[b-hebrew] Language, migration and Jewish identity

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Mon Nov 5 12:47:11 EST 2007

On Nov 2, 2007 11:15 PM, ג'ייסון הייר wrote:
> B-Hebrew Chaverim,
> I have been in a forum debate somewhere on the 'Net recently about the
> *when* of the adoption of Hebrew. I personally think that Abraham and Sarah
> adopted/acquired Hebrew when they migrated from Mesopotamia, and that their
> children grew up in Canaan with the language. Thus, they carried with them
> to Goshen (assuming the story of the biblical narrative at least true in the
> generalities), continuing their faith in the one God (as Abraham had
> instructed his family) until the time of the Exodus. Thus, it was natural
> that the Torah would be composed in Hebrew in its original kernel (given
> that many here do not think that the Torah was nearly all composed by the
> hand of Moshe Rabbeinu).
> The position of my "friend" on the other forum is that the Israelites
> adopted Hebrew only *after* the Exodus. I'm curious to know if there is
> anyone who makes a good point of this in the scholarly community, and also
> if there has been an opposing argument put forward.

Karl's response reminded me that I wanted to get to answer this for some time

In the scholarly community, the great majority of scholars understand the
evidence to suggest that the Exodus or Patriarchal narratives do not represent
anything more than possible and if so, garbled, historical memories.
The general
consensus would be that later Judeans and Israelites represent descendants of
Canaanites and their language is consequently an evolved form of one of the
Canaanite dialects.  This is (for the most part) linguistically plausible.

If the assumption of the Exodus and the Egyptian slavery is taken to be
historical, however, one may suppose that Hebrew would have borrowed
many words from Egyptian.  This hardly appears to be the case.  This
would suggest that after any adoption of Hebrew (or Canaanite) by the
ancestors of later Judeans took place, no Egyptian exile took place

The classic Jewish point of view is that Hebrew was the "original language"
and so Jews spoke Hebrew from the beginning.  One view sees their
redemption from Egypt being in part due to their not abandoning their
language.  A different view suggests that in Egypt, they had learned
to speak Egyptian and thus when God first spoke to them (The Ten
Commandments) he spoke in Egyptian -- ?anokh rather than ?ani.
?anok is indeed Coptic for 'I', but the ancient Egyptian is yanak.
Jacob translates Gala(ad into Hebrew, whereas Laban translates the
word into Aramaic, which suggests that Hebrew was already spoken
by Jacob.  Adam calls his wife ?i$$a on analogy with ?i$.  This
works primarily only in Hebrew (and Phoenician) because this
comparison of ?i$ and ?i$$a relies on the coalescence of *s and *th,
which took place in Hebrew and Phoenician but not in Aramaic.  The
Rabbis interpreted this to mean that Adam spoke Hebrew.  Some
(such as Ibn Ezra) also interpreted the term "language of Canaan" as
suggesting that Canaanites spoke Hebrew.  However, linguistically, this
"merger" probably took place during the 2nd millenium BCE and no
earlier, and in any case, the very fact that there was a merger suggests
that this was not an original language and in this case Aramaic is
more conservative.  The classic Jewish point of view is also that the
Torah was composed in its entirety in Hebrew (and perhaps in other
language too) before Creation.  A traditional Jewish way to resolve the
conflict would be to suggest that some Jews -- say, the Priests and
Levites who were not enslaved according to traditions -- maintained
Hebrew but the general population did not.

To sum up, your answer cannot be sought in the scholarly community
since the scholarly community has very different views than your
basic assumptions.  The classic Jewish point of view also has some
different views (that is, the Jews never "adopted" Hebrew).  Linguistically,
the evidence is for a very minimal borrowing of Egyptian words, much
much less than would be expected of a language that has been used
in an Egyptian exile, whether it took place or not.  You can compare the
amount of Persian, Greek, and Aramaic borrowing in Mishnaic Hebrew.

Yitzhak Sapir

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