American Tract Society Bible Dictionary
One of the distinguishing gifts of God to man, essential to all high enjoyment and improvement in social life, and to be prized and used in a manner worthy of its priceless value for the glory of God and the benefit of mankind. The original language was not the growth of a mere faculty of speech in man, but a creation of gift of God. Adam and Eve when created knew how to converse with each other and with the Creator. For some two thousand years, "the whole earth was of one language and of one speech," Genesis 11:1 . But about one hundred years after the flood, according to the common chronology, and later according to others, God miraculously "confounded the language" of the Cushite rebels at Babel; and peopling the earth by these scattered families of diverse tongues, He frustrated the designs and promoted his own. There are now several hundreds of languages and dialects spoken on the earth, and infidels have hence taken occasion to discredit the Bible doctrine of the unity of the human race. It is found, however, that these languages are distributed in several great classes, which have striking affinities with each other; and as comparative philology extends its researches, it finds increasing evidence of the substantial oneness of the human race and of the truth of Scripture.
The miracle performed at Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost was the reverse of that at Babel, Acts 2:1-18 , and beautifully illustrated the tendency of the gospel to introduce peace and harmony where sin has brought discord, and to reunite all the tribes of mankind in one great brotherhood.
To the student of the Bible, one of the most important subjects is the character and history of the original languages in which that holy book was written. In respect to the original Greek of the New Testament, some remarks have been made under the article GREECE. The Hebrew language, in which the Old Testament was written, is but one of the cluster of cognate languages, as belonging particularly to the descendants of Shem. A proper knowledge of the Hebrew, therefore, implies also an acquaintance with these of the kindred dialects.
The Shemitic languages may be divided into three principal dialects, namely, the Aramaean, the Hebrew, and the Arabic. 1. The Aramaean, spoken in Syria, Mesopotamia, and Babylonia, is subdivided into the Syriac and Chaldee dialects sometimes called also the West and East Aramaean. 2. The Hebrew or Canaanites dialect, Isaiah 19:18 , was spoken in Palestine, and probably with little variation in Phoenicia and the Phoenician colonies, as for instance, at Carthage and other places. The remains of the Phoenician and Punic dialects are too few and too much disfigured to enable us to judge with certainty how extensively these languages were the same as the dialect of Palestine. 3. The Arabic, to which the Ethiopic bears a special resemblance, comprises, in modern times, a great variety of dialects as a spoken language, and is spread over a vast extent of country; but so far as we are acquainted with its former state, it appears more anciently to have been limited principally to Arabia and Ethiopia.
These languages are distinguished from European tongues by several marked peculiarities: they are all, except the Ethiopic, written from right to left, and their books begin at what we should call the end; the alphabet, with the exception of the Ethiopic which is syllabic, consists of consonants only, above or below which the vowel-points are written; they have several guttural consonants very difficult of pronunciation to Europeans; the roots of the language are, in general, verbs of three letters, and pronounced, according to the various dialects, with one or more vowels; the verbs have but two tenses, the past and the future; and the pronouns in the oblique cases are generally untied in the same word with the noun or verb to which they have a relation. These various dialects form substantially one language, of which the original home was Western Asia. That they have all diverged from one parent stock is manifest, but to determine which of them has undergone the fewest changes would be a difficult question. The language of Noah and his son Shem was substantially that of Adam and all the antediluvians. Shem and Heber were contemporary with Abraham, and transmitted, as we have good reason to believe, their common tongue to the race of Israel; for it is not to be assumed that at the confusion of Babel no branch of the human family retained the primitive language. It does not appear that the descendants of Shem were among the builders of Babel, Genesis 10:8-10 .
The oldest records that are known to exist are composed in the Hebrew language. It flourished in its purest form in Palestine, among the Phoenicians and Hebrews, until the period of the Babylonish exile; soon after which it declined, and finally was succeeded by a kind of Hebraeo-Aramaean dialect, such as was spoken in the time of our Savior among the Jews. The West Aramaean had flourished before this for a long time in the east and north of Palestine; but it now advanced farther west, and during the period that the Christian churches of Syria flourished, it was widely extended. It is at present almost a dead language, and has been so for several centuries. The Hebrew may be regarded as having been a dead language, except among a small circle of literati, for about the space of two thousand years. Our knowledge of Arabic literature extends back very little beyond the time of Mohammed. But the followers of this pretended prophet have spread the dialect of the Koran over vast portions of the world. Arabic is now the vernacular language of Arabia, Syria, Egypt, and in a great measure of Palestine and all the northern coast of Africa; while it is read and understood wherever the Koran has gone, in Turkey, Persia, India, and Tartary.
The remains of the ancient Hebrew tongue are contained in the Old Testament and in the few Phoenician and Punic words and inscriptions that have been here and there discovered. The remains of the Aramaean are extant in a variety of books. In Chaldee, we have a part of the books of Daniel and Ezra, Daniel 2:4-7:28 Ezra 4:8-6:18 7:12-26 , which are the most ancient of any specimens of this dialect. The Targum of Onkelos, that is, the translation of the Pentateuch into Chaldee, affords the next and purest specimen of that language. The oldest specimen of this language that we have is contained in the Peshito, or Syriac version of the Old and New Testament, made perhaps within a century after the time of Christ. A multitude of writers in this dialect have flourished, many of whose writings are probably still extant, although but few have been printed in Europe. In Arabic, there exists a great variety of manuscripts and books, historical, scientific, and literary. A familiar knowledge of this and its kindred dialects throws much valuable light on the Old Testament Scriptures.
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