Biblical Hebrew

Biblical Hebrew, also called classical Hebrew, is an archaic form of Hebrew, a language in the Canaanite branch of Semitic languages, spoken by the Israelites in the area known as Israel, roughly west of the Jordan River and east of the Mediterranean Sea. The term "Hebrew" was not used for the language in the Bible, which was referred to as שפת כנען or יהודית, but the name was used in Greek and Mishnaic Hebrew texts.
Hebrew is attested epigraphically from about the 10th century BCE, and spoken Hebrew persisted through and beyond the Second Temple period, which ended in the siege of Jerusalem.
It eventually developed into Mishnaic Hebrew, spoken up until the fifth century CE.
Biblical Hebrew as recorded in the Hebrew Bible reflects various stages of the Hebrew language in its consonantal skeleton, as well as a vocalic system which was added in the Middle Ages by the Masoretes.
There is also some evidence of regional dialectal variation, including differences between Biblical Hebrew as spoken in the northern Kingdom of Israel and in the southern Kingdom of Judah. The consonantal text was transmitted in manuscript form, and underwent redaction in the Second Temple period, but its earliest portions can be dated to the late 8th to early 7th centuries BCE.
Biblical Hebrew has been written with a number of different writing systems. Around the 12th century BCE until the 6th century BCE the Hebrews used the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet. This was retained by the Samaritans, who use the descendent Samaritan alphabet to this day. However, the Imperial Aramaic alphabet gradually displaced the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet for the Jews after their exile to Babylon, and it became the source for the modern Hebrew alphabet. All of these scripts were lacking letters to represent all of the sounds of Biblical Hebrew, though these sounds are reflected in Greek and Latin transcriptions/translations of the time. These scripts originally only indicated consonants, but certain letters, known by the Latin term matres lectionis, became increasingly used to mark vowels. In the Middle Ages, various systems of diacritics were developed to mark the vowels in Hebrew manuscripts; of these, only the Tiberian vocalization is still in wide use.
Biblical Hebrew possessed a series of "emphatic" consonants whose precise articulation is disputed, likely ejective or pharyngealized. Earlier Biblical Hebrew possessed three consonants which did not have their own letters in the writing system, but over time they merged with other consonants. The stop consonants developed fricative allophones under the influence of Aramaic, and these sounds eventually became marginally phonemic. The pharyngeal and glottal consonants underwent weakening in some regional dialects, as reflected in the modern Samaritan Hebrew reading tradition. The vowel system of Biblical Hebrew changed over time and is reflected differently in the ancient Greek and Latin transcriptions, medieval vocalization systems, and modern reading traditions.
Biblical Hebrew had a typical Semitic morphology with nonconcatenative morphology, arranging Semitic roots into patterns to form words. Biblical Hebrew distinguished two genders, three numbers. Verbs were marked for voice and mood, and had two conjugations which may have indicated aspect and/or tense. The tense or aspect of verbs was also influenced by the conjugation ו, in the so-called waw-consecutive construction. Default word order was verb–subject–object, and verbs inflected for the number, gender, and person of their subject. Pronominal suffixes could be appended to verbs or nouns, and nouns had special construct states for use in possessive constructions.


The earliest written sources refer to Biblical Hebrew by the name of the land in which it was spoken: שפת כנען 'the language of Canaan'. The Hebrew Bible also shows that the language was called יהודית 'Judaean, Judahite'. In the Hellenistic period Greek writings use the names Hebraios, Hebraïsti, and in Mishnaic Hebrew we find עברית 'Hebrew' and לשון עברית 'Hebrew language'. The origin of this term is obscure; suggested origins include the biblical Eber, the ethnonyms Ḫabiru, Ḫapiru, and ˁApiru found in sources from Egypt and the near east, and a derivation from the root עבר "to pass" alluding to crossing over the Jordan River. Jews also began referring to Hebrew as לשון הקדש "the Holy Tongue" in Mishnaic Hebrew.
The term Classical Hebrew may include all pre-medieval dialects of Hebrew, including Mishnaic Hebrew, or it may be limited to Hebrew contemporaneous with the Hebrew Bible. The term Biblical Hebrew refers to pre-Mishnaic dialects. The term 'Biblical Hebrew' may or may not include extra-biblical texts, such as inscriptions, and generally also includes later vocalization traditions for the Hebrew Bible's consonantal text, most commonly the early medieval Tiberian vocalization.


The archeological record for the prehistory of Biblical Hebrew is far more complete than the record of Biblical Hebrew itself. Early Northwest Semitic materials are attested from 2350 BCE to 1200 BCE, the end of the Bronze Age. The Northwest Semitic languages, including Hebrew, differentiated noticeably during the Iron Age, although in its earliest stages Biblical Hebrew was not highly differentiated from Ugaritic and the Canaanite of the Amarna letters.
Hebrew developed during the latter half of the second millennium BCE between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea, an area known as Canaan. The Israelite tribes established a kingdom in Canaan at the beginning of the first millennium BCE, which later split into the kingdom of Israel in the north and the kingdom of Judah in the south after a disputed succession. The earliest Hebrew writing yet discovered was found at Khirbet Qeiyafa and dates to the 10th century BCE.
The kingdom of Israel was destroyed by the Assyrians in 722 BCE. The kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. The upper classes were exiled into the Babylonian captivity and Solomon's Temple was destroyed. Later the Persians made Judah a province and permitted Jewish exiles to return and rebuild the Temple. According to the Gemara, Hebrew of this period was similar to Imperial Aramaic; in Pesahim, Tractate 87b, Hanina bar Hama said that God sent the exiled Jews to Babylon because " language is akin to the Leshon Hakodesh".
Aramaic became the common language in the north, in Galilee and Samaria. Hebrew remained in use in Judah; however the returning exiles brought back Aramaic influence, and Aramaic was used for communicating with other ethnic groups during the Persian period. Alexander conquered Judah in 332 BCE, beginning the period of Hellenistic domination. During the Hellenistic period Judea became independent under the Hasmonean dynasty, but later the Romans ended their independence, making Herod the Great their governor. One Jewish revolt against the Romans led to the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, and the second Bar Kokhba revolt in 132–135 led to a large departure of the Jewish population of Judea.
Biblical Hebrew after the Second Temple period evolved into Mishnaic Hebrew, which ceased being spoken and developed into a literary language around 200 CE. Hebrew continued to be used as a literary and liturgical language in the form of Medieval Hebrew, and Hebrew began a revival process in the 19th century, culminating in Modern Hebrew becoming the official language of Israel. Currently, Classical Hebrew is generally taught in public schools in Israel, and Biblical Hebrew forms are sometimes used in Modern Hebrew literature, much as archaic and biblical constructions are used in Modern English literature. Since Modern Hebrew contains many biblical elements, Biblical Hebrew is fairly intelligible to Modern Hebrew speakers.
The primary source of Biblical Hebrew material is the Hebrew Bible. Epigraphic materials from the area of Israelite territory are written in a form of Hebrew called Inscriptional Hebrew, although this is meagerly attested. According to Waltke & O'Connor, Inscriptional Hebrew "is not strikingly different from the Hebrew preserved in the Masoretic text." The damp climate of Israel caused the rapid deterioration of papyrus and parchment documents, in contrast to the dry environment of Egypt, and the survival of the Hebrew Bible may be attributed to scribal determination in preserving the text through copying. No manuscript of the Hebrew Bible dates to before 400 BCE, although two silver rolls from the seventh or sixth century BCE show a version of the Priestly Blessing. Vowel and cantillation marks were added to the older consonantal layer of the Bible between 600 CE and the beginning of the 10th century. The scholars who preserved the pronunciation of the Bibles were known as the Masoretes. The most well-preserved system that was developed, and the only one still in religious use, is the Tiberian vocalization, but both Babylonian and Palestinian vocalizations are also attested. The Palestinian system was preserved mainly in piyyutim, which contain biblical quotations.


Biblical Hebrew is a Northwest Semitic language from the Canaanite subgroup.
As Biblical Hebrew evolved from the Proto-Semitic language it underwent a number of consonantal mergers parallel with those in other Canaanite languages. There is no evidence that these mergers occurred after the adaptation of the Hebrew alphabet.
As a Northwest Semitic language, Hebrew shows the shift of initial to, a similar independent pronoun system to the other Northwest Semitic languages, some archaic forms, such as 'we', first person singular pronominal suffix -i or -ya, and commonly preceding pronominal suffixes. Case endings are found in Northwest Semitic languages in the second millennium BCE, but disappear almost totally afterwards. Mimation is absent in singular nouns, but is often retained in the plural, as in Hebrew.
The Northwest Semitic languages formed a dialect continuum in the Iron Age, with Phoenician and Aramaic on each extreme. Hebrew is classed with Phoenician in the Canaanite subgroup, which also includes Ammonite, Edomite, and Moabite. Moabite might be considered a Hebrew dialect, though it possessed distinctive Aramaic features. Although Ugaritic shows a large degree of affinity to Hebrew in poetic structure, vocabulary, and some grammar, it lacks some Canaanite features, and its similarities are more likely a result of either contact or preserved archaism.
Hebrew underwent the Canaanite shift, where Proto-Semitic tended to shift to, perhaps when stressed. Hebrew also shares with the Canaanite languages the shifts >, and >, widespread reduction of diphthongs, and full assimilation of non-final /n/ to the following consonant if word final, i.e. בת /bat/ from *bant. There is also evidence of a rule of assimilation of /y/ to the following coronal consonant in pre-tonic position, shared by Hebrew, Phoenician and Aramic.
Typical Canaanite words in Hebrew include: גג "roof" שלחן "table" חלון "window" ישן "old " זקן "old " and גרש "expel". Morphological Canaanite features in Hebrew include the masculine plural marker -ם, first person singular pronoun אנכי, interrogative pronoun מי, definite article ה-, and third person plural feminine verbal marker.


Biblical Hebrew as preserved in the Hebrew Bible is composed of multiple linguistic layers. The consonantal skeleton of the text is the most ancient, while the vocalization and cantillation are later additions reflecting a later stage of the language. These additions were added after 600 CE; Hebrew had already ceased being used as a spoken language around 200 CE. Biblical Hebrew as reflected in the consonantal text of the Bible and in extra-biblical inscriptions may be subdivided by era.
The oldest form of Biblical Hebrew, Archaic Hebrew, is found in poetic sections of the Bible and inscriptions dating to around 1000 BCE, the early Monarchic Period. This stage is also known as Old Hebrew or Paleo-Hebrew, and is the oldest stratum of Biblical Hebrew. The oldest known artifacts of Archaic Biblical Hebrew are various sections of the Tanakh, including the Song of Moses and the Song of Deborah. Biblical poetry uses a number of distinct lexical items, for example חזה for prose ראה 'see', כביר for גדול 'great'. Some have cognates in other Northwest Semitic languages, for example פעל 'do' and חָרוּץ 'gold' which are common in Canaanite and Ugaritic. Grammatical differences include the use of זה, זוֹ, and זוּ as relative particles, negative בל, and various differences in verbal and pronominal morphology and syntax.
Later pre-exilic Biblical Hebrew is known as 'Biblical Hebrew proper' or 'Standard Biblical Hebrew'. This is dated to the period from the 8th to the 6th century BCE. In contrast to Archaic Hebrew, Standard Biblical Hebrew is more consistent in using the definite article ה-, the accusative marker את, distinguishing between simple and waw-consecutive verb forms, and in using particles like אשר and כי rather than asyndeton.
Biblical Hebrew from after the Babylonian exile in 587 BCE is known as 'Late Biblical Hebrew'. Late Biblical Hebrew shows Aramaic influence in phonology, morphology, and lexicon, and this trend is also evident in the later-developed Tiberian vocalization system.
Qumran Hebrew, attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls from ca. 200 BCE to 70 CE, is a continuation of Late Biblical Hebrew. Qumran Hebrew may be considered an intermediate stage between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew, though Qumran Hebrew shows its own idiosyncratic dialectal features.


Dialect variation in Biblical Hebrew is attested to by the well-known shibboleth incident of Judges 12:6, where Jephthah's forces from Gilead caught Ephraimites trying to cross the Jordan river by making them say שִׁבֹּ֤לֶת The Ephraimites' identity was given away by their pronunciation:. The apparent conclusion is that the Ephraimite dialect had for standard. As an alternative explanation, it has been suggested that the proto-Semitic phoneme, which shifted to in most dialects of Hebrew, may have been retained in the Hebrew of the trans-Jordan. However, there is evidence that the word שִׁבֹּ֤לֶת had initial consonant * in proto-Semitic, contradicting this theory.
Hebrew as spoken in the northern Kingdom of Israel, known also as Israelian Hebrew, shows phonological, lexical, and grammatical differences from southern dialects. The Northern dialect spoken around Samaria shows more frequent simplification of into as attested by the Samaria ostraca, e.g. ין, while the Southern dialect instead adds in an epenthetic vowel /i/, added halfway through the first millennium BCE. The word play in Amos 8:1–2 כְּלוּב קַ֫יִץ... בָּא הַקֵּץ may reflect this: given that Amos was addressing the population of the Northern Kingdom, the vocalization *קֵיץ would be more forceful. Other possible Northern features include use of שֶ- 'who, that', forms like דֵעָה 'to know' rather than דַעַת and infinitives of certain verbs of the form עֲשוֹ 'to do' rather than. The Samaria ostraca also show שת for standard שנה 'year', as in Aramaic.
The guttural phonemes merged over time in some dialects. This was found in Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew, but Jerome attested to the existence of contemporaneous Hebrew speakers who still distinguished pharyngeals. Samaritan Hebrew also shows a general attrition of these phonemes, though are occasionally preserved as.



Kaphכ, ך,
Memמ, ם
Nunנ, ן
Peפ, ף,
Tsadeצ, ץ
Qophק or

The earliest Hebrew writing yet discovered, found at Khirbet Qeiyafa, dates to the 10th century BCE. The 15 cm x 16.5 cm trapezoid pottery sherd has five lines of text written in ink written in the Proto-Canaanite alphabet. The tablet is written from left to right, indicating that Hebrew writing was still in the formative stage.
The Israelite tribes who settled in the land of Israel used a late form of the Proto-Sinaitic Alphabet around the 12th century BCE, which developed into Early Phoenician and Early Paleo-Hebrew as found in the Gezer calendar. This script developed into the Paleo-Hebrew script in the 10th or 9th centuries BCE. The Paleo-Hebrew alphabet's main differences from the Phoenician script were "a curving to the left of the downstrokes in the "long-legged" letter-signs... the consistent use of a Waw with a concave top, x-shaped Taw." The oldest inscriptions in Paleo-Hebrew script are dated to around the middle of the 9th century BCE, the most famous being the Mesha Stele in the Moabite language. The ancient Hebrew script was in continuous use until the early 6th century BCE, the end of the First Temple period. In the Second Temple Period the Paleo-Hebrew script gradually fell into disuse, and was completely abandoned among the Jews after the failed Bar Kochba revolt. The Samaritans retained the ancient Hebrew alphabet, which evolved into the modern Samaritan alphabet.
By the end of the First Temple period the Aramaic script, a separate descendant of the Phoenician script, became widespread throughout the region, gradually displacing Paleo-Hebrew. The oldest documents that have been found in the Aramaic Script are fragments of the scrolls of Exodus, Samuel, and Jeremiah found among the Dead Sea scrolls, dating from the late 3rd and early 2nd centuries BCE. It seems that the earlier biblical books were originally written in the Paleo-Hebrew script, while the later books were written directly in the later Assyrian script. Some Qumran texts written in the Assyrian script write the tetragrammaton and some other divine names in Paleo-Hebrew, and this practice is also found in several Jewish-Greek biblical translations. While spoken Hebrew continued to evolve into Mishnaic Hebrew, the scribal tradition for writing the Torah gradually developed. A number of regional "book-hand" styles developed for the purpose of Torah manuscripts and occasionally other literary works, distinct from the calligraphic styles used mainly for private purposes. The Mizrahi and Ashkenazi book-hand styles were later adapted to printed fonts after the invention of the printing press. The modern Hebrew alphabet, also known as the Assyrian or Square script, is a descendant of the Aramaic alphabet.
The Phoenician script had dropped five characters by the 12th century BCE, reflecting the language's twenty-two consonantal phonemes. As a result, the 22 letters of the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet numbered less than the consonant phonemes of ancient Biblical Hebrew; in particular, the letters could each mark two different phonemes. After a sound shift the letters ח, ע could only mark one phoneme, but ש still marked two. The old Babylonian vocalization system wrote a superscript ס above the ש to indicate it took the value, while the Masoretes added the shin dot to distinguish between the two varieties of the letter.
The original Hebrew alphabet consisted only of consonants, but gradually the letters א, ה, ו, י, also became used to indicate vowels, known as matres lectionis when used in this function. It is thought that this was a product of phonetic development: for instance, *bayt shifted to בֵּית in construct state but retained its spelling. While no examples of early Hebrew orthography have been found, older Phoenician and Moabite texts show how First Temple period Hebrew would have been written. Phoenician inscriptions from the 10th century BCE do not indicate matres lectiones in the middle or the end of a word, for example לפנ and ז for later לפני and זה, similarly to the Hebrew Gezer Calendar, which has for instance שערמ for שעורים and possibly ירח for. Matres lectionis were later added word-finally, for instance the Mesha inscription has for later ; however at this stage they were not yet used word-medially, compare Siloam inscription זדה versus אש. The relative terms defective and full/plene are used to refer to alternative spellings of a word with less or more matres lectionis, respectively.
The Hebrew Bible was presumably originally written in a more defective orthography than found in any of the texts known today. Of the extant textual witnesses of the Hebrew Bible, the Masoretic text is generally the most conservative in its use of matres lectionis, with the Samaritan Pentateuch and its forebearers being more full and the Qumran tradition showing the most liberal use of vowel letters. The Masoretic text mostly uses vowel letters for long vowels, showing the tendency to mark all long vowels except for word-internal. In the Qumran tradition, back vowels are usually represented by whether short or long. is generally used for both long and , and final is often written as in analogy to words like היא, הביא, e.g. כיא, sometimes. is found finally in forms like , while may be used for an a-quality vowel in final position and in medial position. Pre-Samaritan and Samaritan texts show full spellings in many categories but only rarely show full spelling of the Qumran type.
In general the vowels of Biblical Hebrew were not indicated in the original text, but various sources attest them at various stages of development. Greek and Latin transcriptions of words from the biblical text provide early evidence of the nature of Biblical Hebrew vowels. In particular, there is evidence from the rendering of proper nouns in the Koine Greek Septuagint and the Greek alphabet transcription of the Hebrew biblical text contained in the Secunda. In the 7th and 8th centuries CE various systems of vocalic notation were developed to indicate vowels in the biblical text. The most prominent, best preserved, and the only system still in use, is the Tiberian vocalization system, created by scholars known as Masoretes around 850 CE. There are also various extant manuscripts making use of less common vocalization systems, known as superlinear vocalizations because their vocalization marks are placed above the letters. In addition, the Samaritan reading tradition is independent of these systems, and was occasionally notated with a separate vocalization system. These systems often record vowels at different stages of historical development; for example, the name of the Judge Samson is recorded in Greek as Σαμψών Sampsōn with the first vowel as, while Tiberian שִמְשוֹן with shows the effect of the law of attenuation whereby in closed unstressed syllables became. All of these systems together are used to reconstruct the original vocalization of Biblical Hebrew.
At an early stage, in documents written in the paleo-Hebrew script, words were divided by short vertical lines and later by dots, as reflected by the Mesha Stone, the Siloam inscription, the Ophel inscription, and paleo-Hebrew script documents from Qumran. Word division was not used in Phoenician inscriptions; however, there is not direct evidence for biblical texts being written without word division, as suggested by Nahmanides in his introduction to the Torah. Word division using spaces was commonly used from the beginning of the 7th century BCE for documents in the Aramaic script. In addition to marking vowels, the Tiberian system also uses cantillation marks, which serve to mark word stress, semantic structure, and the musical motifs used in formal recitation of the text.
While the Tiberian, Babylonian, and Palestinian reading traditions are extinct, various other systems of pronunciation have evolved over time, notably the Yemenite, Sephardi, Ashkenazi, and Samaritan traditions. Modern Hebrew pronunciation is also used by some to read biblical texts. The modern reading traditions do not stem solely from the Tiberian system; for instance, the Sephardic tradition's distinction between qamatz gadol and qatan is pre-Tiberian. However, the only orthographic system used to mark vowels is the Tiberian vocalization.


The phonology as reconstructed for Biblical Hebrew is as follows:


Consonants lost and gained during the lifetime of Biblical Hebrew are color-coded respectively.
The phonetic nature of some Biblical Hebrew consonants is disputed. The so-called "emphatics" were likely ejective, but possibly pharyngealized or velarized. Some argue that were affricated.
Originally, the Hebrew letters and each represented two possible phonemes, uvular and pharyngeal, with the distinction unmarked in Hebrew orthography. However the uvular phonemes ח and ע merged with their pharyngeal counterparts ח and ע respectively c. 200 BCE.
This is observed by noting that these phonemes are distinguished consistently in the Septuagint of the Pentateuch, but this becomes more sporadic in later books and is generally absent in Ezra and Nehemiah.
The phoneme, is also not directly indicated by Hebrew orthography but is clearly attested by later developments: It is written with but later merged with . As a result, three etymologically distinct phonemes can be distinguished through a combination of spelling and pronunciation: written, written, and . The specific pronunciation of as is based on comparative evidence. began merging with in Late Biblical Hebrew, as indicated by interchange of orthographic and, possibly under the influence of Aramaic, and this became the rule in Mishnaic Hebrew. In all Jewish reading traditions and have merged completely; however in Samaritan Hebrew has instead merged with.
Allophonic spirantization of to developed sometime during the lifetime of Biblical Hebrew under the influence of Aramaic. This probably happened after the original Old Aramaic phonemes disappeared in the 7th century BCE, and most likely occurred after the loss of Hebrew c. 200 BCE. It is known to have occurred in Hebrew by the 2nd century CE. After a certain point this alternation became contrastive in word-medial and final position, but in word-initial position they remained allophonic. This is evidenced both by the Tiberian vocalization's consistent use of word-initial spirants after a vowel in sandhi, as well as Rabbi Saadia Gaon's attestation to the use of this alternation in Tiberian Aramaic at the beginning of the 10th century CE.
The Dead Sea scrolls show evidence of confusion of the phonemes, e.g. חמר ħmr for Masoretic אָמַר 'he said'. However the testimony of Jerome indicates that this was a regionalism and not universal. Confusion of gutturals was also attested in later Mishnaic Hebrew and Aramaic. In Samaritan Hebrew, have generally all merged, either into, a glide or, or by vanishing completely, except that original sometimes have reflex before.
Geminate consonants are phonemically contrastive in Biblical Hebrew. In the Secunda are never geminate. In the Tiberian tradition cannot be geminate; historically first degeminated, followed by,, and finally, as evidenced by changes in the quality of the preceding vowel.


The vowel system of Biblical Hebrew has changed considerably over time. The following vowels are those reconstructed for the earliest stage of Hebrew, those attested by the Secunda, those of the various vocalization traditions, and those of the Samaritan tradition, with vowels absent in some traditions color-coded.

Sound changes

The following sections present the vowel changes that Biblical Hebrew underwent, in approximate chronological order.
Proto-Semitic is the ancestral language of all the Semitic languages, and in traditional reconstructions possessed 29 consonants; 6 monophthong vowels, consisting of three qualities and two lengths,, in which the long vowels occurred only in open syllables; and two diphthongs. The stress system of Proto-Semitic is unknown but it is commonly described as being much like the system of Classical Latin or the modern pronunciation of Classical Arabic: If the penultimate syllable is light, stress goes on the antepenultimate ; otherwise, it goes on the penultimate.
Various changes, mostly in morphology, took place between Proto-Semitic and Proto-Central-Semitic, the language at the root of the Central Semitic languages. The phonemic system was inherited essentially unchanged, but the emphatic consonants may have changed their realization in Central Semitic from ejectives to pharyngealized consonants.
The morphology of Proto-Central-Semitic shows significant changes compared with Proto-Semitic, especially in its verbs, and is much like in Classical Arabic. Nouns in the singular were usually declined in three cases: /-u/, /-a/ or /-i/. In some circumstances, nouns also took a final nasal after the case ending: nunation occurred in some languages, mimation in others. The original meaning of this marker is uncertain. In Classical Arabic, final /-n/ on nouns indicates indefiniteness and disappears when the noun is preceded by a definite article or otherwise becomes definite in meaning. In other languages, final /-n/ may be present whenever a noun is not in the construct state. Old Canaanite had mimation, of uncertain meaning, in an occurrence of the word urušalemim as given in an Egyptian transcription.
Broken plural forms in Arabic are declined like singulars, and often take singular agreement as well. Dual and "strong plural" forms use endings with a long vowel or diphthong, declined in only two cases: nominative and objective, with the objective form often becoming the default one after the loss of case endings. Both Hebrew and Arabic had a special form of nunation/mimation that co-occurred with the dual and masculine sound plural endings whenever the noun was not in the construct state. The endings were evidently felt as an inherent part of the ending and, as a result, are still used. Examples are Arabic strong masculine plural -ūna, -īna, and dual endings -āni, -ayni ; corresponding construct-state endings are -ū, -ī, -ā, -ay.
Hebrew has almost lost the broken plural, and any vestigial forms that may remain have been extended with the strong plural endings. The dual and strong plural endings were likely much like the Arabic forms given above at one point, with only the objective-case forms ultimately surviving. For example, dual -ayim is probably from *-aymi with an extended mimation ending, while dual construct is from *-ay without mimation. Similarly, -īm < *-īma, -ōt < *-āti.
Feminine nouns at this point ended in a suffix /-at-/ or /-t-/ and took normal case endings. When the ending /-at-/ became final because of loss or non-presence of the case ending, both Hebrew and Arabic show a later shift to /-ah/ and then. The final /t/ consonant therefore is silent in the absolute state, but becomes /t/ again in the construct state and when these words take suffixes, e.g. תֹורָה /toːraː/ "law" becomes תֹורַת /toːrat/ "law of", and תֹורָתְךָ /toːraːtəxaː/ "your law", etc.
Canaanite shift
Hebrew shows the Canaanite shift whereby often shifted to ; the conditions of this shift are disputed. This shift had occurred by the 14th century BCE, as demonstrated by its presence in the Amarna letters.
As a result of the Canaanite shift, the Proto-Hebrew vowel system is reconstructed as . Furthermore, stress at this point appears to have shifted so that it was consistently on the penultimate syllable, and was still non-phonemic. The predominant final stress of Biblical Hebrew was a result of loss of final unstressed vowels and a shift away from remaining open syllables.
Loss of final unstressed vowels
Final unstressed short vowels dropped out in most words, making it possible for long vowels to occur in closed syllables.
This appears to have proceeded in two steps:
  1. Final short mood, etc. markers dropped in verbal forms.
  2. Final short case markers dropped in nominal forms.
Vowel lengthening in stressed, open syllables occurred between the two steps, with the result that short vowels at the beginning of a -VCV ending lengthened in nouns but not verbs. This is most noticeable with short : e.g. *kataba > but *dabara >.
The dropping of final short vowels in verb forms tended to erase mood distinctions, but also some gender distinctions; however, unexpected vowel lengthening occurred in many situations to preserve the distinctions. For example, in the suffix conjugation, first-singular *-tu appears to have been remade into *-tī already by Proto-Hebrew on the basis of possessive .
Similarly, in the second-singular, inherited *-ta -ti competed with lengthened *-tā -tī for masculine and feminine forms. The expected result would be -t or -tā for masculine, -t or -tī for feminine, and in fact both variants of both forms are found in the Bible. The situation appears to have been quite fluid for several centuries, with -t and -tā/tī forms found in competition both in writing and in speech. Ultimately, writing stabilized on the shorter -t for both genders, while speech chose feminine -t but masculine -tā. This is the reason for the unexpected qamatz vowel written under the final letter of such words.
The exact same process affected possessive *-ka and *-ki, and personal pronouns *ʔanta, *ʔanti, with the same split into shorter and longer forms and the same ultimate resolution.
Short vowel lengthening (esp. pretonic), lowering
The short vowels tended to lengthen in various positions.
In the process of lengthening, the high vowels were lowered. In the Secunda, the lengthened reflexes of are ; when kept short they generally have reflexes.
Reduction of short open stressed syllables
Stressed open syllables with a short vowel had the vowel reduced to and the stressed moved one syllable later in the word. Stress was originally penultimate and loss of final short vowels made many words have final stress. However, words whose final syllable had a long vowel or ended with a consonant were unaffected and still had penultimate stress at this point. This change did not happen in pausal position, where the penultimate stress is preserved, and vowel lengthening rather than reduction occurs.
The previous three changes occurred in a complex, interlocking fashion:
  1. Shift of stress to be universally penultimate.
  2. Loss of final short vowels in verbs, pre-stress lengthening in open syllables. Pre-stress lengthening/lowering becomes a surface filter that remains as a rule in the language, automatically affected any new short vowels in open syllables as they appear.
  3. Stress movement from light syllable to following heavy syllable when not in pausa, with newly unstressed light syllable reducing the schwa.
  4. Tonic lengthening/lowering in open syllables.
  5. Loss of final short vowels in nouns.
'killing/killer ''he killed''she killed''they killed''they killed' 'you kill''you kill'
Canaanite shift
Penultimate stress
Final short vowel loss
Pre-tonic lengthening
Stress shift / de-stressed reduction
Tonic lengthening/lowering
Final short vowel loss
Feminine >
Short vowel lowering
Law of attenuation
Tiberian >
Loss of phonemic vowel length; attested Tiberian form

Note that many, perhaps most, Hebrew words with a schwa directly before a final stress are due to this stress shift.
This sound change shifted many more originally penultimate-stressed words to have final stress. The above changes can be seen to divide words into a number of main classes based on stress and syllable properties:
  1. Proto-Hebrew words with an open penult and short-vowel ending: Become final-stressed.
  2. Proto-Hebrew words with a closed penult and short-vowel ending: Become penultimate due to segholate rule.
  3. Proto-Hebrew words with an open short penult and longer ending: Become final-stressed due to stress shift.
  4. Proto-Hebrew words with a closed penult and longer ending: Remain penultimate.
  5. Proto-Hebrew words with an open long penult and longer ending: ???
    Pre-stress reduction of short vowel
were reduced to in the second syllable before the stress, and occasionally reduced rather than lengthened in pretonic position, especially when initial. Thus the vowel system of the Secunda was.
Later developments
The later Jewish traditions show similar vowel developments. By the Tiberian time, all short vowels in stressed syllables and open pretonic lengthened, making vowel length allophonic. Vowels in open or stressed syllables had allophonic length. The Babylonian and Palestinian vocalizations systems also do not mark vowel length. In the Tiberian and Babylonian systems, and lengthened become the back vowel. In unaccented closed syllables, become , , or – generally becoming the second vowel before geminates and the first otherwise. In the Tiberian tradition pretonic vowels are reduced more commonly than in the Secunda. It does not occur for, but is occasional for , and is common for . In Tiberian Hebrew pretonic is most commonly preserved by geminating the following consonant, e.g. אדֻמּים ; this pretonic gemination is also found in some forms with other vowels like אַסִּיר⁓אָסִיר .
The Babylonian and Palestinian systems have only one reduced vowel phoneme like the Secunda, though in Palestinian Hebrew it developed the pronunciation. However the Tiberian tradition possesses three reduced vowels of which has questionable phonemicity. under a non-guttural letter was pronounced as an ultrashort copy of the following vowel before a guttural, e.g. וּבָקְעָה, and as preceding, e.g. תְדֵמְּיוּ֫נִי, but was always pronounced as under gutturals, e.g.. When reduced, etymological become under gutturals, and generally under non-gutturals, but > may still occur, especially after stops and . Samaritan and Qumran Hebrew have full vowels in place of the reduced vowels of Tiberian Hebrew.
Samaritan Hebrew also does not reflect etymological vowel length; however the elision of guttural consonants has created new phonemic vowel length, e.g. רב vs. רחב. Samaritan Hebrew vowels are allophonically lengthened in open syllables, e.g. המצרי, היא, though this is less strong in post-tonic vowels. Pretonic gemination is also found in Samaritan Hebrew, but not always in the same locations as in Tiberian Hebrew, e.g. גמלים TH SH ; שלמים TH SH. While Proto-Hebrew long vowels usually retain their vowel quality in the later traditions of Hebrew, in Samaritan Hebrew may have reflex in closed stressed syllables, e.g. דין /, may become either or, and >. The reduced vowels of the other traditions appear as full vowels, though there may be evidence that Samaritan Hebrew once had similar vowel reduction. Samaritan results from the neutralization of the distinction between and in closed post-tonic syllables, e.g. בית הבית גר .
Various more specific conditioned shifts of vowel quality have also occurred. Diphthongs were frequently monopthongized, but the scope and results of this shift varied among dialects. In particular, the Samaria ostraca show < < for Southern , and Samaritan Hebrew shows instead the shift >. Original tended to shift to beginning in the second half of the second millennium BC. This was carried through completely in Samaritan Hebrew but met more resistance in other traditions such as the Babylonian and Qumran traditions. Philippi's law is the process by which original in closed stressed syllables shifts to , or sometimes in the Tiberian tradition . This is absent in the transcriptions of the Secunda, but there is evidence that the law's onset predates the Secunda. In the Samaritan tradition Philippi's law is applied consistently, e.g. > . In some traditions the short vowel tended to shift to in unstressed closed syllables: this is known as the law of attenuation. It is common in the Tiberian tradition, e.g. > Tiberian שִבְעָה , but exceptions are frequent. It is less common in the Babylonian vocalization, e.g. , and differences in Greek and Latin transcriptions demonstrate that it began quite late. Attenuation generally did not occur before, e.g. Tiberian מַפְתֵּחַ versus מִפְתַּח , and often was blocked before a geminate, e.g. מתנה. Attenuation is rarely present in Samaritan Hebrew, e.g. מקדש. In the Tiberian tradition take offglide before. This is absent in the Secunda and in Samaritan Hebrew but present in the transcriptions of Jerome. In the Tiberian tradition an ultrashort echo vowel is sometimes added to clusters where the first element is a guttural, e.g. יַאֲזִין פָּעֳלוֹ but יַאְדִּיר רָחְבּוֹ 'its breadth'.
The following charts summarize the most common reflexes of the Proto-Semitic vowels in the various stages of Hebrew:

  1. Samaritan vowels may be lengthened in the presence of etymological guttural consonants. results from both and in closed post-tonic syllables.
  2. under the conditions of the law of attenuation
  3. under the conditions of Phillipi's law
  4. Samaritan are nearly in complementary distribution
  5. lengthening occurs in some open pretonic syllables and some stressed syllables; precise conditions depend on the vowel and on the tradition
  6. reduction occurs in the open syllables two syllables away from the stress and sometimes also in pretonic and stressed open syllables
  7. effectively in most closed syllables
  8. more common before geminate consonants
  9. Samaritan Hebrew has full vowels when the other traditions have reduced vowels, but these do not always correlate with their Proto-Hebrew ancestors


Proto-Hebrew generally had penultimate stress. The ultimate stress of later traditions of Hebrew usually resulted from the loss of final vowels in many words, preserving the location of proto-Semitic stress. Tiberian Hebrew has phonemic stress, e.g. בָּנוּ֫ vs. בָּ֫נוּ ; stress is most commonly ultimate, less commonly penultimate, and antipenultimate stress exists marginally, e.g. הָאֹ֫הֱלָה . There does not seem to be evidence for stress in the Secunda varying from that of the Tiberian tradition. Despite sharing the loss of final vowels with Tiberian Hebrew, Samaritan Hebrew has generally not preserved Proto-Semitic stress, and has predominantly penultimate stress, with occasional ultimate stress. There is evidence that Qumran Hebrew had a similar stress pattern to Samaritan Hebrew.


Medieval grammarians of Arabic and Hebrew classified words as belonging to three parts of speech: Arabic ism, fiʻl, and ḥarf ; other grammarians have included more categories. In particular, adjectives and nouns show more affinity to each other than in most European languages. Biblical Hebrew has a typical Semitic morphology, characterized by the use of roots. Most words in Biblical Hebrew are formed from a root, a sequence of consonants with a general associated meaning. Roots are usually triconsonantal, with biconsonantal roots less common and rare cases of quadri- and quinquiconsonantal roots. Roots are modified by affixation to form words. Verbal patterns are more productive and consistent, while noun patterns are less predictable.

Nouns and adjectives

The most common nominal prefix used is, used for substantives of location, instruments, and abstractions. The vowel after is normally, but appears sometimes as, or in the case of מושב as . The prefix is used to denote the action of the verb it is derived from, more common for initial- verbs, e.g. תודה. Prefixed is used in adjectives, e.g. אכזב, and also occurs in nouns with initial sibilants, e.g. אצבע. In the latter case this prefix was added for phonetic reasons, and the א prefix is called either "prothetic" or "prosthetic". Prefixed ע often occurs in quadriliteral animal names, perhaps as a prefix, e.g. עֳטלף, עכבר, עקרב.
In proto-Semitic nouns were marked for case: in the singular the markers were in the nominative, in the accusative, and in the genitive, as evidenced in Akkadian, Ugaritic, and Arabic. The Amarna letters show that this was probably still present in Hebrew c. 1350 BCE. In the development of Hebrew, final were dropped first, and later was elided as well. Mimation, a nominal suffix of unclear meaning, was found in early Canaanite, as shown by early Egyptian transcriptions of Jerusalem as Urušalimim, but there is no indication of its presence after 1800 BCE. Final is preserved in לַ֫יְלָה, originally meaning 'at night' but in prose replacing לַ֫יִל , and in the "connective vowels" of some prepositions, e.g. עִמָּ֫נוּ ; nouns preserve in forms like. Construct state nouns lost case vowels at an early period, as shown by the reflexes of and the reflexes of However forms like יָדֵ֫נוּ show that this was not yet a feature of Proto-Hebrew.
Biblical Hebrew has two genders, masculine and feminine, which are reflected in nouns, adjectives, pronouns, and verbs. Hebrew distinguishes between singular and plural numbers, and plural forms may also be used for collectives and honorifics. Hebrew has a morphological dual form for nouns that naturally occur in pairs, and for units of measurement and time this contrasts with the plural. A widespread misconception is that the Hebrew plural denotes three or more objects. In truth, it denotes two or more objects. However adjectives, pronouns, and verbs do not have dual forms, and most nominal dual forms can function as plurals. Finite verbs are marked for subject person, number, and gender. Nouns also have a construct form which is used in genitive constructions.
Nouns are marked as definite with the prefix /ha-/ followed by gemination of the initial consonant of the noun. In Tiberian Hebrew the vowel of the article may become or in certain phonetic environments, for example החכם , האיש .
The traditions differ on the form of segolate nouns, nouns stemming from roots with two final consonants. The anaptyctic of the Tiberian tradition in segolates appears in the Septuagint but not the Hexapla, e.g. גֶּתֶר = Γαθερ versus כֵּסֶל = Χεσλ. This may reflect dialectal variation or phonetic versus phonemic transcriptions. Both the Palestinian and Babylonian traditions have an anaptyctic vowel in segolates, in the Palestinian tradition and in Babylonian. The Qumran tradition sometimes shows some type of back epenthetic vowel when the first vowel is back, e.g. for Tiberian .
Biblical Hebrew has two sets of personal pronouns: the free-standing independent pronouns have a nominative function, while the pronominal suffixes are genitive or accusative. Only the first person suffix has different possessive and objective forms.


Verbal consonantal roots are placed into derived verbal stems, known as בנינים binyanim in Hebrew; the binyanim mainly serve to indicate grammatical voice. This includes various distinctions of reflexivity, passivity, and causativity. Verbs of all binyanim have three non-finite forms, three modal forms, and two major conjugations. The meaning of the prefixing and suffixing conjugations are also affected by the conjugation ו, and their meaning with respect to tense and aspect is a matter of debate.

Word order

The default word order in Biblical Hebrew is commonly thought to be VSO, though one scholar has argued that this is due to the prevalence of clauses with a wayyiqtol verb form compared to other less marked forms that use SVO either more often or at least to a comparable degree. Attributive adjectives normally follow the noun they modify. In Biblical Hebrew, possession is normally expressed with status constructus, a construction in which the possessed noun occurs in a phonologically reduced, "construct" form and is followed by the possessor noun in its normal, "absolute" form. Pronominal direct objects are either suffixed to the verb or alternatively expressed on the object-marking pronoun.

Tense and aspect

Biblical Hebrew has two main conjugation types, the suffix conjugation, also called the Perfect, and the prefix conjugation, also called Imperfect. The Perfect verb form expressed the idea of the verb as a completed action, viewing it from start to finish as a whole, and not focusing on the process by which the verb came to be completed, stating it as a simple fact. This is often used in the past tense, however there are some contexts in which a Perfect verb translates into the present and future tenses.
The Imperfect portrays the verb as an incomplete action along with the process by which it came about, either as an event that has not begun, an event that has begun but is still in the process, or a habitual or cyclic action that is on an ongoing repetition. The Imperfect can also express modal or conditional verbs, as well as commands in the Jussive and Cohortative moods. While often future tense, it also has uses in the past and present under certain contexts. Biblical Hebrew tense is not necessarily reflected in the verb forms per se, but rather is determined primarily by context. The Participles also reflect ongoing or continuous actions, but are also subject to the context determining their tense.
The verbal forms can be Past Tense in these circumstances:
The verbal forms can be Present Tense in these circumstances:
The verbal forms can be Future Tense in these circumstances:
The following is a sample from Psalm 18 as appears in the Masoretic text with medieval Tiberian niqqud and cantillation and the Greek transcription of the Secunda of the Hexapla along with its reconstructed pronunciation.