[b-hebrew] Hebrew as a spoken language

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Sat Oct 27 20:33:24 EDT 2007

On 10/27/07, Dave Washburn wrote:

> > No I didn't.  Karl said that.  I remain non-committal on that point of whether
> > Latin continued to change after it died as a commonly spoken language.
> > However, I did state that Latin served as a language for liturgy and religious
> > affairs while it was still a popularly spoken language, not just for religious
> > matters but for standard day to day matters.  It only later died (or more
> > accurately, it didn't die, but its later stages are not called Latin, but rather
> > Romance, Italian, French, Spanish, etc.)
> Ummmmm, no.  It ceased to be the common spoken language essentially
> after the fall of the Roman empire.  It continued to be used by certain elite
> groups well into the Renaissance, but the common folk didn't know it.  I'm not
> sure how you manage to try and drag descendant languages into it, but I won't
> go there.

You are welcome to provide references for your assertions, as well, you know.
Just because you say it so, doesn't mean it makes it so.  Furthermore, Latin
again did not die.  It didn't cease to be the spoken language.  "cease" implies
some actual event that happened.  It makes it sound as if people one day woke
up and said, "That's it.  No more Latin.  From now on, we speak French!"  This
is not the way it came about.  Rather, it evolved.  It underwent changes that
would make it into early French or early Italian.  The Latin that was
used by the
Church was so used because some time back, before those developments that
would make Latin into French or Italian, the Church began to use the commonly
spoken form of Latin.  The most obvious example of this is Jerome's translation
of the Bible into Vulgate, the language of the people (vulgus).

Some references and links:
On the date of Vulgar Latin and the shift to other languages -
On the development of Latin into early French, Spanish, and Italian, as well as
the introduction into the British Isles, where the development of Latin as a
foreign tongue is discussed:

> > > I never said it was a language "dead hundreds of years at the time."   What
> > >I have said over and over, and I believe Karl did as well, is that it
> > ceased to be
> > > the common language around the time of the Exile.  Pot and kettle, my friend.
> >
> > >From my point of view, a language is dead if it survives solely as a literary
> > language and is not the language that any mother uses to say to her child,
> > "No, you can't have candy," and the child answers "Why not?"
> While I could dispute your definition, it's irrelevant, because I never said, and as far as I
> know Karl never said, that Hebrew was "dead."  Please stop the smokescreen.  We all
> agree that it was spoken, but the questions, which you seem to keep dodging, are 1. by
> whom, 2. how widespread was its use after the Exile, and 3. when did it cease to be a
> common language learned at the parents' knees?  All this other stuff is peripheral.

I am not dodging these questions.  You are deliberately refusing to
read what I say
on the issue.  No. 3 -- when did it cease to be a common language learned at the
parents' knees, that is, when did it cease to be an L1 language among some
population.  The answer here, is probably in my opinion very late.
That is, although
elsewhere we are talking about the general population, since it could
have survived
as an L1 language in some isolated communities or circles, it might have done so
until 400 or 500 CE without any problem or leaving any evidence to
that effect.  But
since we don't know, and so long as we can't know, there's nothing to
discuss here.
But until about 150 - 200 CE, it was probably the L1 language of the Judean
countryside, that is, Judea, except for Jerusalem.  Now, the moment a language
stops being an L1 language, and is learned only as a literary or scholarly
language for use in literature or religion but not in everyday life,
it has died.
You may not have said that it was dead, but in my terms this is the meaning of
what you are saying.  If you feel the linguistic definition of
"spoken" or "dead"
languages is different than mine, I would appreciate a reference to that effect.

> > The Bar Kochba correspondence are not "religious," they are political.
> > Bar Kochba probably did legislate a use of Hebrew as a language of
> > political communication.  However, what the letter shows is that this
> > could not be enforced in places where people did not speak Hebrew
> > in common day to day life.  I ask that in any case that evidence is
> > offered for spoken Hebrew (such as the BK correspondence), and
> > you still interpret "spoken" as "not spoken by the common population,"
> > you show how it is consistent with the evidence provided.
> You just did that for me.

No, I didn't.  I didn't quote any particular part of the BK correspondence.
Please provide an analysis of the BK correspondence that supports your
position, as well as the "wide scholarly agreement" that you earlier mentioned
that sees it as so.

> Yes, BK's writings are political, but they are built on a strong sense
> of nationalism.  What was one thing that set the nation apart?  The Hebrew
> language, which had been used by the religious leaders and perhaps some
> other elites, though this latter is questionable.  You agree that there were
> "places where people did not speak Hebrew in common day to day life."  I
> submit that these "places" were much more widespread than you
> care to acknowledge, in fact the vast majority of the common people fell into
> such a category.  And your citation of the BK letters appear to bear this idea
> out.  So it would seem that you answered your own question.

How do you know what location or locations the particular letter of the BK
correspondence if you haven't looked at the evidence?   That you "submit that
these places are much more widespread" is nice, but you have not provided

Here is the text of the letter, according to
(I am providing this translation only on comparison with Dr. Buth's
translation in the following post.  I have no idea about the rest of the
content of that webpage)

> "8. Soumaios to Jonathes son of Baianos and to Masabala, greeting !
> Since I have sent to you Agrippa, make haste to send me shafts and
> citrons, and furnish them for the Citron-celebration [= Feast of
> Tabernacles] of the Jews: and do not do otherwise. Now this has been
> written in Greek because an impulse has not been found to write in
> Hebrew. Dispatch him speedily on account of the feast, and do not do
> otherwise. Soumaios. Farewell ! Millar no.19 (Greek)"

and here is a link to a post of Dr. Randall Buth on the letter, on the bgreek
list (unfortunately, it seems that the archives for February 2002 don't
Note his historical comment:
> The reference to "of the Jews" in line 8 sounds like
> a non-Jew writing. This might be further supported
> by the comment about not writing in Hebrew,
> something that a foreigner probably had a weaker
> control of than Greek, even if fighting in a southern
> Judean army. He may have needed help to
> write in Hebrew.

So, we can see that we are not talking about a Jew, but a foreigner,
who probably did not know Hebrew well, because he came from

> Furthermore,
> > if I misrepresent your words, please state what the appropriate
> > representation is.  I try to do it when I feel you misunderstand me, and
> > I think if you do the same it would serve to further the discussion.
> You keep claiming that I said Hebrew was "dead."  I never have, because
> it wasn't.

But you claim that no one learned it at their "parents' knees"?  That is,
that it wasn't anyone's native language, just a language restricted for
religious and other specific uses.  In that case, when there is no native
speaker, you have language death.

> > > > It was suggested that Hebrew was a language of trade, legal
> > > > documents, and high society.
> > >
> > > Suggested by whom?  Not by me.  Citations, please.
> >
> > Karl.  This discussion began when I contested a common assertion made by
> > Karl.  You came in essentially to defend what Karl said.  You may not have
> > said it.  But I did not say that you said it.    See here:
> > http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-hebrew/2007-October/034065.html
> > You responded to this post here:
> > http://lists.ibiblio.org/pipermail/b-hebrew/2007-October/034067.html
> > You had no problems with Karl making that statement then.
> If you had bothered to quote it in toto, I wouldn't have had a problem with you repeating it.
> However, you didn't.  He said:
> ...it was the language of law, trade, religion, high literature, spoken
> fluently by millions *though none learned it at his mother's knee*.
> (emphasis mine)
> Note what he actually said: law (religiously-based),

Law is not religious-based.

> trade (I might question that, but it's not a major point), religion (which you
> conveniently omitted), high literature (not "high society" as you claimed).

True, but he does elsewhere speak of it as being only the language of an
educated elite:
(This among several.  Because of his claims in this thread regarding Latin,
which I felt were not sufficiently clear, I tried to look in the
archives for his
previous posts on the issue.  I am not sure this is the post I read originally,
though).  In my post above, my "high society" was probably due to both his
"high literature" and his "educated elite".  If you would rather use the term
"educated elite" than "high society," go for it.

> And he explicitly said none learned it "at his mother's knee," which is the
> whole question.

And is explicitly what I am contesting.  You seem to be reading what I say
re language death, spoken language, and applying your own definitions
which are (as far as I am aware, but I admit I could be wrong, hence the
requests for references to the contrary) the (primary) linguistic
definitions of
the terms.  This is important because if I quote Steiner or McCarter on the
issue, and they speak of Hebrew being spoken, they must be using the
linguistic definition, so reading in some other definition is simply wrong.

> I'm tired of this.  Nobody said "Hebrew was no longer spoken a generation
> or two after the exile."  I have corrected this statement several times but
> you persist in the misrepresentation.  I'm finished with this discussion.

Please review my definition above of "spoken."  If you say it was only spoken
but not by a native speaker, or not "at his mother's knee," then in my
definition, it wasn't spoken anymore.  Because Hebrew was always spoken
since the Biblical period, but not always by native speakers.  So the term is
really only interesting when it refers to native speakers.

> I have neither the time nor the interest to comb through the archives correcting your
> oversights.  I will not reply again.

Let me point out that you have left the discussion of the actual linguistic
changes in Mishnaic Hebrew, and the purported changes in Latin that
Karl claimed took place after it evolved, unanswered.  Also, you made the
claim that it is not widely accepted that Hebrew was spoken (by native
speakers!) until the 2nd century CE.  You left that claim unanswered
as well even after I provided many references to the contrary.  You have
failed to go and bring in evidence yourself, expecting (as Karl often does)
for me to bring in evidence, and for you to summarily "write it off," the
same way you appear to write off certain Biblical evidence that doesn't
fit your position as well as Talmudic evidence that you don't even care to
study, and first and foremost, Mishnaic Hebrew, which is at the center
of the discussion.

I also feel that you owe me an apology for the straw man comment.
Whereas I always made the same claim, contesting the same thing you
and Karl are claiming, but phrasing it in my own words, you chose to
read your own definitions into my post and then accused me of a straw
man argument.  I sort of expected more of you than of Karl, but it now
seems to me that your position is at least in part related to a particular
interpretation of the Biblical text, which you seem to feel is the only way
to read that text, as well as archaeological evidence to the contrary.

Yitzhak Sapir

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