In the course of investigating Joel Hoffman’s book In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language, I ran across David Steinberg’s useful web page “History of the Hebrew Language” (which cites Hoffman in the bibliography). It’s got tables of phonetic correspondences and brief descriptions of each phase of the language, with some interesting insights:

It is in semantics that Israeli Hebrew can be said to break radically with the past and semantically and hence culturally become a European language…
The process worked as follows. When reviving Hebrew, the revivers asked the “fatal question” i.e. “what is the Hebrew word for X” with X being a Yiddish, Russian or German (and more recently English) word. He would… select a Hebrew word (verb, adjective, noun etc.) with a historical semantic range that overlapped the particular meaning of the foreign word he was trying to translate. Then, the Hebrew word would come to mirror the semantic range of word X. I.e. it would take the range of meanings of X and lose all of its original meanings not included in the semantic range of X. This is a development with huge cultural implications…
[For example,] Biblical Hebrew taḥana (Israeli Hebrew takhana) was originally a fairly rare word, from a root meaning “bending down” used meaning a stop for camping. It was used for describing the Israelites camping places in the wilderness. The root being similar in meaning to se station[n]er in French, takhana was chosen as the Hebrew calque… of the word “station”. It is now used to translate any English use of station without any connection, any longer, with the root meaning. In fact, since “station” is not used in European languages to denote a camping place, it can no longer be used in its original meaning! Arabic used a more “authentic” approach i.e. the Arabic word for bus stop is related to the word “to stop”; for police station Arabic uses a word meaning center of diffusion. What this means is that Hebrew has accepted an idiosyncratic development of this vocabulary item which stems from internal developments in another, historically unrelated, language.
Similar developments have taken place for sherut to translate all senses of service and tenu’a… for all senses of movement e.g. scout movement!

However, I’m still trying to get a handle on the Hoffman book, which apparently has some controversial theories about how ancient Hebrew sounded (he discounts the entire Masoretic tradition). Anybody have an informed opinion they’d like to share?


  1. The question of whether Israeli Hebrew is a Semitic or a European language is a fascinating one. My awareness of it stems entirely from the work of Zuckermann, whose very readable 2004 book (“Language Contact and Lexical Enrichment in Israeli Hebrew” – Palgrave Studies in Language History and Language Change) I would highly recommend.

  2. Semantic drift is in no way peculiar to Hebrew. The differences above can be explained, perhaps, by an “accelerated semantic drift”, caused by the need to bring the language up to speed – and quickly so.

  3. Zuckermann does indeed have fascinating ideas; I’ve discussed them here, and he even weighed in in the comment thread.
    Semantic drift is in no way peculiar to Hebrew.
    Of course not, but this kind of directed/imposed change is (as far as I know). As Zuckermann says, if Sephardic Jews had been in charge of the language it would be very different, much more Middle Eastern.

  4. According to Steinberg, the following are the most important characteristics the transition to modern Hebrew. Note that according to him, 5 of the 8 are shared with either Modern Standard or spoken Arabic:
    1. nisba i.e. any word, native or foreign, can be changes into an adjective by adding the vowel ī represented by the letter yod*;
    2. perfect participles, really adjectives, are regularly formed out of any active verbal stem i.e.: qal pa’ul; piel mefu’al; hiphil muf’al;
    3. verbal action nouns are regularly formed out of any verbal stem i.e.: qal pe’ila; piel pi’ul; hiphil haphala; niphal hipa’lut; hitpael hitpa’alut
    4. any word can be changed into an abstract noun by adding the suffix ut;
    5. many foreign words can be changed into Hebrew verbs in the piel hitpael stems or analytically through the use of the verb ‘asa (to make or do). An analytical causitive has formed using the verb garam** (see Berman.);
    6. wide use is made of a range of methods to allow adjectives and nouns to be used adverbially*;
    7. also widely created are western type compound adjectives*
    8. nouns formed from the contraction of two words eg. kolnoa = “cinema” (kol=voice, noa=movement)*.
    * similar development occurs in Modern Literary Arabic see From THE MODERN ARABIC LITERARY LANGUAGE; Lexical and Stylistic Developments, Jaroslav Stetkevych, U Chiago Press, 1970
    ** similar development has occurred in spoken Arabic dialects – see The Arabic Language by Kees Versteegh, Columbia University Press 1997 p.100; for Literary Arabic see Adrian Macelaru’s lemma “causative” in EALL

  5. I would also like to add to what Steinberg calls the feel of the different strata of Hebrew (to which I basically agree). To me, the difference in feel between Modern Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew (the latest previous form of the language) is comparable to the difference between modern English and Chaucer’s English. That is, between a written-down spoken language, and one which his habitually written. It makes me wonder how much of Hebrew’s Europeanization (e.g. complex sentence structure) is really the result of ubiquitous literacy.

  6. You’re talking about his theory that the Masoretic version does not accurately represent Biblical pronunciation? I don’t think he discounts the Masoretes entirely, but their version doesn’t come off well when compared to the Septuagint.
    I suppose one could quarrel with the LXX, but I’m not expert enough to know how serious the quibbles are. It’s been an open secret for a while that the Masora is quite corrupt and unreliable in places. See Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible. So if the Masoretic vocalization of the Hebrew Bible is to be used as a source for the pronunciation of ancient Hebrew, and the Masoretic version is questionable – what other option is there but to look elsewhere (for linguistic purposes, at any rate)?

  7. Thanks for the pointer to the earlier entry LH; somehow I missed that first time around.

  8. I forgot to mention that the main point of interest from an LH-past-posts perspective, Hat, might be that his coverage of modern Hebrew syntax and semantics is surprisingly weak. I swear to you that the word “Yiddish” is mentioned once, maybe twice, in the entire chapter on Ivrit. An interesting contrast to Zuckermann’s approach.

  9. As I recall, Hoffman’s main problem with the Tiberian Masoretic pronunciation is simply that it is too late to shed a lot of light on how Hebrew was pronounced in Biblical times. The others, such as the LXX, Hexapla fragments etc. come with their own problems (e.g., heh is not represented in the LXX), but they are earlier.

  10. Have you already seen Zuckermann’s article in

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