In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language

In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language

In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language

In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language


Hebrew as a language is just over 3,000 years old, and the story of its alphabet is unique among the languages of the world. Hebrew set the stage for almost every modern alphabet, and was arguably the first written language simple enough for everyone, not just scribes, to learn, making it possible to make a written record available to the masses for the first time.

Written language has existed for so many years- since around 3500 BCE- that most of us take it for granted. But as Hoffman reveals in this entertaining and informative work, even the idea that speech can be divided into units called "words" and that these words can be represented with marks on a page, had to be discovered. As Hoffman points out, almost every modern system of writing descends from Hebrew; by studying the history of this language, we can learn a good deal about how we express ourselves today.

Hoffman follows and decodes the adventure that is the history of Hebrew, illuminating how the written record has survived, the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls and ancient translations, and attempts to determine how the language actually sounded. He places these developments into a historical context, and shows their continuing impact on the modern world.

This sweeping history traces Hebrew's development as one of the first languages to make use of vowels. Hoffman also covers the dramatic story of the rebirth of Hebrew as a modern, spoken language.

Packed with lively information about language and linguistics and history, In the Beginning is essential reading for both newcomers and scholars interested in learning more about Hebrew and languages in general.


Roughly 3,000 years ago, in and around the area we now call Israel, a group of people who may have called themselves ivri, and whom we call variously “Hebrews,” “Israelites,” or more colloquially but less accurately “Jews,” began an experiment in writing that would change the world.

The Hebrews inherited a writing system from the Phoenicians — another group of people living in the same region — who in turn were the recipients of older systems of writing, some of which had hundreds or thousands of symbols. Rather than using these older systems, the Phoenicians developed a more compact set of two dozen or so symbols, with each symbol roughly representing one consonantal sound. But while their consonant-based system offered a vast improvement in simplicity over earlier ones, the Phoenician approach was not widely learned and used by the masses: reading and writing remained primarily the domain of expert scribes, as it had been been since the inception of writing.

The Hebrews took the Phoenician consonantal system and doubled up three of the letters (h, w, and y) for use as vowels, so that, for example, the Hebrew letter h represented not only the consonant h but also the vowel a, thereby making it possible to record some vowel sounds alongside the consonantal sounds. This seemingly minor addition (which followed a long string of innovations) completed the process that had begun thousands of years earlier, making it possible for the first time for non-experts to write. Suddenly, with the Hebrew alphabet, anyone who cared to could record thoughts for posterity.

The Hebrew alphabet proved wildly successful. Perhaps through Aramaic — a language similar to Hebrew, written with the same letters, and spoken in antiquity by the Aramaeans — Hebrew was used as the basis for the Greek and Latin alphabets, which, in turn, along with Hebrew itself, were destined to form the basis for almost all of the world's alphabets.

For example, the “Roman” alphabet that forms the English part of this . . .

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