[b-hebrew] Mishnaic Hebrew

Chavoux Luyt chavoux at gmail.com
Wed Nov 23 15:54:50 EST 2011

Hi Karl

You wrote:

> What I notice is that already in those latter books, there is far more
> sparing use of the idioms and other higher “levels of control” that would
> indicate native fluency of the language in a milieu of other native
> speakers. Rather we have varying levels of competency that would include
> being able to carry on a conversation in the language, but otherwise
> indicating that this was a second language for those writers.
> These also indicate that the pronunciation changed significantly during
> this period, as the native Aramaic speakers would have followed their
> Aramaic pronunciations, especially since the writing had no vowel
> indicators to reign in pronunciation wandering. This may have been the
> period when the sin and shin became differentiated, whereas previously they
> were one letter. We know that by the time of the LXX some of the letters
> became aspirated, though to a lesser extent in the north (Galilee) as shown
> by name transliterations in the New Testament.
In this regard there was already dialectal change in the time of the
judges (the famous "shibboleth" of Judges 12:6). Although the "s" is
written in the text with a samech to indicate the Ephraimite
pronunciation, the "correct spelling" was probably still with a shin
(sin) even by them.

> We find the statement in Nehemiah 13:24 that the mixed marriages resulted
> in children who did not understand Hebrew. That would not have been
> necessary if this had been a Hebrew speaking milieu—even if the children
> spoke the other languages at home, they would pick up Hebrew at a young age
> from the street. But this does become an issue in an Aramaic speaking
> milieu where the women from mixed marriages taught their children their
> native tongues at home, possibly as a second language, where speaking
> Hebrew was something to be taught as a second language, necessary because
> of its religious and civic uses (similar to medieval Latin).
I must say that I doubt it that a language (and its pronunciation)
could disappear in a single generation. Yes some of the mixed children
could not understand Hebrew. But there certainly must have been enough
native speakers of Hebrew to keep the language alive (there were still
some old men alive who remembered the first temple!), especially in
Israel itself among the returnees. It is very likely that in Babylon
among the Jews who stayed in exile, Aramaic would replace Hebrew as
their first language over time. But I think it might be a stretch to
say that the same happened in Israel itself after the return in such a
short time span. The fact that some children could no longer speak
Hebrew might rather indicate that their father no longer cared about
being part of the Jewish people and therefore did not care about
teaching his children to speak Hebrew. Once again this effect occurs
many times where a smaller language exists in the same geographical
area as a larger language and a couple from different language groups
marries (both native speakers of their respective languages). They
choose to raise their children to speak the more widely-used language
(unless the partner from the smaller language group insists on raising
his children in his own language). It is exactly because this
indicates unfaithfulness to their God and a non-care attitude to their
people, that the scripture condemns this.

The change in the language from the post-exilic writers compared to
pre-exilic could just as well simply be the normal change that happens
in all languages, even among native speakers. Also keep in mind that
the scribes did occasionally update the language of texts that they
copied, so even the texts of the pre-exilic writers that we have today
might not accurately reflect the language that they spoke when it was
first written down. And then there is the wide-spread difference
between more formal language that is used in writing compared to the
more informal spoken language.

Chavoux Luyt

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