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I find it fascinating that rabbinic literature suggests that Hebrew was the original human language. I have seen Christian authors also argue the same.

For example, from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

The confounding of the languages—before that they all had spoken Hebrew

Is this a possibility or has anyone proven Hebrew to be derived from an earlier language? What would be arguments to support the 'original language' claim?

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Is this a hermeneutics question? I'm feeling like this might be a better fit on Christianity.SE and/or MiYodeya.SE. –  Jas 3.1 Apr 11 '13 at 21:27
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@Jas3.1 I'm not sure if this is strictly on topic or not, but if it was, here would be the best place for it because the most relevant experts are those in the ancient languages of scripture and matters of textual criticism. I'm inclined to let it be. Certainly the religion specific sites don't seem like a better home to me. There is also History and Linguistics, but seems like the best fit to me. –  Caleb Apr 12 '13 at 10:58
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4 Answers 4

up vote 6 down vote accepted

One line of evidence is that all the names in the genealogies prior to Babel have meanings in Hebrew.

My first Hebrew professor, Dr. Robert L. Cate, did a lot of work in the development of the Hebrew language. For his doctoral dissertation, he constructed a hypothetical lexicon of proto-Hebrew, the Hebrew language as it existed before any written records. There are clues within the language as it existed in the written Bible times of what it looked like before.

Dr. Cate concentrated on how the verbs had formed. In Biblical Hebrew, all verbs have three consonants at the root. He found evidence of a two consonant root system underneath it. Many verbs that shared two consonants in their ground form (Qal, perfect, 3ms) and in the same order, would have related meanings. For example, bara' means "create," barak means "bless," and barar means "purify." All of those are primarily actions of God (in the case of "create," only God can truly create).

He gives many more examples, but I don't think his dissertation was ever made available online.

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I have a copy of his dissertation, though. But I have never scanned it in. –  Frank Luke Mar 4 '13 at 15:00
    
interesting and reasoable theory - thanks –  Mike Mar 4 '13 at 15:12
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There exists a number if hints which would indicate an origin of the book of Genesis in written accounts of ages before Moses. These accounts seemingly were put together from different sources.

  • Moses' name does not even appear in the whole book (or role) that is named after him

  • no direct inspiration in the sense of visions or auditions is mentioned

  • the accounts themselves within this first book of the bible are very different in style, length, detail

  • the flood account, the creation account exist in duplet form

  • there are important names mentioned, some of them possibly authored parts of this written history of early mankind

Along with the aforementioned observation of names that are very old and close to Hebrew. There is some indication of a remanence of oldest language in the Hebrew of the bible.

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Could you pleas explain the relevance of these observations to the question? –  swasheck Apr 11 '13 at 20:23
    
If the accounts of Genesis were really handed down from pre-mosaic times (and this seems likely) then all these close-to-Hebrew names may indicate a common language that was similar to what became Hebrew. –  hannes Apr 15 '13 at 6:50
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If one follows the entirely reasonable line that the historical and genealogical records in the first chapters of Genesis were recorded, composed and handed down by those who lived them (the faithful line from Adam to Noah), the idea that Hebrew was the original language is also entirely reasonable. Fortunately, for the the community of faith, the Scriptures are our primary source document. We are not left scrambling around trying to build a case out of fragments. The history recorded is our history, and it is a gift from God. (I guess I am saying that presenting a case in the way secular archaeologists do might appear trustworthy but will ultimately fail.)

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I was just reviewing the answers here and was wondering what is the biblical basis that you assume Hebrew was spoken before the Tower of Babylon? I do not disagree with the conclusion but it almost seems you are thinking of some bible verse I am not thinking of? The reason why I asked about language history is because I was not aware of a biblical argument. –  Mike Mar 17 '13 at 9:24
    
Sure - if we believe Genesis is history, rather than myth, it makes sense that it was written by those who lived it. Importantly, all the names recorded before Babel have meanings in Hebrew. If we take that as our foundation, there are some other less obvious factors to consider. The literary structures of the text before Babel continue in the text after Babel. Also, Edward Ullendorff argued in his "Is Biblical Hebrew a Language?" that the language of the text is too restricted in form and variety to function as a spoken language, that it is instead a technical, scribal, priestly dialect. –  Mike Bull Mar 17 '13 at 12:22
    
Maybe that is what confused me. Now I see whatmyou are arguing. You are imagining Moses had scriptures handed down to him. I have assumed Moses wrote Gensis without anything prior written. I suppose this is really a unknown. Cheers. –  Mike Mar 17 '13 at 13:40
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I'm confused. Archaeological analysis would be mistaken but you are arguing that, contrary to what the text says, Genesis was written during the time of its events -- a historical, not textual, approach. Historical approaches are fine, but which is it? If you take a historical approach, what's wrong with secular archaeologists? –  Gone Quiet Apr 12 '13 at 13:00
    
@MonicaCellio The geneologies are evidence that the texts were handed down. Similar examples are found all over the world, one I am familiar with being Papua New Guinea. This does not exclude the possibility of later redaction. Secular archaeologists are prone to make mistakes because of their prejudice towards a non-biblical worldview, i.e. we evolved rather than being created, there was millions of years of history before Bible times, and the Bible's chronology therefore cannot be trusted. –  Mike Bull Apr 12 '13 at 22:36
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The oldest discovered example of written Hebrew dates from about 3000 years ago -- although this dating is disputed (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/7700037.stm). Conversely, samples of Sumerian Cuneiform have been discovered from more than 5000 years ago. Granted, the language might have existed for quite a while prior to the development of a written script.

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Hi Aaron, and welcome to BH.SE –  Mike Mar 3 '13 at 23:00
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One thing to note: we tend to associate the Hebrew language with the Hebrew script, but a number of lettering system have been used to write Hebrew in its history. Presumably, Hebrew scribes could have used cuneiform or (easier yet) hieroglyphics. And, as you mention, spoken language (which seems to be what the Babel story is all about) existed before written language. Even so, +1 for bringing useful evidence to the question. –  Jon Ericson Mar 4 '13 at 23:32
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