Hebrew (Hebrew: עִבְרִית, Ivrit) is the modern vernacular of Israel. It may also refer to any of several related spoken and written dialects that were in use by Jews and Samaritans since Biblical times, any of which classify as a Canaanite language, a member of the Northwest Semitic group of languages. This group is a division in Common Semitic, itself a subdivision of West Semitic which is one of the two main subdivisions of Semitic language and part of the wider group of the Afro-Asiatic language family. The modern vernacular is a modern revived language that is heavily dependent on Tiberian Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew.
The Hebrew dialects are attested from the beginning of the first millennium BCE as the language of people in Judea and Israel. Hebrew is also the language of most of the Hebrew Bible, which survives in manuscripts from the 3rd century BCE and later. Hebrew died out as a spoken language probably around the 3rd century CE. Hebrew continued in occasional use by scholars and writers until the 19th century, when Jewish literary culture, centered around the European yeshivot, began to revive Hebrew as a living language. With the growth of the Zionist Movement, the revival of Hebrew as a living language gained political importance, and Hebrew was brought forcefully into the modern day by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Modern Hebrew has become a living, spoken language, and grown beyond (and in some cases against) Ben-Yehuda's original conception of the language. Today, Modern Hebrew is spoken as a native language by 5.5 million people in Israel and by around 1 million abroad. The language is also spoken as a second language by around 10 million people around the world, with large Hebrew speaking communities in the United States, France, England and Argentina.
Canaanite dialects and Proto-Hebrew
Hebrew was the language of the inhabitants of ancient Judea and Israel. As such, Hebrew serves as a collective term for several related dialects attested in inscriptions from Judea and Israel.
Even within the Hebrew Bible itself, several dialects may be discerned such as Standard Biblical Hebrew (SBH) and Late Biblical Hebrew (LBH). The Hebrew Bible itself makes reference to differences of dialects in the well-known Shibboleth incident in Judg. 12:5-6.
Hebrew was written in various consonantal scripts that preserved only a very minimal amount of vowels. Vocalizations of Hebrew words are known initially only from transcriptions, the most important of which are isolated words, mostly names, in the Septuagint, composed originally during the 3rd century BCE and later, and the preserved parts of the second column of the Hexapla, composed during the 3rd century CE.
Only during the late centuries of the first millennium CE were there systematic attempts to vocalize the Bible. Several traditions of vocalizations, Masorah, are known. The most prominent of which is the Tiberian vocalization tradition. This is the most prominent tradition maintained in Tiberias, to which the academic elite of Jerusalem fled after being expelled by the Romans. Other vocalization traditions such as the Samaritan, Palestinian and the Babylonian survived in the early Middle Ages but were gradually displaced by the Tiberian tradition and later forgotten until the discovery of vocalized manuscripts in those traditions in the Cairo Genizah. Variants within the Tiberian tradition are also known. The most well-known of these relate to two different schools of traditions, Ben Asher and Ben Naphtali. Biblical Hebrew commonly refers to the Hebrew language as vocalized in the Tiberian tradition, Tiberian Hebrew. Various developments such as the loss of phonemic vowel length took place after Hebrew was no longer a spoken language. Tiberian Hebrew, however, preserves various linguistic features that are not preserved in the Hexaplaric transliteration.
Until the 3rd century CE, Hebrew survived as a spoken language. Thus, letters written by Bar Kokhba in Hebrew survive. The Talmud even relates various anecdotes where the daily Hebrew use of the maids of the household of Judah haNasi was used to interpret difficult Biblical passages. After this time, however, Aramaic displaced Hebrew as a spoken language, and Hebrew was maintained only in liturgical use and as a written language, especially with regards to the interpretation of the Bible, religious, secular and literary writing.
At the middle of the 19th century, after more than two millennia of serving mainly literary and scholarly purposes, Hebrew was revived in the writings of Jewish enlightenment (Haskalah) scholars. Most of those scholars spoke Yiddish, Ladino and other current languages, but tried to extend the use of Hebrew in writing to wider areas. More extensive use of the language as a spoken language emerged at the end of the 19th century in Palestine, especially with the rise in Jewish immigration to Palestine.
The Jewish linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is credited as the first to make a thorough attempt to recreate Hebrew as a modern spoken language, at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. His efforts, and the efforts of others, were aided by the practical consideration of having an agreed upon common language for all Jewish immigrants to Israel.