Short History of Hebrew

Hebrew is a 3,000 year old linguistic miracle. It’s the language of the Bible, Jewish literature, Jewish lituragy, and the modern State of Israel.  While it’s essentially remained the same language it has evolved and changed significantly over time.  Hebrew is a Semitic language belonging to the Afro Asiatic family of languages.  It’s currently spoken by over 7 million people who live in Israel or are expatriates and by people who have learned it all over the world.  Hebrew is also spoken amongst Arab Israelis and Palestinians due to Israel’s tremendous economic power.

There are many different versions and dialects of Hebrew ranging from different time periods and regions.  However, there are two broad categories, Classical Hebrew (ancient Hebrew) and Modern Hebrew.  Classical Hebrew is the language of the Jewish bible, also known as the Old Testament.  Classical Hebrew is still widely used throughout the world for in Jewish communities.  It’s been preserved in the writings, prayer, and literature of Jewish communities.

When Hebrew is learnt as part of religious studies, Classical Hebrew is commonly learned.  If Hebrew is being studied as a foreign language, people study Modern Hebrew.  Knowledge of one doesn’t guarantee the ability to understand the other, normally as a result of vocabulary and usage.  Before beginning to study Hebrew one should consider which their purpose of learning Hebrew is to better determine which form they should study.

Hebrew was the language of the tribes of Israel and the language of the Bible.  It remained relatively stable as a spoken language until the Babylonian exile.  After the Babylonian exile Hebrew began to be heavily influenced by Aramaic, principally in vocabulary but also in grammar.  During this time Hebrew was also heavily influenced by Greek.  Hebrew slowly lost ground to Aramaic and was eventually supplanted by it as the spoken language of the Jews.  However, it remained the position of being the language of communication and religion for the Jewish people.

The 10th century brought many advances for Hebrew.  Jews, influenced by Arab scholars, began to formally study the grammar of the language.  Around the same time a system of representing vowels was also introduced.

The 19th century brought the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language by Eliezer ben Yehudah.  Hebrew spread and became the official language of the Jewish state, Israel.  Hebrew was largely influenced by foreign words and grammar by its learners.  A simplified version of Sefardi Hebrew was chosen to be the pronunciation.  Hebrew holds the unique title of being the only language to die as a spoken language and then later revived.

Today Hebrew is a unifying force amongst Jews all over the world.  The reasons of learning it are as relevant as ever, whether it is for religious purposes or as a foreign language.

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