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Isaiah 19:18 says that

בַּיּ֣וֹם הַה֡וּא יִהְיוּ֩ חָמֵ֨שׁ עָרִ֜ים בְּאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרַ֗יִם מְדַבְּרוֹת֙ שְׂפַ֣ת כְּנַ֔עַן

In that day there will be five cities in the land of Egypt speaking the language of Canaan (my translation)

What is the language that the author of Isaiah is referring to here? Some traditional commentators say this is the language of the Israelites (Rashi). If it's Hebrew, why identify the language with Canaan instead of with the Hebrew language directly? Are there other views?

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All the commentators I have seen say that "the language of Canaan" refers to Hebrew. (See, e.g. Ibn Ezra, Malbim, Metzudat David, Shadal) The question is why Isaiah uses such a phrase instead of saying "the language of Israel"?

I propose the following answer: The prophecy is from Egypt's point of view. Canaan, prior to the conquest by Israel, was a vassal to Egypt. And Egypt--prior to this--never gave up their claim over Canaan and continued to refer to the land and language as Canaan long after the rest of world stopped.

Now Isaiah is saying "not only is Egypt never getting back 'Canaan' but the influence will be the other way around. Egypt will end up speaking the language of Canaan." A great humiliation of Egypt.

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What is the language that the author of Isaiah is referring to here?

I came across people with different opinions, but most seem to agree that the language was Hebrew or close to the same.

According to The Lord Gave the Word: A Study in the History of the Biblical Text by Malcolm H. Watts

  • The greater part of the Old Testament was written in Hebrew, sometimes called “the language of Canaan” (Isaiah 19:18) or “the Jews’ language” (Isaiah 36:11). It probably developed from the old Hebrew spoken by Abraham in Ur of the Chaldees (Genesis 14:13) and a number of scholars believe that this old Hebrew predated Abraham and that it was the “one language” and “one speech” of preBabel times (Genesis 11:1). In other words, they believe it was the original language of man.

According to ChristianAnswer:

  • The language of the Canaanites and of the Hebrews was substantially the same. This is seen from the fragments of the Phoenician language which still survive, which show the closest analogy to the Hebrew. Yet the subject of the language of the “Canaanites” is very obscure.

According to Koert van Bekkum:

  • The origins of Hebrew, called the 'language of Canaan' in Isa 19:18, and its place among the Semitic languages have been contested issues since the rise of modern historical linguistics.

According to Wayne Jackson, founder and contributing author of the Christian Courier:

  • The Hebrew of the Old Testament is a Semitic language (so called by modern scholars after the name of Shem, Noah’s oldest son). Both Hebrew and Aramaic are a part of the northwestern group of these tongues and were employed mainly in Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. It is believed that Hebrew came from the Canaanite language.

    The Old Testament refers to its language in two ways. It is called the “language of Canaan” (Isaiah 19:18) and the “Jews’ language” (cf. 2 Kings 18:26, 28; Nehehmiah 13:24; Isaiah 36:11). It is not referred to as “Hebrew” until around 130 B.C. (prologue to the apocryphal Ecclesiasticus). In the New Testament, it is called “Hebrew” in John 5:2; 19:13; Acts 21:40.


If it's Hebrew, why identify the language with Canaan instead of with the Hebrew language directly?

The short answer is: we don't know.

According to the Biblical Archaeology Society Library:

  • As the Bible itself remembers (Deuteronomy 26:5), Hebrew was not the language of the Founding Families. Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were Aramaeans from Mesopotamia or farther afield.

    The “language of Canaan,” where they journeyed, was a local Northwest Semitic dialect spoken in the land long before there is any mention of a “people of Israel.”

Here's what I conclude: Isaiah's prophetic ministry often spoke to nations. His book contains messages directed at various nations and their leaders, including warnings, judgments, and hope. By referencing the Hebrew language as "the language of Canaan" in this context might simply because, to him... it was the language of Canaan, the region also said to be the "promised land".

Or in other words, the designation "language of Canaan" may have been a general term used to describe the language spoken by the inhabitants of the region, including the Israelites and other Semitic peoples. Now, while Hebrew was likely the primary language spoken in the land of Canaan during these times, I think we can recognize that other languages and/or dialects were also in use. If there were different dialects it may make more sense to refer to it as "the language of Canaan".

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