The Hebrew language has gone through three phases in its development: (1) Classical Hebrew, from ca. 1000 BCE until the end of the 2nd century CE. (2) Mishnaic and Mediaeval Hebrew, from the 3rd to the 19th centuries CE; during this period Hebrew was supplanted by the closely related language Aramaic as a spoken language. (3) Modern Hebrew, a revival of the ancient language and now the main language of Israel. This article deals only with Classical Hebrew, the language of the Bible and other ancient Jewish writings.
Hebrew is a Semitic language (like Arabic, Akkadian, etc.), belonging to the Northwest Semitic division (like Phoenician, Aramaic, or Ugaritic). Other languages of Canaan, such as Moabite, are closely similar.
Alphabet and script
The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters, represented in English transcription as ’, b, d, h, w, z, ḥ, ṭ, y, k, l, m, n, s, ‘, p, ṣ, q, r, ś, š, t. These are all consonants and only they were used in writing in Classical Hebrew times. Four letters (’, h, w, y) were sometimes used to indicate vowels. A full notation system for vowels was devised only in the early Middle Ages; vowels now appear in editions of the Bible as a set of dots above and below the consonantal letters.
Hebrew is written from right to left. The older Hebrew script, Palaeo-Hebrew, was used down to the 6th century BCE, when it began to be replaced by the square Aramaic script used in the Persian empire. The square script is the most familiar form of Hebrew, being used in editions of the Bible and also in Modern Hebrew.
Until the beginning of the 20th century, almost all the Classical Hebrew known was in the Hebrew Bible. Since then, the discovery of various inscriptions like the Siloam inscription and of literary texts, especially the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hebrew book of Sirach (Ecclesiasticus), have expanded the quantity of material in Classical Hebrew by about one third. We have now a corpus of ca. 420,000 words written in Classical Hebrew.
Hebrew verbs are mostly triliteral, i.e., their root form is spelled with just three letters. Modifications of any root are used to indicate singular and plural, first, second and third person, and aspect (often called ‘tense’). For example, the root lmd ‘learn’ produces lāmedâ ‘she learned’, lāmadtî ‘I learned’, lāmadnû ‘we learned’. The aspect of a verb denotes whether its action is viewed as complete or incomplete; thus lāmad (perfect ‘tense’) is ‘he learned’ (a completed action), but yilmad (imperfect ‘tense’) is ‘he will learn’ or ‘he was learning’, both incomplete actions.
A verb may be used in various ‘voices’ (Heb. binyanim), to indicate a passive, a causative (e.g., ‘he made someone learn’), an intensive or a reflexive.
A notable, though peculiar, feature of the Hebrew verbal system is the ‘waw conversive’, in which a verb prefixed by waw ‘and’ appears to convert its aspect. Thus yišmõr is ‘he will keep’ (imperfect) but wayyišmõr is ‘and he kept’ (apparently a completed action). The explanation (though the matter is debated) may be that the verbal form in wayyišmõr is not really a imperfect, but a survival of an older aspect, the preterite, indicating a past event; in speech, wayyišmõr would have been distinguished from yišmõr by being accented on the first syllable of the verb, not the second.
Nouns are either masculine or feminine, regardless of the gender of what they refer to. Plurals are indicated by the suffix -îm (masc.) or -ôt (fem.), thus sûs ‘horse’, plur. sûsîm ‘horses’, sûsôt ‘mares’.
In Classical Hebrew narrative, the order of words in a clause is typically verb + subject + object. The subject can occur in the first position for emphasis or to indicate the beginning of a new topic or phase in a narrative. The frequent use of the ‘conversive waw’ to link verbs (e.g., ‘and it came to pass’, ‘and he said’) is noticeable. In poetry, where the ‘conversive waw’ is rare, there is more freedom in the order of words.
Classical Hebrew does not generally use a word for ‘to be’. ‘The king is great’ would be gādôl hammelek ‘great [is] the king’.
In the older Hebrew dictionaries, the Classical Hebrew vocabulary was reckoned at ca. 8,400 different words (lemmas). The discovery in the 20th century of new Classical Hebrew texts has added some ca. 1,400 words to the dictionary, and a proliferation of scholarly proposals to find in our texts Hebrew words not hitherto recognized has produced another ca. 4,000 (though many of these proposals are by no means accepted by all scholars). Classical Hebrew is now attested by ca. 14,000 words or potential words. However, many of these are proper names.
Much of the impulse to the discovery (or, proposal) of new words has been the great increase in knowledge in the last 100 years of the cognate Semitic languages, especially Ugaritic and Akkadian (Babylonian, Assyrian). Such use of the cognate languages only continues the common practice in the history of Hebrew lexicography for Arabic and Aramaic to be drawn upon to explain dubious Hebrew words, since many of these languages provide much vaster collections of texts than does Classical Hebrew with its merely ca. 420,000 word corpus.
Hebrew words in English
A number of Hebrew words, especially of liturgical or religious significance, have found their way into English, e.g., amen, hallelujah, hosanna, sabbath, jubilee; other such terms include cherub, behemoth, leviathan, manna, messiah, seraph, shekel.
deClaisse-Walford, Nancy. Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Textbook. Rev. ed. St Louis, MO: Chalice Press, 2002.
Rabin, Chaim Menachem. N. D. A Short History of the Hebrew Language. www.adath-shalom.ca/rabin_he.htm.
Joüon, Paul, and T. Muraoka. A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Revised English edition. Rome: Pontifical Biblical Institute, 2006.
Gesenius, W. Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar. Revised by A. E. Cowley. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1910.
Waltke, Bruce K., and M. O’Connor. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1993.
History of Hebrew
Saenz-Badillos, Angel. A History of the Hebrew Language. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.
Koehler, Ludwig, and Walter Baumgartner. The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament. Translated M. E. J. Richardson. 5 vols. Leiden: Brill, 1994–1999.
Clines, David J. A., ed. The Dictionary of Classical Hebrew. 9 vols. Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press (vols. 1-5); Sheffield Phoenix Press (vols. 6-9), 1991–2016.
Clines, David J. A., ed. The Concise Dictionary of Classical Hebrew. Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2009.
Brown, F., S. R. Driver, and C. A. Briggs. A Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1906.