[b-hebrew] Hebrew as a spoken language

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Thu Oct 25 15:26:17 EDT 2007

On 10/25/07, Dave Washburn wrote:

> In addition, I would point out that the Bar Kokhba letters, like the DSS, were
> produced by a small corner of the populace that had a specific purpose in
> mind; the DSS were religious documents, and the BK revolt was fiercely
> nationalistic.  It would make sense to use Hebrew simply to make the
> movement stand out, and says nothing at all about the general population.
> So the scant documentation that we do have is equivocal, and really doesn't
> give us a picture of the "man on the street."

The question is not whether some people stopped speaking Hebrew.   The
question is whether Hebrew survived as a spoken language in some
communities.  Both Eastern and Western varieties of Aramaic still survive
in various communities in Arab countries, despite the lingua franca having
been Arabic for a thousand years.  Can we deny that Hebrew did not
similarly survive, slowly dying out over centuries in various communities?  It
would rather seem that the converse -- that Hebrew had become completely
extinct in all towns after Aramaic became the lingua franca -- is very unlikely.
If Aramaic remained spoken in various towns over a thousand years,
suggesting that Hebrew remained spoken half as long is actually very

Latin has been suggested as an example.  Latin became the language
of the Church only because it was the spoken language.  Only later, did it
die out and continue to be used exclusively for religious purposes.  Both
Qumran Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew are very different from the Hebrew
found in the Bible.  The natural conclusion is that the same process of
writing the holy literature in the common language took place in Hebrew
as it took place in Latin.  This would mean, that during the time of
Mishnaic Hebrew and Qumran Hebrew, Hebrew was a spoken language
in those communities.  The great differences between the varieties of
Hebrew is also a good example.  A language that is dead changes much
less than a living language.  The great amount of differences both in
phonology and morphology in the later varieties of Hebrew are more like
the differences between different stages of a spoken language, than
like the differences between a later artificial version of a long dead
language.  Had Hebrew been extinct since the exile, the great changes
in verbal and nominal morphology would not have taken place.  If Latin
is to serve as an example, then the fact that the basic prayers are in
Mishnaic Hebrew should suggest that Mishnaic Hebrew was a spoken

Yitzhak Sapir

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