ALMOST all those writers who have treated on the Hebrew language, would fain persuade us, that it is the first that men have spoken: but—what is more impertinent in them—they have the assurance to inform us that it is the language of God himself; nor is this opinion by any means novel, since Saint Gregory of Nyssa has, even in his life-time, reprobated the idea, and calls it a folly, and a ridiculous vanity of the Jews: as if God himself, he says, had been a master of Grammar. La Motte le Vayer writes in his Letters, that the most partial partizans which ever the Hebrew has had, must confess, that excepting the inferior languages, such as the Bask and the Breton, &c. there is not among the living or the dead languages, any which do not present us with more valuable compositions than the Hebrew does, if we except the Old Testament. He adds, that if we can well do without making use of a barbarous jargon, that never repays us for the laceration it occasions to our throats in pronouncing its guttural letters.
The Hebrew Grammars which the Christians have composed, are infinitely more perfect than those of the Jews. Their knowledge in the writings of their Rabbins is not inferior; and to this they have added a clear and regular method, which is very necessary in a language whose idioms and modes of expression the great distance of time has so obscured, that it is almost impossible to attain to any perfect knowledge, or to decide with any degree of certainty concerning it.
Buxtorf, the father, has surpassed all those who have devoted their studies to this language; and later writers have done little more than copying or abridging his book. It is intitled—“J. Buxtorfii Thesaurus Grammaticus linguæ Sanctæ Hebræ duobus libris methodice propositus, &c.”
We may add, that the Hebrew has no other difference between the Syriac and the Chaldee, if we except the characters, than that which exists between the Latin and the Italian.
Scaliger observes, that the beginnings of the Hebrew do not threaten us with much trouble; but, as we proceed, we find inexpressible difficulties; which, he says, is the contrary with the Greek language. Gebelin, in his monde primitif, is of opinion with other learned men, that the Hebrew is not the primitive language. His reasons for this opinion, are numerous and just. I refer the curious philologer to that work, which abounds with valuable information.
The ingenious Mr. Rigoley de Juvigny writes thus, in his commentary on Les Bibliotheques francoises of De la Croix de la Maine, and Du Verdier—“No language of the ancient nations subsists: they are all buried in the night of Time. The Jews themselves, after their long captivity at Babylon, forgot their own language, and learnt the Chaldaic; the genius of which was nearly the same with that of the Hebrew. Since that time, the holy writings are found amongst the Jews in Chaldaic letters. They then formed a Greek mixed with Hebraisms, which is called, the Hellenistic language: the version of the Seventy is in this language. The Samaritans only preserved the Pentateuch in the ancient Hebrew characters. As to what relates to us, the holy writings have been transmitted to us in Greek, or in Latin: the only languages the Church adopted.”
§ The following, included as an addendum to this article in the 1793 Curiosities, was incorporated into the body of the piece in the 4th edition of 1798:
It was the absurd opinion of one Father Thomassin, who was a genuine bigot, that, as every thing originates from Adam, so every language proceeds from the Hebrew. Thus the Chinese, Persian, French, and English, and generally all other languages, come from the Hebrew, as clearly as the light comes from the sun!
We must not be surprized, if the Hebrew literature is only worth the attention of those who are fond of Biblical criticism. It was a maxim with the Israelites, as well as it is one with the Mahometans, that their Bible was the only book they should read. Like Peter’s loaf, or their own manna, it contained the taste of every thing they wished. The modern Jews preserve, with admirable rigour, this maxim of their ancestors; and they read no other book except their Bible, and their Manuscripts; I mean, their Ledgers.