Hebrew is the ancestral language of the Jewish and Samaritan People, two peoples/tribes Indigenous to the region of the world now known as Israel/Palestine. It is classified as a Northwest Semitic language in the Afroasiatic language family and is the only Canaanite language to survive to this day. Other long-extinct Canaanite languages include Phoenician, Ammonite, Moabite, and Punic.
Hebrew is among the oldest languages in the world, with a history dating back over 3000 years. The first records of written Hebrew — known as Paleo-Hebrew — date back to the 10th century BCE, though it’s likely that the language was spoken long before then.
Much of the Hebrew language reflects its Indigenous Canaanite origins. For example, the two most important gods in the Canaanite pantheon were “El” and “Asherah.” To this day, the generic Hebrew word for god (as opposed to *the* G-d) is “el.” The name “Israel” itself — meaning “one who wrestles with G-d” — comes from “el.” Another one of many examples is “shamayim,” the Hebrew word for sky. Shamayim was the Canaanite “god of the heavens.” For more on the origins of the early Hebrews and their fraught relationship with the Canaanite cultures, please see my post WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS.
The Tanakh (the “Hebrew Bible”) does not refer to the Hebrew language as “Hebrew,” but rather as “Yehudit,” meaning “the language of Judah,” as in the Kingdom of Judah, or the “language of Canaan.” However, the Mishnah does call Hebrew “Ivrit” (i.e. Hebrew), and the Mishnah Megillah calls it “Ashurit” (Assyrian) due to the early use of the Assyrian alphabet.
Almost the entirety of the Tanakh is written in Hebrew. For this reason, since ancient times, Jews have called Hebrew “lashon ha-kodesh,” meaning “the holy/sacred language” or “the language of holiness/sacredness.”
LANGUAGE & INDIGENEITY
The Indigenous-led United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues defines Indigenous Peoples as the following: (1) self-identification as Indigenous Peoples; (2) historical continuity with pre-colonial and pre-settler societies; (3) strong link to territories and surrounding natural resources; (4) distinct social, economic, or political systems; (5) distinct language, culture, and beliefs; (6) non-dominant groups of society; (7) resolve to maintain and reproduce their ancestral environments and systems as distinctive peoples and communities.
To reiterate: Indigenous Peoples have their own distinct ancestral languages. For Jews, who are the direct descendants of the ancient Hebrew tribes, Hebrew is our ancestral language. Samaritans, who are the only other group directly descended from the Hebrew tribes, speak what is known as Samaritan Hebrew.
Speaking a distinct dialect of a language is not equivalent to speaking an Indigenous language. Americans speak a distinct dialect of English. Argentinians speak a distinct dialect of Spanish. Egyptians speak a distinct dialect of Arabic. That does not make all Americans, Argentinians, and Egyptians Indigenous Peoples. In fact, making such a claim is an erasure of the Indigenous Peoples of those regions, all of whom have their distinct ancestral languages (for example: the the Tewa language family is the ancestral language of the Tewa People of the American Southwest. Mapudungun is one of the ancestral languages of the Aónikenk People of Argentina and Chile. Coptic is the ancestral language of the Copts in Egypt).
For more on Jewish Indigeneity, please see my INDIGENOUS 1, 2, and 3 highlights, as well as my posts THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE A TRIBE, WHEN JEWS BECAME JEWS, and JEWS & INDIGENEITY: A CONVERSATION WITH NATIVE JEWS.
COLONIALISM & IMPERIALISM
Colonialism is the practice of a country or empire imposing control and power over other peoples or territories through the establishment of colonies. Colonizers impose their religion (e.g. Christianity or Islam), language (e.g. Spanish, English, and Portuguese in the Americas, Arabic in Southwest Asia and North Africa), economic systems, and more on the colonized population.
Imperialism is the practice of a country or empire extending power and control through conquest, usually by military force.
Though related, colonialism and imperialism are not always interchangeable.
Language is an easy way to spot colonization and imperialism. When a language spans entire countries and even continents, it’s a telltale sign that colonization and/or imperialism have taken place. Colonialism and imperialism are usually the cause of language death and linguicide, which I will explain in more detail in the following slides.
Jews and Samaritans are the only surviving cultures that can trace their direct ancestry AND culture to the ancient Hebrews and Israelites, which emerged from Indigenous Canaanite tribes over 3000 years ago. As mentioned in a prior slide, Hebrew — including Samaritan Hebrew — is the only surviving Canaanite language that exists to this day. For more on this, I recommend my posts THE JEWISH PEOPLE ARE A TRIBE, WHO ARE THE SAMARITANS?, and HEBREW.
“Language death” is a term in linguistics that describes when a language loses its last native speaker. “Language extinction” is when a language is no longer spoken by anyone, including second language speakers. There are many causes for language death, particularly linguicide, which I will delve into in the next slide.
In the past, Hebrew experienced language death, though thankfully it never became extinct, as it remained the liturgical language of the Jewish People for the next 2000 years.
The first wave of decline came during the period of the Babylonian Captivity, when, in 587/6 BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered and exiled about 25 percent of the citizens of the Kingdom of Judah. Jews then began adopting Aramaic — the language spoken among the Babylonians — as an everyday tongue, though, as mentioned, Hebrew continued to be used as the liturgical language of the Jewish People.
By 200 BCE — around the time period of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (i.e. the story of Hanukkah) — everyday colloquial Hebrew became almost fully extinct.
“Linguicide” refers to the extermination of a language; that is, language death is caused by human intervention (e.g. colonialism, imperialism, language discrimination) as opposed to natural causes (e.g. natural disasters that decimate communities). It is considered a form of cultural genocide.
Like other Indigenous languages around the world, Hebrew came into disuse as a result of imperialism and colonialism. In other words, Hebrew declined due to human intervention, not as a result of natural causes, meaning that the Jewish People experienced linguicide.
As mentioned, the first wave of decline came during the Babylonian Captivity. By the Seleucid period, Hebrew was no longer used as an everyday tongue.
Another wave of linguicide took place during the period of the Arab colonization of the Levant. Ancient Hebrew names for places (such as Jerusalem, or Yerushalayim in Hebrew) were replaced with Arabic names. By the ninth century, Arabic fully replaced Aramaic and Hebrew.
The death of an Indigenous language has dire implications for said Indigenous community. In fact, poor language health is often a reflection that an Indigenous community is in poor health, meaning that the community is struggling to survive as a result of colonialism and/or imperialism.
Language death has far-reaching implications beyond the loss of speech. For most Indigenous communities, their languages are deeply interwoven with their very identity, collective histories, customs and social traditions, and more.
Language death and other forms of cultural genocide often contribute to the collective intergenerational trauma of Indigenous communities.
For Jews, Hebrew is more than just our ancestral tongue; it is considered sacred, so much so that we know it as “lashon ha-kodesh,” or the “language of holiness/sacredness.” There are many factors within Hebrew that are not present in other languages, such as gematria, the Jewish practice of numerology, which assigns numerical value to names, phrases, or words. For example, the Hebrew word for life, חי (chai), is assigned the numerical value of 18, which subsequently makes 18 a spiritual number in Judaism.
In other words: linguicide does not just destroy speech; it destroys what is most sacred to many Indigenous cultures.
Throughout history, Jews have practiced Indigenous resistance in a multitude of ways. One major act of resistance was the preservation of the Hebrew language in the face of language death and linguicide.
This preservation happened in three forms:
(1) the continued use of Hebrew as our liturgical language (i.e. for prayer).
(2) the incorporation of Hebrew in diasporic Jewish languages. For example, virtually all Jewish diasporic languages, from Yiddish to Ladino to Judeo-Arabic, use Hebrew words and the Hebrew alphabet.
(3) Jews from different parts of the diaspora continued to use Hebrew as the lingua franca when they interacted with each other, as that was the language that they had in common. For example, an Ashkenazi merchant arriving in North Africa would speak Hebrew to the local Sephardic Jews.
Language revitalization is an attempt to reverse or slow down language death. According to Israeli linguist and language revivalist Ghil'ad Zuckermann, “Language reclamation will become increasingly relevant as people seek to recover their cultural autonomy, empower their spiritual and intellectual sovereignty, and improve wellbeing. There are various ethical, aesthetic, and utilitarian benefits of language revival—for example, historical justice, diversity, and employability, respectively.”
Language revitalization projects are common across the world, particularly as it pertains to Indigenous cultures. That said, the only language in the world to be successfully revived as an everyday tongue is the Hebrew language. Other revitalization efforts, such as those for Hawaiian, Welsh, Irish, Cherokee, and Navajo, have enjoyed smaller degrees of success.
The revival of Hebrew as an everyday language took place over the 19th and 20th centuries, as Jewish refugees arrived to Palestine from Europe, elsewhere in Southwest Asia, North Africa, and Central Asia. By the time the British took control of Palestine in 1920, Hebrew became one of the two official languages.
Some argue that “the revival of a clinically dead language is unlikely without cross-fertilization from the revivalists' mother tongue(s).” In that vein, modern Hebrew does borrow from diasporic Jewish languages, as well as other similar languages, such as Aramaic and Akkadian.
Numerous Indigenous Peoples across the globe, such as the Sámi People in the Nordic countries and the Barngarla People in Australia, currently study the revival of Hebrew in their attempt to revitalize their own ancestral languages.
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