Languages of the Old Testament
I. THE SEMITIC LANGUAGES
1. Members of Semitic Family
2. The Name Hebrew
3. Old Hebrew Literature
II. HISTORY OF THE HEBREW LANGUAGE
1. Oldest Form of Language
2. The Hebrew of the
3. Its Uniformity
4. The Cause Thereof
5. Differences Due to Age
6. Differences of Style
7. Foreign Influences
8. Poetry and Prose
9. Home of the
10. Its Antiquity
11. When Hebrew Became a Dead Language
III. CHIEF CHARACTERISTICS OF HEBREW
1. Characteristic Sounds
2. Letters Representing Two Sounds
3. Consonants Representing Vowels
4. The Syllable
5. Three-Letter Roots
6. Conjugations or Derived Stems
7. Absence of Tenses
8. The Pronouns
9. Formation of Nouns
10. Internal Inflexion
11. Syntax of the Verb
12. Syntax of the Noun
13. Poverty of Adjectives
IV. BIBLICAL ARAMAIC
1. Aramaic Portions of the Old Testament
5. Aramaic More Decadent than Hebrew
V. LITERARY CHARACTERISTICS OF THE SEMITES
1. Concrete and Abstract
2. View of Nature
3. Pictorial Imagination
4. Prose and Poetry
5. Hebrew Easy of Translation
There were only two languages employed in the archetypes of the Old Testament books (apart from an Egyptian or Persian or Greek word here and there), namely, Hebrew and Biblical Aramaic, both of which belong to the great family of languages known as Semitic.
I. The Semitic Languages.
The languages spoken in Southwestern Asia during the historical period dealt with in the Bible have been named Shemitic, after the son of Noah from whom the majority of peoples speaking these languages--Arabs, Hebrews, Arameans and Assyrians (
1. Members of Semitic Family:
The following list shows the chief members of this family:
(1) South Semitic or Arabic:
Including the language of the Sabean (Himyaritic) inscriptions, as well as Ge’ez or Ethiopic. Arabic is now spoken from the Caucasus to Zanzibar, and from the East Indies to the Atlantic.
(2) Middle Semitic or Canaanitish:
Including Hebrew, old and new, Phoenician, with Punic, and Moabite (language of MS).
(3) North Semitic or Aramaic:
(a) East Aramaic or Syrian (language of Syrian Christians), language of Babylonian Talmud, Mandean;
(b) West or Palestinian Aramaic of the Targums, Palestinian Talmud (Gemara), Biblical Aramaic ("Chaldee"), Samaritan, language of Nabatean inscriptions.
(4) East Semitic:
Language of Assyria-Babylonian inscriptions.
2. The Name Hebrew:
With the exception of a few chapters and fragments mentioned below, the Old Testament is written entirely in Hebrew. In the Old Testament itself this language is called "the Jews’ " (
3. Old Hebrew Literature: Of Old Hebrew the remains are contained almost entirely in the Old Testament. A few inscriptions have been recovered, i.e., the Siloam Inscriptions, a Hebrew calendar, a large number of ostraka from Samaria, a score of pre-exilic seals, and coins of the Maccabees and of the time of Vespasian and Hadrian.
E. Renan, Histoire generale et systeme compare des langues semitiques; F. Hommel, Die semit. Volker u. Sprachen; the comparative grammars of Wright and Brockelmann; CIS; article "Semitic Languages" in Encyclopedia Brit, and Murray’s Illustrated Bible Dictionary.
II. History of the Hebrew Language.
Hebrew as it appears to us in the Old Testament is in a state of decadence corresponding to the present position of spoken Arabic. In the earliest period it no doubt resembled the classical Arabic of the 7th and following centuries. The variations found between the various strata of the language occurring in the Old Testament are slight compared with the difference between modern and ancient Arabic.
1. Oldest Form of Language:
Hebrew was no doubt originally a highly inflected language, like classical Arabic. The noun had three cases, nominative, genitive, and accusative, ending in -um’, [~-im, -am, respectively, as in the Sabean inscriptions. Both verbs and nouns had three numbers (singular, dual and plural) and two genders, masculine and feminine In the noun the dual and plural had two cases. The dual and 2nd and 3rd person plural and 2nd person singular feminine of the imperfect of the verb ended in nun. In certain positions the "m" of the endings -um, -im, -am in the noun was dropped. The verb had three moods, indicative, subjunctive, and jussive, ending in -u, -a, and -, respectively; as well as many forms or stems, each of which had an active and passive voice.
2. The Hebrew of the Old Testament:
In the Hebrew of the Old Testament most of these inflexions have disappeared. Of the three cases of the noun only the accusative -am has survived in a few adverbial forms, such as ’omnam, "truly." The dual has entirely disappeared from the verb, and also from the noun, with the exception of things that occur in pairs, such as hand, eye, which have no plural. The nom. case of the dual and plural of the noun has disappeared, and the oblique case is used for both. Except in cases of poetic archaism the final nun of the verb has been lost, and, as the final vowels have fallen away in verbs, as well as in nouns, the result is that the jussive forms serve for indicative and subjunctive also. Many of the forms or stems have fallen into desuetude, and the passive forms of two alone are used.
3. Its Uniformity:
One of the most remarkable facts connected with the Hebrew of the Old Testament is that although that literature extends through a period of over 1,000 years, there is almost no difference between the language of the oldest parts and that of the latest. This phenomenon is susceptible of several explanations. In the first place, nearly the whole of the Old Testament literature is religious in character, and as such the earliest writings would become the model for the later, just as the Koran--the first prose work composed in Arabic which has survived--has become the pattern for all future compositions. The same was true for many centuries of the influence of Aristophanes and Euripides upon the language of educated Greeks, and, it is said, of the influence of Confucius upon that of the learned Chinese.
4. The Cause Thereof:
But a chief cause is probably the fact that the Semitic languages do not vary with time, but with place. The Arabic vocabulary used in Morocco differs from that of Egypt, but the Arabic words used in each of these countries have remained the same for centuries--in fact, since Arabic began to be spoken in them. Similarly, the slight differences which are found in the various parts of the Old Testament are to be ascribed, not to a difference of date, but to the fact that some writers belonged to the Southern Kingdom, some to the Northern, some wrote in Palestine, some in Babylonia (compare
5. Differences Due to Age:
The Old Testament literature falls into two main periods: that composed before and during the Babylonian exile, and that which falls after the exile. But even between these two periods the differences of language are comparatively slight, so that it is often difficult or impossible to say on linguistic grounds alone whether a particular chapter is pre-exilic or post-exilic, and scholars of the first rank often hold the most contrary opinions on these points. For instance, Dillmann places the so-called Document P (Priestly Code) before Document D (Deuteronomic Code) in the regal period, whereas most critics date D about 621 and P about 444 BC.
6. Differences of Style:
It is needless to add that the various writers differ from one another in point of style, but these variations are infinitesimal compared with those of Greek and Latin authors, and are due, as has been said above, largely to locality and environment. Thus the style of Hosea is quite different from that of his contemporary Amos, and that of Deutero-Isaiah shows very distinctly the mark of its place of composition.
7. Foreign Influences:
A much more potent factor in modifying the language was the influence of foreign languages upon Hebrew, especially in respect to vocabulary. The earliest of these was probably Egyptian but of much greater importance was Assyrian, from which Hebrew gained a large number of loan words. It is well known that the Babylonian script was used for commercial purposes throughout Southwestern Asia, even before the Hebrews entered Canaan (see Text and Manuscripts of the New Testament; Text of the Old Testament), but the influence of Babylon upon Palestine seems to have been greatly exaggerated. The main point of contact is in the mythology, which may have been common to both peoples. In the later, especially post-exilic stages of the language, many Aramaisms are found in respect to syntax as well as vocabulary; and in later phases still, Persian and even Greek words are found.
8. Poetry and Prose:
As in other languages, so in Hebrew, the vocabulary of the poetical literature differs from that of the prose writers. In Hebrew, however, there is not the hard-and-fast distinction between these two which obtains in the classics. Whenever prose becomes elevated by the importation of feeling, it falls into a natural rhythm which in Hebrew constitutes poetry. Thus most of the so-called prophetical books are poetical in form. Another mark of poetry is a return to archaic grammatical forms, especially the restoration of the final nun in the verb.
9. Home of the Hebrew Language:
The form of Semitic which was indigenous in the land of Canaan is sometimes called Middle Semitic. Before the Israelites entered the country, it was the language of the Canaanites from whom the Hebrews took it over. That Hebrew was not the language of Abraham before his migration appears from the fact that he is called an Aramean (
10. Its Antiquity:
As the aboriginal inhabitants of the land of Canaan were not Semites, we cannot infer the existence of the Hebrew language any earlier than the first immigrations of Semites into Palestine, that is, during the third millennium BC. It would thus be a much younger member of the Semitic family than Assyrian-Babylonian, which exhibits all the marks of great antiquity long before the Hebrew language is met with.
11. When Hebrew Became a Dead Language:
The Babylonian exile sounded the death-knell of the Hebrew language. The educated classes were deported to Babylon or fled to Egypt, and those who remained were not slow to adopt the language used by their conquerors. The old Hebrew became a literary and sacred tongue, the language of everyday life being probably Aramaic. Whatever may be the exact meaning of
Gesenius, Geschichte der hebr. Sprache und Schrift; Bertheau, "Hebr. Sprache" in RE, 2nd edition; see also "Literature" in the following section.
III. Chief Characteristics of Hebrew.
The special marks which particularly distinguish a language may be found in its alphabet, in its mode of inflection, or in its syntax.
1. Characteristic Sounds:
The Hebrew alphabet is characterized by the large number of guttural sounds which it contains, and these are not mere palatals like the Scotch or German chapter, but true throat sounds, such as are not found in the Aryan languages. Hence, when the Phoenician alphabet passed over into Greece, these unpronounceable sounds, " ` " (`ayin), "ch" (cheth), "h" (he), " ’ " (’aleph) were changed into vowels, A, E, H, O. In Hebrew the guttural letters predominate. "In the Hebrew dictionaries the four gutturals occupy considerably more than a fourth part of the volume; the remaining eighteen letters occupying considerably less than three-fourths." Besides the guttural, there are three strong consonants "m" (mem), "q" (qoph), and "ts" (tsade), which are sounded with compression of the larynx, and are quite different from our "t," "k" and "s." In Greek, the first was softened into a "th" (theta), the other two were dropped as letters but retained as numerals.
2. Letters Representing Two Sounds:
Though the Hebrew alphabet comprises no more than 22 letters, these represent some 30 different sounds, for the 6 letters b, g, d, k, p and t, when they fall immediately after a vowel, are pronounced bh(v), gh, dh, kh, ph (f) and th. Moreover, the gutturals "ch" (cheth) and " ` " (`ayin) each represent two distinct sounds, which are still in use in Arabic. The letter "h" is sometimes sounded at the end of a word as at the beginning.
3. Consonants Representing Vowels:
A peculiarity of the Hebrew alphabet is that the letters are all consonants. Four of these, however, were very early used to represent vowel and diphthong sounds, namely, " ’ ", "h", "w" and "y". So long as Hebrew was a spoken language no other symbols than these 22 letters were used. It was not until the 7th century AD at the earliest that the well-known elaborate system of signs to represent the vowels and other sounds was invented (see Text and Manuscripts of the New Testament; Text of the Old Testament).
4. The Syllable:
A feature of the Hebrew language is that no word or syllable may begin with a vowel: every syllable begins with a consonant. This is also true of the other Semitic languages, except Assyrian-Babylonian. When in the course of word-formation a syllable would begin with a vowel, the slight consonant ’ (’aleph) is prefixed. Moreover, more than two consonants may not stand without vowels intervening, as in the English word "strength." At most, two consonants may begin a syllable, and even so a slight vowel is sounded between them, as qero’. A word may end in two consonants without vowels, as ’amart, but no word or syllable ends in more than two.
5. Three-Letter Roots:
The outstanding feature of the Semitic family of languages is the root, consisting of three consonants. Practically, the triliteral root is universal. There are a few roots with more than three letters, but many of the quadriliteral roots are formed by reduplication, as kabkab in Arabic. Many attempts have been made to reduce three-letter stems to two-letter by taking the factors common to several roots of identical meaning. Thus duwm, damah, damam, "to be still," seem all to come from a root d-m. It is more probable, however, that the root is always triliteral, but may appear in various forms.
6. Conjugations or Derived Stems:
From these triliteral roots all parts of the verbs are formed. The root, which, it ought to be stated, is not the infinitive, but the 3rd singular masculine perfect active, expresses the simple idea without qualification, as shabhar, "he broke." The idea of intensity is obtained by doubling the middle stem letter, as shibber, "he broke in fragments"; the passive is expressed by the u-vowel in the first place and the a-vowel in the last, as shubbar, "it was broken in fragments." The reflexive sense prefixes an "n" to the simple root, or a "t" (taw) to the intensive, but the former of these is often used as a passive, as nishbar, "it was broken," hithqaddesh, "he sanctified himself." The causative meaning is given by prefixing the letter "h", as malakh, "he was king," himlikh, "he caused (one) to be king." A somewhat similar method of verb building is found outside the Semitic language, for example, in Turkish. In some of these Semitic languages the number of formations is very numerous. In Hebrew also there are traces of stems other than those generally in use.
7. Absence of Tenses:
There are no tenses in Hebrew, in our sense of the word. There are two states, usually called tenses, the perfect and the imperfect. In the first the action is regarded as accomplished, whether in the past or future, as shabhar, "he broke," "he has broken," "he will have broken," or (in prophetic narrative) "he will break"; in the second, the action is regarded as uncompleted, "he will break," "he was breaking," "he is breaking," etc. The present is often expressed by the participle.
8. The Pronouns:
The different persons, singular and plural, are expressed by affixing to the perfect, and by prefixing to the imperfect, fragments of the personal pronouns, as shabharti, "I broke," shabharnu, "we broke," nishbor, "we will break," and so on. The fragments which are added to the perfect to express the nominative of the pronouns are, with some modification, especially the change of "t" into "k", added to the verb to express the accusative, and to the noun to express the genitive; for example, shabharta, "you broke," shebharekha, "he broke you," bethekha, "your house"; capharnu, "we counted," cepharanu, "he counted us," ciphrenu, "our book."
9. Formation of Nouns:
The same principles are followed in regard to the noun as to the verb. Many nouns consist solely of the three stem-letters articulated with one or with two vowels, except that monosyllables generally become dissyllabic, owing to the difficulty of pronouncing two vowelless consonants together: thus, melekh, "king," cepher, "book," goren, "threshingfloor" (instead of malk, ciphr, gorn), dabhar, "a word or thing," qarobh, "near." Nouns denoting place, instrument, etc., are often formed by prefixing the letter "m" to the root, as mishpat, "justice" from shaphat, "he judged," mazlegh, "a fork." Intensity is, given to the root idea, as in the verb, by doubling the middle consonant: thus, choresh "working," charash (for charrash), "workman"; gonebh, "stealing," gannabh, "a thief." Similarly, words denoting incurable physical defects, ’illem, "dumb," `iwwer, "blind," cheresh (for chirresh), "deaf and dumb." The feminine of nouns, as of the 3rd person of verbs, is formed by adding the letter "t", which when final is softened to "h", gebhirah, "queen-mother," "mistress," but gebhirtekh, "your mistress."
10. Internal Inflexion:
The inflexion of both verbs and nouns is accompanied by a constant lengthening or shortening of the vowels of the word, and this according to two opposite lines. In verbs with vowel-affixes the penultimate vowel disappears, as halakh, "he went," halekhu, "they went"; in the noun the ante-penultimate vowel disappears, as dabhar, "a word," plural debharim. As the vowel system, as stated above, is very late, the vocalization cannot be accepted as that of the living tongue. It represents rather the cantillation of the synagogue; and for this purpose, accents, which had a musical as well as an interpunctional value, have been added.
11. Syntax of the Verb:
Hebrew syntax is remarkable for its simplicity. Simple sentences predominate and are usually connected by the conjunction "and." Subordinate sentences are comparatively rare, but descriptive and temporal clauses are not uncommon. In the main narrative, the predicates are placed at the beginning of the sentence, first simply in the root form (3rd singular masculine), and then only when the subject has been mentioned does the predicate agree with it. Descriptive and temporal clauses may be recognized by their having the subject at the beginning (e.g.
12. Syntax of the Noun:
In the Semitic languages, compound words do not occur, but this deficiency is made up by what is called the construct state. The old rule, that the second of two nouns which depend on one another is put in the genitive, becomes, in Hebrew, the first of two such nouns is put in the construct state. The noun in the construct state loses the definite article, and all its vowels are made as short as possible, just as if it were the beginning of a long word: for example, ha-bayith, "the house," but beth ha-melekh, "the house of the king," "the palace"; dabhar, "a word," but dibhere ruach, "words of wind," "windy words."
13. Poverty of Adjectives:
The articles on the Hebrew Language in Schenkel’s Bibel-Lexikon, 1875, by Noldeke; in Encyclopedia Brit, 9th edition, by Robertson Smith; 11th edition by Noldeke; in the Imperial Bible Dict., 1866, by T. H. Weir; also those in HDB, EB.
A. B. Davidson’s Elementary Heb Grammar and Syntax; Gesenius, Heb Grammar, English translation by Cowley, 2nd edition.
Brown, Briggs and Driver, Hebrew and English Lexicon; Gesenius, Handworterbuch, 15th edition; Feyerabend, Hebrew-English Pocket Dictionary; Breslau, English and Hebrew Dictionary.
IV. Biblical Aramaic.
1. Aramaic Portions of the Old Testament:
The Aramaic portions of the Old Testament are the following:
The accent is placed on the last syllable, the first vowel disappearing, e.g. `abhadh for Hebrew `abhadh. It is curious that the same feature is found in Algerene and Moroccan Arabic: thus qacr becomes qcar. Dentals take the place of sibilants: dehabh for zahabh; telath for shalosh. The strong Hebrew "ts" (tsade) frequently becomes " ` " (`ayin), and Hebrew " ` " (`ayin) becomes " ’ " (’aleph): thus, ’ar`a’ for ’erets; `uq for tsuq.
In Hebrew the definite article is the prefix hal (ha-); in Aramaic the affix a’; the latter, however, has almost lost its force. The dual is even more sparingly used than in Hebrew. The passive forms of verbs and those beginning with nun ("n") are practically wanting; the passive or reflexive forms are made by prefixing the letter "t" to the corresponding active forms, and that much more regularly than in Hebrew, there being three active and three passive forms.
In regard to syntax there is to be noted the frequent use of the participle instead of a finite verb, as in Hebrew; the disuse of the conjunction "and" with the vocalization of the article; and the disuse of the construct state in nouns, instead of which a circumlocution with the relative di is employed, e.g. tselem di dhehabh, "an image of gold." The same periphrasis is found also in West African Arabic.
5. Aramaic More Decadent than Hebrew:
It will thus be seen that if Hebrew represents a decadent form of an original classical language which was very similar to classical Arabic, Biblical Arabic stands on a still lower level. It is not to be supposed that Hebrew passed into Aramaic, though on the analogy of Arabic that view is not untenable. Rather, the different Semitic languages became fixed at different epochs. Arabic as a literary language crystallized almost at the source; Hebrew and the spoken Arabic of the East far down the stream; and Aramaic and Moroccan Arabic farthest down of all.
Kautzsch, Grammatik; Strack, Abriss des bibl. Aramaisch; Marti, Bibl. aram. Sprache; the articles on "Aramaic" or "Chaldee" in the Biblical Dicts. cited under III, and article ARAMAIC LANGUAGE in this Encyclopedia; the Hebrew text of Ezra, Nehemiah, Daniel, edition by Baer. Hebrew Dictionaries. generally include Biblical Aramaic.
V. Literary Characteristics of the Semites.
1. Concrete and Abstract:
The thinking of the Hebrews, like that of other Semites, was done, not in the abstract, but in the concrete. Thus, we find the material put for the immaterial, the expression for the thought, the instrument for the action, the action for the feeling. This mode of expression frequently gives rise to striking anthropomorphisms. Thus we have the eye for watchfulness or care (
2. View of Nature:
The Hebrew does not know the distinction between animate and inanimate Nature. All Nature is animate (
3. Pictorial Imagination:
The highly imaginative nature of the Hebrew comes into play when he is recounting past events or writing history. To his mind’s eye all past events are present. He sees history taking place before his eyes as in a picture. Thus the perfect may generally be translated by the English past tense with "have," the imperfect by the English present tense with "is" or "is going to." In livelier style the participle is used: "They are entering the city, and behold Samuel is coming out to meet them" (
4. Prose and Poetry:
A result of the above facts is that there is no hard-and-fast distinction in Hebrew between prose and poetry. Neither is there in Hebrew, or in the Semitic language generally, epic or dramatic poetry, because their prose possesses these qualities in a greater degree than does the poetry of other races. All Hebrew poetry is lyric or didactic. In it there is no rhyme nor meter. The nearest approach to meter is what is called the qinah strophe, in which each verse consists of two parallel members, each member having five words divided into three and then two. The best example of this is to be found in
5. Hebrew Easy of Translation:
From the above description it may be inferred that the language of the Old Testament is one extremely easy of translation into foreign tongues without loss of meaning or rhythm, though it would be extremely difficult to render any modern language into classical Hebrew. Hence, the Psalms, for example, are as fine in their German or English versions as they are in the original. Where the Old Testament has been translated into the language of the country, it has become a classic. The English Bible is as important for the study of the English language as are the plays of Shakespeare.
In addition to the articles cited under III, Herder. The Spirit of, translation by J. Marsh, 1833; Ed. Konig, Stilistik, Rhetorik, Poetik in Bezug auf die bibl. Litt. komparativisch dargestellt, 1900; the same author’s brochure on the "Style of Scripture" in HDB, volume V; J. F. McCurdy on the "Semites" in the same volume; J. Kennedy, Hebrew Synonyms.
Thomas Hunter Weir