Hebrew Language [is a] Semitic language originally adopted by the 'ibhri, or Israelites, when they took possession of the land of Canaan west of the Jordan River in Palestine. The language has also been called the speech of Canaan, and Judean, after the kingdom of Judah. Ancient Hebrew, the language of the Bible, was succeeded by an intermediary form, Mishnaic Hebrew, about the 3rd century BC. Modern Hebrew, the only vernacular tongue based on an ancient written form, was developed in the 19th and 20th centuries.
II. Biblical Hebrew
The language in which most of the Old Testament was written dates, as a living language, from the 12th to the 2nd century BC, at the latest. The territory of Phoenicia adjoined Canaan, and it is probable that Hebrew in its earliest form was almost identical to Phoenician; of the closely related Hebrew and Phoenician language groups, however, Hebrew is decidedly the more important. From about the 3rd century BC the Jews in Palestine came to use Aramaic in both speech and secular writings. Jews outside Palestine spoke in the language of the countries in which they had settled. Hebrew was preserved, however, as the language of ritual and sacred writing and through the centuries has undergone periodic literary revivals.
The original Hebrew alphabet consisted only of consonants vowel signs and pronunciation currently accepted for biblical Hebrew were created by scholars known as Masoretes after the 5th century AD. These scholars are thought also to have standardized various dialectal differences.
The vocabulary of biblical Hebrew is small. Concrete adjectives are used for abstract nouns. The paucity of particles, which connect and relate ideas, and the limitation to two verb tenses (perfect and imperfect) cause an ambiguity regarding time concepts; various syntactic devices were employed to clarify relations of time. A past action was indicated by the first in a series of verbs being in the perfect tense and all following verbs in the imperfect; for present or future action the first verb is in the imperfect tense and all subsequent ones in the perfect.
III. Postbiblical Hebrew
Mishnaic or rabbinic Hebrew, dating from about AD200, was the language of the Mishnah. It was solely a written language but was more adaptable to practical use than biblical Hebrew. The vocabulary and syntactic innovations were strongly Aramaic, and words were borrowed from Greek, Latin, and Persian. New meanings and forms were given to biblical Hebrew words, and the expressions of time were clarified. Hebrew vocabulary was further augmented in the Middle Ages by the Arabic influence on philosophic writing and through translations of Arabic philosophical and scientific works. From the 9th century on, the use of Hebrew declined.
IV. Modern Hebrew
When Jews moved to Palestine in the 19th century, Hebrew was revived as a spoken language. Modern Hebrew, Ivrit, was declared the official language of Israel in 1948. The language is written from right to left and employs an alphabet of 22 characters; the vocabulary is based on biblical Hebrew and the syntax on Mishnaic Hebrew. Long vowels are generally expressed in writing by unpronounced consonant sounds. Scriptures, children's books, and poetry use the Masoretic points, which are dots or dashes to indicate vowels. Pronunciation is modeled on that of the Sephardic Jews who live mainly in Turkey, Greece, and Bulgaria. A great number of new words, particularly scientific terms, were needed in order to adapt the ancient written language to contemporary use; the Lithuanian-born scholar Eliezer ben Yehuda single-handedly coined 4000 new words from biblical Hebrew roots. The national languages of Israeli immigrants and Yiddish, the language of the Ashkenazi, or Eastern European Jews, have also influenced modern Hebrew.
"Hebrew Language," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2000 (http:// encarta.msn.com © 1997-2000 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.)