Blau, Joshua, “The historical periods of the Hebrew language”. Pages 1-13 in Jewish Languages, Theme and Variations. Edited by Herbert Paper. Cambridge, Mass: Association for Jewish Studies, 1978.

In this short conference paper, Blau gives a summary of the historical periods of the Hebrew language with special attention to those features which have become the primary constituents of Modern Hebrew.

1. Pre-Biblical Hebrew (roughly 20th – 12th century BCE) is not well understood. Our only evidence is indirect in Akkadian and Egyptian documents. Even then, it is difficult to distinguish true “Hebrew” from “Canaanite”. 

2. Biblical Hebrew is attested predominately in the Bible, but also in some inscriptions and transcriptions (ie the Hexapla). The inscriptional evidence is limited by the use of a consonantal script, but we can make some inferences. For example, the spelling ין (presumably yēn) instead of יין (yayin) for ‘wine’ in northern ostraca suggests that monophthongization of /ay/ was more widespread in northern dialects than in Judea.

2.1. Archaic Biblical Hebrew is preserved mainly in poetry. It is marked by several features:

– long forms of prepositions (אלי elē, עלי alē, עדי adē)

– less frequent use of the definite article and the object marker את

– less frequent use of relative אשר 

– the ending / on nouns in the construct

– the pronominal suffix מו- -mō ‘their/them’

– the use of the construct form before prepositions

– the use of the shortened imperfect (preterite) as in Dt 32:8:

בְּהַנְחֵ֤ל עֶלְיוֹן֙ גּוֹיִ֔ם בְּהַפְרִיד֖וֹ בְּנֵ֣י אָדָ֑ם
יַצֵּב֙ גְּבֻלֹ֣ת עַמִּ֔ים לְמִסְפַּ֖ר בְּנֵ֥י יִשְׂרָאֵֽל

“When the Most High gave to the nations their inheritance, when he divided mankind, 
he fixed the borders of the peoples according to the number of the sons of Israel.”

2.2. Pre-exilic Classical Hebrew prose is the standard language of Biblical Hebrew.

2.3. Post-exilic prose shares features with Middle Hebrew and Aramaic. 

– preference for אני ‘I’ instead of אנכי.

– the attachment of pronominal suffixes to the object marker את instead of directly to the verb

– more frequent use of the participle in the verbal system

Note, however, that in a broader perspective, the differences in language within the Bible are quite slight. Blau attributes this to two things. First, Biblical Hebrew had a status as a standardized literary language. Second, in the transmission of the text, later hands have leveled out the language.  

The Masoretic text has three levels: the consonantal text, the vowel letters (matres lectionis), and the diacritical marks for vocalization and cantillation. Even the consonantal text underwent updating by the scribes such as the replacement of śīn by samek and the replacement of antiquated forms (for instance, the older תַּחְתֵּ֑נִי in 2 Sam 22:37, 40, 48 but תַחְתָּ֑י in the corresponding verses from Ps 18).

In the vocalization of the text, it seems that the Masoretes have tried to eliminate the older qal passive where possible. For instance, שרף ‘to burn’ normally occurs in the qal. However, when context demands a passive meaning, as a perfect it is vocalized as a pual שֹׂרָ֑ף while as an imperfect it is vocalized as nifal יִשָּׂרֵֽף.

Thus it is interesting that in morphology and phonology, Biblical Hebrew represents a late stage of the language (when compared to corresponding structures in Modern Arabic dialects in reference to Classical Arabic), but in syntax Biblical Hebrew is quite archaic (for instance, Blau points to the comparatively rare use of subordinated clauses). The implication is that the phonology and morphology were able to develop while the syntax was tied to the consonantal text.

3. Middle Hebrew (or Mishnaic Hebrew) seems to have developed from the vernacular of Judea after it was resettled in the 6th and 5th centuries BCE. In the rest of Erets Israel it seems that Aramaic was the vernacular at this time. After the Bar Kokheba revolt (132-135 CE), the rabbis moved to Galilee, bringing MH with them. However, as a spoken language it died out within one to two generations. Thus, the language of the Tannaim was based on spoken language, while that of the Amoraim is from a period when MH is no longer living and influenced more by Aramaic and Biblical Hebrew.

4. Modern Hebrew draws on both Middle Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew. Most of the phonological deviations in Middle Hebrew from Biblical Hebrew were leveled by copyists and printers in the Middle Ages so that they had little influence on Modern Hebrew. However, Middle Hebrew has influenced the morphology and syntax of Modern Hebrew such as in the lack of so-called waw-consecutive forms, the lack of the infinitive absolute and use of the infinitive construct only with prepositions, predominately -ל. Some Middle Hebrew features seem to prevail in Modern Hebrew because they are simpler, such as the use of של for the genitive which reduces the number of special construct forms that must be remembered. Both Middle and Biblical Hebrew vocabulary is used, sometimes with synonyms split for more specialized meanings. For instance, Biblical Hebrew יֶלֶד is maintained for ‘child’ and Middle Hebrew תינוק tīnōq, originally ‘child’ as well, is used for ‘baby’. 

This also highlights an interesting feature of Modern Hebrew. As a spoken language develops ‘naturally’, the various layers of the literary dialect become stratified chronologically. There is no reaching back into the older strata to derive new forms. However, because there is an almost eighteen hundred year gap between Modern and Ancient Hebrew as a spoken language, the older layers are stratified side-by-side and are all available for derivation. Thus none of the old forms are ever really dead. Of course, they are fused into a new unity and extended by new derivational patterns.

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