In order to teach you a bit more about the history of the Semitic languages, I would like to take you back in time to an ancient period in which the Hebrew nation began its first steps. The year was 1812 BC, although according to some sources, it might have been even 200 years earlier . One of the most significant characters of the Israelites’ history had been born in a place called “Ur of the Chaldees”. I am referring to none else than Abraham, the father of the Jews (or by his original name, Avram).According to Jewish text (Genesis, 12:1), after Abraham’s marriage, God commands him to: “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”. This land is called Cnaan.
In this article, I plan to explain the question “Which language did Abraham speak as a child?” and “Which language did he speak with the nations who lived in Cnaan at that time?”. In order for me to answer this question, I will first need to give you a brief historical overviewof the time.
Two of the most central cultures in that area at the time were the Babylonian (Sumeric and Akkadic) and ancient Egyptian cultures. The land of Cnaan bordered with these two gigantic cultures and therefore was a center of commerce which attracted many nations and tribes to migrate to the area. We can, therefore, assume that Abraham was exposed to the Egyptian language while knowing the Babylonian language as a child in Babylon.
The Jewish tradition claims that Hebrew was Abraham’s “holy language” and that he spoke Aramaic as his everyday language. The historical evidence, however, contradicts this assumption, as there was no evidence of these languages before 1200 BC (500 years after Abraham’s death).
If we follow historical evidence, we can assume that Abraham spoke Babylonian and that it was the language he brought with him to Cnaan.
But what was the language spoken in Cnaan? Was it also Babylonian? Or was it Egyptian? Or was it a combination of the two?
To sufficiently answer this question, we need to understand which nations and tribes lived in Cnaan at that period of time and what languages were spoken by those nations. As I mentioned before, the land of Cnaan was located in a central area between two of the most important cultures at the time. As a central axis, Cnaan attracted many tribes such as the Phoenicians (from the northern coastal strip), the Philistines (from the Gaza and southern coastal strips), the Amorites, and the Hittites (et cetera).
If we take another look at Abraham’s story in Genesis (12:6), we can see that Abraham’s first stop in Cnaan was at Shechem. The story mentions that, at that time, the Canaanites inhabited the land. The name ‘Canaanites’ refers to several tribes such as the Hittites (who are mentioned later as the tribe that Abraham purchased the cave of Machpelah from [Genesis 23:8-9]), the Amorites, the Jebusites, the Girgashites, the Hivites, the Hurrians, et cetera. If we consider the Hittites to be the tribe Abraham lived among, the language that was spoken was the Hitti language, or Nesili, which comes from the Indo-European language family and is not connected to the Semitic language family . Not unlike the Hittites, each tribe had its own language. The Amorites spoke Amorite (a north-west Semitic language), the Philistines spoke Philistine (a Greek-Mycenaean dialect), and the Hurrians spoke Hurrian (one from the Hurro-Urartian language family). There is a slight chance that Abraham learned, and knew, each of these languages.However, given the possibility that he could not learn these many dissimilar languages, we need to find the way Abraham would have communicated with all of the different tribes he lived among. We must include the languages used by the different tribes to communicate with one another (especially for trading purposes)as well as with the big nations to the north and south of Cnaan.
So which language was it? Was it even a spoken language, or maybe a traditional signs language like the horse traders in Kirgizstan, who use the strength of their handshakes in order to express their agreement or disagreement of the price offered? Similar trading techniques might have been in use in Cnaan almost 4,000 years ago.
Abraham often experienced this challenge, living among a different tribe and trying to learn a new language. It might have sparked in him the notion that his tribe, who’s uniqueness until then was to believe in one God and circumcise man, should also have a language of its own. This notion just might have been the root of the language now known as Hebrew – the language of the Jews.
In my next article here at Lingolearn, I will discuss the time period in which Abraham’s offspring, the Jews, began to use this unique languageknown as Hebrew.
LingoLearn is an online Hebrew school that offers beginners level Hebrew courses, as well as intermediate and advanced level courses. Learn Hebrew with our experienced teachers and excellent learning materials, in a state of the art virtual classroom!