Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


If I time traveled to Israel in the times of King David, how much of my Hebrew would people understand?


Interesting question. The good news is that the Hebrew of King David’s time is actually closer to modern Hebrew than that of the Second Temple period (with its considerable Aramaic influences).  This is partly due to the deliberate efforts of the Zionist leadership to hark back to the nation’s heroic past, and partly because, in the revival of Hebrew in the modern era, the narratives of the Hebrew Bible provided far more source material than the Second Temple period, when the Talmudic Sages (who were virtually the only ones putting things down in writing) tended to slip into Aramaic all the time.

As a result, the glimpses of dialogue that we see in David’s time sound remarkably contemporary.  Two examples, out of many:

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What langauge was spoken by the Judeans during the Hashmonean period? Was it Hebrew or Arameac?

(My answer to this question at

The experts are divided on this question: some think that Judeans carried on speaking Aramaic after their return from Babylon, and used Hebrew only in prayer and Scripture writing and Talmudic debates; others think that they reverted to speaking Hebrew on return from Babylon (or had even maintained it while in Babylonian exile), and spoke Aramaic as a second language, since it was the lingua franca of the entire Middle East.

My sense, based on what I know about the Hebrew script and the dynamics of language and patriotism elsewhere and in other periods of history, is that it was largely a social thing.

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How would paleo-Hebrew spell “Joshua”?

It would be spelled iod-heh-shin-ayin—which, in Paleo Hebrew (or the script of any Canaanite language of that period) would look somewhat like this:

(in those days, the custom was not to use the letter vav as a quasi /o/ or /u/ vowel)

In Square Hebrew (i.e., the script adapted from the Aramaic in the Second Temple period and still in use today), those same letters look quite different, of course:

י ה ש ע


(My answer to this question at