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Naming the flowers

Robert Alter, 24 February 1994

A History of the Hebrew Language 
by Angel Sáenz-Badillos, translated by John Elwolde.
Cambridge, 371 pp., £24.95, December 1993, 0 521 43157 3
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Language in Time of Revolution 
by Benjamin Harshav.
California, 234 pp., £19.95, September 1993, 0 520 07958 2
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... One of the most intriguing and in some ways bewildering aspects of the Hebrew language is that it has managed to stay in continuous literary use for over three thousand years; roughly the same length of time as Chinese and Sanskrit, the two other major ancient literary languages that are still in written use. The most dramatic changes that have occurred over the centuries have been the emergence of rabbinic Hebrew from Biblical Hebrew towards the end of the pre-Christian era; the complex encounter of Hebrew with Arabic poetry and philosophy beginning in the tenth century; and the early 20th-century revival of Hebrew as a vernacular in the new Zionist settlements, itself preceded – and made possible – by the revival in Enlightenment Europe of Hebrew as a secular literary language ...

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