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Hebrew language


Hebrew is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family spoken by more than seven million people in Israel and Jewish communities around the world. In Israel, it is the de facto language of the state and the people, as well as being one of the two official languages (together with Arabic), and is spoken by an overwhelming majority of the population.

The core of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is written in Classical Hebrew, and much of its present form is specifically in the dialect of Biblical Hebrew that scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BCE, near the Babylonian exile. For this reason, Hebrew has been referred to by Jews as Leshôn Ha-Kôdesh, "the Sacred Language," since ancient times.

Most linguists agree that after the 6th century BCE when the Neo-Babylonian Empire destroyed Jerusalem and exiled its population to Babylon and the Persian Empire allowed them to return, the Biblical Hebrew dialect prevalent in the Bible came to be replaced in daily use by new dialects of Hebrew and a local version of Aramaic. After the 2nd century CE when the Roman Empire exiled the Jewish population of Jerusalem and parts of the Bar Kokhba State, Hebrew gradually ceased to be a spoken language, but remained a major literary language. Letters, contracts, commerce, science, philosophy, medicine, poetry, and laws were written in Hebrew, which adapted by borrowing and inventing terms.

Hebrew, long extinct outside of Jewish liturgical purposes, was revived at the end of the 19th century by the Jewish linguist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, owing to the ideology of Zionism. Eventually it replaced a score of languages spoken by Jews at that time, such as Ladino (also called Judezmo), Yiddish, Russian, and other languages of the Jewish diaspora.

Because of its large disuse for centuries, Hebrew lacked many modern words. Several were adapted as neologisms from the Hebrew Bible or borrowed from other languages by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Modern Hebrew became an official language in British-ruled Palestine in 1921 (along with English and Arabic), and then in 1948 became an official language of the newly declared State of Israel.

Regional Hebrew dialects

According to Ethnologue, dialects of Hebrew include Israeli Hebrew, Oriental Hebrew (Iraqi Hebrew, Yemenite Hebrew), Sephardi Hebrew (Spanish-orientated Hebrew) and Ashkenazi Hebrew.

Ashkenazi Hebrew is still widely used in Ashkenazi Jewish religious services and studies in Israel and abroad, particulary in the Haredi community. It was influenced by the Yiddish language.

Sephardi Hebrew is the basis of Standard Hebrew and not all that different from it, although traditionally it has had a greater range of phonemes. It was influenced by the Ladino language.

Mizrahi (Oriental) Hebrew is actually a collection of dialects (including Yemenite or Temanit) spoken liturgically by Jews in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world. It was possibly influenced by the Aramaic language, although some linguists maintain that it is the direct heir of Biblical Hebrew, and thus represents the true dialect of Hebrew.

Nearly every immigrant to Israel is encouraged to adopt Standard Hebrew as their daily language. Phonologically, this "dialect" may most accurately be described as an amalgam of pronunciations preserving Sephardic vowel sounds and some Ashkenazic consonant sounds with Yiddish-style influence–its recurring feature being simplification of differences among a wide array of pronunciations. This simplifying tendency also accounts for the collapse of the Ashkenazic /t/ and /s/ pronunciations of unaspirated and aspirated into the single phoneme /t/.Most Sephardic and Mizrahi dialects share this feature, though some (such as those of Iraq and Yemen) differentiate between these two pronunciations as /t/ and Within Israel, the pronunciation of "Standard" Hebrew, however, more often reflects the diasporic origin of the individual speaker, rather than the specific recommendations of the Academy. For this reason, over half the population pronounces as [R], (a uvular trill, as in Yiddish and some varieties of German) or as (a uvular fricative, as in French or many varieties of German), rather than as [r], an alveolar trill, as in Spanish. The pronunciation of this phoneme is often used among Israelis as a shibboleth, or determinant when ascertaining the national origin of perceived foreigners.