We see that in most of the Bible, the Jews are called "בני ישראל/Israelites"; only in later books are they called "יהודים/Jews" (e.g. Esther 2:5, Zechariah 8:23), after the loss of the 10 tribes. However, the only word appearing for the language of the Jews is "יהודית/Jewish/Yiddish" -- no "לשון הקדש" or "עברית". Granted, one reference is during the 2nd Temple period (Nehemiah 13:24). However, in II Kings 18:26, an Assyrian emissary is asked to speak in "יהודית" rather than in ארמית/Aramaic.

Why, then, even at this earlier point, when the entire nation of Israel lived in the land, is the language specifically referred to as the Judean language? Is that meant to imply that the other tribes were speaking something different? Or was it just the common, understood way of referring to the language?

On a related note, when did Hebrew begin to be known as עברית/Hebrew?

  • Melachim II 18:26: וַיֹּאמֶר אֶלְיָקִים בֶּן חִלְקִיָּהוּ וְשֶׁבְנָה וְיוֹאָח אֶל רַבְשָׁקֵה דַּבֶּר נָא אֶל עֲבָדֶיךָ אֲרָמִית כִּי שֹׁמְעִים אֲנָחְנוּ וְאַל תְּדַבֵּר עִמָּנוּ יְהוּדִית בְּאָזְנֵי הָעָם אֲשֶׁר עַל הַחֹמָה: And Eliakim the son of Hilkiah and Shebnah and Joah said to Rabshakeh, "Please speak to your servants in Aramaic for we understand it; do not speak with us in Judean within the hearing of the people who are on the wall." - The emissary was asked to speak Aramaic not Hebrew. – ezra Jun 28 '17 at 15:27

Well historically speaking the only time, pre-Babylonian exile, that the word יהודית(which in this case is probably best translated as Judean) is employed is when the Assyrians move to sack Jerusalem. This is some 240 years after the Kingdoms were divided, which itself would have fostered dialectic differences, and after the Northern Kingdom(Israel) had already fallen and been deported by the Assyrians.

Beyond that the term עברית is used in Onkelos a number of times(which is probably the earliest written record of it post Biblically) Genesis 32:11 זעירן זכותי מכל חסדין ומכל טבון דעבדת עם עבדך ארי יחידי עברית ית ירדנא הדין וכען הויתי לתרתין משרין: Deuteronomy 26:13 ותימר קדם יי אלהך פליתי קודש מעשרא מן ביתא ואף יהבתיה לליואה ולגיורא ליתמא ולארמלתא ככל פקודך דפקידתני לא עברית מפקודך ולא אתנשיתי

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  • Mekubal, what are you tryng to demonstrate from your second paragraph? – YDK Jan 2 '11 at 6:15
  • Mekubal, do you mean to tell us that Onkelos predates Megilas Esther?! – Yahu Jan 2 '11 at 9:15
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    YDK, the Second part of the answer, which is when was the word Ivrit first used for the Hebrew language. Considering that that Onkelos predates the Mishna(in its present written form), the Midrash, or just about any other Rabbinic text, from what I can tell his is the earliest written usage of the word Ivrit/Hebrew. – Rabbi Michael Tzadok Jan 2 '11 at 9:30
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    Mekubal, thanks for your answer. Those uses of עברית in the Targum are interesting finds, but they are not referring to the Hebrew language. In fact, an earlier usage of "Hebrew" is found in the original Torah text at Genesis 41:12, but it refers to Yosef's ethnicity, not his language. Though maybe that is close enough! – Yosef Jan 2 '11 at 12:11
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    Mekubal, if you are just looking for a root that uses the term Ivri, which refers to being of the people from the other side of the Euphrates, you have "vayaged l'Avram haivri" (Lech-Lecha 14:13) as the earliest usage. Having the yud and the tav at the end of the Aramaic usage (Avaris) just conjugates the word to "I crossed over" and has no more of a relationship to Ivrit than the example from Lech-lecha. – YDK Jan 2 '11 at 20:18

If you spoke about עברית in Biblical times, would you mean

  • the language the Torah was written in,
  • the closely-related languages of Ammon and Moav,
  • the dialect used in the Southern Kingdom (Yehuda),
  • the dialect used in the Northern Kingdom (Yisroel), or
  • any combination of the above?
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