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  • Cited by 3
  • Print publication year: 2008
  • Online publication date: September 2009

3 - Hebrew



The position of Hebrew within the Semitic languages

Hebrew, the language of ancient Israel and Judah and their descendant Jewish communities, is a Northwest Semitic language. Northwest Semitic and Arabic constitute Central Semitic, which is a subgroup of West Semitic, one of the two primary divisions of the Semitic branch of the larger Afro-Asiatic family (Appendix 1, §§1–2). Within Northwest Semitic, Hebrew is classified as Canaanite as distinct from Aramaic. Other members of the Canaanite subgroup include the dialect of the city-state of Ugarit (cf. Ch. 2, §1) in the Late Bronze Age (c. 1550–1200 BC), and the languages of Israel's immediate neighbors in the Iron Age (c. 1200–586 BC), namely, Phoenician (Ch. 4) and the Transjordanian languages of Ammonite, Moabite, and Edomite (Ch. 5).

Stages in the development of Ancient Hebrew

Although linguistic features found in the limited surviving evidence for the Canaanite dialects of the Late Bronze Age anticipate some of the distinctive characteristics of Iron Age Hebrew, it is unlikely that Hebrew emerged as a discrete language before the end of the Late Bronze Age and the beginning of the Iron Age. Prosodic and linguistic studies suggest that the earliest poetry preserved in the Hebrew Bible may have been composed before the end of the second millennium BC, and this poetry represents the first identifiable phase of the language, which is called Archaic or Archaic Biblical Hebrew (before c. 1000 BC).

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