Hebrew (/; עִבְרִית, Ivrit Hebrew pronunciation: [ivˈʁit] or [ʕivˈɾit] (listen)) is a Northwest Semitic language native to Israel; the modern version of which is spoken by over 9 million people worldwide. Historically, it is regarded as the language of the Israelites and their ancestors, although the language was not referred to by the name Hebrew in the Tanakh.[note 1] The earliest examples of written Paleo-Hebrew date from the 10th century BCE. Hebrew belongs to the West Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Hebrew is the only living Canaanite language left, and the only truly successful example of a revived dead language.
Hebrew had ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between 200 and 400 CE, declining since the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt.[note 2] Aramaic and to a lesser extent Greek were already in use as international languages, especially among elites and immigrants. Hebrew survived into the medieval period as the language of Jewish liturgy, rabbinic literature, intra-Jewish commerce, and poetry. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language. It became the lingua franca of Palestine's Jews, and subsequently of the State of Israel. According to Ethnologue, in 1998, it was the language of 5 million people worldwide. After Israel, the United States has the second largest Hebrew-speaking population, with 220,000 fluent speakers, mostly from Israel.
Modern Hebrew is the official language of the State of Israel, while premodern Hebrew is used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world today. The Samaritan dialect is also the liturgical tongue of the Samaritans, while modern Hebrew or Arabic is their vernacular. As a foreign language, it is studied mostly by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, and by archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, as well as by theologians in Christian seminaries.
The Torah (the first five books), and most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, is written in Biblical Hebrew, with much of its present form specifically in the dialect that scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BCE, around the time of the Babylonian captivity. For this reason, Hebrew has been referred to by Jews as Lashon Hakodesh (לשון הקודש), "the Holy Language", since ancient times.
The modern English word "Hebrew" is derived from Old French Ebrau, via Latin from the Greek Ἑβραῖος (Hebraîos) and Aramaic 'ibrāy, all ultimately derived from Biblical Hebrew Ibri (עברי), one of several names for the Israelite (Jewish and Samaritan) people (Hebrews). It is traditionally understood to be an adjective based on the name of Abraham's ancestor, Genesis 10:21. The name is believed to be based on the Semitic root ʕ-b-r (עבר) meaning "beyond", "other side", "across"; interpretations of the term "Hebrew" generally render its meaning as roughly "from the other side [of the river/desert]"—i.e., an exonym for the inhabitants of the land of Israel/Judah, perhaps from the perspective of Mesopotamia, Phoenicia, or the Transjordan (with the river referenced perhaps the Euphrates, Jordan, or Litani; or maybe the northern Arabian Desert between Babylonia and Canaan). Compare cognate Assyrian ebru, of identical meaning.
One of the earliest references to the language's name as "Hebrew" is found in the prologue to the Book of Ben Sira,[a] from the 2nd century BCE. The Hebrew Bible does not use the term "Hebrew" in reference to the language of the Hebrew people.