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Hebrew is the language that is mainly spoken in Israel and some Jewish communities around the globe. It is one of the official languages in Israel, the other being Arabic. In terms of origin, Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Northwestern group and it is most closely linked to Phoenician and Moabite. In former times it was spoken in Palestine, and was succeeded by the western variety of Aramaic. Nevertheless, the language was used as a liturgical and literary language and was restored as a spoken language in the 19th and 20th centuries.
The term Hebrew can be found in the Old Testament as the name by which other peoples referred to the Israelites. This is why the beginning of the term Hebrew is not clear. On the one hand, it can be derived from the word “eber,” or “ever,” which means “the other side” and makes a reference to Abraham, who entered the territory of Canaan from “the other side” of the Euphrates. On the other hand, the name “Hebrew” can also be used to describe the semi-nomadic Habiru people, who had settled in Egypt in the 13th and 12th centuries BC.
The Hebrew language can be divided into four main periods:
- Biblical (Classical Hebrew) until the 3rd century BC, when a large part of the Old Testament was written;
- Mishnaic (Rabbinic Hebrew) – the language of the Mishna, written about AD 200;
- Medieval Hebrew, dating back to the 6th – 13th century AD. This period is characterized with the borrowing of many words from Greek, Spanish, Arabic, and other languages;
- Modern Hebrew, the language of Israel as it is spoken and written today.
Modern Hebrew is based on the biblical language and encompasses a number of novelties that have been introduced to meet modern demands. In fact, it is the only written language that is based on colloquial speech. A major characteristic of Hebrew is that in all stages we find the use of word roots that consist in most cases of three consonants. Then certain vowels and other consonants are inserted between these three consonants, thus making up different parts of speech and meaning. The Hebrew language is written from right to left and has a Semitic script of 22 letters.
There are two different Semitic alphabets – the Early Hebrew and the Classical (Square) Hebrew. The Early Hebrew alphabet was used by the Jewish nation in the time before the Babylonian Exile – prior to the 6th century BC. Early Hebrew can be observed in a number of local dialects as the oldest example of Early Hebrew writing is the Gezer Calendar. The Early Hebrew alphabet, like the modern version, consists of 22 letters. Only consonants are represented and it is written from right to left. The early alphabet, however, is more closely linked to the Phoenician rather than to the Modern Hebrew.
Between the 6th and 2nd century BC, Classical (Square) Hebrew displaces the Aramaic alphabet. It gains recognition in the 2nd and 1st centuries BC and develops into the modern Hebrew alphabet throughout the following 1,500 years. Classical Hebrew shows three unique forms by the 10th century AD:
- Square Hebrew, a formal or book hand;
- Rabbinical Hebrew employed by medieval Jewish scholars;
- Local cursive scripts – the Polish-German type becomes the modern cursive form.
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