The Hebrew Language

After having spoken of the books contained in the Bible, and of the divisions of those books which have been used by the Jews and the Christians, both in ancient and modern times, it may now be necessary to examine a little into the language in which they were written. The Old Testament was originally written in the Hebrew tongue and this language is generally considered as having the best claims to be considered the most ancient at present existing in the world, and, perhaps, as the primeval tongue of the human race. By the Hebrew language, therefore, is meant that which was spoken by Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the twelve patriarchs, which was afterward preserved among their posterity, and in which Moses wrote, it being improbable that he would employ any other language than that which was in use among the Jews.

This language is supposed by some to derive its name from Heber, great-grandson son to Shem, whose posterity were denominated Hebrews; but it is much more likely that it received its name from its being the mother-tongue of the descendants of Abraham, who were called Hebrews, not because they were descended from Heber, but because Abraham, having received a command from God to leave the country where he lived, which was beyond the Euphrates, passed that river, and came into the land of Canaan, where the inhabitants of the country gave him the name of the Hebrew, that is, one that has passed over; in the same manner as the French call all those that live beyond the mountains, Ultramontanes.

The reasons that demonstrate the antiquity of the Hebrew tongue are many. In the first place, the names which the Scripture explains are therein drawn from Hebrew roots. It was thus that the first man was called Adam, because he had been formed out of the ground, which in Hebrew is called Adamah. The first woman was called Eve, because she was the origin of life to all, evach in Hebrew signifying to live. The name of Cain, which comes from Canah, signifying to acquire, or get, alludes to what Eve said when he was born: “I have got a man from the Lord.” The explanation of these names is not to be found in any language but the Hebrew, and as this relation between names and things does not occur in any other language, it is in it alone that we can see the reasons why the first human beings were so called.

The names of an immense number of people, also, who are descended from the Hebrews, show the antiquity both of the nation and the language. The Assurians, for instance, derive their name from Ashur, the Elamites from Elam, the Arameans from Aram, the Lydians from Lud, the Medes from Madai, and the Ionians from Javan, who are all traced in the Hebrew bible to Shem, Ham, and Japheth. These names lhave no signification in any language but the Hebrew, which shows that they are derived thence, as are also the ancient names of the pagan deities; to which we must add the remark which several learned men have made, namely, that there is no language in which some remains of the Hebrew are not to be found.

A very apposite example, in allusion to the meaning of proper names in Hebrew, is to be found in the Book of Ruth, toward the end of the first chapter where it is said, “And the whole town was in commotion about them; and the women said, Is this Naomi? And she said, Call me not Naomi (which means Delightful); call me Marah (which means Bitter); for the Almighty (Emer) hath caused bitterness exceedingly to me. I went away full, and Jehovah hath caused me to return empty; wherefore then do ye call me Naomi, since Jehovah hath brought affliction on me, and the Almighty hath caused evil to befall me?”

Thus we see that in Hebrew, as well as in most of the oriental languages, all proper names are significant words; and this is found to be the case also among many of the nations of Africa. This circumstance has a great effect in increasing the energy of the diction in these tongues; for it not infrequently happens, as in the case of Naomi, that the speaker or writer, in addressing a person by his name, makes use of it at the same time as a word of ordinary signification, to express something in the inward disposition or the outward circumstances of the possessor. Instances of this occur in almost every page of the Hebrew scriptures; and, as may readily be supposed, it is impossible in such cases, for any common translation to do justice to the energy of the original. We have a very remarkable example of this in the twenty-fifth chapter of I Samuel, at the twenty-fifth verse, in which Abigail, speaking of her husband Nabal, says to David: “Let not my lord set his mind at all now toward the man of Belial (that is, worthless), this same person, Nabal (which means a scoundrel); for like his name so is he; Nabal is his name, and Nebelah (that is, vileness) is with him.”

In speaking of the meaning of proper names, however, the most extraordinary example, perhaps, that can be produced from any book, either ancient or modern, is the following, which is to be found in the fifth chapter of Genesis: the names of the ten antediluvian patriarchs, from Adam to Noah inclusive, are there given; and when these ten names are literally translated, and placed in the order in which they occur,  they form altogether the following very remarkable sentence in English: man, appointed, miserable, lamenting the God of glory, shall descend, to instruct, his death sends to the afflicted, consolation!

We need not be surprised, therefore, at what is mentioned in the Spectator (No. 221), of a certain rabbinical divine having taken the first three of these names as the subject of his discourse, forming thus the text of a regular sermon. “We had a rabbinical divine in England,” says Addison, “who was chaplain to the earl of Essex in Queen Elizabeth's time, that had an admirable head for secrets of this nature. Upon his taking the doctor of divinity's degree, he preached before the university of Cambridge upon the first verse of the first chapter of the First Book of Chronicles, 'in which,' says he, 'you have the three following words: 'Adam, Sheth, Enosh.''

“He divided this short text into many parts, and by discovering several mysteries in each word, made a most learned and elaborate discourse. The name of this profound preacher was Dr. Alabaster, of whom the reader may find a more particular account in Dr. Fuller's Book of English Worthies.”
It is evident, that although this matter appeared ridiculous enough in Addison's eyes, so as to furnish him with a theme for a very amusing paper, yet, on considering attentively the meaning of the original words here used as proper names, a great deal of very sound doctrine might be elicited by a subtle divine, even from such an apparently insignificant text.

In the same way the names of animals in Hebrew are found to be words expressive of their qualities, which gives support to the idea that this was the language which Adam used when he gave them their names; as we find recorded in Gen_2:19 : “And Jehovah God formed out of the ground every beast of the field, and he formed also every fowl of the heavens; and he brought them unto Adam to see what he would call them, and whatever Adam called it--the living creature--it is its name.”

Some of the names of animals in Hebrew are still found to be clearly descriptive of their qualities, and therefore in regard to what animal is intended there can in such cases be no dispute. But with respect to some others the matter is not so plain, as, from the root not being now found in the language, the ideal meaning of the name can not be so readily ascertained: and hence the eleventh chapter of Leviticus, in which the names of certain clean and unclean animals are enumerated, presents difficulties to a translator of no ordinary description.

There is, perhaps, no language in the world so easily reduced to its original elements as the Hebrew. As Wilson has well expressed it, “We descend from words to their element; and the accurate knowledge of letters is the principal part of Hebrew grammar. Its flexion nearly approaches that of the modern languages, particularly the English. The relations and dependences of nouns are not distinguished by terminations, or cases, but by particles or prepositions prefixed. The persons, moods, or tenses, of verbs are not marked by the changes of their last syllables, but by means of letters of a particular order, which sometimes appear in the middle, sometimes in the beginning, and sometimes in the end of the original ward.” In fact the structure of the Hebrew language is peculiarly favorable for the expression of energy and sublimity. The words, as is well known, are remarkable for shortness, the greater part consisting of not more than two, three, or four letters; few words have more than ten letters, and those that consist of that number are not many. The sentences are also for the most part short, and are quite free from that complexity which is apt to embarrass the reader when perusing even the best authors of Greece and Rome. The idiom of any language consists in the order of the words; but it is well known that, in this respect, the Greek and Latin tongues are extremely capricious, the words being arranged in them not in the order of the understanding, but of the ear, according to the sound rather than the sense. The Greek and Roman writers place the emphatic words in whatever order the sentence can be made to run most musically, though the sense be suspended till the speaker or reader come to the end; and hence the need of so many flexions and syntax-rules for a learner to arrange them to find out the meaning. Yet even for this purpose more declensions than one were not necessary; nor more teases than three, a past, a present, and a future.

From this mass of perplexity the Hebrew language is entirely free. Its original words, called roots consist of a proper number of letters, commonly three, the fewest that make a perfect number; and they express an action finished or expressed by a single agent. It has a proper number of voices, that is, active, passive, and medial--and only the tenses that are in nature. Its primitive words are more sentimental and scientific than sonorous; and they express original ideas, being definitions of things descriptive of their natures.

The Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, and such as are immediately derived from them, or constructed on their model, are the only languages that are formed on a regular artificial plan; and all other tongues of which we know anything, except perhaps the Persian and the Sanskrit, must be considered in comparison as mere gibberish, being quite rude in their original formation; nor is it possible to reduce them to another state, without wholly metamorphosing them. That which was never the language of a cultivated, learned people, and in which there are no literary works of taste, cannot be a polished language, although it may have been the language of a civilized nation, or of a court, if they were only an illiterate people. In a word, all languages that have a concourse of consonants, or silent letters, are rude in their writing or pronunciation, whatever their structure may be. The Greek and Latin are free from the latter fault, and the Hebrew from both. “As Solomon possessed the most wisdom and knowledge,” says Mr. Ray, “and treated all subjects of natural philosophy, etc., and his court being the most splendid and elegant, as people came to it from all nations, and greatly admired it, the Hebrew must be a copious, elegant language; and its structure is invariable, being the same in Moses and Malachi, at a thousand years' distance.” In speaking of the genius of a language, indeed, which is its force, vigor, or energy, the Hebrew, may, without doubt, be said to excel all.

It is evident therefore that if, as Longinus observes, “saying the greatest things in the fewest words” be essential to simplicity and energy in discourse, the Hebrew is the best language in the world for the purpose. In it we have no superfluous parts of a sentence in words, or even in letters. A Hebrew writer conveys his meaning without circumlocution; for, although he were inclined, he would be unable to accomplish it, because the language is quite unsuitable in its nature for being employed in any such way; and therefore if an author's subject be good, even although he should possess but little genius, he will find no great difficulty to clothe his ideas in sublime and energetic language, if he write in Hebrew.[3] The Bible was composed, says Prof. Lange, in the two leading languages of antiquity, which reflect the greatest contrast in the intellectual world. The Hebrew tongue may be characterized as the most unstudied and child-like, as the deepest, purest, and most direct language of spiritual experiences; while the Greek the most cultivated, refined, and philosophical expression of intellectual life--Ed.

Such is the simple nature of the formation of this primitive language, and which seems, at the same time, to entitle it more to the claim of being a philosophical tongue than, perhaps, any other in the world. It is remarkable that the structure of this very ancient language approaches closely to that of the English, and other modern tongues, as the relations and dependences of nouns, according to what has been already remarked, are not distinguished by terminations, or cases, as in Greek and Latin, but by particles or prepositions (or little words) prefixed, and which are, at the same time, conjoined with the noun, as if they were a part of it.

The advantages which the Hebrew language possesses, above all others, in the simplicity of its formation--its remarkable originality, in that it borrows from no language, while almost all others borrow from it--as also the ideality which is found to pervade its roots or primitive words--have all been considered as entitling it to higher claims in the consideration of philosophers, than any other language in the world, either ancient or modern. These notions have been carried to such a length, indeed, by some learned men, that they gave rise to an entirely new school of philosophy, generally know by the designation of the Hutchinsonian; the disciples of which are remarkable as being opposed in many things the Newtonian system, and as being possessed with the belief that in the Hebrew language, and in it alone, are to be found the germs of all true philosophy.

An Illustrated History Of The Holy Bible;
Being a Connected Account of theRemarkable Events and Distinguished CharactersContained inThe Old and New Testaments,
- by John Kitto