In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language

By Joel M. Hoffman | Go to book overview

Chapter 1

Introduction

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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In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Contents v
  • List of Tables xi
  • List of Figures xiii
  • Acknowledgments xv
  • Part I - Getting Started 1
  • Chapter 1 - Introduction 3
  • Chapter 2 - Rules of the Game 7
  • Part II - Antiquity 13
  • Chapter 3 - Writing 15
  • Chapter 4 - Magic Letters and the Name of God 39
  • Chapter 5 - The Masoretes 49
  • Chapter 6 - Pronunciation 81
  • Part III - Moving On 119
  • Chapter 7 - The Dead Sea Scrolls 121
  • Chapter 8 - Dialects in the Bible 149
  • Chapter 9 - Post-Biblical Hebrew 165
  • Part IV - Now 185
  • Chapter 10 - Modern Hebrew 187
  • Chapter 11 - Keep Your Voice from Weeping 211
  • Part V - Appendices 215
  • Appendix A - More About the Rules of the Game 217
  • Appendix B - Further Reading 229
  • Bibliography 245
  • Index 251
  • About the Author 263
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