Introductory Remarks: Historical Linguistics and the Dating of Hebrew Texts CA. 1000-300 B.C.E

By Zevit, Ziony | Hebrew Studies Journal, Annual 2005 | Go to article overview

Introductory Remarks: Historical Linguistics and the Dating of Hebrew Texts CA. 1000-300 B.C.E


Zevit, Ziony, Hebrew Studies Journal


In 1927, M. H. Segal's A Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew (Oxford University Press, 1927, reprinted in 1958 with corrections and addenda) helped launch a new sub-discipline in historical linguistics: The History of Hebrew. In order for him to establish that Mishnaic Hebrew was a well-defined linguistic stage in the history of Hebrew meriting a description on its own terms, it was necessary to demonstrate the ways in which it was unlike Biblical Hebrew. He produced impressive lists of data illustrating that the differences between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew extended to style of expression, vocabulary, and grammar, that is, phonology, morphology, and syntax.

His lists illustrated that of the 1350 verbs in the Biblical Hebrew lexicon, Mishnaic Hebrew lost 250 verbs while gaining about 300 new ones. Through analysis of its lexicon, Segal showed how Aramaic semantic calques on Hebrew changed the meanings of Biblical Hebrew words that continued into Mishnaic Hebrew or how Biblical Hebrew words were replaced by Aramaic words or how new Hebrew words replaced old Hebrew words.

Segal's research indicated beyond doubt that Mishnaic Hebrew was not a debased or slightly evolved form of Biblical Hebrew. The repertoire of its linguistic norms was not described in grammars of Biblical Hebrew while its lexical resources were larger and more diverse than those of Biblical Hebrew. From an historical perspective it had to be studied on its own because it was geographically discontinuous with most of Biblical Hebrew, because the linguistic environment in which it was spoken differed significantly from that of Biblical Hebrew, and because it was a few centuries younger than Biblical Hebrew but not necessarily its direct stemmatic continuation.

Historical linguistics begins by noting that living languages change. Their phonology changes as do their morphology and syntax and vocabulary when new words are introduced and old ones drop out of use or when the semantic load of individual vocables shift. Linguists have observed, on the basis of two centuries of research into many languages, that change occurs more easily and hence rapidly--when and if it occurs--in phonology and lexicon than in morphology and syntax. But change occurs, exactly the type of changes that Segal described in 1927.

Since the 1920s, work on delimiting the characteristic features of Hebrew in many of its historical periods has continued unabated, primarily at institutions in Israel, but also in some located in Europe and North America. Nowadays, scholars talk about Modern Israeli Hebrew, Haskalah Hebrew, Medieval Hebrew, Mishnaic/Tannaitic Hebrew, and, of course, Biblical Hebrew.

Researchers in Israel work on all periods of Hebrew, from Biblical Hebrew through the contemporary language, whereas those outside of Israel work primarily on Hebrew from both the First and Second Temple periods, including some Mishnaic Hebrew, but more often on the Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls, an ill-defined type that fits chronologically somewhere between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew. A bibliographically rich summary of the achievements and the state of research in Mishnaic Hebrew is available in Moshe Bar Asher, "Mishnaic Hebrew: An Introduction," HS 40 (1999): 115-151.

Projects aimed at refining notions about Hebrew of the First Temple period were stimulated not only by the comparative data supplied by the Ugaritic after the 1930s, but also by research into Aramaic dialects from early antiquity through the modern period, and by work on Akkadian in general and the Amarna dialects in particular. In addition, such projects benefited directly from advances in semantics and dialect studies, by studies of the living linguistic and textual traditions in diasporic Jewish communities, and by the study and analysis of newly discovered Hebrew and Aramaic inscriptions. The inscriptions proved to be of major importance because they supplied archaeologically dated, uncurated texts for linguistic analysis. …

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