Which family does Hebrew belong to?
עִבְרִית, Ivrit belongs, along with Phoenician, Moabite and Ugaritic, to the Canaanite group of the North-Western Semitic languages. It developed from the parlances of the region of Canaan, when the Jews arrived in Palestine (1200 BC). We can distinguish four stages: the Ancient or Biblical Hebrew, the Medium Hebrew or Mishnaic, the Neo-Hebrew and Modern Hebrew. The first phase is represented by the texts of the Bible before the Babylonian exile (late VI century BC): these certainly showed phonetic and even morphological and lexical varieties, depending on the location and time of the composition, that we can no longer trace, since the texts have come down in the transcripts made by Masoretes, during the I millennium AD, which of course have leveled every dialectal difference. We have also found some epigraphic inscriptions, but the reconstruction of ancient Hebrew history is still very difficult.
The Medium Hebrew phase, which takes its name ("Mishnaic") from the texts of the Mishna after the Babylonian captivity, shows even in the written tradition the influence of Aramaic, which had become the language of everyday use. There was for a long time a situation of bilingualism, with the Aramaic used as a daily language and Hebrew kept as the language of culture and religion in the synagogue.
Neo-Hebrew is the next phase, encompassing the Middle Ages and modern times. During these periods Ancient Biblical Hebrew, still used by the Jews of the Diaspora in the written tradition, is influenced by the different local languages.
Finally, in the XX century, Jewish was resurrected as a living language after the affirmation of Zionism, and is now the official language of the State of Israel; Modern Hebrew contains of course many new elements in phonetics, morphology and syntax, and especially in vocabulary, while substantially retaining the original structure.
What are the main linguistic features of Hebrew?
The most important features of Hebrew are those typical of the Semitic languages:
- the consonants b, d, g, p, t, k can be pronounced both as stops and fricatives;
- vowels, written only in recent times, can be classified as seven sounds, differentiated into short, medium and long.
- the lexicon is based on three-consonant roots, which give the basic meaning of the word, whose minor variations are due to vowels;
- derivate words are formed by adding consonants before or after the root;
- there are two genders (masculine and feminine) and three numbers (singular, dual and plural);
- the article is the same for all genders and numbers;
- the declination, preserved in Akkadian, Ugaritic and Arabic, has disappeared in Hebrew, which distinguishes the different grammatical functions by using prepositions;
- the verb, made up usually from a triconsonantic root indicating its basic sense, has seven forms depending on the idea that one wants to express (such as transitive, intransitive, reflexive, causative, etc.);
- the only temporal distinction encoded by verbal inflections is that between performed action (perfect tense) and non performed action (imperfect tense);
- there is an indicative mood of the two tenses, an imperative mood and four verbal names;
- the persons of the verb are marked by pronominal suffixes or prefixes;
- the second and third persons have distinct forms for the masculine and the feminine.
Where does Hebrew come from?
The primary Hebrew alphabet derived directly from the Phoenician archaic alphabet. It consisted of twenty-two letters, all consonants; it was later adopted an Aramaic writing, and called “Square Writing”; the vowels entered in the written use only since the V-VI century AD.
Biblical literature (XII-II century BC) includes the collected writings of the Old Testament or the Bible (the only great monument of ancient Israel) and some other profane and apocryphal writings.
- Enciclopedia Grolier