By Thomas Keyes
Arabic and Hebrew are classified as Semitic languages, the only living representatives of that subdivision of the Afro-Asiatic languages. Because of a number of striking similarities, some 19th and 20th century scholars tried to establish a connection between the Semitic and the Indo-European families, this latter group including English, Russian, Latin, Greek and dozens of others, but nowadays that hypothesis is not widely accepted.
Anyone who has studied Arabic and Hebrew understands that they are indeed related, though perhaps more distantly than, say, Spanish and Italian. If they are but the two branches of a single tree, it would follow that they are of equal age, each tracing its roots to some prehistoric prototype that thrived centuries as a single language in hoary antiquity.
Of course, everyone knows that Hebrew preceded Arabic as a written language by hundreds of years, which of course leads to the presumption that Hebrew is the older tongue.
However, if you compare Arabic and Hebrew vocabulary and grammar, you come to feel that Arabic might be said to be the older language. By this I mean that Arabic has many apparently conservative features that suggest that it more nearly resembles the common prototype.
To demonstrate my meaning, let me compare English and German. German displays a much more elaborate declension of nouns and conjugation of verbs than English. One would assume that, at some time in the remote past, English had this kind of grammatical software too. Checking in an Anglo-Saxon grammar, he or she could confirm that assumption. English did have all those complicated endings too, which atrophied with time.
Taking this analogy to the Semitic languages, we behold the selfsame phenomenon. Hebrew has no declension at all, though it has a fairly complex conjugation. Arabic has a threefold declension and an even more complex conjugation. It seems reasonable to assume that Hebrew once had a much more formidable set of flexions than it has today, probably more nearly resembling those of Arabic, which thus is closer to the common ancestor.
A second thing to consider is grammatical number. English has singular and plural only. Arabic has singular, dual and plural, the plural denoting three or more. Thus we have: safina– one ship; safinatein–two ships; sufun–three or more ships. This is completely general in Arabic, applying to all nouns. Hebrew has a dual too, but it is limited to select nouns for things that come in pairs: misparayim–pair of scissors; yadayim–two hands; yomayim–two days. One would surmise that, at one time, Hebrew also had a full- fledged dual, which withered over the centuries, while the Arabic dual remained intact, closer to the prototype.
Both Arabic and Hebrew have two letters ‘K’, two letters ‘S’ and two letters ‘T’. In Arabic the members of each pair have different pronunciations, whereas in Hebrew the members of each pair are indistinguishable. This more credibly suggests that Hebrew has allowed the pronunciations to fall together than that Arabic has begun to differentiate originally identical pairs, again making Arabic the more conservative language.
Hebrew has two plural suffixes, ‘-im’ and ‘-ot’, where Arabic has ‘-un’ and ‘-at’, similar enough, but Arabic uses them only with participles, whereas Hebrew uses them throughout. For most Arabic nouns, the broken plural applies. The broken plural keeps the consonants in a word in the original order while altering and shifting the vowels: jazira–island; juzur–islands; maktaba–library; makatib–libraries. The broken plural, which is no fun to be sure, does not exist in Hebrew. This too perhaps points to Arabic seniority.
Hebrew is much more disposed to borrow words from other languages. Arabs tend to prefer to use native resources. This in itself doen’t prove that Arabic vocabulary is essentially more conservative, but it surely gives Arabic a purer look.
One countervailing argument is that Hebrew has more vowels than Arabic, definitely a hallmark of a more conservative variation. But the preponderance of the evidence goes the other way.
One would think that a language that went unwritten for many centuries would change more rapidly than one that had been committed to paper, but all the abovementioned features of the Hebrew language were already in existence with the earliest writings, so the atrophy occurred when Hebrew too was as unwritten language. Just why Arabic did not change as much in its preliterate days I can’t imagine, but, all in all, I’d say Arabic is ‘older’ than Hebrew.