Emerging from the Canaanite milieu of Semitic languages, Hebrew has been around for a very long time. It isn’t clear how old the language is, but most place its emergence in the early second millennium before the Common Era (just before 1,000 bce). The language was actually called at one point in the Bible “the language of Canaan” (שְׂפַת כְּנַ֫עַן; cf. Isaiah 19:18), and we see from inscriptions from the early period of the language that several other Canaanite languages (such as Moabite, Ammonite, and Edomite) were very close to Hebrew in orthography (the alphabet that they used), in lexical stock (the words themselves), and in accidence (grammar, morphology, and syntax). Anyone who is trained to read the Siloam Inscription in Hebrew will be equally equipped to read the Mesha Stele in Moabite, even though these are technically different dialects of Canaanite language. These languages were certainly mutually intelligible by native speakers of each from that period.
If we draw a line between Moabite and Hebrew as distinct languages, though they were so very similar, what do we make of modern and biblical Hebrew? Are they essentially the same language? Should they be classified as distinct languages? Can learning modern Hebrew be at all advantageous to a student of the biblical language? Or, should those who aspire to master the language of the Bible avoid contaminating their thinking by adopting modern Hebrew?
These are the concepts that I would like to explore a bit in this blog post.
Defining a Language
In his 2016 article in The Atlantic entitled What’s a Language, Anyway?, linguist John McWhorter aptly described the challenge of determining the difference between a language and a dialect.1 McWhorter makes the following observation of how we tend to relate to the question as English speakers:
For example, we tend to think of “Spanish” as a unified language, and within Spanish we understand that there are different dialects, such as Castilian and Catalán. Further, within Castilian, we know that there is the Spanish spoken in Spain as well as a nearly separate dialect in each of the Spanish speaking countries within Latin America (and the dialect of Spanish used broadly in the United States). This is generally how English speakers relate “language” to “dialect.” Another example might be how we think of Arabic as a large language composed of several dialects—such as the Egyptian dialect and the Palestinian or Levant dialect. In this way in Hebrew, the terminology is שָׂפָה for “language” and נִיב for “dialect.” Using this terminology, we would have to make ancient Hebrew a dialect of Canaanite, along with Moabite (for example). They would have been the same language with regional distinctions (such as the difference between ʾnky (אנכי) or ʾny (אני) in Hebrew and ʾnk (אנך) in Canaanite for the 1cs independent pronoun).
Starting with this type of distinction, we would certainly say that modern Hebrew and biblical Hebrew are different dialects of the same language, diverging naturally as the result of cultural differences and historical development. Though not entirely mutually intelligible, one can easily pass between them with training. One who knows the grammar of biblical Hebrew will not have to relearn how to form the future or past tense when they learn modern Hebrew, and one who knows modern Hebrew can easily learn the past narrative to complete what is lacking in the grammar. More about this below, of course, but for now we might think of the two as somewhat similar to a Palestinian who wants to be able to speak with an Egyptian in the Egyptian dialect of Arabic. They will need to perhaps learn some different vocabulary or expression and adjust their pronunciation a bit (saying ج as g rather than as j, for example), but it isn’t a terribly difficult transition. That is quite similar to the situation with modern and biblical Hebrew.
But, to what extent are biblical and modern Hebrew intelligible to those who know one or the other? This is what we will turn to now, in our consideration of the question of whether these are the same language—despite the translucent opacity2 of what a language really is. Notice what McWhorter concluded at the end of his article: “If either the terms ‘language’ or ‘dialect’ have any objective use, the best anyone can do is to say that there is no such thing as a ‘language’: Dialects are all there is.” Perhaps we should adopt the Greek practice of just calling them all dialects. But, how close are these two forms of Hebrew? Are they like American English and Shakespearean English? Or, are they like Spanish Castilian and Brazilian Portuguese? Should someone who wants to go deeper with biblical Hebrew take steps into modern Hebrew, or will it be detrimental to her learning?
Similarities between Biblical and Modern Hebrew
Let’s start with the similarities between biblical and modern Hebrew, since there are many.
First of all, they are written the same—for the most part. In the earliest period of Hebrew writing, words were a bit shorter. This is because words are generally written without vowels. But already by the time that the Bible was being written, some of the long vowels were being added using the weak consonants heh (ה), vav (ו), and yod (י). These “vowel letters” (Hebrew אִמּוֹת קְרִיאָה and Latin matres lectionis “mothers of reading”) were not used to represent short vowels in biblical Hebrew,3 but in the Dead Sea Scrolls (DSS) they came to be used more widely. This accounts for a lot of spelling differences between the DSS and the Masoretic Text (MT), which preserves the earlier spellings. Modern Hebrew uses the vowel letters to a much fuller extent than the text of the Bible, placing them consistently in the piel verb forms, any place that there is an o sound (even when represented by kamats katan and chataf kamats, as in חודשים for חֳדָשִׁים ḥŏḏāšî́m and חודשי for חָדְשִׁי ḥoḏšî́. Today we write the previously impossible סידור instead of סִדּוּר siddû́r, using yod for what should have been a short vowel. For the most part, however, the spelling conventions are essentially the same. I’ll look more at the differences in spelling below.
The grammar is essentially the same. We have the “past tense” from the “perfect” (שָׁמַר and דִּבֶּר, for example), the “future tense” for the “imperfect” (יִשְׁמֹר and יְדַבֵּר), the “participle” for the “present tense” (שֹׁמֵר and מְדַבֵּר). We still use the seven basic binyānîm (qal, niphal, piel, pual, hiphil, huphal, and hitpael) with several other minor binyānîm scattered throughout. The imperatives are the same, as is way that the language negates indicative mood and irreal mood. In all the major issues of grammar, the two are identical—except for the loss of the vayyiqṭōl. Syntax is where they are different, but grammar is the same.
Much of the most ancient vocabulary remains the same, with some semantic shift. We still talk about someone becoming angry with כָּעַס and making someone angry with הִכְעִיס. We still drink חָלָב “milk” and eat לֶ֫חֶם “bread.” New words have been added to represent modern concepts such as an airplane (אֲוִירוֹן or מָטוֹס), shower (מִקְלַ֫חַת), computer (מַחְשֵׁב), car (מְכוֹנִית), and sidewalk (מִדְרָכָה), among a host of other daily nouns and verbs that express how we live today. The basic structure of these words is generally built on old Hebrew patterns, despite many words having been imported from Yiddish, Russian, English, French, Arabic, and other sources. Even when there is a loanword from one of these languages, there is often a purely Hebrew-based alternative to use in its place. The base vocabulary of the language, apart from modern inventions and culture-specific content, is taken from the ancient language.
The following table shows in simple terms how similar modern Hebrew is in its verbal forms to those of biblical Hebrew in comparison to how different modern Greek is to some common verbs from the Koiné period (when the New Testament was written).
The similarities between biblical and modern Hebrew can be multiplied out. The past tense forms are the same. The future tense forms are the same. The present tense forms are the same. The basic prepositions are the same. The majority of the vocabulary is the same. The morphology is the same. The form of writing is the same.
The main differences come in terms of word order in subordinate clauses (basic word order is always subject-verb in modern Hebrew, though it is often inverted in biblical Hebrew), the elimination of the vayyiqṭōl (narrative past) and vəqāṭal (irreal perfect) forms, the import of new vocabulary, the expansion of gerund forms, and a reduction in the use of infinitive constructs. These will be covered more completely in the next section.
Differences between Biblical and Modern Hebrew
As mentioned just above, there are many and substantial similarities between biblical and modern Hebrew. The two forms of the language are far more similar than Greek from the same periods. This is, of course, natural—given that Greek was in continuous use from the time of the pre-Socratic philosophers to the modern day, whereas Hebrew died out as a native language and underwent a revivification in the past fewer than two hundred years. In fact, when Eliezer Ben Yehudah (אֱלִיעֶ֫זֶר בֶּן יְהוּדָה) started the revitalization and reinvention of the Hebrew language as a spoken medium, he intentionally used the biblical language as his model to which to compare all issues rather than the style of Hebrew that had been used as a written lingua franca among the global Jewish community up until then.
It should be pointed out that Hebrew was never technically a “dead language.” It was always used in writing for religious purposes and for communication among Jewish communities that used different languages as their שְׂפַת אֵם “mother tongue” (the vernacular of the countries in which they lived), and Jews all over the world used Hebrew throughout the generations as the language of prayer. The pronunciation of the language changed over the years, but the language stayed frozen in form—since all Jews memorized and prayed the same prayers, studied the same Mishnah, read the same Tanach. There was no natural evolution in the language since the time of the Mishnah, though, since it was not a spoken language that was passed on from parent to child. Jews simply learned to read and understand the Bible through religious education in the synagogue (Hebrew, בֵּית כְּנֶ֫סֶת) and religious school (Yiddish, שׁוּל or חֵ֫דֶר).
Loss of Letter Distinctions. One clear difference between the two forms is that modern Hebrew generally avoids the pronunciation distinction between alef (א) and ayin (ע), between chet (ח) and khaf (כ), and kaf (כּ) and kof (ק). Biblical Hebrew as spoken at the time (and as maintained by the Yemenite Jewish community, for example) maintained a distinction between each of these letter pairs.
Loss of “Consecutive” Forms. It is conjectured that the vayyiqṭōl (“vav-consecutive imperfect” or narrative past) was never part of the colloquial form of Hebrew, but used only for storytelling and writing narrative. The vəqāṭal (“vav-consecutive perfect” or irreal perfect) was another vital part of the verb system in biblical Hebrew. Both the vayyiqṭōl and the vəqāṭal have been completely removed from modern Hebrew in favor of the three tense forms, which all depend on the temporal reference point of the speech. This is the biggest difference between biblical and modern Hebrew, and it makes it odd for speakers of modern Hebrew to read the Bible, since they don’t generally have these forms memorized.
Addition of New Prepositions. In modern Hebrew, we have prepositions that were not used in biblical Hebrew, which make creating relationships between words, phrases, and clauses more explicit. This is useful in the use of agent when using passive forms (which is expressed with עַל־יְדֵי). Most of these were brought in during the Mishnaic period.
Import of Vocabulary from Arabic, Aramaic, English, French, Latin, Russian, and Yiddish/German.
Wider Use of Gerund Forms. Nearly all verbs in modern Hebrew have a gerund form that depends on their lexical form. The qal uses קְטִילָה as its gerund pattern; the piel uses קִטּוּל; the hiphil uses הַקְטָלָה; and, the hitpael uses הִתְקַטְּלוּת. These are only expressed in the predominantly active binyanim, so we don’t have a gerund of niphal, pual, or huphal generally (just as they have no infinitives, except for לְהִקָּטֵל in the niphal). These forms play a heavy role in modern Hebrew, and the infinitive construct has basically disappeared in time-related expressions. When the infinitive construct functioned as a gerund, the actual gerund form has taken its place. When it was in a time-related expression (בְּשָׁמְעִי bəšomʿî “in my hearing” = “when I hear/heard”), this is expressed with כְּשֶׁ־ (an abbreviated form of כַּאֲשֶׁר). So, בְּעָזְבְּךָ bəʿozbəḵâ “when you leave” is now expressed as כְּשֶׁאַתָּה עוֹזֵב or כְּשֶׁתַּעֲזֹב, depending on the specific time or nature of the person’s leaving.
More Complex Syntax. The particle שֶׁ־, an abbreviated form of אֲשֶׁר, is used much more extensively, which allows us to use embedded clauses much more freely than in biblical Hebrew, which depended more on the infinitive construct. This is especially useful in the creation of irreal expressions of will. So, to say “I want you to come,” we use the embedded future sentence and say אֲנִי רוֹצֶה שֶׁתָּבוֹא “I want that you will come.” This syntax is simple and elegant, and it reflects the fact that there are so many similarities in concept between the future tense and subjunctive mood, as there is in Greek (for example, the future indicative 1cs and first aorist subjunctive 1cs are the same form [λύσω, “I will come” versus “I would/might/should come”).
Can a Student of Biblical Hebrew Understand Modern Hebrew?
No. Due to the changes in language, students of biblical Hebrew cannot pick up a newspaper or book and read anything in modern Hebrew. However, it is certainly easier for someone who knows biblical Hebrew to learn the vocabulary of modern Hebrew quickly and begin to speak without much difficulty. It is not like learning a new language.
In fact, this is what I did. I took two years of biblical Hebrew in college, after which I devoted myself to reading the Hebrew Bible and saying daily prayers / devotions in Hebrew. When I began to learn modern Hebrew on my own, I took three months to cover to learning books (Hebrew from Scratch) before I moved to Israel. I couldn’t speak Hebrew yet, but I just needed to adjust myself to hearing Hebrew’s rhythm and then learn to compose on the fly (put my thoughts into Hebrew). It was a huge advantage to have over someone who didn’t come to Israel with a background in the language of the Bible.
Can a Speaker of Modern Hebrew Understand Biblical Hebrew?
It depends. If the person has a good education, they will be able to understand 90% of the narrative sections of the Bible without any difficulty. The mind will simply adjust וַיְדַבֵּר מֹשֶׁה to וּמֹשֶׁה דִּבֵּר “and Moses spoke.” The biggest challenge is the use of the narrative past, but it is easily overcome with a little sense. However, if you hand a Bible to someone who learned Hebrew as a second language without any exposure to the Bible, they will have a difficult time. Someone who studied Bible in school will understand it about as well as speakers of modern English understand the King James Bible. There will sometimes be vocabulary that has changed meaning (as from the KJV to our times), but for the most part the language is completely intelligible. In fact, much of the Bible has become part of the regular expression of the language in Israel today.
In coming to a conclusion, we must consider what people mean when they say “language.” Are biblical and modern Hebrew mutually intelligible? No. In this sense, they might be considered “dialects” of Hebrew. In fact, we generally consider English as spoken in the United States and as spoken in Australia to be different dialects of English. Can we understand each other? Yes, but there are disconnects in our comprehension. However, it’s clear by looking at what’s written that they are the same language.
Biblical and modern Hebrew, however, a further apart from one another than are American and Australian English. What is written is different in each form, but what Australians and Americans write on paper (despite their pronunciation differences) is almost always the same thing—that is, when we’re dealing with literary and professional forms of the language, of course. Slang takes the two to very different places, and perhaps we would say at that point that Americans and Australians speak different languages entirely in their day-to-day.
If it is true that speakers of biblical Hebrew did not use the vayyiqṭōl in their real-life speech, then I think spoken biblical Hebrew would have been much closer to modern Hebrew. That one difference really makes a world of difference, and if someone can overcome it (and make some minor adjustments), she can easily move between forms of the language. From this perspective, I would say that they are indeed the same language.
Some speakers of modern English can read Shakespeare and understand his expression without too much difficulty. Others pick up one of his plays or sonnets and cannot understand a single line. It really depends on the education and general mental alacrity of the individual. People would normally not say that Shakespeare wasn’t using English. We wouldn’t consider it a different language, but it’s clearly different. This is how we find ourselves when we try to determine whether or modern and biblical Hebrew are the same or different languages. It all depends on how you define “language” and how you look at the situation.
From my own perspective, it is much easier for a speaker of modern Hebrew to understand the biblical texts than for someone who doesn’t speak the language. For that reason, I do indeed think of them as the same language—just as I consider the Hamlet to have been written in English.
Just as learning biblical Hebrew gives a student a sharp advantage for becoming a speaker of the modern language, so learning modern Hebrew will only serve to increase someone’s ability to read and understand the text of the Bible. I’m a witness to this in my personal life. For this reason, I consider them the same language.
What do you think?
- The Greek word διάλεκτος, from which we get our word “dialect,” is used for both “language” and “dialect.” For example, you might say that someone was speaking ἐν τῇ ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (as in Acts 26:14), which means “in the Hebrew dialect/language.” No one would suppose that Hebrew was a dialect of some other language. For that matter, there can be no real distinction between ἐν τῇ ἑβραΐδι γλώσσῃ (“in the Hebrew tongue”), ἐν τῇ ἑβραΐδι διαλέκτῳ (“in the Hebrew dialect”), and simply ἑβραϊστί (“in Hebrew”).
- I say this as a joke because it seems to be clear to everyone what a language is while being completely illusive to anyone who really wants to go deeper into the question.
- As a general rules, short vowels are found in closed syllables that are unaccented. For example, the word מִדְבָּר miḏbā́r has two syllables: מִדְ|בָּ֫ר miḏ|bā́r. The first syllable is closed and unaccented, while the second syllable is closed and accented. Given that the first syllable is closed and unaccented, the vowel cannot be long (ī), and we will not find the word spelled with a vowel letter as מִידְבָּר mîḏbā́r. The same is the case with piel verbs, which will not be spelled as דִּיבֶּר because of the closed, unaccented syllable, though we do find these types of things in the Dead Sea Scrolls—and דיבר is the standard and correct spelling in modern Hebrew.