In the Begin­ning: A Short His­to­ry of the Hebrew Language

Joel M. Hoffman
  • Review
By – September 24, 2012

Over the past half-cen­tu­ry a num­ber of his­to­ries of the Hebrew lan­guage have been pub­lished. They range from the more acces­si­ble and pop­u­lar (William Chomsky’s How the Hebrew Lan­guage Grew) to the more schol­ar­ly and com­pre­hen­sive (Angel Saenz- Badil­los’ A His­to­ry of the Hebrew Lanu­gage, 1993). Writ­ing a his­to­ry of Hebrew is a daunt­ing task: to con­vey and explain over 3,000 years of lin­guis­tic and cul­tur­al devel­op­ment in one vol­ume. A deci­sion the author must make is one of audi­ence: are they writ­ing for pro­fes­sion­als or a lay audi­ence? How much Hebrew does the read­er know? And how much Hebrew does the read­er hope to learn from the book at hand? 

Hoff­man has cho­sen a mid­dle path between acces­si­bil­i­ty and com­pre­hen­sive­ness. In 240 pages of text he ranges over a vast array of his­tor­i­cal and lin­guis­tic issues, treat­ing some of them thor­ough­ly and oth­ers in a cur­so­ry man­ner. For exam­ples of ency­clo­pe­dic thor­ough­ness see the chap­ters on the Masoretes” and Pro­nun­ci­a­tion.” The expo­si­tion of these sub­jects is too tech­ni­cal for the gen­er­al read­er. On the oth­er hand, the devel­op­ment of mod­ern Hebrew and its flow­er­ing in Israel is treat­ed with unfor­tu­nate brevi­ty. Hoff­man takes us from a descrip­tion of late Biblical/​Rabbinic Hebrew to an account of mod­ern Hebrew in this way: We now jump ahead in time to Jan­u­ary 7, 1858,” the birth date of Eliez­er Ben Yehu­da. This jump ahead” leaps over a thou­sand years of lin­guis­tic devel­op­ment and there­by ren­ders the emer­gence of mod­ern Hebrew much more of a mir­a­cle” than it real­ly was. 

The chap­ter on the Dead Sea Scrolls strikes the right bal­ance between thor­ough­ness and acces­si­bil­i­ty. We get a suc­cinct review of the excit­ing his­to­ry of the dis­cov­ery of the Scrolls and a sur­vey of the var­i­ous lit­er­ary gen­res rep­re­sent­ed in the texts. Hoff­man pro­vides three tables in which we can trace dif­fer­ences between vers­es in the Dead Sea Scroll bib­li­cal frag­ments and the par­al­lel vers­es in the Masoret­ic texts. 

A valu­able addi­tion to the his­to­ry of Hebrew” genre is Hoffman’s gen­er­al lin­guis­tics ori­en­ta­tion. He grounds us in the­o­ries of lan­guage (avoid­ing much of the jar­gon with which mod­ern lin­guis­tics is often explained) and ori­ents us to the his­to­ry of writ­ing. Sur­pris­ing­ly, he goes against the schol­ar­ly con­sen­sus and endors­es the view that it was through the Hebrews, rather than through the Phoeni­cians, that the Greeks and the Romans acquired their alpha­bets. Through­out the book, the author makes inflat­ed claims for the pri­ma­cy of Hebrew in the his­to­ry of lan­guage. These claims are echoes of a pre-sci­en­tif­ic age, an era in which Euro­pean Chris­t­ian schol­ars described Hebrew as the orig­i­nal lan­guage” and the moth­er of all languages.”

Discussion Questions