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A Social History of Hebrew

A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period

Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 280
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  • Book Info
    A Social History of Hebrew
    Book Description:

    More than simply a method of communication shared by a common people, the Hebrew language was always an integral part of the Jewish cultural system and, as such, tightly interwoven into the lives of the prophets, poets, scribes, and priests who used it. In this unique social history, William Schniedewind examines classical Hebrew from its origins in the second millennium BCE until the Rabbinic period, when the principles of Judaism as we know it today were formulated, to view the story of the Israelites through the lens of their language.

    Considering classical Hebrew from the standpoint of a writing system as opposed to vernacular speech, Schniedewind demonstrates how the Israelites' long history of migration, war, exile, and other momentous events is reflected in Hebrew's linguistic evolution. An excellent addition to the fields of biblical and Middle Eastern studies, this fascinating work brings linguistics and social history together for the first time to explore an ancient culture.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-19910-9
    Subjects: History, Religion, Linguistics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xi)
  4. List of Abbreviations
    (pp. xii-xvi)
  5. 1 Language, Land, and People: Toward the History of Classical Hebrew
    (pp. 1-26)

    As I finish this book, I recall a public lecture I attended one evening at a prestigious private university. After the lecture, a few students gathered around an eminent scholar of Semitic languages, who casually commented, “I am only interested in the languages, not the people who spoke them.” I was a young graduate student back then, and I no longer recall either the lecture or the exact topic of the conversation that prompted the remark. But I still remember those words and my sense of stunned amazement. I had thought that the purpose of studying obscure ancient languages was...

  6. 2 The Origins of Hebrew: In Search of the Holy Tongue
    (pp. 27-50)

    The search for the origins of Hebrew should begin with the question, What is Hebrew? Put another way, should we focus on understanding the origins of Hebrew as a writing system or as a vernacular? The preference throughout this book is on the tangible writing system as opposed to the difficult-to-apprehend vernacular. Nevertheless, most studies of the origins of Hebrew conceptualize it as a vernacular. Hebrew as a spoken vernacular has been neatly fitted into a family tree of languages. Ultimately, languages should not be reduced to their writing systems, but this is the only way we are able to...

  7. 3 Early Hebrew Writing
    (pp. 51-72)

    The rise of Hebrew is conventionally connected with the emergence of monarchy in ancient Israel and particularly with the reigns of David and Solomon. In this event, the tongue-in-cheek cliché in linguistics that “a language is simply a dialect that has an army and a navy” might apply. Not only are David and Solomon credited with standing armies, Solomon is even credited with building a navy at the Red Sea port of Eilat (1 Kings 9:26–28). This cliché also speaks to the role of language in creating group identity in nations. Unfortunately, there is no evidence that ancient Israel...

  8. 4 Linguistic Nationalism and the Emergence of Hebrew
    (pp. 73-98)

    The eighth century B.C.E. stands as a watershed in the linguistic history of Western civilization. Those tumultuous times witnessed the emergence of a linguistic imperialism in the Near East. Language ideology began to drive the creation of national literatures in Assyria and Egypt as well as in the kingdom of Judah. Indeed, the emergence of a distinct written Hebrew language should be understood as a political as much as a linguistic event.¹ Comparative examples abound. For instance, the distinction between Norwegian, Danish, and Scandinavian as three “languages” was more a reflex of nationalism and borders in the early twentieth century...

  9. 5 The Democratization of Hebrew
    (pp. 99-125)

    The development of government bureaucracy was a natural catalyst for the development and spread of writing beginning in the eighth century B.C.E. Writing was democratized in ancient Judah. That is, it became widely available and started to become a Judean cultural value. The catalyst for the democratization of writing was—to use a modern term—theglobalizationof society. In this chapter we examine the Hebrew language in the last hundred years before the Babylonian destruction of Jerusalem in 586 B.C.E. It is during this period that we see the flourishing of Hebrew writing as preserved in all kinds of...

  10. 6 Hebrew in Exile
    (pp. 126-138)

    The Babylonian exile is where the waters part in the history of the Hebrew language. It marks major changes to take place in the Hebrew speech and scribal communities during the sixth century B.C.E. In a series of military campaigns, the Babylonian armies decimated Judah, burned the city of Jerusalem, and ravaged the economy of the region. The first campaign came in 597 B.C.E. At that time the Babylonians deported a large number of Judeans, including the royal family of Jehoiachin. A second campaign in 586 B.C.E. resulted in the burning of Jerusalem and the countryside. The Babylonians set up...

  11. 7 Hebrew under Imperialism
    (pp. 139-163)

    The Hebrew language evolved under the long shadow cast by the Aramaic of the Achaemenid Empire. Imperial presence would have demanded that the Hebrew speech community become bilingual, using Aramaic alongside Hebrew. The fate of the Hebrew scribal tradition was even more precarious. The Aramaic writing system and imperial scribal infrastructure supplanted Hebrew within the empire. By the end of the Babylonian period, it is unclear what, if any, infrastructure was available in the region for the continued study of written texts and language. Yet, the Hebrew language and writing would reemerge, in part as an expression of political and...

  12. 8 Hebrew in the Hellenistic World
    (pp. 164-190)

    The ideological role of language came to the fore in the Hellenistic world. Language became essential in defining Hellenistic culture and citizenship. Indeed, the wordHellenismitself derives from the Greek word ἑλληνιζειν, meaning “to speak Greek.” The knowledge of Greek became a distinguishing criterion of this elite culture. For example, a letter dating to the mid-third century B.C.E. illustrates linguistic ideology, as an Egyptian complains that the Greeks “have treated me with contempt because I am a barbarian” and asks to be paid regularly “so that I do not die of hunger because I do not know how to...

  13. 9 The End and the Beginning of Hebrew
    (pp. 191-203)

    Our account of the social history of classical Hebrew comes to an end in about 200 C.E., after the two Jewish revolts in the first and second centuries. It was an end for Hebrew, but it was also a new beginning for the Hebrew language. The revolts against Rome resulted in the displacement of the Hebrew speech communities of Roman Palestine. With the displacement of most Hebrew speakers, vernacular Hebrew waned. In a manner of speaking, this was the end of Hebrew as a living language. Yet, this was not the end of the Hebrew language: Hebrew continued as a...

  14. 10 Epilogue
    (pp. 204-208)

    Hebrew survived and even flourished, despite its disappearance in Palestine for almost two millennia. On the one hand, the limits of this study have been defined by the demise of the use of Hebrew as a vernacular language in the land. On the other hand, we have emphasized that our knowledge and description of Hebrew is dependent on the textswrittenin ancient Israel, Judah, Yehud, and Roman Palestina. The Hebrew language would survive the displacement of Hebrew speech communities by becoming a language of religion, piety, poetry, and trade. It survived primarily as a written language that served to...

  15. Notes
    (pp. 209-230)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 231-256)
  17. Index
    (pp. 257-261)