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!


  1. Huh, this is eerie. The main example I know of the language being called “Yehudit” is in 2 Kings, 18 verse 26 (set during the Assyrian siege of Jerusalem, ~720 BC). The translation I found, though, goes thusly:
    Then Eliakim son of Hilkiah, and Shebna and Joah said to the field commander, “Please speak to your servants in Aramaic, since we understand it. Don’t speak to us in Hebrew in the hearing of the people on the wall.”

  2. J.W. Brewer says

    The relevant section of the LXX has “λάλησον δὴ πρὸς τοὺς παῖδάς σου Συριστί, ὅτι ἀκούομεν ἡμεῖς, καὶ οὐ λαλήσεις μεθ᾿ ἡμῶν ᾿Ιουδαϊστί” etc. So it was not impossible to distinguish Aramaic from Hebrew in Greek, even if the NT authors did not do so. Yuval, fwiw, the translation you are referencing is the NIV, which is rather free (some might say so free as to fall on the other side of the admittedly blurry line between translation and paraphrase), so you might want to check against some other recentish versions, which use locutions like “the language of Judah” (NRSV and ESV) or “Judean” (NASB, and also how NETS renders the LXX).

  3. In two or three posts, because that’s the way WordPress wants it:

    The following, with minor changes, is from Section 1, ‘Origin of the name Hebrew’, in the Hebrew-language Wiki entry on that language.

    “The name עֵבֶר Ever [often spelled Eber but that’s not the way I learned how to pronounce it way back — PO) appears in the Bible as the name of an ancestor of our forefather Abraham. The term עברי Ivri is mentioned many times in the Bible as a name for the Children of Israel, yet the name of the language of the Hebrews is called in the Bible יהודית Yehudith (footnote here leads to several examples, the earliest of which is 2 Kings 18:26: ‘Speak Aramaic to your servants, for we understand it; do not speak Yehudith among us . . . and he proclaimed in a loud voice YEHUDITH.’ The KJV has “Syrian language” rather than Aramaic — PO) and also in the Book of Isaiah, 19:18, as ‘the language of Canaan’. This name for the language was probably used to differentiate the dialect of the (northern) Kingdom of Israel from that of the Kingdom of Judah, or that of the area around Jerusalem.

  4. “The oldest source using the word Hebrew for the language is a Greek source from the 2nd century BC. The source is the grandson of בן סירא Ben Sirach, who writes in a foreword to a translation into Greek of his grandfather’s composition: “Wherefore let me entreat you to read it with favor and attention, and to pardon us, wherein we may seem to come short of some words, which we have labored to interpret. For the same things uttered in הֵבְּרַאִיסְטִי ἑβραϊστὶ Hebrew, and translated into another tongue, have not the same force in them.

    “In the language of our sages (Talmud scholars — PO), spoken from the beginning of the 1st century AD, the accepted term for the language of the Bible and of the spoken language was לשון הקודש ‘holy tongue,’ and the term ‘Hebrew’ was used to designate the old Hebrew script, and to designate the language of ‘the children across [ עבר ever ] the river,’ although there are instances where the term ‘Hebrew’ also serves to designate the language of the Bible.

  5. עבר avar is an everyday term in Modern Hebrew that means ‘to cross, go over’ and similar. It also designates the grammatical past tense, and with a twist, to mean ‘to forward,’ as in ‘I forwarded the email to several friends.’ It’s also used to mean a reworking of a text into another language rather than a word-by-word translation.

    I’m not sure when the term יהודים Jews came to be. Throughout the Bible and Talmud, and seen today in prayers and a host of everyday sayings, the term is עם ישראל People of Israel or Nation of Israel.

  6. The Hebrew Wikipedia article has a good section on the history of the term. Summing it:
    — עברי ‘Hebrew’ comes from עֵבֶר ‘Eber’, an ancestor of Abraham. I don’t know of any suggestion that he name is related to the Hebrew root עבר mentioned by Paul Ogden. Rashi interprets some Talmudic uses of the word עברית as ‘the language of the people across the river’, deriving from that root, but I don’t see it.
    — The first mention of ‘Hebrew’ as a name for the language is in the introduction to the Greek translation of the Book of Ben Sira (Wisdom of Sirach). The translation and the introduction, dated to the 2nd century BCE, are by Ben Sira’s grandson, who writes, “Wherefore let me intreat you to read it with favour and attention, and to pardon us, wherein we may seem to come short of some words, which we have laboured to interpret. For the same things uttered in Hebrew [ἑβραϊστὶ], and translated into another tongue, have not the same force in them.” (source and translation here.
    — In the Mishna, both the language of the Bible and the spoken language were referred to as לשון הקודש, roughly ‘the holy tongue’.
    — ‘Hebrew’ was used in the Gemara to refer to the old Hebrew script, as distinguished from the later Assyrian script, the ancestor of today’s script.
    — ‘Hebrew’ is used in a few paces to refer to the language in both the Mishna and the Gemara, which suggests to me that the term was generally used, even if the euphemism לשון הקודש was preferred in some contexts.

    To these I add that during the earlier years Haskalah movement of the 19th century and its attendant language revival movement, the language was often called שפת עבר ‘the language of Eber’, an archaism based on עברית. ‘Hebrew’ was used by various Medieval scholars as well.

  7. I should add, Maimonides used the word ‘Hebrew’ (in Judeo-Arabic), in his commentary on the language (Guide to the perplexed 3,8). he argues that the Hebrew language is called ‘the holy language’ because it has no words for the sexual organs, the sexual act, nor for semen, urine or feces, and that the words used for them in the Bible are all euphemisms.

  8. Maimonides lied. The Hebrew word חרא khara shit (not excrement and not feces) appears in II Kings 18:27 (the verse immediately after my cite above) and is repeated in Isaiah 36:12.

    וַיֹּאמֶר אֲלֵיהֶם רַבְשָׁקֵה הַעַל אֲדֹנֶיךָ וְאֵלֶיךָ שְׁלָחַנִי אֲדֹנִי לְדַבֵּר אֶת-הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה הֲלֹא עַל-הָאֲנָשִׁים הַיֹּשְׁבִים עַל-הַחֹמָה לֶאֱכֹל אֶת-חריהם וְלִשְׁתּוֹת אֶת-שניהם עִמָּכֶם.

    But Rabshakeh said unto them, Hath my master sent me to thy master, and to thee, to speak these words? hath he not sent me to the men which sit on the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own piss with you? (KJV)

    When reading these occurrences it is traditional to substitute a euphemism. The word שתן shetten piss/urine is written in both places with the /t/ letter missing.

    Hebrew has only the one word, שתן, to indicate both urine and piss. The word חרא shit has synonyms like צואה tzoah excrement/feces and גללים glalim (animal) droppings in everyday use as well. The baby words — also used by adults — are, respectively, פיפי peepee and קקי kaki, from Yiddish/German.

  9. Paul,

    more on the subject of Sterilizing the Bible.

  10. @bulbul: Thanks. The author quotes the same passage. I’ve bookmarked the site; looks like it carries good stuff.

  11. marie-lucie says

    Thanks for posting that article, bulbul.

  12. Paul,
    I think ‘lied’ is a bit of a strong word. ‘Overlooked’ is probably more apt. The whole essay is, as Maimonides himself says, a digression. He’s just floating an idea. Maimonides was a serious and learned scholar, and has justly been celebrated, but even he could make mistakes.

    There’s more poop elsewhere in II Kings, 6:25 and 10:27.

    These and other errors of Maimonides have already been noted in 1866, in Salomon Munk’s annotated French translation of the Guide to the Perplexed.

  13. Hard to imagine that a man of Maimonides’ intellectual strength ‘overlooked’ these words. In any event, though I can’t read the original Judeo-Arabic,Tel Aviv University had no trouble rendering the passage you cite into Hebrew and even finding a word for ravishing sexual penetration ( שגל shagal) that as it happens appears in Jeremiah 3:2. KVJ translates the term as whoredom.

  14. marie-lucie says

    Do you mean “rape”?

  15. Whoredom renders זנות; been lien with שגל.

  16. Maimonides addresses שגל. He says it derives from שֵׁגַל, a woman kept as a sexual servant (as in Ps. 45:10), and that the word is hence a euphemism. I’m not saying he’s right, just that he does claim that the word is not a counter-example.

    I can’t believe Maimonides was out to deceive anyone by ignoring something written in the Bible, which would have been available and well-studied by his audience. I can easily believe that he overlooked some words, especially since in these days there wre no concordances or dictionaies, and one had to rely on one’s memory. Even today, brilliant linguists frequently make embarrassing mistakes in their languages of expertise. Peer review helps, but was not common in Maimonides’s day.

    Anyway, I mentioned this thing as an early example of the “language has no words/many words for such and such, therefore the language is such and such” genre.

  17. m-l: Do you mean “rape”?

    *I* don’t mean rape, but precisely what Jeremiah or his editors intended is another matter. My sense of the word in that context, and I hasten to note that I’m not a Bible scholar, is that it means something like unbridled lust with both parties consenting — and not necessarily within marriage.

    Towards the end of the verse is a reference to זנות znut, which as MMcM notes, means whoredom. (Hebrew then and Hebrew now have זונה zona for whore; it’s at minimum curious that the word for ‘armed,’ as in ‘we have weapons,’ is מזוין mizuyan. זין zayin in today’s Hebrew is a crude word for the male member, while לזיין li-zayen means ‘to screw.’

    Today’s word for rape is אונס oness (accent on first syllable). Historically the word meant compulsion, and even today is used to describe the Jews of Spain who were forced to convert to Catholicism during the Inquistion: אנוסים anusim.

    The BDB link I provided above for שגל shagal suggests the meaning is “ravish, violate,” and there’s a proviso that the word was considered obscene. The entry immediately after is שגל shegall, whose meaning is given as “(queen-)consort.”

    The Bible *does* steer away from specific descriptions of sexual activity, especially when the activity is condoned. There’s plenty of “he lay down with her” and “he knew her” in those instances.

    Another word, בעל ba’al, has multiple and related meanings. First, it’s the name of a Phoenician/Canaanite deity. An old and still current meaning is ‘owner, master,’ and from ‘master’ we also get ‘master of’ in the sense of ‘skill.’ There’s an infrequently used verb form, לבעול li-v’ol, that means ‘to sexually dominate’. The word is not obscene in itself, but the act it describes is considered so appalling that one does not commonly utter it. I don’t know why it’s not used to mean rape. Yet בעל ba’al also means husband, while the word for wife is ‘merely’ אישה isha woman. The word for female is נקבה nikeva the pierced one . . .

    What was Maimonides getting at? I don’t know. Few are the cultures without difficulty when matters sexual arise (you should forgive the expression). It’s a powerful urge, the source of life (aka dynastic continuity) and the source of much trouble. Perhaps he saw and omitted, perhaps he didn’t see, perhaps he saw and forgot.

  18. Assuming Schniedewind’s dating is correct, it seems like a fascinating observation, and new to me – i.e. that the use of Hebrew as a name for a specific language paralleled sociopolitical changes on the ground. It reminds me of the history of the term “Yiddish,” which is relatively recent as a term for the language used by its speakers (as opposed to “zhargon,” “loshn ashkenaz,” etc.).

  19. Zackary: it seems like a fascinating observation, and new to me – i.e. that the use of Hebrew as a name for a specific language paralleled sociopolitical changes on the ground.

    On the other hand, what is more reasonable to expect than a connection with sociopolitical changes ? Names for languages were not handed down by God to Adam, so far as I know.

    If I understand the quote correctly, Schniedewind is saying that the name “Hebrew” turned up only after “the Judean language ceased to be a living vernacular”, not during its prevalence. Luhmann wrote quite a lot about such historical phenomena, where a name or idea seems to turn up only when the show is over (so to speak). This is a central idea in one of his major works, a multi-volume collection of essays with the title Gesellschaftsstruktur und Semantik.

  20. John Cowan says

    I think that’s intelligible on general grounds. We need names for things to distinguish them from other things: we need names for our own activities when we no longer do them, or when we meet people who do different things. We need the concept of ‘tradition’ only when some of us are no longer traditional.

    For example, among the Romance languages the only places the words Roman or Latin survive for the languages are when they are spoken on non-Romance territory. Latins in Gaul and in Spain needed separate words for their languages to distinguish them, but Romanian and Rumantsch and Ladin and Ladino continued to work fine in their Slavic, Germanic, and Turkish contexts. Similarly, in Navajo diné means either ‘people’ or ‘the Navajo’; the word for ‘lawyer’ means literally ‘people who talk fast and help people’ or else ‘people who talk fast and help the Navajo’, depending on how you see it.

  21. JC: Latins in Gaul and in Spain needed separate words for their languages to distinguish them

    I wonder when that arose? Or more precisely, when did people living in what are today France and Spain — and for that matter in Italy too — decide that the language they spoke was no longer Latin? (I used the verb ‘spoke’ because I assume that most written material in those countries back then was still recognizably Latin — it was the spoken language that had changed, and only later, with more widespread literacy (see: commerce, expanded) did the vernacular come to be written.)

  22. marie-lucie says

    I would think that the names for the peoples came before those of the languages. The name of a language is usually derived from the name of the group that speaks it, itself often derived from the name of their territory. For instance, English started as Englisc, the form of speech used by the Angles, before it became the common language of an enlarged England.

    Even when the vernacular forms of Latin (usually called by a form of romanus or romanice) were still not too far from written Latin, travellers were well aware that the people of Spain, France or Italy did not all speak the same way, even though their respective forms of speech may still have been mutually intelligible. It must have been later that the names of the various peoples were also used for their now separate languages.

    In the case of French, until the Germanic invasions it does not seem that there was a distinctive word for the form of Latin spoken in what was still called by a name continuing Latin Gallia. After the Frankish invaders took over Northern Gaul, learned the local Latin dialect (Rome still being prestigious), passed it on to their descendants but (being now the rulers) imposed on the country their name (hence Francia) and their own way of speaking Latin, eventually causing major differences in pronunciation between the speech of Northern France which evolved into French and that of the areas less deeply influenced politically or linguistically by the former conquerors, by then thoroughly assimilated.

  23. Could shagal have given rise to the British slang word shag, sexual intercourse? It’s used in Canada, too, and a ‘shaggin wagon’ was a van fitted out with a mattress and other comforts.

    And could there be a relationship with the name of Marc Chagall, the painter, who was born Moishe?

  24. John Cowan says

    Shag ‘copulate (with)’ is recorded as early as 1770, so a Hebrew origin is pretty well excluded. In fact, Thomas Jefferson was the author of the first OED quotation: “He had shagged his mother and begotten himself on her body.” (Who, I wonder?) Both the OED and Etymonline agree that it’s < an earlier shag ‘shake’, itself a variant of shake.

    Shake in turn is common Germanic: Etymonline says “No certain cognates outside Germanic, but some suggest a possible connection to Sanskrit khaj ‘to agitate, churn, stir about’, Old Church Slavonic skoku ‘a leap, bound’, Welsh ysgogi ‘move.'”

    As for Chagall, his family name was Segal, supposedly an acronym for segan leviyyah ‘servant to the Levites’. Most acronymic etymologies are bogus, but some Jewish names are an exception.

  25. Thanks, JC, enlightening as usual. But why doesn’t the Wikipedia entry for Marc Chagall refer to Segal, I wonder?

  26. Odd to see my last comment dated in the future. Who says time travel doesn’t exist?

  27. John Cowan says

    LH’s clock is New York time. Chagall’s original name is given in the “Early life and education” section of the WP article.

  28. Who says time travel doesn’t exist?

    Maybe tomorrow it did.

  29. JC: Oops! Caught with my pants down. Didn’t read the entire article.

    PO: Heh! Turning the mind inside out is a healthy exercise.

  30. Semi-serious research for time travel: Top ways to research the internet for time travelers, Earthsky, Jan. 7 2014.

    sorry, I’ve lost my note on how to create a link.

  31. narrowmargin says

    Why is Aramaic referred to as a “Jewish” language? I know that parts of the Bible were written in it but wasn’t it simply the lingua franca in the Levant 2,000 years ago, unattached to any religious or ethnic group? What am I missing here?

  32. John Cowan says

    It was, like Akkadian before it and Arabic after it. But also like those, it became the native language of a number of different populations, including the Judaeans. Consequently, not only parts of the Bible but the bulk of the Talmud are written in it, and so it is widely studied by Orthodox Jews.

    Small groups of Jews and Christians, as well as Mandeans, continue to use it as a first language, often in conjunction with Modern Hebrew or Arabic. The varieties are often no longer mutually intelligible, and Ethnologue identifies 14 separate languages still in use. Only two of them are considered “Vigorous”, defined by Ethnologue as “used for face-to-face communication by all generations and the situation is sustainable”, but without literary form or standardization.

  33. narrowmargin says


  34. The First Nation Cree of North America speak a Biblical Hebrew. Its is called NayheYHWHwin. It is the only Language with the Holy Name of God within it. The Ojibway known as Anishnabi also speak this biblical Hebrew.
    Wgy isn’t there any etymological studies for the First Nations of Canada? We the Cree, Anishnabi speak the Ancient languages of the east. We also have Arabic and Ugarit as well including other from the middle east too numerous to mention. We the First Nations can fill the gap between expectations and results. Btw most if not all First nations have our languages still intact. The residential schools failed in trying to eradicate our languages.

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