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Index / Languages / Semitic /
Hebrew: 'ivrit
Arabic: ¢ibriyya

The Hebrew alphabet

Hebrew alphabet

Semitic language used in Israel, principally by Jews, counting in total 4.15 million or 56% of the population. Both absolute numbers and the representation is increasing fast.
Hebrew is categorized as a part of the Canaanite group of the Semitic languages, to which also the ancient languages, Phoenician and Moabite, belonged.
There are several theories to the origin of the name 'Hebrew', but among the most likely is that it comes from Egyptian 'apiru'. 'Apiru' was used as a designation for the class in the Egyptian society which hired themselves out for specific services.
Today's Hebrew is a spoken language that is based upon the written Hebrew taken from old Hebrew texts. It is the only spoken language in the world derived from a written language.
Hebrew consists of 22 consonants, written from right to left. Vowels are normally not written. A method of indicating vowels is ascribed to the scholar Masoretes, and today these Masoretic points are used in scriptures, children's books and also poetry.
Biblical Hebrew is noted for a relatively small vocabulary, and there were only 2 verb tenses, perfect and imperfect. This caused problems in writing, largely dealing with time, and combinations of perfect and imperfect were used to expand the range of temporal descriptions.
The vocabulary of modern Hebrew — called 'ivrit — is based upon biblical Hebrew, but with numerous additions from the entire history of the language. For modern usage, several scholars have developed new words that are based upon the structure of Hebrew, but Hebrew has also borrowed words from other languages, including Arabic, Persian, Greek, Latin, Yiddish and especially Aramaic. The syntax of modern Hebrew is based on that of the Mishnah. The pronunciation is taken from Sephardic Jewish interpretation (Turkey, Greece, Bulgaria) interpreted it.

12th century BCE: Hebrew is developing into an independent language. It is believed that it may have been almost identical with Phoenician before this time. This becomes the language with which the Old Testament later is written.
3rd century BCE: Jews living in Palestine starts to speak more and more Aramaic. Jews outside Palestine speak the languages of the communities in which they settled. In this period, Aramaic strongly influences Hebrew with rules of syntax and with additions to the vocabulary.
Last century BCE: The Hebrew alphabet, as we know it today, is believed to be developed.
200 CE: Development of what is now called Mishnahic Hebrew, or rabbinic Hebrew — the language used in the Mishnah. In the following years, the guttural sounds of Hebrew are simplified, and there is a strong influx of words from Greek, Latin, and Persian.
9th century: The use of Hebrew is in decline, resulting in it not being used anymore, except for religious writings.
1880: At the same time as Zionism emerges, the modern Hebrew begins to be developed.
1913: Hebrew becomes the language of instruction in Jewish schools in Palestine.
1948: With the establishment of the state of Israel, Hebrew becomes the official language.

By Tore Kjeilen