I’ve started reading A Social History of Hebrew: Its Origins Through the Rabbinic Period, by William M. Schniedewind (thanks, bulbul!), and I’m already learning new things. Here’s a passage about the name of the language:
Finally, it should be noted that the term Hebrew (עברית /ʿiḇrîṯ/) itself is not a biblical term for the Hebrew language. Although we now call the language of ancient Israel and Judah “Hebrew,” this term first appears for the language in the Mishnah (m. Gittin 9:6, 8; m. Yadayim 4:5), which was edited around 230 C.E. That is, the metalinguistic term Hebrew emerged precisely when the speech community in Palestine was disappearing. Furthermore, it appeared when the traditional linguistic identification of people, language, and land had disappeared with the changed sociopolitical situation of the Jewish community [after the Bar Kokhba revolt and the expulsion of the Jews from Judah/Judea]. This new term also formally recognized the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic as two Jewish languages, in contrast to the New Testament’s use of the Greek word hebraisti (Ἑβραϊστι) to refer to the vernacular Jewish language, without making clear whether this term refers to Hebrew or Aramaic. The term for the Hebrew language that would have been used by the prophet Isaiah in 700 B.C.E or the priest Ezra in 400 B.C.E is Yehudite (יהודית /yehûḏîṯ/), which is derived from the word for the territory of Judah (יהודה /yehûḏâ/) and is also generally used for the ethnic group Judean/Jew (יהודי /yehûḏî/) in postexilic biblical literature, Qumran literature, and rabbinic literature. It is quite typical of languages to be called after territories and ethnicities: thus, German and Germany, English and England, or Chinese and China. This fact actually highlights changes in the Hebrew language as it related to Jewish identity in different periods. The Jews/Judeans who lived in Judah/Judea always spoke the Judean/Jewish language. It is only when the Jews were expelled from Judea that the Judean language ceased to be a living vernacular. In fact, it is only at this time that the Jewish language became “Hebrew.” When the terminology for the language of the Jews is separated from that of the territory, it marks a profound shift in the history of the language itself.
Schniedewind won my heart earlier in the chapter when he wrote: “Here, it is important to recognize that all language classification is shaped by linguistic ideologies. For example, the description of Chinese as one language with several dialects, and of Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish as three languages is more a reflex of nationalism and borders than the conclusion of descriptive linguistics.” I’m really looking forward to the rest of the book!