The Origin of the Hebrew Language

April 18th, 2013

The origins of the Hebrew language have a religious version and a scientific version.

Take Hebrew for example. Hebrew is an ancient language with the full force of that word: Reliably dated to at least the 10th century BCE. That’s incredibly old, and begs the ultimate question: Where did Hebrew come from? What was it’s origin? Because Hebrew is not simply a language but also a huge component of one of the world’s oldest and most durable religions, there are two approaches to this question: Biblical and scientific.

Biblical History

According to the Bible, Hebrew was the original language of mankind, the language spoken between God and Adam in the Garden of Eden, and the universal language of all men at first. The Bible blames the division of languages and nations on the Tower of Babel, which is a story of pride and punishment. Humanity, speaking one language, began the building of a great tower which would reach up into heaven itself. God, seeing this, scattered them and confused their speech so that work could not continue. That’s why the word ‘babel’ is often used to signify a lack of communication.

Hebrew became just one of many languages at this point, part of a family of Semitic languages so named because they were spoken by the descendent of Shem, a son of Noah from the Great Flood. So according to the Bible, Hebrew has always existed, and was once the true lingua franca of the world.

Scientific History

A more scientific approach, however, confounds this. So far we don’t have any theories about a single unified language. Of course, go far enough back in time and our knowledge dwindles to zero, so it is of course possible – but so far we have established that there were several “proto” languages that pre-date recorded history. For example, there is a theorised language known as Proto Indo-European which is ultimately considered to be the parent language of the Indo-European languages today (including English). We have reconstructed the existence of this proto language based on the evidence we have and the observed behaviours of modern languages.

Is there a Proto-Semitic language? There is. In fact, we know of several extinct Semitic languages that pre-date Hebrew’s first appearance in the historic record – for example, Akkadian, spoken in ancient Mesopotamia as far back as the 23rd century BCE. It seems strange that Hebrew would be the first language, and yet we have evidence of Akkadian (and others) that so far pre-date Hebrew’s first appearance.

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