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Where Did Hebrew Come From?

Biblical Hebrew is one of the Canaanite languages, which in turn are part of the larger Semitic language family.

Detail of a page from the Leningrad Codex, the oldest complete Hebrew manuscript of the Hebrew Bible, 1008 CE. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

The Hebrew Bible, also sometimes called the Old Testament, was written almost entirely in Hebrew. Scholars use the term Biblical Hebrew to describe the language of the Bible to distinguish it from later forms of Hebrew, such as Rabbinic Hebrew and Modern (Israeli) Hebrew.

Where did the Hebrew language come from?

Hebrew is part of a family of languages called the Semitic languages. The name Semitic, coined by a German linguist in the late eighteenth century, derives from Shem (called Sem in Greek and Latin), the son of Noah from whom the Hebrews, Arameans, and Arabs are said to be descended. By definition, languages within a single family derive from a common ancestor language, but only in rare cases is this ancestor language known. So, for example, all of the Romance languages (Spanish, French, Italian, etc.) derive from Latin, a language that is very well known. But the ancestor of the Germanic languages (English, German, Dutch, etc.) was never written down, and so it can only be partly reconstructed by linguists. Likewise, the ancestor of the Semitic languages is unknown, but we can safely say that this language, which scholars call Proto-Semitic, had begun to evolve into the separate descendent languages already before 3000 BCE.

Besides Hebrew, the Semitic language family includes many languages that are still spoken today, including Amharic (the national language of Ethiopia), Tigrinya (the national language of Eritrea), Maltese (the language of Malta), Soqotri (spoken on the island of Soqotra in the Indian Ocean), various dialects of Aramaic (spoken in small numbers in Syria, Iraq, Iran, Turkey), and, most notably, Arabic, which has well over two hundred million speakers.

The Semitic family also includes a number of languages that were spoken in biblical times but have since gone extinct. One example is Akkadian, the language of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians, who dominated the Near East for centuries. Akkadian is actually the oldest attested Semitic language, first written down around 2500 BCE; by contrast, the earliest known Hebrew writing dates from only around 1000 BCE (though a few biblical texts may have been composed a couple of centuries earlier). Akkadian became extinct probably around 100 CE.

Some other extinct Semitic languages are Sabaic, Ugaritic, and Ge‘ez. Sabaic was the language of the ancient Kingdom of Sheba, which was based in what is today the country of Yemen. That language ceased to exist some time after the Arab conquests of the seventh century CE. Ugaritic was the language of the city of Ugarit, located on the Syrian coast, in the far northwest of that country. Ugaritic texts are known only from a very short period of history, between about 1400 and 1200 BCE. Ge‘ez was the primary written language of Ethiopia from the first to nineteenth centuries CE, and it remains in use as a liturgical language by the Ethiopian Orthodox Christian Church.

All Semitic languages are related to one another, but some are more closely related than others. As such, the family can be divided into different branches and subbranches. For example, Akkadian split off from the rest of the family quite early and so is only distantly related to Hebrew. There are a dozen or so Semitic languages spoken in Ethiopia, and all of these form a branch of the family known as Ethiopian Semitic; to continue the family metaphor, the languages in the Ethiopian branch could be considered siblings, while Hebrew might be considered a cousin.

A Simplified Family Tree of the Semitic Languages (extinct languages in italics; branches and subbranches in small caps)

Where does Hebrew fit into the Semitic language family?

Hebrew is part of a subbranch of the Semitic family known as Canaanite. This might seem strange, since the Bible tells us that the Hebrews and Canaanites were normally enemies (Deut 20:17; Judg 1:1); moreover, the Bible tells us that the Canaanites are descended from Noah’s son Ham, not Shem (Gen 9:18). It is indeed possible that the Hebrews and Canaanites had different ethnic origins, but from a linguistic perspective the Hebrew and Canaanite languages were nearly identical.

Scholars today view Canaanite as a group of closely related languages (or dialects) that were spoken in the land of Israel and in the immediately neighboring nations. Besides Hebrew, these languages include Phoenician, Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite, all spoken by peoples who feature prominently in the stories of the Bible. Among these languages, only Hebrew and Phoenician are well attested; the others are known from just a small number of short inscriptions. And while Phoenician is well attested in terms of numbers of texts, all of the texts are inscriptions, most of which are very short. None of the Canaanite languages besides Hebrew have any surviving literary texts. In sum, Hebrew is part of a group of closely related languages known as Canaanite. The Canaanite languages are in turn a subbranch of a larger family known as Semitic, whose members are (or were) spoken throughout the Middle East, North Africa, and the Horn of Africa. Having been in continuous written use for roughly three thousand years, Hebrew is one of the longest attested languages in human history. As the original language of the Bible and still the main language of Jewish worship and prayer, it remains an important language of study. And it thrives today as the spoken language of approximately nine million or so speakers in the State of Israel.

  • Aaron D. Rubin, PhD (2004), Harvard University, is Ann and Jay Davis Professor of Jewish Studies at the University of Georgia. He has published widely on Hebrew, the Semitic languages, and Jewish languages.