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Citation for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: Linguistic Overview

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Elwolde, John . " Language and Translation of the Old Testament." In The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Oxford Biblical Studies Online. May 5, 2016. <http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780199254255/obso-9780199254255-div1-47>.


Elwolde, John . " Language and Translation of the Old Testament." In The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies. Oxford Biblical Studies Online, http://www.oxfordbiblicalcstudies.com/article/book/obso-9780199254255/obso-9780199254255-div1-47 (accessed May 5, 2016).

Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic: Linguistic Overview

Although the Bible contains material that is diverse in genre, date, and provenance, from after the Exile up to the early Middle Ages this diverse material underwent a process of standardization that gave it a strong veneer of linguistic unity. As for texts actually composed during this post-exilic period, there is evidence both for ignorance of Hebrew and for the encroachment of Aramaic on spoken and literary usage (see Neh. 8, 8, 13: 24, and contrast with 2 Kgs. 18: 26–8). Post-exilic texts seem to reflect the more or less artificial employment of the pre-exilic ‘classical’ literary language, which no longer existed as a spoken medium, as well as influence from a vernacular dialect of Hebrew, from the north of the country, which would eventually find its literary expression in the ‘rabbinic Hebrew’ of the Mishnah (see Pérez Fernández 1997). However, before the Exile it is reasonable to assume that the Hebrew found in the Bible flourished as a literary language, and there is no positive evidence to suggest that the spoken language was significantly different, at least in the southern kingdom. A language somewhat different from that found in this ‘classical Hebrew’ of pre-exilic prose texts is seen in the remnants of the Bible's earliest, poetic literature. This poetry is usually thought to represent a northern literary idiom that reflects contact with the language and literature of Israel's Canaanite antecedents and Aramaic-speaking neighbours (see Hadas-Lebel 1995).

The alphabet familiar to us as ‘Hebrew’ is in fact the Aramaic script, used for writing Hebrew after the Exile. A form of the older Hebrew script, found in many Hebrew inscriptions from the pre-exilic period, was retained by the Samaritans. It also continued to be used occasionally, for example, at Qumran in some biblical manuscripts and for writing the divine name, and at the time of the Bar Kochba Revolt (132–5 CE) on coins signalling a hoped-for return to former glory. Hebrew (and Aramaic) is read from right to left and employs twenty-two letters for the representation of up to twenty-nine consonants. In order to ensure that a reader does not confuse, for example, dabar (‘word’) with dibber (‘he spoke’) or deber (‘plague’), small marks, or ‘points’ to indicate vowels and other phonetic information are added to this purely consonantal writing system. In the system of ‘pointing’ found in the Tiberian Masoretic Text (see below), nine basic vowel signs, each one on its own or in combination with another vowel sign or a consonant, represent fourteen or fifteen different vowels.

The basic (or ‘dictionary’) form of most Hebrew words tends to be either mono-or bi-syllabic, with the stress generally falling on the final syllable, at least in the Tiberian system. Hebrew nouns and adjectives do not employ case-endings (for nominative, accusative, or genitive), although there are two genders, unmarked (masculine) and marked (feminine). Typical ‘feminine’ markers for nouns and adjectives are - a or -et in the singular and -ot (as against ‘masculine’ -im) in the plural.

Verbless sentences, in which a subject and complement are simply juxtaposed, without the verb ‘to be,’ are common, as are verbs expressing states of being: ‘be big,’ ‘be old,’ etc. Central elements of the Hebrew verb system include the ‘perfect’, which states that such-and-such an action has taken place (typically, rendered by past forms in English) and the ‘imperfect’, where the focus is on the unfolding of the action or process denoted (typically rendered in English by present, future, conditional, or subjunctive forms). There are also two additional conjugations, traditionally called waw-consecutives. The best-known feature of these forms is that, broadly speaking, the conjugation that looks most like the ‘imperfect’ functions as though it were a ‘perfect’, and vice versa. In general, the use of the different forms of the Hebrew verb is dictated not by considerations of time but by often subtle constraints of word order and of previous choices in the verbal system. A series of ‘derived conjugations’, in which the basic form of a verb is modified by the addition of prefixes, duplication of consonants, or changes of vowels, allows Hebrew to express regular modifications of meaning (passive, reflexive, reciprocal, causative, intensive, etc.): e.g. šabar (simple conjugation) (‘he broke’); šubbar (passive-intensive) (‘he was shattered’). Hebrew has a variety of conjunctions, although it also frequently employs simple co-ordination of clauses with we-(‘and’) instead of using subordinate clauses. English clauses of the type ‘when he does’ are typically construed in Hebrew as ‘in (or “as”) his doing’. See Joüon 1993; Lambdin 1973.

Aramaic and Hebrew are not mutually intelligible dialects, but separate languages, each with a wealth of literary and spoken traditions that go well beyond the evidence of the Bible (see Beyer 1986; Fitzmyer 1979; Sáenz-Badillos 1993). However, contact between the Hebrew and Aramaic languages and their speakers dates from the very beginnings of Israel's history (see Gen. 31: 47; Deut. 26: 5) and continued through the intertestamental period and beyond (see Lemaire 1988). Many words in the Aramaic portions of the Bible (Dan. 2: 4–7: 28; Ezra 4: 8–6: 18; 7: 12–26) have recognizable cognates in the Hebrew sections, and there are numerous Aramaisms in biblical Hebrew (and Hebraisms in biblical Aramaic). Obvious features that distinguish biblical Aramaic from Hebrew include Aramaic's use of a suffixed—rather than prefixed—definite article, e.g. bayt-a (‘the house’) (Hebrew hab-bayit), the object marker le- (rarely yat) rather than Hebrew 'et, di (‘which, that, because’) (Hebrew 'ašer), man ‘who?’ (Hebrew mi), la ‘no, not’ (Hebrew lo), and 'itay ‘there is’ (Hebrew yeš). See Rosenthal 1995.

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