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About the story
What’s with this “Wren” thing?
   The oldest extant version of the fable we are presenting here appeared in 1913 in the first volume of a two-volume anthology of Low Saxon folktales (Plattdeutsche Volksmärchen “Low German Folktales”) collected by Wilhelm Wisser (1843–1935). Read more ...

Sama Bangingi’
‘Ibriyt Ivrit


Picture of an ancient Hebrew inscription and a Hebrew web neaspaper
From Canaanite nomads’ dialect via significant sacred
tongue to revived written and spoken language featured
in the world-wide electronic media— the story of Hebrew
is little short of miraculous.

Language information: Hebrew is currently used as an everyday language by over five million people, a large portion of whom are native speakers of it. Most of these people are Israeli, and of these the majority lives in Israel, where Hebrew is the most important of two official languages (the other one being Arabic). (Amharic, English, Russian, Spanish and French are also widely used but are not official languages in Israel.) Outside Israel, sizeable Hebrew-speaking communities are found in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, France, Germany, the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza, Panama, the United Kingdom, and the United States of America. There are numerous second-language speakers of Hebrew, particularly immigrants in Israel. Most people that are proficient in Hebrew are Jewish. There is a good number of non-Jewish native speakers of Hebrew, probably in great part due to interfaith marriage not being legally available in Israel. Most Arabic speakers of Israel can communicate in Hebrew also.

A fragment from the Aleppo Codex, a linguistically highly
significant 10th-century document in which scribes used
diacritic symbols to indicate vowels and cantillation

            Far beyond the number of its everyday speakers, Hebrew plays a very important role in religion. In Judaism it is the traditional “Sacred Tongue” (Lĕshôn Ha-Qôdesh), the predominant language of the sacred scriptures (Tanakh, including the Torah or Pentateuch) and the language of liturgy as well as of personal prayer. Secondarily, it is the predominant language of the Judaic-derived Christian Old Testament, and as such it is of great importance to Christian theologians, alongside Greek and Latin.
     Hebrew began as a Southern Canaanite language variety specific to ancient Hebrew tribes and developed into the common language of the Israelites. It is closely related to Ammonite, Edomite, Moabite, Philistine and Phoenician (as well as Punic, the North African descendant of Phoenician). Being a Semitic language, Hebrew is also fairly closely related to Akkadian, Eblaite, Amorite and Ugaritic. It is the only survivor among all of the above-mentioned. It is also a relative of Aramaic, Arabic and Maltese, is more distantly related to Amharic and other Ethiopic languages as well as to the Tamazight (“Berber”) languages. However, its very closest relative appears to be Samaritan (also known as Samaritan Hebrew), a co-descendant of Old Hebrew used as a liturgical language alongside Samaritan Aramaic among a few hundred remaining ethno-religious Samaritans in Israel and the Palestinian West Bank.
     The traceable developmental stages of Hebrew may be summarized as follows:

Classical Hebrew

(also known as “Old Hebrew” or “Paleo-Hebrew”)


10th–6th century BCE (until Babylonian captivity of 586), written with the Canaanite script


ca. 6th century BCE (Babylonian Exile period)—adoption of the Imperial Aramaic Script—the language of most of the Hebrew Bible

   Late Biblical

6th–4th century BCE (Persian period)—the language of a few parts of the Hebrew Bible

   Dead Sea Scrolls

3rd BCE – 1st CE (Hellenistic and Roman periods)


1st–4th CE (Roman period after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem)—a written and spoken language and the language of most of the Hebrew parts of the Mishnah and Toseftah within the Talmud—also known as Early Rabbinic Hebrew

Amoraic Hebrew

a collection of dialects recorded in other parts of the Talmud, also in a few parts of the Dead Sea Scrolls—by and large varieties on which later forms of literary Hebrew were based

Medieval Hebrew

7th–10th century CE—a group of literary varieties, Tiberian Hebrew being the most important. Vowel diacritics were introduced during this period.

Liturgical Hebrew

10th century – present—the language of Jewish worship and religious scholarship everywhere, with numerous traditions of pronunciation influenced by spoken vernaculars

Modern Hebrew

mid-19th century – present—a modern written and spoken variety used in all walks of life, now the native language of millions

Picture of an ancient Hebrew inscription and a Hebrew web neaspaper
Without exception works of great beauty and Jewish communities’ most treasured possessions, Torah scrolls are lovingly crafted and decorated, and their Hebrew texts are meticulously handwritten. These scrolls may not be destroyed but tend to be stored or buried when they become too feeble for ordinary use. This makes the defacement and destruction of Torah scrolls far more deleterious and odious than most non-Jews realize. Jews often refer to the Torah as Etz Chayim (Eṣ Ḥayim, “Tree of Life”).

            It used to be generally believed that Hebrew gave up its place as an everyday language to Aramaic by the beginning of Israel’s Hellenistic period in the 4th century BCE. However, some of the latest archaological finds seem to indicate that Hebrew and Aramaic coexisted on all or most levels until near the end of the Roman period. After that, Hebrew continued to exist as a language reserved for liturgy and scholarly literature. Nevertheless, its development continued when writers borrowed words and expressions from Aramaic, Arabic and other languages (either directly or in the form of loan translations). At the same time, numerous traditions of pronouncing Hebrew developed under the influence of languages spoken by Jews over much of Eurasia and Northern Africa. Some of these traditions are now extinct, such as that of China. The best-known traditions are those of Ashkenazim (Northwest, Central and East European Jews), Sephardim (Iberian Jews that after the Inquisition migrated to most places around the Mediterranean Sea and to parts of Protestant Northern Europe), Mizrakhim (Jews of the Middle East) and Persians (Jews of Iran, Afghanistan and large parts of Central Asia), also various traditions of Jewish communities in India. Although the pronunciation of Hebrew varied considerably, already prior to the establishment of Modern Hebrew well-learned Jews tended to be able to communicate in spoken literary Hebrew with fellow-Jews with whom they shared no other language, as reported about Russian-born and natively Yiddish-speaking Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman) visiting Jewish communities in Algeria.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922),
the founding force behind the
revival of Hebrew as an everyday

            The late 19th century witnessed the actual genesis of Modern Hebrew among European Jews that were affected by the confluence of cultural assimilation, anti-Semitism and emerging Zionism. Secular periodicals and books began to be published in Hebrew. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) and his followers envisaged the revival of Hebrew as a reuniting, insulating and empowering force of universal Jewry. Their movement gathered strength as Jews, many of them intellectuals and agnostic ethnic revivalists, began to leave Europe’s predominantly anti-Semitic climate for Jewish pioneer settlements in Turkish- and British-ruled Palestine. Like Ben-Yehuda, many of them adopted Hebrew as their everyday language and raised their children as the first group of native Hebrew speakers since the end of Israel’s Roman period. This remarkable, apparently unprecedented development culminated with the founding of the State of Israel (1948) and with the number of native speakers swelling from a handful to millions within the span of one century. Israeli Hebrew is a language that functions fully in all walks of life.
Reading of certain Hebrew consonant symbols showing simplification in Israeli pronunciation
In Israeli Hebrew, several consonant symbols
share their pronunciation with other symbols.

           While immigrants and members of certain minorities in Israel speak Hebrew with various types of accents, Standard Israeli Hebrew, being primarily based on traditional Sephardic pronunciation, has a narrow range of native phonological varieties, and accents of native Hebrew speakers using foreign languages are unique and unmistakable. Israeli Hebrew is a highly Europeanized Semitic language variety, especially phonologically. In this regard it is a far cry from Classical and Medieval Hebrew as well as from the “Arabic-sounding” Hebrew with which Yemenite and other “Oriental” immigrants from Arabic-speaking countries arrive, varieties which they soon abandon in favor of the more prestigeous (or “acceptable”) Europeanized variety. This standard pronunciation is so simplified that it ignores all historical vowel length distinctions, distinctions between certain consonants, as well as lenition of the stops represented by the letters dalet and gimel. This makes spelling a considerable challenge for speakers of Modern Hebrew, and an additional obstacle for learners of the written language is the usual absence of vowel diacritics. However, the retention of ancient spelling (albeit with a measure of simplification in the use of the letters waw and yud) equals retention of a link with pre-contemporary Hebrew. This allows even Hebrew speakers with little or no religious education to more or less understand religious and other types of pre-contemporary texts.

Genealogy: Afro-Asiatic > Semitic > Central > Southern > Canaanite

    Click to open the translation: [Click] Click here for different versions. >

Author: Reinhard F. Hahn

© 2011, Lowlands-L · ISSN 189-5582 · LCSN 96-4226 · All international rights reserved.
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