[b-hebrew] Language, migration and Jewish identity

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Thu Nov 8 12:52:01 EST 2007

On 11/5/07, Yitzhak Sapir <yitzhaksapir at gmail.com> wrote:
> 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
> now.
> In the scholarly community,

The question here is: who is a scholar and what defines scholarship?

If "scholar" is limited to those who are connected with major secular
universities, have a PhD connected to their names and have published
in "peer" reviewed journals (the main function in practice of "peer
review" is to censor views that are not politically correct, to
prevent maverics from being hired at universities, and sometimes even
prevent them from getting advanced degrees), then we are talking about
a small clique, a very tiny subset of those who have studied Biblical

If we include anyone who has done extensive study of the Hebrew
language to the point that he/she can make material advances to the
study of Biblical Hebrew, then the number of "scholars" is much
larger, including many teaching in small private schools, yeshivot and
seminaries. It could even include some who are largely self-taught
with little formal training. While this is still a small subset of
those who have studied Biblical Hebrew, it can be a few times larger
than the very restrictive definition above.

> .... 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.

First of all, this is not a linguistic determination. Secondly,
according to historical research, it is based primarily on ideological
presuppositions (religious faith). Thirdly, there is no historical
documentation to back it up.

> 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.

What historical evidence is there to back this up?

> ....  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
> either.
If we take the records as they were written, there would have been
little communication between the Egyptians and the Hebrews. The
Egyptian pharaoh had the Hebrews do a job that was an abomination for
the Egyptians to do, namely that of herding. In other words, they were
the "untouchables" (to use an Indian caste word) of Egyptian society.

Secondly, if we take the records as written, most of the communication
between "Egyptians" and Hebrews would have taken place between a new
set of "Egyptians", namely the Hyksos, and the Hebrews. Seeing as the
Hyksos spoke a Semitic language, would that have left any noticeable
traces in the Hebrew language?

> The classic Jewish point of view is that Hebrew was the "original language"
> and so Jews spoke Hebrew from the beginning.  ...
> ...  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

I agree with Yitzhak on the final two paragraphs, that the available
literature supports either that Hebrew is a relatively late
acquisition by Israel, or that it was always the language used.

However, given the history of Israel as written, their contact with
Egyptian language would have been rather minimal, given not only their
status within Egyptian society, but also that they were living among
other Semites in Northern Egypt, and that their major contact with
"Egyptian" society was not with native Egyptians, rather with Semitic
speaking Hyksos, hence the amount of borrowing from Egyptian language
would have been minimal, contrasted to the close and daily contact
between Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic, Persian and later Greek. So
should one expect to see the same sort of borrowing? I think not.

Karl W. Randolph.

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