The Origin of the Hebrew Language
By Jeff A. Benner

Hebrew is classified as a Semitic (or Shemitic, from Shem, the son of Noah) language. Was Hebrew just one of the many Semitic languages such as Canaanite, Aramaic, Phoenician, Akkadian, etc., that evolved out of a more ancient unknown language? Or, was Hebrew, and the Semitic family of languages, the original language of man?

According to the Bible all people spoke one language (Genesis 11:1) until the construction of the Tower of Babel, in southern Mesopotamia which occurred sometime around 4000 BCE1. During the construction of the Tower, God confused the language of man and scattered the nations (Genesis 11:7,8).

It is at this time that the Sumerians (from the land of Sumer, known as Shinar in the Bible - Genesis 10:10), speaking a non-Semitic language2, appear in southern Mesopotamia. It is believed that the Sumerians are related to the people living between the Black and Caspian Seas3, known as the Scythians, descendents of Noah's son Japheth4.

At approximately the same time the Sumerians appeared in Mesopotamia, another civilization emerges in the South, the Egyptians. The original language of the Egyptians is Hamitic (From Ham, the second son of Noah) and is also unrelated to the Semitic languages5.

During the time of the Sumerians and the Egyptians, the Semitic peoples lived in Sumeria and traveled west into the land of Canaan.

Figure 1
The descendants of Noah (Fig. 1)

It would appear that after the Tower of Babel, the descendants of Japheth traveled north with their language, the descendants of Ham traveled southwest with their language and the Semites traveled west with their language (see figure 1).

"That is why it was called Babel - because there the LORD confused the language of the whole world. From there the LORD scattered them over the face of the whole earth" (Genesis 11.9).

What was the one language spoken prior to the Tower of Babel? When God created Adam he spoke to him (Genesis 2:16) indicating that God gave Adam a language and this language came from God himself, not through the evolution of grunts and groans of cave men. When we look at all the names of Adam's descendent we find that all the names from Adam to Noah and his children are Hebrew names, meaning that their name has a meaning in Hebrew. For instance, Methuselah (Genesis 5:21) is Hebrew for "his death brings" (The flood occurred the year that he died). It is not until we come to Noah's grandchildren that we find names that are of a language other than Hebrew. For instance, the name Nimrod (Genesis 11:18), who was from Babylon/Sumer/Shinar and possibly the Tower of Babel, is a non-Hebrew name. According to the Biblical record of names, Adam and his descendants spoke Hebrew.

In addition, Jewish tradition as well as some Christian Scholars, believed that Hebrew was the original language of man21.

1. Merrill F. Unger, "Tower of Babel," Unger's Bible Dictionary, 1977 ed.: 115. (BCE - Before the Common Era, equivalent to BC) Back

2. J.I. Packer, Merril C. Tenney, William White, Jr., Nelson's Illustrated Encyclopedia of Bible Facts (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995) 337. Back

3. Madelene S. Miller and J. Lane Miller, "Sumer," Harper's Bible Dictionary, 1973 ed.: 710. Back

4. Unger, "Scythian," 987. Back

5. Unger, "Egypt," 288. Back

6. William Smith, "Hebrew Language," Smith's Bible Dictionary, 1948 ed.: 238. Back