Hebrew language refers to a variety of Canaanite languages and dialects historically spoken by various peoples in the region of Canaan whom Abrahamic religion believes to have been Hebrews who emigrated from the Chaldees. These different languages were not necessarily more or less related to each other than to other Canaanite languages, and their traditional distinction as Hebrew languages is almost purely by religious belief.
Of the varieties of Hebrew, only one — Modern Hebrew — survives as a spoken language today, and is one of the official languages of the State of Israel. A few others survive as liturgical languages, but are otherwise not actively used in daily life.
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Hebrew subdivisions in Biblical Canaan
Abrahamic religion believes that there were (at least) four Hebrew nations in Canaan: Ammon, Moab, Edom and Israel, all believed to be direct descendants of the Hebrew patriarch Terah, whose son Abram and grandson Lot settled in Canaan and adapted to the local language of the Canaanites. Although they are believed to have had contact and trade with the indigenous Canaanites, it is also believed that the more pious families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob forbade intermarriage or assimilation to Canaanite culture, ultimately giving the Israelites a culture permanently separated from the Canaanites.
Language of Biblical Hebrews before Canaan
If (as the Book of Genesis implies) the Hebrews came from elsewhere rather than being native to Canaan, their language was most probably not a Canaanite one (as Biblical Hebrew linguistically is). Biblical scholars who accept this feature of the account in Genesis have put forward several theories as to what this language may have been:
- The language was an early form of the Aramaic language, more specifically the same language spoken by Laban, another descendant of Terah. This theory assumes that Laban inherited the language ancestrally from Terah, thus assuming that the Hebrews spoke Aramaean languages.
- It was a Northeast Caucasian language, perhaps closely related to Avar.
- The language was one of the extinct Hurro-Urartian languages, a non-Semitic language family based in eastern Anatolia. This theory assumes that the Hebrews were originally Hurro-Urartian-speaking, and different descendants of the culture adopted local languages wherever they sojourned or settled. It also associates the Hebrews with Urartu and the mountains of Ararat, the traditional landing site of Noah's ark.
- The early Hebrews were highly multilingual and no one language clearly predominated.
List of Hebrew languages
- Ammonite language (extinct)
- Moabite language (extinct)
- Edomite language (extinct)
- Biblical Hebrew language (Israelites)
- Samaritan Hebrew language (liturgical)
- Mishnaic Hebrew language (Jews)