelling,” and that Abram the wandering Aramaean (Deut. xxvi. 5) was called haibhrī because he travelled about for trading purposes, his language, ‘ibhrī, being the lingua franca of Eastern trade. The use of the term ἑβραϊστί for biblical Hebrew is first found in the Greek prologue to Ecclesiasticus (c. 130 B.C.). In the New Testament it denotes the native language of Palestine (Aramaic and Hebrew being popularly confused) as opposed to Greek.

In modern usage the name Hebrew is applied to that branch of the northern part of the Semitic family of languages which was used by the Israelites during most of the time of their national existence in Palestine, and in which nearly all their sacred writings are composed. As to its characteristics and relation to other languages of the same stock, see Semitic Languages. It also includes the later forms of the same language as used by Jewish writers after the close of the Canon throughout the middle ages (Rabbinical Hebrew) and to the present day (New Hebrew).


Semitic languages.svg

Approximate historical distribution of Semitic languages

Before the rise of comparative philology it was a popular opinion that Hebrew was the original speech of mankind, from which all others were descended. This belief, derived from the Jews (cf. Pal. Targ. Gen. xi. 1), was supported by the etymologies and other data supplied by the early chapters of Genesis. But though Hebrew possesses a very old literature, it is not, as we know it, structurally as early as, e.g. Arabic, or, in other words, it does not come so near to that primitive Semitic speech which may be pre-supposed as the common parent of all the Semitic languages. Owing to the imperfection of the Hebrew alphabet, which, like that of most Semitic languages, has no means of expressing vowel-sounds, it is only partly possible to trace the development of the language. In its earliest form it was no doubt most closely allied to the Canaanite or Phoenician stock, to the language of Moab, as revealed by the stele of Mesha (c. 850 B.C.), and to Edomite. The vocalization of Canaanite, as far as it is known to us, e.g. from glosses in the Tell-el-Amarna tablets (15th century B.C.)[See Zimmern, in Ztsch. für Assyriol. (1891), p. 154.] and much later from the Punic passages in the Poenulus of Plautus, differs in many respects from that of the Hebrew of the Old Testament, as also does the Septuagint transcription of proper names. The uniformity, however, of the Old Testament text is due to the labours of successive schools of grammarians who elaborated the Massorah (see Hebrew Literature), thereby obliterating local or dialectic differences, which undoubtedly existed, and establishing the pronunciation current in the synagogues about the 7th century C.E. The only mention of such differences in the Old Testament is in Judges xii. 6, where it is stated that the Ephraimites pronounced שׁ (sh) as שׂ or ס (s). In Neh. xiii. 24, the “speech of Ashdod” is more probably a distinct (Philistine) language. Certain peculiarities in the language of the Pentateuch (הוא for נער ,היא for נערה), which used to be regarded as archaisms, are to be explained as purely orthographical.[See Gesenius-Kautzsch, Hebr. Gram. § 17 c.] In a series of writings, however, extending over so long a period as those of the Old Testament, some variation or development in language is to be expected apart from the natural differences between the poetic (or prophetic) and prose styles. The consonantal text sometimes betrays these in spite of the Massorah. In general, the later books of the Old Testament show, roughly speaking, a greater simplicity and uniformity of style, as well as a tendency to Aramaisms. For some centuries after the Exile, the people of Palestine must have been bilingual, speaking Aramaic for ordinary purposes, but still at least understanding Hebrew. Not that they forgot their own tongue in the Captivity and learnt Aramaic in Babylon, as used to be supposed. In the western provinces of the Persian empire Aramaic was the official language, spoken not only in Palestine but in all the surrounding countries, even in Egypt and among Arab tribes such as the Nabateans. It is natural, therefore, that it should influence and finally supplant Hebrew in popular use, so that translations even of the Old Testament eventually appear in it (Targums). Meanwhile Hebrew did not become a dead language — indeed it can hardly be said ever to have died, since it has continued in use till the present day for the purposes of ordinary life among educated Jews in all parts of the world. It gradually became a literary rather than a popular tongue, as appears from the style of the later books of the Old Testament (Chron., Dan., Eccles.), and from the Hebrew text of Ecclesiasticus (c. 170 B.C.).

During the 1st century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E. we have no direct evidence of its characteristics. After that period there is a great development in the language of the Mishna. It was still living Hebrew, although mainly confined to the schools, with very clear differences from the biblical language. In the Old Testament the range of subjects was limited. In the Mishna it was very much extended. Matters relating to daily life had to be discussed, and words and phrases were adopted from what was no doubt the popular language of an earlier period. A great many foreign words were also introduced. The language being no longer familiar in the same sense as formerly, greater definiteness of expression became necessary in the written style. In order to avoid the uncertainty arising from the lack of vowels to distinguish forms consisting of the same consonants (for the vowel-points were not yet invented), the aramaising use of the reflexive conjugations (Hithpaʽel, Nithpaʽel) for the internal passives (Puʽal, Hophʽal) became common; particles were used to express the genitive and other relations, and in general there was an endeavour to avoid the obscurities of a purely consonantal writing. What is practically Mishnic Hebrew continued to be used in Midrash for some centuries. The language of both Talmuds, which, roughly speaking, were growing contemporaneously with Midrash, is a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic (Eastern Aram. in the Babylonian, Western in the Jerusalem Talmud), as was also that of the earlier commentators. As the popular use of Aramaic was gradually restricted by the spread of Arabic as the vernacular (from the 7th century onwards), while the dispersion of the Jews became wider, biblical Hebrew again came to be the natural standard both of East and West. The cultivation of it is shown and was no doubt promoted by the many philological works (grammars, lexicons and masorah) which are extant from the 10th century onward.

In Spain, under Moorish dominion, most of the important works of that period were composed in Arabic, and the influence of Arabic writers both on language and method may be seen in contemporaneous Hebrew compositions. No other vernacular (except, of course, Aramaic) ever had the same influence upon Hebrew, largely because no other bears so close a relation to it.

At the present day in the East, and among learned Jews elsewhere, Hebrew is still cultivated conversationally, and it is widely used for literary purposes. Numerous works on all kinds of subjects are produced in various countries, periodicals flourish, and Hebrew is the vehicle of correspondence between Jews in all parts of the world. Naturally its quality varies with the ability and education of the writer. In the modern pronunciation the principal differences are between the Ashkenazim (German and Polish Jews) and the Sephardim (Spanish and Portuguese Jews), and concern not only the vowels but also certain consonants, and in some cases probably go back to early times.


As regards writing, it is most likely that the oldest Hebrew records were preserved in some form of cuneiform script. The alphabet (see Writing) subsequently adopted is seen in its earliest form on the stele of Mesha, and has been retained, with modifications, by the Samaritans. According to Jewish tradition Ezra introduced the Assyrian character (כתב אשורי), a much-debated statement which no doubt means that the Aramaic hand in use in Babylonia was adopted by the Jews about the 5th century B.C. Another form of the same hand, allowing for differences of material, is found in Egyptian Aramaic papyri of the 5th and 4th centuries B.C.E.. From this were developed (a) the square character used in MSS. of the Bible or important texts, and in most printed books, (b) the Rabbinic (or Rashi) character, used in commentaries and treatises of all kinds, both in MS. and in printed books, (c) the Cursive character, used in letters and for informal purposes, not as a rule printed. In the present state of Hebrew palaeography it is not possible to determine accurately the date of a MS., but it is easy to recognize the country in which it was written. The most clearly marked distinctions are between Spanish, French, German, Italian, Maghrebi, Greek, Syrian (including Egyptian), Yemenite, Persian and Qaraite hands. It is in the Rabbinic and Cursive characters that the differences are most noticeable. The Hebrew alphabet is also used, generally with the addition of some diacritical marks, by Jews to write other languages, chiefly Arabic, Spanish, Persian, Greek, Tatar (by Qaraites) and in later times German.




Hebrew Language #1: Teaching “Sticky” Hebrew



  1. The Word ‘Hebrew’What is the difference between the Hebrews and the Israelites?
  2. A Matter of PerspectiveYou Don’t Have to Learn the Biblical Languages … (but you should)
  3. Is Hebrew a Hard Language to Learn?
  4. Saturday School: Basics of Biblical Hebrew – Lecture 1 | Hebrew Alephbet
  5. Saturday School: Basics of Biblical Hebrew – Lecture 2 | Vowels
  6. Lamed 
  7. Understanding the “Yom’s”Qoph ק, Shin ש and Teth
  8. Four letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
  9. Recognizing Hebrew Verbs in Scripture
  10. Achan, Achar, and the Valley of Achor
  11. ערם (ARM) And they were naked
  12. Questions and Answers with Biblical Hebrew and Biblical Greek Scholars
  13. The World’s Oldest Alphabet in Accordance
  14. Understanding the Alphabet of the DSS in Accordance
  15. When Did the Hebrew Language Begin to Fade In Use?
  16. Psalm 1:1 – Why Biblical Hebrew Makes a Difference
  17. Book Review: Basics of Hebrew Accents (Mark Futato)
  18. Book Review: The Hebrew Old Testament, Reader’s Edition
  19. Book Review: Advances in the Study of Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic (Benjamin Noonan)
  20. Book Review: Basics of Hebrew Discourse (Patton/Putnam)
  21. Book Review: Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar (Pratico/Van Pelt)
  22. Book Review – Ruth: A Guide to Reading Biblical Hebrew
  23. Trinitarian bias in Bible translations with Professor Sean Finnegan
  24. Hebrew Voices #128 – Why Study HebrewThe real story of hebrew pronunciation jewish actionThe Art of Biblical Narrative (Alter)Hebrew Matters That Distract Us
  25. Q&A: How was modern Hebrew created?
  26. In Praise of Learning Modern Hebrew TooThe Rabbi Goes Back to SchoolWalking Jerusalem: “When Hebrew does not match English”[M.A.P.L.E. XI-25] Transitive Translation?Fourth Edition of Tov’s Textual Criticism of HB
  27. Hebrew Thinking Vs.Greek Thinking
  28. Greek to Me
  29. Using Greek from the Pulpit
  30. Wisdom and
  31. Grammaticalization: The Circle of Life

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