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Hebrew belongs to the northern group of Semitic languages, which also includes Aramaic, Assyrian, Arabic, and Syriac. Most of the ancient peoples in the lands adjoining Palestine—the Moabites, Amorites, and Edomites—seem to have spoken a common language.
The ancient Ugaritic tablets dating back to the 14th century B.C.E. and found in the city of Ugarit in Northern Syria, and the Moabite Stone of King Mesha from 9th century B.C.E. are both written in Hebrew or in a closely related dialect. Although Hebrew under­went many modifications in the course of genera­tions, it has retained its ancient structure and character. It is basically the same language today as 3,500 years ago in the days of the Patriarchs. The rich literature of the Bible has preserved for us some of the ancient forms of the language as well as its basic characteristics.

The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 letters, all consonants. Vowel signs were invented much later for easier reading and are placed under and above the consonants. However, even in ancient times, some letters, such as Aleph, He, Vav, and Yod, served the purpose of vowels. All the parts of speech and word forms are based on a root, generally con­sisting of three letters. This root is expanded by means of prefixes and suffixes, as well as by changes in sound or vocalization. A verb may be used in several and sometimes all of the seven conjugations, giving the language flexibility.

Biblical Hebrew is distinguished by its simplicity and directness. It is vivid and expressive, lending itself beautifully to the poetic form. At the same time, it has few abstract forms, adjectives, and adverbs.

During the Babylonian Exile (586 B.C.E.) the development of Hebrew was marked by the ever­-increasing influence of the Aramaic language on Hebrew grammar and vocabulary. During the period of the Second Temple, Mishnaic Hebrew came into being. The language of the Mishnah essentially follows the rules of biblical Hebrew, but it is enriched with new words and grammatical forms. Greek and Latin terms were assimilated and given Hebraic form. The language became more descriptive and now better equipped to express ideas, both practical and abstract.

Although Hebrew was rarely used again as an everyday language until the growth of modern Zionism in the 19th century, it continued as the language of prayer and literature. Jews at all times displayed love and affection for Hebrew as their holy tongue, in which the Bible was written and the Law proclaimed. It was a reminder of the days of their independence and glory. Throughout the ages, poets, scholars, philosophers, gram­marians, and translators all contributed to the development of Hebrew. In the Middle Ages, Hebrew was influenced by Arabic. The scientific works translated into Hebrew from the Arabic enriched the Hebrew vocabulary and increased its power to express new ideas.

A revival of the Hebrew literature and language took place in the 19th century. This revival was marked in the beginning by a return to biblical Hebrew. But in the course of time, it was recognized that classical Hebrew re­quired expansion and modification if it was to be used as a modern tongue. It became necessary to coin new words and expressions and to adapt old ones for modern needs.
In the 1880’s, Eliezer Ben Yehudah pioneered in the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. His example was taken up enthusiastically by many followers. Hebrew-speaking groups were formed throughout the world. A mass of technical and scientific terms in all fields of human endeavor were created. The ancient tongue has displayed remarkable adaptability to modern needs. Today, Hebrew keeps pace with the steady progress of science and technology. It is the living language of the State of Israel.

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