A history of Hebrew — how it built its cultural fortress and why it has survived so long.
Hebrew is thousands of years old, preserved in ancient scripture, and yet thoroughly modern and used on the streets of bustling cities. It’s tightly controlled, with few loanwords from European languages, and yet spoken colloquially by millions without any urge to dilute it.
But most interesting is that a hundred years ago, in the early 20th century, almost nobody spoke Hebrew as a first language at all.
How did this happen? How did Hebrew evolve? What is Hebrew’s history? Let’s first look at how Hebrew has evolved over the last several thousand years.
A History of Hebrew in a Nutshell: Hebrew’s rise and fall
The following is a non-scholarly summary of the way I understand Hebrew to have evolved over nearly 3,000 years.
Hebrew’s history begins with Moses — roughly.
Firstly, we’re not sure if Moses spoke Hebrew. We think he did. He definitely was a “Hebrew”, when that was an acceptable way of describing a person. The problem is, a “Hebrew” back then was actually a class of people. The word “Hebrew” is derived from the word “Habiru”, who were basically people who offered services for hire.
Moses gave us the Old Testament or the Hebrew Bible, and this is the best evidence of Hebrew’s evolution. The “Hebrew Bible” comes by many names. Christians know it as the “Old Testament”, though precise definitions of what makes up the Old Testament vary between major denominations. Some people call it the Jewish Bible, and Jews refer to it as the Bible — when speaking English. In Hebrew, Jewish people know the Hebrew Bible as the Tanakh (תנ”ך), which is an acronym referring to all the written parts of Jewish tradition and history.
Even though we have the Hebrew Bible written in Hebrew, in the books of the Hebrew Bible, Hebrew (the language) wasn’t referred to by name, just implicitly, like “the language of the Jewish people”.
As the story goes, Moses was born in around the 14th century BCE (“Before Common Era”, equivalent numerically to “Before Christ”). In the 13th century BCE, he delivered the Jewish people to freedom from Egyptian slavery. During this “Exodus”, he received his revelation from God on Mount Sinai, which became known as the “Oral Torah”. It wasn’t committed to writing for another thousand years — the year 70 CE (see below on why).
Meanwhile, the “Written Torah” (a.k.a. the first five books of the Old Testament), was written down, if you hadn’t guessed already. Orthodox scholars say Moses wrote it himself, although many others think it was written by a number of people, over Moses’ lifetime and a few centuries after his passing.
The first evidence of written Hebrew comes from the 10th century BCE, in the form of a fragment of the Hebrew Bible. We know the language was being used since at least then — and possibly earlier.
After that, Hebrew was used as both a scholarly and literary language for a good thousand years. Until Jerusalem fell.
The Fall of Jerusalem
It got messy when the Babylonians showed up.
King Nebuchadnezzar II “The Unpronounceable” of the Babylonian Empire destroyed the First Temple of Jerusalem in 589 BCE and sent the Jews into exile.
The party didn’t last long, relatively speaking, because the Persians came next, and for once in history we were the good guys. Forty years after the First Temple was destroyed, Cyrus the Great (or as we call him, “Koorosh” the great) conquered the Babylonians in 539 BCE, and they told the Jews they were welcome to move back into Jerusalem.
Cyrus/Koorosh was so Great that he even invited the Jews to build a new temple over the ruins of the old one. This took twenty years and was finished in 516 BCE, during the reign of his successor, Darius I, then just known as Darius.
During this period, Jews still spoke Hebrew, though it had evolved to become not quite like the original but still pretty classic. More loan-words had come in from Aramaic and Greek, and often Jews just spoke Aramaic (another Semitic language, highly related to Hebrew, still alive in modern Syria). Jesus, a famous Jew, principally spoke Aramaic.
It was also in this period that the Dead Sea Scrolls were written. If you haven’t heard of those, they’re an incredible cache of documents that a Bedouin farmer improbably found in the 1940s in a cave that date back thousands of years — between the 3rd century BCE and the 1st century CE. Most of the scrolls were written in Hebrew, with a smaller number in Aramaic or Greek.
The cool thing about the scrolls is that many of them are in “pure” Hebrew, consciously not using foreign loan words. So they give us a snapshot of how Hebrew was at this time.
Back to the ancient history of Hebrew — a couple of things happened that shut Hebrew down as a spoken language for a long time.
Firstly, the Romans moved in and destroyed the second temple in the year 70 CE. C’mon guys, again with destroying the temple?? This posed the first existential threat to the Jewish people, so they decided to write the oral traditions of the Oral Torah down, into what’s known as the Mishnah. The language used is snapshotted in time, and is thus “Mishnaic Hebrew”.
Then the Jews attempted a revolt against roman role in 132-136 CE. This was known as the Bar Kokhba revolt. This didn’t go well, and the Jewish people were almost exterminated, and many sent into exile in Europe. This scattered all the native speakers, which meant it was going to be difficult to keep Hebrew alive, because people had to speak other languages to co-exist with their neighbours.
So for the next nearly ~1,700 years until the mid 19th century, Hebrew was only used for scholarly work, some periodicals and in religious proceedings. During this time, Jews spoke the languages of their neighbours. Of course, Hebrew influenced those languages and gave rise to specific variants of those languages used in Jewish communities, including:
- Yiddish. This was German influenced by Hebrew. Yiddish is basically mutually intelligible with German in many common situations if one does not descend into slang. Yiddish still thrives today, and you can even study it formally.
- Ladino or Judaeo-Spanish. This was Spanish influenced by Hebrew and is/was spoken by Sephardic Jews. These days, most of the ~100,000 Ladino speakers are pretty old and most live in Israel. Their children usually either don’t speak it, or do but are actually just speaking Spanish.
- Judaeo-Arabic. This was Palestinian/Syrian/Iraqi Arabic that was influenced by Hebrew. It was even written in a slightly modified Hebrew script. This language is endangered, with some variants extinct.
This took us right up to the mid 19th century, when some bright-eyed young people decided Jews should move back to Palestine and start speaking Hebrew.
It’s fairly well-known in the history of Hebrew that the language was revised and modernised for the state of Israel. But the way it happened is not well known.
The person who modernised Hebrew in written form was Mendele Mokher Sefarim (the pen name of Sholem Yakov Abramovich). Mendele was a precise thinker and writer, and found that Classical Hebrew didn’t fit his purposes as it didn’t have enough words and structures, like CD-ROM, a now-extinct piece of technology that presumably he had to translate.
So Mendele sought to modernise Hebrew for written use — he wasn’t interested in speaking it. He drew on Medieval Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Aramaic and various texts to create his new lexicon, published in the mid-1800s.
The person credited with inspiring the movement to use spoken Hebrew in modern society was Eliezer Ben Yehuda. In 1881, at the age of 23, he moved from his home country of Belarus to Jerusalem. He was well-versed in the Hebrew Bible. Ben Yehuda believed that a nation is defined by a people, an area and a language (a definition which has evolved since then) and that Hebrew should be the language of the Jewish people. So while living in Jerusalem, he made a pact to only speak Hebrew.
This wasn’t crazy. Because of the various Jewish communities that lived in the area at the time, Hebrew had already become somewhat of a lingua franca. Jewish people had emigrated to then Palestine from all over Europe and needed a common language. Hebrew was it.
But Hebrew was woefully incomplete as a total lingua franca, so it could only be used in fragments or if it were supplemented by other languages.
So it became Ben Yehuda’s mission to get Hebrew ready as a national language. He developed a modern Hebrew vocabulary, combining brand-new and ancient Hebrew words, and spread them through newsletters, a form of early printed blog. He convinced friends to use Hebrew as a daily language. He even got teachers in Jewish schools in Palestine on board with his vision.
Ben Yehuda also established the Hebrew Language Council (ועד הלשון העברית, va’ad ha-lashon ha-ivrit), which was formalised in 1953 as the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The Academy approves new words, makes decisions about grammar and writing, and kicks up a fuss whenever someone suggests English might be more practical.
But it wasn’t Ben Yehuda’s efforts that cemented Hebrew’s revival. It was the two waves of migration (known as the First and Second Aliya), and the conflict this generated that had to be resolved. During those periods, the settlers established Hebrew schools and naturally used it in more and more daily affairs. Hebrew was definitely a minority language, still, with Yiddish, Arabic and Ladino (related to Spanish) still being the most used.
The Language Wars
Hebrew’s big day came during what is known as “The Language Wars”. It’s not as dramatic as it sounds, notwithstanding that Israeli culture, being Mediterranean, is definitely up there as being one of the most dramatic I’ve known.
The “Language Wars” started when the board of trustees of Israel’s first technical college, the Technion (in Haifa), made an administrative decision in 1913 to run the school’s education program in… wait for it… German.
“German’s an advanced technical language,” they reasoned. (I’m guessing they said it like this; this isn’t a quote.) “All kinds of super sciencey people use it. Hebrew’s cool, yeah, but it’s really just being revived now and it’s not ready.”
Interestingly, some Orthodox scholars opposed any movement to speak Hebrew colloquially. They were concerned that this was a vulgar use of a sacred language. To this day, some Orthodox Jews only use Hebrew for prayer, using Yiddish or other languages for everyday language.
But aside from that, a lot of people disagreed. And they were super vocal about it. “We’re Jewish damn it, our schools should use a Jewish language!” (Again, this isn’t a direct quote). People protested publicly, published sternly-worded opinion articles and stirred up malcontent. They even turned attention to a high school in Jaffa (now Tel Aviv), where people noticed Hebrew was not the primary language of instruction. The teachers and students dismantled the school and re-established it as a Hebrew language school.
The movement took hold. The “Hebrew Seminary for Teachers” was established in Jerusalem, and taught a Hebrew-language teaching curriculum. And in 1914, the board of trustees of the Technion agreed to teach in Hebrew. This was a landmark decision, seen as a turning point.
After World War I and the fall of the Ottoman rule of Palestine, the British Mandate was in charge. They declared English, Arabic and Hebrew to be the official languages of Palestine.
More migrants arrived. They pretty much had to speak Hebrew to survive at this point. If they didn’t, people would chastise them publicly, saying things like “Hebrew (man), speak Hebrew!” (ivrit, daber ivrit!/עברי, דבר עברית).
When Israel was established as a state in 1948 after the British decided to end their mandate, the vast majority of people living there spoke Hebrew either as a first or second language, with 80% of the Jews born there speaking it as a first language.
Hebrew today, and a few Cultural Features
Today, those who grow up in Hebrew schools in Israel unquestionably speak Hebrew as a first language, and may not in fact speak any other languages well.
It’s spoken by around nine million speakers, mostly in Israel. It holds some historical characteristics that are as fascinating (as they are sometimes maddening) and has come to characterise the region.
Despite this very long and complex history of Hebrew, there are a few things I personally wish someone improved in Hebrew along the way.
Hebrew’s Alphabet — Not enough letters (objectively!)
Despite Hebrew’s success in lasting thousands of years, someone could really have added a few more letters along the way.
In Classical Hebrew, the vowel markings, or the markings denoting how consonants are different, are explicitly written. No such luck in modern Hebrew!
This is the equivalent of optionally writing a horizontal stroke on the top of a “T” and leaving it to the reader to decide if it’s a lowercase “L” or a “T” by context. Or deciding B looks close enough to P and sounds similar and we may as well just use one for both (but pronounce them differently anyway).
Specifically in Hebrew:
- The short vowels aren’t written. I.e. the short, non-drawn-out sounds for a, e, i, o and u. You just have to know.
- The letter for the long vowel “י” for i does double duty as a y consonant. Ditto for the vowel letter “ו” for u, which doubles up as being a v sound.
- Several of the consonants have two sounds. The consonant כ can be a k or a kh sound. The consonant פ can be a p or an f. The consonant ב can be a b or a v.
- There isn’t a decent consonant for the j sound, despite it existing in some words.
- Some sounds can be represented by two or more letters, despite there not being enough letters for sounds.
Basically, the alphabet could do with an overhaul. But something tells me it’s here to stay!
Hebrew Isn’t Cool with Loanwords, but it’s futile
One sign of Hebrew’s stronghold is that for a language with relatively few speakers, it has very few loan words from English.
Most languages adopt loanwords relatively easily. This happens in normal speech. English is riddled with loanwords, from the fact that it’s a weird hybrid of old English, French and German, to adopting new words whenever it wants, like schadenfreude or joie de vivre.
Arabic dialects aren’t regulated (in fact, they’re not even considered languages in their home countries), so take on words like “computer” or “internet” all the time.
Hebrew, on the other hand, has a huge number of Hebrew-only words. See this table for example:
Well, at least we can all agree on the word “radio”. Also “Academy”, which the Academy of the Hebrew Language has gracefully decided is akademia (האקדמיה).
To actively prevent loanwords seems a little unnecessarily protectionist. (I’d be worried about offending people, but Israelis are a wonderfully straightforward, direct people and it’s what makes speaking Hebrew so much fun. It’s easy to learn a lot about people very quickly.) Stopping loanwords from entering a language is futile, as it’ll happen anyway.
On the plus side, the Academy has proven to be very flexible when it comes to grammar and punctuation. They want the grammar to be flexible, not rigidly adhere to old standards. And they actually want punctuation to be totally up to the writer.
One exception to loanwords in Hebrew is the ones it acquires from Palestinian Arabic.
A few Arabic words I hear in daily use in Hebrew all the time:
- ahlan (اهلا) for a standard greeting (supplanting shalom)
- ala kayfak (على كيفك) for “sure thing”
- mabsuut (مبسوط) for happy, replacing the word sameach
- yalla (ياالله) for “come on”, often with the Hebrew word for it kadima (like, “yalla kadima!”)
This doesn’t happen the other way around. Arabic speakers in Israel (numbering around a million) may use Hebrew words, but it’s out of necessity, not because it’s slang they’ve adopted because it’s cool.
Modern Hebrew has many “correct” Hebrew Accents
Migrants continue to come to Israel. Most of them don’t speak Hebrew fluently, as you’d expect.
But remember… a hundred years ago, basically nobody spoke Hebrew correctly. People were figuring out as they were going. So it’s a little early to say what a correct accent is or not — but it’s starting to happen.
The main paths for migrants to learn Hebrew is through a) military service, where they’re taught Hebrew (and have to use it), and b) ulpans, state-sponsored schools that are for migrants to learn Hebrew.
Many Israeli Arabs attend Arabic language schools, where the primary language of instruction is Arabic. Nonetheless, enough Hebrew instruction is given that people who attend these schools are fluent in Hebrew. However, they maintain a distinct culturally Arabic accent, pronouncing the letter resh (“ר”) with an Arabic trilled sound from the tip of the tongue.
But some claim that the correct accent means pronouncing a trilling Hebrew resh from the back of the throat — just as it’s pronounced in most of Germany, and in Yiddish.
The thing is, Hebrew was locked down as a literary language for so many centuries that its accent couldn’t realistically be preserved.
The Ashkenazi of Northern Europe were not accustomed to pronouncing the guttural sounds of Hebrew, like the ayn, and so stopped distinguishing between them. The Mizrahi Jews of Yemen, Syria and Iraq could. But they pronounced the r sound differently.
Waves of migrants from Russia, South Europe and even America have added so many accents into the mix that many people to whom I speak consider an “accent” to be not as important as simply speaking the language.
That’s what I think, anyway. Because I can’t pronounce the Ashkenazi resh no matter how hard I try.