Edition 1.2

15 December 2011




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History of the Ancient and Modern Hebrew Language

By David Steinberg


Home page http://www.houseofdavid.ca/



Companion E-Book -

Biblical Hebrew Poetry and Word Play - Reconstructing the Original Oral, Aural and Visual Experience



1. Survey of the Semitic languages

Box 1 - What is a Semitic Root?

2. History of Hebrew from its pre-history to the present

2.1 Pre-Exilic Hebrew (PreExH)

a) Varieties of Pre-Exilic Hebrew

b) Social Base of Pre-Exilic Hebrew

c) Time, Aspect and Volition in Biblical Hebrew

Box 2 - Joϋon-Muraoka on Time, Aspect and Volition in Biblical Hebrew

Table 1 - What Time does the Biblical Hebrew Participle Refer to when Used Verbally?

Box 3 - What is the waw conversive"?

Box 4 - The Origin of the waw conversive"

Table 2 - Time/Tense in Biblical Poetry

d) Changes Pending in Biblical Hebrew

2.2 Post-Exilic Hebrew (PostExH) - Written/Oral Diglossia

Box 5 - Some Factors in the Rise of Late Biblical Hebrew

Background to Dialect, Koine and Diglossia in Ancient Hebrew Clarification from Colloquial Arabic

a. Development of Proto-Mishnaic Hebrew (c. 586 BCE-c. 70 BC).

b. The Impact of Aramaic

Box 6 - Influence of Aramaic on Post-Exilic Hebrew

c. Mishnaic, Middle or Rabbinic Hebrew

Table 3 - Deriving the Construct State from the Absolute State is More Complex in TH than in EBHP

2.3 Changes in the Pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew Between the Early 6th Century BCE and that Recorded in the Tiberian Masoretic Tradition (early 10th century CE)

o         Changes in Pronunciation Between the First Temple Period, Tiberian Biblical Vocalization and Modern Hebrew most of which Alter the Syllabic Structure

o         Consonants that Were Distinct and Phonemic in the First Temple Period that Have Merged in Modern Pronunciation

o         Consonants that Exist in Modern Pronunciation but were absent in Hebrew of the First Temple Period

o         Linguistic Changes Affecting the Pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew 2000 B.C.E. - 850 C.E. According to Various Scholars

o         Dialect, Koine and Diglossia in Ancient Hebrew: Clarification from Colloquial Arabic

o         Words Significantly Different in Pronunciation in Pre-Exilic Hebrew

o         Syllables Ending in Doubled Consonants in Pre-Exilic Hebrew

2.4 Between the Mishnah and the Revival of Hebrew in the Late 19th Century

2.5 Modern or Israeli Hebrew

2.6 Major Changes Between Ancient Hebrew and Israeli Hebrew

2.7 Israeli Hebrew and Modern Arabic a Few Differences and Many Parallels

Table 4 - Western-type Compound Nouns and Adjectives in Israeli Hebrew and MSA

Table 5 - Modern Hebrew and MSA Common Noun Patterns

3. Select Bibliography


1. Survey of the Semitic Languages (See for details Senz-Badillos chapt. 1)

 The Semitic family[1] consists of a group of about 70 distinct language forms closely related to each other and more distantly related to the rest of the AfroAsiatic group which includes Ancient Egyptian, Berber and the Cushitic languages[2]The Semitic languages, as far back as can be traced (2nd and, in some cases, 3rd millennium BCE), have occupied part of present day Iraq and all of present day Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and the Arabian peninsula. 

Maps of the Ancient Near East   http://ancienthistory.about.com/library/bl/bl_maps_asia_neareast.htm

 A good, simple outline of the relations of the Semitic languages to each other is at http://phoenicia.org/semlang.html

 Since the Semitic languages are clearly closely related[3], it is a reasonable and long-held assumption that they are all derived from an original undifferentiated, though rather variable language called Proto-SemiticAlthough no records of Proto-Semitic exist, through the comparative study of the various languages it is possible to deduce, in outline, Proto-Semitics phonology, much of its vocabulary and its grammar including some of its probable syntax.  In general, it can be said that each Semitic language preserved some Proto-Semitic features whereas while diverging from Proto-Semitic in other features.  For instance, Akkadian, the language of the ancient Babylonians and Assyrians[4] in present day Iraq, has alone preserved the Proto-Semitic verbal system while its sound system, influenced by the non-Semitic Sumerian language, was greatly simplified.  Classical Arabic[5] has most faithfully preserved the Proto-Semitic system of case endings of nouns and adjectives[6] and mood endings of the verb and the Proto-Semitic sound system[7] though in its syntax and use of tenses it is more removed from Proto-Semitic than is Biblical Hebrew.

 It is probable that Proto-Semitic was spoken over most of the territory earlier mentioned until 3500-3000 BCE.  At about that time Akkadian split off.  This language, which was spoken until the first century BCE, has left written records from about 2600 BCE.

Box 1 - What is a Semitic √Root?

In any discussion of Semitic languages frequent mention will be made of roots. The term refers to three, less often two[8], and occasionally four consonants that form the basis of Semitic verbs and most nouns when combined with patterns of vowels and sometimes consonants. These patterns are referred to as stems, themes, stirpes or in Hebrew binyanim. Roots are also the basis of most nouns.

E.g. From the root BR} ( = sh) we get in [TH]

[ɔː'vɐːr] he broke

[ɔː'vɐːrtiː] I broke

[ib'bẹːr] - he smashed

[ub'bɐːr] it was smashed

'voːr] - breaking

[mi'bɔːr] breaking waves

The non-Akkadian[9] part of the Semitic family, called West Semitic, divided prior to 2000 BCE into South Semitic, whose major descendants are Arabic and the Semitic languages of Ethiopia[10], and Northwest Semitic which includes Aramaic[11] and the Canaanite languages of which Biblical Hebrew was one.   Shortly after this split, the initial /w/ sound in Northwest Semitic became /y/[12].  Thus we have the equivalence such as the root √whb in Arabic corresponds to √yhb יהב in Hebrew and Aramaic.  Thus also, the word for child in Arabic is /walad/ while in Pre-Exilic biblical Hebrew (/EBHP/) Hebrew it was */'yald/ ילד <yld> now pronounced ['yɛlɛd].

Probably even as late as 2000 BCE one can picture a dialect continuum where, from the desert fringes of Iraq through south-eastern Anatolia, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and the Arabian Peninsula a traveler could have passed from tribe to tribe and village to village noticing only very slight and gradual dialectical changes as he progressed.  Although people at the opposite extremes of this language area might have been unable to understand each other, at no point would a language frontier like those, say, between French and German occur.  This situation is quite similar to that pertaining to the various dialects of spoken Arabic over the same area (and beyond in North Africa), today[13].  It is from this period i.e. the third millennium BCE, that we receive our first records of the Semitic languages.  These records comprehend 3 languages:

Akkadian (East Semitic) both in Akkadian texts and Akkadian words preserved in Sumerian texts;

Eblaite (intermediate between East Semitic and West Semitic) preserved in Early Bronze Age (2500 BCE) tablets amounting to about 3000 tablets in all;

Amorite[14] this West-Semitic language is preserved mainly in proper names in Sumerian and Akkadian texts.  Fortunately, as Semitic names are frequently short sentences e.g. Hebrew eli'yah = 'my God is YH' the language can be partly reconstructed even from such meager data.

 The situation outlined ended with the rise of political-cultural centers in the Northwest Semitic areas.  By about 1000 BCE, the dialect of Damascus had established itself as normative Aramaic and started a spread, helped by its use as a lingua franca, which would enable it, by 100 BCE to completely replace Akkadian in the North-East and, by 200 CE to displace Hebrew in the south.


2. History of Hebrew from its Pre-history[15] to the Present (See for details Senz-Badillos)

While Damascus Aramaic was becoming a standard language in Syria and upper Mesopotamia, the situation in what is now Lebanon, Jordan and Israel remained one of a series of dialects none of which was able, through conquest or prestige, to become a linguistic standard. 

We have only fragments of most of the various Canaanite dialects, of the period 1000-500 BCE.  However, it would seem that they were mutually intelligible[16].  Two dialects, from opposite ends of the Canaanite spectrum, have left literary remains.   In the extreme north, on the Lebanese coast, was Phoenician[17] and its North African Carthaginian offshoot Punic, have left inscriptions[18] dating from 10th-1st centuries BCE and 9th C BCE to 2nd CE respectively.  This tended to be a rapidly developing language very open to foreign influences as we would expect for a language of a sea-faring people.  In the extreme South we have the literary dialect of Jerusalem i.e. CBH.

Before we leave the other languages, we could point out one of the many benefits to the understanding of Hebrew gained through the comparative study of Semitic languages.  As I said before, the Semitic languages are closely related.  For example A survey of the first 100 Phoenician words in the dictionary shows that 82 percent have the same meaning in Hebrew.  Between Ugaritic[19] and Hebrew the figure is about 79 percent.  Thus it not infrequently occurs that a root or word may be common in say Aramaic, while it may occur only once or twice in Hebrew.  A knowledge of Aramaic may then lead to an understanding of the Hebrew word.  Thus the root √yhb occurs only in the imperative of the basic stem of the verb (qal or paal) sometimes in the same context as the normal Hebrew root √ntn meaning to give.  In Aramaic, the root {YHB} is routinely used meaning to give and it is clear that the meaning in Hebrew is the same.

Table - Proto-Semitic Phonemes (Consonants) Exhibiting Sound Shifts in Hebrew and Their Equivalents in Aramaic and Classical Arabic

Table - Biblical Hebrew Phonemes (Consonants) of Multiple Origin and their Equivalents in Proto-Semitic, Classical Arabic, Aramaic and Ugaritic 

You may be familiar with Psalm 137:5

אם אשכח ירושלם תשכח ימיני

 The King James Bible translates this as If I forget thee O Jerusalem let my right hand forget her cunning. The last two words are printed in italics.   In the King James Bible this indicates that the words are not found in the Hebrew.  We can see the problem of the early translators.  What they read was If I forget thee Jerusalem let my right hand forget.  Clearly this is problematic. Hence they added their guess of what it might forget i.e. its cunning.  The problem is that the same root שׁכח is used twice in the same stem in the same verse.  This root, in this stem, is the normal way to say forget in Hebrew.  There are 6 possible Proto-Semitic origins of the Hebrew root שכח

  1. -k-
  2. -k- 
  3. th-k-
  4. th-k-ḥ
  5. causative  +k-
  6. causative  +k-ḥ


Ugaritic has a root th-k-ḥ = shrivel which fills the bill (see Barr p. 336 Select Bibliography below and GRAY, JOHN, THE LEGACY OF CANAAN: THE RAS SHAMRA TEXTS AND THEIR RELEVANCE TO THE OLD TESTAMENT, SECOND, REVISED EDITION, E. J. BRILL, LEIDEN 1965 pp 283-4)

Thus, the New Revised Standard Version translates our verse as

If I forget you O Jerusalem, let my right hand wither


 It makes sense!

 We can explain the course of event as follows:

1. Around 2000 BCE Proto-Hebrew had two distinct roots: (1) θ-k- or θk- depending on its proto-Semitic origin meaning shrivel; and, (2) -k- forget;

 2. Prior to 1000 BCE all instances of the fricative /θ/ in Hebrew shifted to // =sh /ʃ/[20] hence the roots became indistinguishable leading to the abandonment of שׁכח shrivel except in the conservative poetic dialect in situations where it was not likely to be confused and could be used for a pleasing poetic effect  such as in our verse;

3. In time the meaning of שׁכח shrivel was completely lost due to its rare use, destruction of scribal schools etc...


It should be noted that comparative philology is difficult to use credibly and can easily be abused.  See Barr.


2.1 Pre-Exilic Hebrew (PreExH) (See also Senz-Badillos chapt. 3-5)

a) Varieties of Pre-Exilic Hebrew

See - Diglossia and Dialect in PExH: What Do We Mean by Judahite and Israelian Hebrew?

       Proto-Hebrew (PH). The Canaanite dialects (c.1200-1000 B.C.E.) that would develop into Hebrew with the loss of the case endings. For details see BHA phase 2. Sources - see Harris 1939, Hendel-Lambdin-Huehnergard, Senz-Badillos.

       Pre-exilic Classical Biblical Hebrew (CBH). The literary dialect of Jerusalem c.950-586 B.C.E (First Temple Period). This is the only widely attested form of Judahite Hebrew. It developed out of PH. See: Establishment of Jerusalem Written and Spoken Dialects (c. 1000-c. 900 BCE).

       Israelian Hebrew - This is a catchall term for all the dialects spoken in the villages and towns of the Kingdom of Israel c. 1000 BCE until at least the seventh century BCE. We have very little evidence of Israelian Hebrew. The use of this term does not imply that these dialects had more in common with each other than many of them had to some of the dialects spoken in the Kingdom of Judah and hence classed under the rubric Judahite Hebrew.

       Judahite Hebrew (BHA phase 3). This is a catchall term for all the dialects spoken in the villages and towns of the Kingdom of Judah during the First Temple Period. Use of the term Judahite Hebrew does not imply that these presumably variable dialects had more in common with each other than many of them had to some of the dialects spoken in the Kingdom of Israel and hence classed under the rubric Israelian Hebrew.


As stated earlier, Biblical Hebrew (see Steiner and Encyclopedia Judaica) is the literary form of the very conservative dialect of Jerusalem.  CBH crystallized in Jerusalem about 900 BCE and showed little change until the Babylonian Exile in the 6th century BCE. From then on, Post-Classical Biblical Hebrew (PCBH) became more and more an archaic literary vehicle radically different from the (presumed) spoken Hebrew[21].  As a literary dialect it was used until the fall of the Second Temple in 70 CE.

Biblical Hebrew can be divided into a number of registers including:

      Poetic Biblical Hebrew - This is divided into an archaizing poetic form (ABH) and a standard poetic form (e.g. Job, Psalms). The archaizing poetic form used a special vocabulary and the poetry written in it is highly stylized. The date of origin of the earliest poems is in dispute. They may date from as early as the eleventh century BCE or as late as the nineth. The latest poems in the Hebrew Bible may date from about 450 BCE.

      Prophetic Hebrew[22] - This is a semi-poetic form of rhythmic speech used in e.g. Isaiah which may be compared to blank verse[23]. The use of verb forms in prophetic poetry and in the minor poems scattered through the Hebrew Bible is more similar to their use in BH prose than to their use in psalmic poetry; and,

      Prose Biblical Hebrew[24]

 It is clear that PCBH developed in the exilic and post-exilic period. However, there is actually no reason to believe that CBH did not continue to be used in some circles well after 500 BCE alongside PCBH.[25]

b) Social Base of Pre-Exilic Hebrew

      The similarity of Biblical poetry to Ugaritic poetry clearly indicates continuity in the literary tradition between pre-Israelite Canaan and biblical poetry. The Canaanite glosses in the El-Amarna Letters (See for details Senz-Badillos pp. 33-34) and Phoenician inscriptions are compelling evidence of the origin of Biblical Hebrew out of the Canaanite linguistic matrix. However, the development of Biblical Hebrew out of this matrix had a context:

      Continuance of the Canaanite Israelite Literary Tradition. This tradition was likely oral in its early phases and mixed oral and written through much of its history. In this connection it may be interesting to quote Dever[26]

One of the revisionists' principal objections to Israel's having been a centralized state in the 10th century is that writing would have been a bureaucratic necessity, but we have little if any 10th-century evidence. I have mentioned that the few early Hebrew texts that we do happen to have, however, include an abcedary, or list of the letters of the alphabet (cizbet arah; 12th-11th century), and a poem giving the agricultural seasons (Gezer, 10th century). Both are almost certainly schoolboys' practice texts. Students and others were now learning to write, adapting the Old Canaanite alphabet and script as Hebrew developed into a national language and instrument of cultural expression. We may assume that writing, and even what we may call "functional" literacy, was reasonably widespread by the 10th century, and certainly by the 9th century when even the revisionists must concede that an Israelite state did exist[27]

      Transition from Iron I to Iron II - The considerable archaeological evidence that I have summarized here regarding centralized planning and administration reflects what is regarded in the literature as the principal trait of state-level organization.... I would stress ... that the city defenses and all the rest are part of a dramatic, large-scale process of organization and centralization that utterly transformed the landscape of most of Palestine in the period from the early 10th to early 9th century. It is such shifts in settlement type and distributions together with marked demographic changes that signal most clearly a new archaeological and thus new cultural phase, in this case the transition from Iron I to
Iron II.

      Dialects - We do not have any information on the dialects of the Shephelah[29]. The only direct information that we have on the Samarian dialect(s) is derived from the Samaria Ostraca. As summarized by Gibson[30] -

In the sphere of language, the ostraca tell us little of the northern dialect beyond the likelihood that the process of diphthongal reduction had gone further in Israelite than in Judean Hebrew; thus ין = [yēn], passim, as against יין = [yayn] in the biblical orthography.

See - Dialect, Koine and Diglossia in Ancient Hebrew and the table - Some Political, Social and Linguistic Developments in the Pre-Exilic Period c. 1000-586 BCE.

      The Separation of Israel and Judah This would have reduced the wealth of the government in Jerusalem and lessened its need for scribal services and also led to an exodus of Samarian, Galilean and Gileadite nobles or officials that had established themselves in the capital. Among other impacts, this would have diminished the influence in Jerusalem of Israelite dialects from Samaria, Galilee and Gilead all of which were now included in the kingdom of Israel.

      Samarian Refugees Inundate Judah and Jerusalem - A huge demographic change occurred with the Assyrian destruction of the Kingdom of Israel (722 BCE) which led to a massive transfer of population from Samaria into the towns and countryside of Judah. Much of the archeological evidence of this change has been gathered by Broshi and Finkelstein[31] and is neatly summarized by Finkelstein and Silberman[32] . As pointed out by these authors[33] -

The royal citadel of Jerusalem was transformed in a single generation from the seat of a rather insignificant local dynasty into the political and religious nerve center of a regional powerboth because of dramatic internal developments and because thousands of refugees from the conquered kingdom of Israel fled to the south.

Here archaeology has been invaluable in charting the pace and scale of Jerusalem's sudden expansion. As first suggested by Israeli archaeologist Magen Broshi, excavations conducted there in recent decades have shown that suddenly, at the end of the eighth century BCE, Jerusalem underwent an unprecedented population explosion, with its residential areas expanding from its former narrow ridgethe city of Davidto cover the entire western hill . A formidable defensive wall was constructed to include the new suburbs. In a matter of a few decadessurely within a single generationJerusalem was transformed from a modest highland town of about ten or twelve acres to a huge urban area of 150 acres of closely packed houses, workshops, and public buildings. In demographic terms, the city's population may have increased as much as fifteen times, from about one thousand to fifteen thousand inhabitants.

A similar picture of tremendous population growth emerges from the archaeological surveys in Jerusalem's agricultural hinterland. Not only were many farmsteads built at this time in the immediate environs of the city, but in the districts south of the capital, the formerly relatively empty countryside was flooded with new farming settlements, both large and small. Sleepy old villages grew in size and became, for the first time, real towns. In the Shephelah too, the great leap forward came in the eighth century, with a dramatic growth in the number and size of sites. Likewise, the Beersheba Valley in the far south witnessed the establishment of a number of new towns in the late eighth century. All in all, the expansion was astounding; by the late eighth century there were about three hundred settlements of all sizes in Judah, from the metropolis of Jerusalem to small farmsteads, where one there were only a few villages and modest towns. The population, which had long hovered at a few tens of thousands, now grew to around 120,000.

(W)ith the influx of refugees from the north after the fall of Samaria, the reorganization of the countryside under Hezekiah, and the second torrent of refugees from the desolation of the Shephelah by Sennacherib, many of the traditional clan attachments to particular territories had been forever destroyed.

It is likely that the flood of Samarian refugees brought with them Northern (Samarian and, to a lesser extent Galilean and Gileadite) traditions such as the hero-stories included in the Book of Judges, and traditions relating to the Northern Israelite heroes Jacob, Joseph, Joshua, Elijah and Elisha. They may also have brought documents reflecting the E tradition and the core of Dueteronomy

Regarding the linguistic impact of the Samarian refugees see Development of Proto-Mishnaic Hebrew (c. 586 BCE-c. 70 BC).


c) Time, Aspect and Volition in Biblical Hebrew

See Background on Biblical Hebrew Prefix Conjugation; Background on Biblical Hebrew Suffix Conjugation (traditional "perfect")


Proto-Semitic Tense System basically as in Akkadian see Encyclopedia Judaica article Hebrew Language vol. 16 col. 1566-1568


Biblical Prose - The exact range of meanings of the Biblical Hebrew SC and PC verbal forms has long been subject to debate. As put by Greenstein[34] -

The language of the Hebrew Bible constitutes in the Masoretic Text a self-contained system. Put differently, the Masoretic shaping of the biblical text levels all phenomena within it into one language.... No area of BH grammar has so little succumbed to satisfactory analysis as that of gthe diverse forms and functions of the verb. No analysis has come close to encompassing the gamut of large and minute phenomena that inhabit this most mystifying demain.

Among the most perennially perplexing topics concerning the BH verb is the fact that different forms of the verb serve similar functions and that diverse functions may be fulfilled by one and the same form.... How is it that the prefixed form of the BH verb expresses the present-future here and the past there? Why does biblical verse ... use either a prefixed or suffixed form of the verb to represent the narrated past? Rainey's answer[35]... is that early Canaanite posessed two sets of prefixed verb forms, both defined by their mood: the "indicative" yaqtulu and the "injunctive" yaqtul. The "indicative" yaqtulu, however, had a preterite to represent the narrated past, the shorter form yaqtul. Accordingly, early Canaanite spawned two potentially confusing overlaps. With respect to form, the yaqtul pattern could homonymously represent either a jussive or a past tense. One could only interpret the verb's semantic reference on the basis of context. With regard to function, the narrated past could be expressed by either the suffix form of the verb, *qatala, or by the preterite form of the yaqtulu indicative, yaqtul.


Useful descriptions of the complex biblical Hebrew verbal system are found in: Joϋon-Muraoka 1991 Part Two chapter II; Waltke-OConnor chapters 30-34; and, Naude-Kroeze- Merwe chapter 4. As presented by Naude-Kroeze- Merwe (p. 144) -

It is not clear whether in BH it is time that assumes aspect, or aspect that asssumes time.... BH speakers and narrators had a choice of describing either the aspect or the time of an action. They apparantly also had a choice with respect to the perspective from which they described an action. This could be done from the perspective of the narrator or the narrator could present the action from the perspective of his characters. In the latter case it is sometimes difficult to translate the ...(SC) with the past tense and the imperfect with the present or future tense


Box 2 - Joϋon-Muraoka on Time, Aspect and Volition in BH

to express (without Waw) the present, Hebrew has three forms available: qatal for state and instantaneous action, yiqtol for repeated or durative action, qotel for durative or (secondarily) repeated action.

The value of each verbal form (qatal, yiqtol, qotel) is multiple and relative. In each of the two verb categories (active verbs and stative verbs), and, what is more, in each particular verb, the value of a verbal form is brought out by its contrast with the other two forms. In Hebrew, as in any other language, verbal forms "limit each other reciprocally" [36]. Thus in order to be fully aware of the value of a qatal in a given context, we must ask ourselves what a yiqtol or a qotel would mean.

The system of Hebrew temporal forms, simplistic and even primitive in certain features, is in other respects complex and subtle. If Hebrew neglects the expression of some modalities which our languages habitually express, it expresses, on the other hand, nuances which we usually neglect.

By way of conclusion some deficiencies of the Hebrew temporal forms will now be noted:

1) They express both time and aspect, but only imperfectly. Thus, in the yiqtol used for a future action the aspect of the action is not shown. There is no single form for each of the three temporal spheres. Thus the forms express time not as perfectly as our languages do. After an initial form which situates the action in a temporal sphere, there is fairly often a certain freedom as to what form must be taken by the following verb, which sometimes seems to be used in an atemporal way and to take the value of the preceding form.

2) The nuance of succession and the volitive cannot be expressed at the same time. Thus it is not possible to render the following literally: "I want to go and I (then) want to glean"; either the expression of succession or that of will must be sacrificed, to give either: "I want to go and to glean" (Ru 2.2) or "I want to go and (then) I shall glean" (cf. Ru 2.7).

3) When a second action is negative, neither succession nor purpose-consecution can be expressed, seeing that the negation is usually ולא (for purpose sometimes ואל; cf. 116 j).

4) Volitive forms with ו are ambiguous. The waw may be purely juxtaposing (direct volitive) or modal (indirect volitive: purpose/consecution).

5) Finally, morphological deficiency must be mentioned. In many cases the form is ambiguous. Thus אֶגְלֶה can be used as cohortative as well as indicative, יִקטֹל, יָשִיבוּ: as jussive as well as indicative. And likewise the forms with suffixes. Finally, the form marked specifically as cohortative ( 114 b, n.) and jussive ( 114 g, n.) is sometimes non-existent.[37]


The situation is further complicated in that:

         The active participle, when used as a verb, can cover the range of meanings of the PC imperfect and thus, depending on circumstances, can be used in relation to the past, present or future[38];

         The SC can indicate actions, facts or events which are not time-bound[39]; and,

         The infinitive absolute, infinitive construct and nominal clauses[40] can be used to substitute for any verbal forms referring to the past, present or future. 


Table 1

What Time does the Biblical Hebrew Participle Refer to When Used Verbally?


Time Reference

Language Type

Percentage of Occurrences

Concurrent time





Preceding time






Subsequent time





General time






In BH prose:

- Actions in the past that are seen as completed are normally expressed, depending on context, by either SC (SCpast) שמר (<mr> (/EBHP/) */a'mar/, (/TH/) /'mar/ (/TH/+) *[ɔː'mɐːr]) or PC preterite (PCpret). The preterite, in prose, is usually prefixed by ו (PCpretWC), taking the form וישמר (<(w)ymr> (/EBHP/) */(way)'yimur/; (/TH/) /(way)yi'mor/ (/TH/+) *[(wɐy)yi'moːr]).

- Actions in the future are occasionally expressed using SC (SCprof) שמר (<mr> (/EBHP/) */a'mar/, (/TH/+) /'mar/) if they are seen as certain to happen, as good as completed[41];

- Actions in the present and future and ongoing actions in the past[42] are normally expressed, depending on context[43], by either PC (PCimp_prfut; PCimp_pdur ) imperfect ישמר ((/EBHP/) */yi'mur/ or the waw conversive form of the SC (SCwc) ושמר (<wmr> (/EBHP/) */waa'mar/, (/TH/) /wә'mar/ (/TH/+)

- States in the present are seen as being complete so the SC forms are used for the past and present e.g. ידעתי in the Bible means "I know or knew" depending on context.  Similarly קטונתי means "I am or was small". The PCimp is used for the future. 

Nb. Disappearance of Formal Distinctions between PC Imperfect (PCimp) and Jussive (PCjus) in Strong Verb Except for Hiphil

Box 3

What is the waw conversive"?

The waw conversive" (Hebrew ההיפוך ו) is a defining feature of Biblical Hebrew. Superficially it appears that a prefix וַ (and doubling of the following prefix) added to the preterite (PCpret)-jussive (PCjus) (יקטל and where it exists, the shorter form of the imperfect[44] e.g. יבן/יבך) converts the meaning of the verb into that of the perfect (SCpast קטל) while adding וְ (and sometimes accompanied by a shift of stress) to the perfect, converts the meaning of the verb into that of the imperfect. verbal major is also known as the waw consecutive" since it is normally used in sequential narrative.

Box 4

The Origin of the waw conversive"

Most scholars would agree regarding the Biblical Hebrew waw conversive" that:

a) the PC waw conversive is a remnant of an Akkadian-like preterite;

b) the SC waw conversive was a later analylogical formation.[45]

However, there is a wide range of views on the details[46]. Smith 1991 reviews many of these. In addition, those of Hezron[47] and Blau[48] should be noted.


Biblical Poetry

As correctly stated by Niccacci 2006:

       "... it was and still is a fairly common opinion among scholars, although not always openly declared, that the verbal forms in poetry, more than in prose, can be taken to mean everything the interpreter thinks appropriate according to his understanding and context.... (In reality) the functions of verbal forms in (BH) poetry are basically the same as in (BH) prose, more precisely in direct speech." (p. 247)

       "The main difference is that direct speech, as prose in genral, consists of pieces of information conveyed in a sequence, while poetry communicates segments of information in parallelism. The result is linear vs. segmental communication. As a consequence, poetry is able to switch from one temporal axis to another even more freely than direct speech. This results in a greater variety of, and more abrupt transition from, one verbal form to another." (p. 248)

In addition to its segmental nature, the system of parallelism which pervades and largely defines BH poetics draws heavily on the ability of the language to allow the use of synonyms, near synonyms and, at times, on the availability of multiple verb forms for identical, similar or related meanings.

Table 2

Time/Tense in Biblical Poetry[49]

Temporal Axis

Reconstructed /EBHP/


(See above and Comments on Verbal Forms in Psalms.)

Perfective Past

SCpast - *qaˈtal

Meanings of SC and PCpret_sim/PCpretWC are usually identical.

PCpret_sim - *ˈyiqtul or

PCpretWC *wayˈyiqtul

Durative Past

PCimp_pdur - *yiqˈtul

See above. E.gs. Dt 32:16-17a.; Ju 5:29.


Non-verbal sentence with/without participle

E.gs.Gen 49:3, 5, 12, 14, 21; Nu 23:22; Nu 24:16; Dt 32:4-9, 28, 31-34; Dt 33:13-16b, 20, 25, 26; Ps 48:2-3; 127:3-4; 128:3; 145:13

SC of stative quasi-stative

verb and PCimp of action verb sometimes combined clearly indicating that reference is to present.

See Table B - Present Tense Indicated by the use of the SC of a Stative or Quasi-stative Verb and the PCimp of an Action Verb in the Same Verse


PCimp_prfut - *yiqˈtul

Usual form.


Occassionally used probably for literary effect. Nb. although SCwc is usually identical. in meaning to the PCimp, it sometimes has a jussive sense.

Future Volitive

PCjus - *ˈyiqtul

PCcoh - *ʾiqˈtula(ː); *niqˈtula(ː)

Imperative - */qˈtul/ or */quˈtul/

Jussive can be, and frequently is, used as substitute for the imperative. E.g. Ps. 10:15, 17:8, 43:1, 51:14; 54:3.


Until late in the reading tradition of BH, in most cases, the PCjus, PCpret_sim and

PCpretWC were distinguished from the PCimp by the position of the word stress. The disappearance of this distinction has created doubt regarding the time (future/present/past durative vs. perfective aspect of the past tense) in many lines of biblical poetry.

   See Observations on Some Aspects of the Use of Tenses in Psalms

Table A - Tense Implications of SC and PC in the Same Verse

Table B - Present Tense Indicated by the use of the SC of a Stative or Quasi-stative Verb and the PCimp of an Action Verb in the Same Verse

Table C - PCpret_sim and PCpretWC in the Same Verse Referring to the Past

Table D - PCpret_sim and SC in the Same Verse Referring to the Past

Table E - PCpretWC and SC in the Same Verse Referring to the Past

Table F - PCpret_sim without PCpretWC or SC in the Same Verse Referring to the Past

Table G - PCpretWC Should be Revocalized as PCimp

Table H - Substitutes for PCimp

PCpret_sim in Prophetic Poetry

d) Changes Pending in Biblical Hebrew (BH)

All synchronic views of a language (descriptions of the language at a single point in time), when viewed diachronically (i.e. within the context of the language's growth in time), are snapshots of changes completed, in mid-stride or incipient. However, in some periods these changes are more far-reaching then in others. The Hebrew language was at such a period in the years of pre-exilic Biblical Hebrew (c. 900-600 BCE).  We do not know how Biblical Hebrew would have developed had the Kingdom of Judah not been destroyed by the Babylonians. In actuality the next stage of Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, developed in circumstances of great pressure from Aramaic and Greek which influenced it pervasively.

Major changes pending were:

i. Tenses

Kutscher (1976 p. 41) wrote The tense system of the verb in Biblical Hebrew is more complicated than in any other Semitic dialect. In fact the consecutive tenses (see Box 2 - What is the waw conversive"? and Box 3 - The Origin of the waw conversive" ) were the dying remnants of an Akkadian-like tense system about to give way to some sort of simplified verbal system. Use of the consecutive tenses required that verbs precede subject and object in utterances. Thus the disappearance of the consecutive tenses opened up the possibility of other sentence orders.

Similarly the modal imperfects (jussive, cohortative), increasingly became indistinguishable from the normal imperfect, also were anachronisms waiting to be replaced by clearer and more consistent indications of volition etc..

ii. Place of Stress

With the loss of the final short vowels, Hebrew (and Aramaic) was left with a mixed system of ultimate and penultimate syllabic stress which only made sense in the context of its structure before the loss of the final short vowels[50]. Although languages such as Spanish and Italian have more complex stress patterns, it is likely that the pattern would again become more uniform. Two obvious possibilities present themselves:

      Scenario (a) - Stress could become uniformly penultimate, as it was before the loss of case endings etc., or uniformly ultimate; or,

      Scenario (b) - Stress could revert to being mechanically fixed by vowel or consonant length as in most varieties of Arabic.

In BH both vowel length and place of stress were phonemic though neither carried a heavy load. Scenario (a) maintains the irrelevance of vowel and consonant length to the placement of stress keeping the road open to the disappearance of phonemic vowel and consonant length. Scenario (b) would reestablish the centrality of vowel and consonant length thus reestablishing paradigmatic resistance to long vowel and consonant reduction.


iii. Place of Stress Replacing Vowel and Consonant Length as Phonemic

Consonant and vowel quality had always been most important in establishing phonemic distinctions. In Biblical Hebrew both place of stress and consonant and vowel quantity was phonemic. However, there was a tendency, due to sound shifts, for vowel length distinctions to be replaced by quality distinctions (see Vowel and Consonant Length). Looking back and ahead, we can picture the developments as follows:

a)    C. 2000 BCE phonemic distinction /a/:/ā/; /i/:/ῑ/; /u/:/ū/ were fully operative;

b)    C. 1400 BCE ā>ō leaving i:ῑ; u:ū still phonemic;

c)     After C. 700-500 BCE development of allophones of short vowels meant that most of the Biblical Hebrew vowel minimal pairs were no longer valid in the tradition of the Tiberian Masoretes. However, we should note that distinct long and short vowels and consonants, though no longer phonemic probably did still exist in Tiberian Hebrew;

In Israeli Hebrew distinct long and short vowels do not exist (see Vowel System - Modern Israeli Hebrew).

iv. Long Unstressed Vowel Followed by Short Stressed Vowel

Perhaps in forms such as /EBHP/+ /qō'teːl/ (qal a.p.) and /EBHP/+ /cō'laːm/ 'eternity' there might have been a tendency to lengthen the stressed vowel and shorten the historically long unstressed vowel.

2.2 Post-Exilic Hebrew (PostExH) - Written/Oral Diglossia

Box 5

Some Factors in the Rise of Post-Exilic Hebrew (PostExH)


"The notion that spoken dialects provided the catalyst for the changes in late biblical Hebrew is consistent with what has been previously stated about linguistic change. Saussure, for example, noted that language change always has its locus at the point of interaction of the speaker with his speech community.[51]

The clearest impetus for the linguistic change of late biblical Hebrew is the backdrop of the Babylonian exile. During the exile, no doubt, the language changed more rapidly. Blount and Sanches have noted that external factors such as invasions, conquests, contact, migrations, institutional changes, restructuring, and social movements produce language change.[52] It is striking that the nation of Judah was subject to every one of these experiences in connection with the Babylonian exile.

Also with the return of the exiles from Babylonia, a new Aramaic-speaking element was introduced. Imperial Aramaic became an administrative language and was surely learned by the local upper classes. In historical terms, then, the borderline between these two successive stages of biblical Hebrew is clearly and conveniently demarcated by the Babylonian exile of the early sixth century BCEthe decisive turning point in the whole of Israelite history. It was then that late biblical Hebrew came into being. Thus in the fifth-sixth century BCE a deep wedge was inserted in the Hebrew language, which divided the language as it divided the history of the people of Israelin two.[53]

Quoted from Rooker p. 143.

a. Development of Proto-Mishnaic Hebrew (c. 586 BCE-c. 70 BC).

b. The Impact of Aramaic

Hebrew and Aramaic developed out of local varieties of Proto-Northwest Semitic They diverged for about 1000 years - from the time of the Canaanite shift until the exile in the early 7th century BCE - and converged from the early 7th century BCE until the extinction of MH as a spoken language in the mid second century CE when its population base was destroyed with the suppression of the Bar Kochba rebellion. Their convergence during this latter period was due to the overwhelming influence of Western Aramaic on MH. The greatest expert on Jewish Aramaic and Mishnaic Hebrew of the mid-twentieth century, E. Y. Kutscher wrote[54] -

"There is room for investigation as to whether MH was a Hebrew-Aramaic mixed language. The question may be posed owing to the fact that Aramaic had a pervading influence in all spheres of the language, including inflection, which is generally considered to be inpenetrable to foreign influence."

Though pre-exilic Judean Hebrew was to some extent influenced by occasional waves of linguistic innovations, originating in other closely related Canaanite languages (See the table Linguistic Influences on the Regions of Judah and Israel, and Harris 1939 and 1941), only in border areas of Gilead and eastern and northern Galilee was Hebrew exposed to a non-Canaanite language viz. Aramaic. An example, in the northern and very early Song of Deborah, is the verb יְתַנּוּ let them recount using the Aramaic version of the root תנה in place of the Hebrew שׁנה. Until the late eighth century BCE it would be true to say that there was no significant potion of the Judean population who were bilingual and Jerusalemites could probably pass their lives without ever having to speak or understand a foreign tongue.

This began to change with the fall of Samaria in the late 8th century BCE as Judah became integrated into the wide-ranging Assyrian trading system[55]. The lingua franca of Assyrian rule and international trade at the time was Aramaic. From this period on it is unlikely that there was ever a period when Hebrew speaking international traders, high-level government officials or government scribes would have been ignorant of Aramaic.

Starting in the early sixth century BCE all Hebrew speakers would have been exposed to Aramaic. Indeed, from early in the 6th century B.C.E. until the extinction of Hebrew as a spoken language in the 2nd century C.E. Hebrew was under continuous pressure from Aramaic, a language as closely related to Hebrew as Spanish is to Italian. In addition, from the late fourth century Greek was widely spoken in Palestine. Although Greek directly influenced Hebrew, its greatest influence was from its massive impact on Aramaic which then passed these innovations on to Hebrew. Aramaic was the language of their non-Jewish neighbors (except for some Hellenized Syrians), the normal spoken language of the Jews of Babylonia, the Galilee and of many Jews in Judea. Aramaic was a language spoken in Jerusalem from the late 6th century B.C.E. and may have been its majority tongue. Many Hebrew speaking Jews in Judea would have had various levels of competence in Aramaic as a second language. Since at least the mid-second century C.E. the transmitters of the reading/pronunciation traditions for both Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew were speakers of Aramaic. By the time of the Masoretes, Hebrew had not been a spoken language for 700 years and the tradition(s) of Hebrew pronunciation had been subject to overwhelming Aramaic linguistic pressure for over a millennium and a half. The linguistic pressure from Aramaic not only increased the impetus for change but determined its nature


Box 6

Influence of Aramaic on Post-Exilic Hebrew (PostExH)

Aramaic had a far-reaching impact and left its mark on all facets of the language, namely, orthography, phonetics and phonology, morphology including inflection, syntax, and vocabulary. There is room for investigation as to whether Mishnaic Hebrew was a Hebrew-Aramaic mixed language. This question may be posed owing to the fact that A had a pervading influence in all spheres of the language, including inflection, which is generally considered to be impenetrable to foreign influence.

Orthography. All of the peculiarities mentioned above as being in MH are found, more or less, in the Palestinian Aramaic dialects as well, especially Galilean and Christian-Palestinian Aramaic, and even in the eastern dialects.

Phonetics and Phonology. The fact that the consonantal phonemes (according to biblical Aramaic also the vocalic phonemes) are from a synchronic point of view identical in both languagesa phenomenon without parallel often even in different dialects of the same languageis noteworthy. Common to H and Aramaic are: the double realization כפ״ת בג״ד (b g d k p t); the weakening of the gutturals to a greater or lesser extent in most of the Aramaic dialects; and common assimilation and dissimilation phenomena (with regard to ר , especially in Galilean Aramaic).

Inflection. The independent personal pronoun אַתְּ ("you" masc.) and the possessive pronouns ־ָךְ,.יךְ. are clear indications of Aramaic influence. With regard to the verb, the influence was weaker. The loss of the puccal is paralleled in Aramaic, whereas the hopcal still exists as opposed to the Aramaic dialects where it disappeared .Aramaic influence was less felt in the noun patterns.

Tenses and Syntax. The tense system completely parallels that of Galilean Aramaic and is close to that of Christian-Palestinian and Samaritan Aramaic. It is also similar to that of Eastern Aramaic. The assumption that the whole tense system is influenced by Aramaic seems to be inescapable. Even though there still is no real comprehensive study on the syntax of Mishnaic Hebrew and the Western Aramaic dialects, there seems to be a far-reaching parallelism between them.

Vocabulary. It is clear that Aramaic influence is considerable in this category. Even in the numerals there are Aramaic elements, e.g., ֹשְתוּת ("a sixth") and תוֹמֶן ("an eighth"). As is well known also the numerals are most resistant to penetration of foreign elements.

There are also many calques, such as, אָחַז = סָגַר ("he closed"). Similarly the fact that in MH כּוֹס ("goblet") is masculine and שָדֶה ("field") is feminine goes back to Aramaic influence.

Quoted from Kutcher 1971 col. 1605-6



c. Mishnaic, Middle or Rabbinic Hebrew (MH - see for details Senz-Badillos chapt. 6. For the relation between BH and MH see Young, Rezetko, Ehrensvrd 2008 chapt. 9.)

 With the destruction of the First Temple (587 BCE) the scribal schools and royal patronage of writers ended, Jerusalem was depopulated, the country was ruined and much of the population was exiled to Babylonia where the common language was Aramaic.  Later, a small number of Babylonian Jews, probably mainly either Aramaic speaking or Hebrew-Aramaic bilingual, returned to Judah where they provided the leadership, under Persian imperial patronage, for a slow restoration of Jerusalem and a much reduced Judah known as the province of Yahud.

 When written[56] sources again give us a look in, the linguistic situation of the country was[57]:

      Greek was widely spoken in (see map of Hellenistic and Herodian Cities):

         Coastal plain;

         Decapolis (Jordan Valley north of Parea, the main Jewish area in Trans-Jordan);

         Greek cities within Jewish areas in Galilee;

         Greek cities within Samaritan populated areas of central and northern Samaria;

         Greek cities within Idumean areas in the northern Negev i.e. what was formerly the southern section of the territory of the tribe of Judah.


      Aramaic was the majority language of the country.  Probably it was the only language, other than Greek, spoken throughout the country except for some areas of Judea between Lod and Jericho.  It seems to have been the language of the upper classes in Jerusalem; and,

      A Proto-Mishnaic or Proto-Rabbinic Hebrew (PMH) was probably spoken, along with Aramaic in some areas of Judea between Lod and Jericho; and,

      Late Biblical Hebrew which was a literary language, along side Greek and Aramaic for the Jewish population.  There were no speakers of this artificial tongue.  This is not dissimilar to the situation of Modern Literary Arabic today or Church Latin in the middle ages.

PMH was undoubtedly the descendent of a koine spoken Hebrew developed when speakers of different Hebrew dialects were thrown together by the events surrounding the Babylonian conquest. Quantatively the large majority of these Hebrew speaking Judeans lived outside Jerusalem and many would have had roots in southern Samaria. This koine underwent major changes due to three causes:

      natural developments internal to the language (see Segal, Kutscher 1982, Bendavid);

      the profound influence of spoken Aramaic in vocabulary, semantics and grammar including inflection; and

      the lesser influence of Greek, and perhaps after the conversion of the Idumeans, the Edomite language.

Due to the influence of Aramaic, the following changes occurred -


As noted above, the Hebrew tense system was clearly headed for a rationalization. We do not know how the system would have developed in the absence of overwhelming Aramaic pressure. Perhaps, instead of being reduced to the modal form we see in Mishnaic Hebrew, the prefix-form (imperfect) might have developed into something like the modern spoken Arabic imperfect in which prefixes separate the present, future, imperfect and modal forms with clarity[58]. However, the Aramaic verbal system drastically changed, perhaps under Greek influence, and the Mishnaic Hebrew verbal system changed in close parallel due to Aramaic influence[59].

     Word order

As mentioned above, the demise of the consecutive tenses freed Hebrew from the necessity of starting most narrative clauses with a verb. This could have resulted in any number of new patterns such as a predominant subject-verb-object order such as is found in Israeli Hebrew and most modern spoken Arabic dialects. Due to the influence of Aramaic speech habits, Mishnaic Hebrew developed a sentence syntax mirroring that of Western Aramaic which, among other things, frequently began utterances with the verb.


As noted above, with the loss of the final short vowels, Hebrew and Aramaic were left with mixed systems of ultimate and penultimate syllabic stress which were likely to become more uniform in time. Under the sustained influence of Western Aramaic, Mishnaic Hebrew became predominantly penultimately stressed[60]. In the absence of Aramaic influence, a shift to a general ultimate stress, or a stress pattern similar to Classical Arabic, might have been other possible outcomes.


Scholars have, at times, claimed that Hebrew was completely replaced by Aramaic during this period.  However, SegalGreenfield and Levine have demonstrated that this was not the case.  Modern linguistic study, research on contemporary sources, the Bar Kochba letters in a popular spoken Hebrew all show that Hebrew was a spoken language of southern Palestine until at least 135 CE when, in the wake of the Bar Kochba rebellion,  the Romans evicted or killed the Jewish population in the areas in which Hebrew was still spoken.  At that point, Aramaic and Greek became virtually the only spoken languages of the whole of what is now Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.  An early form of Arabic was already spoken on the desert fringes of this area.

The Roman suppression of the first Jewish revolt against Rome (67-70 CE), including the destruction of Jerusalem led to a social-cultural-religious collapse.  This included the disappearance of the priestly aristocracy and Jewish groups such as the Sadducees and Essenes.  The earliest Rabbinic literature dates from the period 70-200 CE and it is written in the spoken Hebrew of the time, often called, after the most famous literary product of the time, Mishnaic Hebrew.

I will say a few words about Mishnaic Hebrew.

In 1st century BCE-first century CE Judea many native Hebrew speakers would have been able to speak, or at least understand, Aramaic.  It must be remembered, that Aramaic and Hebrew are about as different as Spanish and Italian. 

As I mentioned, Mishnaic Hebrew is very different from Biblical Hebrew  - certainly more different than present day English is from the language of Shakespeare though less different than that of our language from that of Chaucer.

Mishnaic Hebrew differed from Biblical Hebrew in:

      stress - predominantly penultimate[61];

      syntax and the use of tenses both greatly simplified and restructured on the model of contemporary Western Aramaic. Particularly noteworthy is the expression of modality.  As noted above, the modal imperfects (jussive (PCjus), cohortative (PCcoh)), were increasingly indistinguishable from the normal (indicative) imperfect. In Mishnaic Hebrew this problem was solved by using the active participle (קוֹטֵל) as the present/future tense, in place of the biblical (indicative) imperfect, while the prefix conjugation ("imperfect") served in the words of Prez (p. 124; see also p. 108) -

... the imperfect can be used for expressing the future. Through it, an action that has not yet taken place can be represented or a series of future events narrated.... In the main, or independent, clause, clause, the imperfect almost inevitably has a modal aspect, cohortative (expressing volition), optative (expressing a wish), jussive (expressing a command), for example:

... If he is God, let him come and destroy ( וימחה יבוא)

...What can I do (אעשה מה )?

... If they are three, he says, Let us bless (נברך)

... Who could wipe the dust ( יְגַלֶּה מִי) ...

      the use of של 'of' to replace the construct in many uses - this was probably influnced by the simiular construction. As Kapeliuk[62] wrote -

... replacing the possesive construction of the construct state by an analytic construction, often including the same particle which is used in creating relative clauses. It is not impossible that the difficulty inherent in deriving the correct forms of the construct state from the basic form of the noun, especially in languages with such unstable vocalism as Syriac or Hebrew.

The difficulty that Kapeliuk hinted at really only arose in the post-exilic period as shown (using TH as a proxy for earlier, but unrecorded forms of Hebrew) in the following table.

Table 3

Deriving the Construct State from the Absolute State
More Complex in TH than in EBHP



(c. 850-550 BCE)


/TH/+ *[TH]

(c. 850 CE)





'word of'









'words of'









righteousness of'





'acts of righteousness'




'acts of righteousness of' (construct)





      morphology standard verbal nouns as well as Aramaic noun forms;

      pronunciation - on the model of contemporary Western Aramaic; and,

      vocabulary probably preserves many words for work-a-day objects and activities that were never mentioned in the Bible due to the subjects discussed in the Bible or, more accurately, not discussed.  Examples might include keve  (preserves); gaḥar (jetty) and zol (cheapness). It also includes a vast number of Aramaic and Greek words.

Mishnaic Hebrew does not seem to have been used for poetry, prophecy or high prose.  However, what it lacked in grandeur, grace and dignity it made up in precision. 

See -

Changes in Pronunciation Between the First Temple Period, Tiberian Biblical Vocalization and Modern Hebrew most of which Alter the Syllabic Structure

Consonants that Were Distinct and Phonemic in the First Temple Period that Have Merged in Modern Pronunciation

Consonants that Exist in Modern Pronunciation but were absent in Hebrew of the First Temple Period

Linguistic Changes Affecting the Pronunciation of Biblical Hebrew 2000 B.C.E. - 850 C.E. According to Various Scholars

Some Political, Social and Linguistic Developments in the Pre-Exilic Period c. 1000-586 BCE

2.3 Changes in the Pronunciation Tradition of Biblical Hebrew Between the Early 6th Century BCE and that Recorded in the Tiberian Masoretic Tradition (c. 850 CE)

2.4 Medieval Hebrew - Between the Mishnah and the Revival of Hebrew in the Late 19th Century (See for details Senz-Badillos chapt. 7)

All forms of Hebrew used in this period consisted, in varying portions, of 4 elements:

      Biblical Hebrew

      Mishnaic Hebrew

      The writer's native language

      Literary models that the writer was imitating consciously or unconsciously


2.5 Modern (Israeli) Hebrew (IH)[64]

(a) Foundation Process

Modern Israeli Hebrew (see Berman), generally called either Modern Hebrew or Israeli Hebrew, started life, in the late 19th century, in the same way as all forms of Hebrew since the mid-first century CE i.e. a combination of Tiberian pointed Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, the influence of the native languages of the speakers and, for the written form, their literary models. This last element was of the least importance in fashioning the language.  In the case of Israeli Hebrew, the influence of the native languages of the speakers translated into a profound impact on IH (see below), of the sentence structure and semantics of Yiddish, Russian and German in that order of importance. 

Another way of looking at the process is in terms of a pidginization - creolization - decreolization process. I.e. -

1.      The first generation of Hebrew speakers, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, spoke a pidgin combining:

       relexified Yiddish[65] with the resulting Hebrew vocabulary mostly conforming to the semantics of the Yiddish words calqued; and,

       elements of literary Hebrew pronounced within the phonetic limitations of Yiddish.

2.      The first generation of native speakers spoke a Hebrew creole. However, they are educated in earlier forms of literary Hebrew which results in some decreolization.[66]

Box 7

Koineization, Creole and Decreolization in the Formation of IH

The modern (Hebrew) language is a "revived" classical language which now performs all the functions of a community vernacular. Contact was ENTIRELY between L2 (second language Hebrew) speakers, yet developments followed a pattern familiar from koineization (indeed Blanc 1968:238, in his account of the development of Israeli Hebrew, refers to the language as a "koine,"...). As pointed out by Glinert (1989...), there has been considerable reduction in the phonological inventory, as compared to the liturgical language. Like many other Semitic languages, Biblical Hebrew distinguished the pharyngeal consonants /ħ/ and /ʕ/ and the velar /x/. Neither /ħ/ nor /ʕ/ was acquired by the majority of the (adult) Ashkenazi immigrants, whose first languages were European. Instead, they merged /ħ/ with /x/, a phone widely found in European languages, and deleted /ʕ/ altogether.... The Sephardic Jews, who had an Arabic substrate, used the pharyngeals in their Hebrew vernacular. In the majority, high-status vernacular, the pharyngeals have been leveled out, despite being widely regarded as correct.

Unlike Glinert, Ravid 1995 investigates some of the processes behind these changes. Her study of language acquisition in Hebrew is extremely revealing in that it examines the role of children in the establishment of new spoken norms. She claims that Modern Hebrew is morphologically more opaque (irregular) than its antecedents because of the "phonological erosion" which followed its being "revived as a spoken medium using a new phonological system only loosely related to that of Classical Hebrew, with entire phonological classes being obliterated" (1995:133). Thus she finds, among child learners, the development of non-standard reanalyses of morphological classes which are promoted by the principles of "Transparency, Simplicity, and Consistency," but are constrained by literacy and the "literate propensity towards marked structures" (1995:162). In the immediate post-1945 period, adult L2 (second language) Hebrew speakers transmitted the language to children, who nativized the input (doubtless according to a route similar to that suggested by Ravid). Significantly ... this stabilization is evidently still not complete, even though the majority of Israeli children now have native Hebrew-speaking parents.

Quoted from Kerswill and Williams 2000 pp. 70-71

We can tackle our discussion of Israeli Hebrew under three heads:

         Morphology and Syntax

         Phonology i.e. sound system

         Semantics i.e. the range of meanings and associations of words

 The relative importance of Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, the influence of the native languages of the speakers differs in each of these issues.


(b) Morphology and Syntax

The word grammar comprehends both morphology (i.e. study and description of word formation (as inflection, derivation, and compounding) in language) and syntax i.e. the way in which linguistic elements (as words) are put together to form constituents (as phrases or clauses).

 The morphology of Israeli Hebrew has been little influenced by the native languages of its early speakers[67].  One can generalize and say that: 

                  in the morphology i.e. the forms of verbs and nouns Biblical Hebrew predominates (see Tene);

                  in the radical simplification of grammar and a concomitant movement to becoming a more analytical language Israeli Hebrew follows Mishnaic Hebrew;

                  In the use of tenses and the development of rigid rules of subordination in sentence structure the influence of Standard Average European[68] (see Rosen) was predominant[69]. Of interest is the development of new modal forms by prefixing ɛ \ә \ () (or bo - בוא with the first person )- to the prefix conjugation[70]. Egs. (from Gilnert 28.3, 28.6) -

* emphatic imperative - תשכח שלא 'Don't you forget!'

* jussive - שיזכור 'He should remember / let him remember'; יזכרו שהם 'They'd better remember'

* cohortative with prefix ש - לך יתן שאני 'Let me give you'; זה את שנזכו 'Let's bear it in mind'

* cohortative with prefix בוא - לך אתן בוא 'Let me give you'; רגע נחשוב בוא 'Let me think for a moment'

Modern Hebrew has regularized the use of inherited forms in a way that makes it extremely easy to create new lexemes as loan-translations from European languages.  These include:

                  Relational Adjectives (Arabic term nisba, also written nisbe(h)) i.e. any word, native or foreign, can be changed into an adjective by adding the vowel ī represented by the letter yod*;

                  perfect participles, really adjectives, are regularly formed out of any active verbal stem i.e.: qal - pa'ul; piel - mefu'al; hiphil - muf'al;

                  verbal action nouns are regularly formed out of any verbal stem i.e.: qal - pe'ila; piel - pi'ul; hiphil-haphala; niphal - hipa'lut; hitpael - hitpa'alut

                  any word can be changed into an abstract noun by adding the suffix ות (t );

                  many foreign words can be changed into Hebrew verbs in the piel  pual - hitpael stems or analytically through the use of the verb עשה 'asa (to make or do).  An analytical causative has formed using the verb גרם garam (see Berman.);

                  wide use is made of a range of methods to allow adjectives and nouns to be used adverbially;

                  also widely created are western type compound adjectives (see Table 6 - Western-type Compound Nouns and Adjectives in Israeli Hebrew and Arabic (MSA)[71];

                  nouns formed from the contraction of two words e.g. kolnoa = "cinema" (kol=voice, noa=movement).

                  Use of inherited forms to form neologisms

(For a native speaker coining a new word) The semantic factors determining pattern choice are varied. Speakers .tend to look for the most prominent and the most-readily-available pattern they observe in the recent everyday lexicon. A derivation pattern may be used widely enough to function as the default pattern for some category, but even then is still associated with some broad semantic (or at least syntactic) feature. Generally, the broader the semantic category, the more likely is the default pattern to be selected: pucal for passive verbs, hitpacel for all other non-agentive verbs, pi'el for agentive ones; + i for attributive adjectives, meCuCaC for verb related ones; CiCuC for verb-related abstract nominalizations, + ut for other nominalizations; + on for diminutives, + an for agentives/instrumentals, + iya for locatives. There are other patterns, ranked below the default ones on the productivity scale, but nevertheless significantly productive: + ay/ + a'i for agents and agent attributes, CaCiC for + able-type adjectives, etc. Beyond these primary choices, a number of general semantic factors may also play a role, resulting in additional adjustments and shifts. Such modifications usually do not upset the basic semantic classification, at least not at the highest level. Maintaining a degree of transparency for the base within the neologism is one such factor. It is often manifest in preservation of the original consonant clustering of the base. The prominence of a pattern in the new lexicon is determined not only by size, but also by semantic saliency and coherence, as well as by pattern transparency. Often, pattern transparency is enhanced by transparent suffixation. If it is evident that additional suffixation would be semantically redundant, the most economical representation (i.e. minimal suffixation) is chosen. Minor shifts between partially-similar patterns may also be caused by semantic considerations, such as preference for the semantically more salient (or more transparent) pattern, or for the pattern which speakers regard as semantically unmarked. Frequency of commonly used alternates". (Bolozky p. 193)