The Mother Tongue

What languages might the participants of the Exodus spoken and written? This is really a fantasy question because, to answer it, we have to assume that the Exodus was historical reality. That tens of thousands of Jews, descendants of a family that had migrated from the Levant a few hundred years earlier, lived in Egypt (in slavery) and then left Egypt en masse in the early 1300’s BCE.

But let’s go with it. Assume the Hebrews of the Exodus existed and had their own language(s) plus learned the ones spoken in Egypt. Which languages would they be? Even the obvious choices aren’t so straight-forward. Remember, we’re talking about New Kingdom Egypt. Well before most time periods called “Ancient.”

Nor is there a primary language. The countries that border the Mediterranean Sea, as well as surrounding areas, had substantial trade and movement of people. There would have been multiple languages and nearly everyone would have spoken more than one.

Detailed map of Afroasiatic languages in Africa and the Middle East. Noahedits. 2020.

Afroasiatic Languages

Let’s start with the Afroasiatic languages, a group of 300 languages that includes those from Egypt and the Levant. This includes the Berber, Chadic, and Omotic branches, none of which are from areas near the settings of the novel, though there was likely travel to and from.

Another branch is Cushitic (some include Omotic here). This branch hails from the horn of Africa, which is not nearby but a place that Ancient Egypt would have traded with. I note it only because Cushites are mentioned in Torah. In particular, at one point Moses’ wife is said to be Cushite, though other parts point to her being from what is now northwest Saudi Arabia. Both these things could be true, due to the miracle of migration, but we just don’t know (some commentators explain the discrepancy by suggesting Moses had two wives, but I stick with just the one).

The last two branches are Egyptian and Semitic.


The Egyptian language or Ancient Egyptian is an extinct Afro-Asiatic language that was spoken in ancient Egypt…Egyptian is one of the earliest written languages, first being recorded in the hieroglyphic script in the late 4th millennium BC. It is also the longest-attested human language, with a written record spanning over 4,000 years. Its classical form is known as Middle Egyptian, the vernacular of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt which remained the literary language of Egypt until the Roman period. By the time of classical antiquity the spoken language had evolved into Demotic, and by the Roman era it had diversified into the Coptic dialects. These were eventually supplanted by Arabic after the Muslim conquest of Egypt.

Afroasiatic languages. Wikipedia.
A diagram showing the use of Ancient Egyptian lects by time period and linguistic register. Based in large part on Junge, Friedrich (1983), “Sprachstufen und Sprachgeschichte” in Zeitschrift der Deutschen Morgenländischen Gesellschaft, Supplement VI, pp. 17–34.

So, Egyptians in the mid-New Kingdom would have used Late Middle or Early Late forms of Egyptian. Got it? Good. In these periods they used both hieroglyphics and hieratic (cursive) scripts. The best known hieratic scripts for Egyptian were demotic and coptic, but those came much later than our time period.

Reproduction of the Ebers Papyrus. L0016592 G. Ebers (ed.), Papyros Ebers, 1875 Credit: Wellcome Library, London. The Ebers Papyrus is the hermetic book on the medicines of the ancient Egyptians in hieratic script. It dates to around 1550 BCE.

Middle Egyptian was spoken for about 700 years, beginning around 2000 BC, during the Middle Kingdom and the subsequent Second Intermediate Period. As the classical variant of Egyptian, Middle Egyptian is the best-documented variety of the language, and has attracted the most attention by far from Egyptology. Whilst most Middle Egyptian is seen written on monuments by hieroglyphs, it was also written using a cursive variant, and the related hieratic…

The Middle Egyptian stage is taken to have ended around the 14th century BC, giving rise to Late Egyptian. This transition was taking place in the later period of the Eighteenth Dynasty of Egypt (known as the Amarna Period). Middle Egyptian was retained as a literary standard language, and it experienced a renaissance after the Third Intermediate Period (1070–664 BCE), when it was often used in hieroglyphic and hieratic texts in preference to Late Egyptian. Middle Egyptian as a literary language survived until the Christianisation of Roman Egypt in the 4th century.

Late Egyptian was spoken for about 650 years, beginning around 1350 BC, during the New Kingdom of Egypt. Late Egyptian succeeded but did not fully supplant Middle Egyptian as a literary language, and was also the language of the New Kingdom administration…

Late Egyptian is not completely distinct from Middle Egyptian, as many “classicisms” appear in historical and literary documents of this phase. However, the difference between Middle and Late Egyptian is greater than the difference between Middle and Old Egyptian. Originally a synthetic language, Egyptian by the Late Egyptian phase had become an analytic language. The relationship between Middle Egyptian and Late Egyptian has been described as being similar to that between Latin and Italian…The Late Egyptian stage is taken to have ended around the 8th century BC, giving rise to Demotic.

Egyptian language. Wikipedia.

Semitic Languages

The Semitic languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic languages and include the well-known living languages of Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic.

Distribution of Semitic languages. Rafy. 2011.

Semitic languages occur in written form from a very early historical date in West Asia, with East Semitic Akkadian and Eblaite texts (written in a script adapted from Sumerian cuneiform) appearing from the 30th century BCE and the 25th century BCE in Mesopotamia and the north eastern Levant respectively. The only earlier attested languages are Sumerian and Elamite (2800 BCE to 550 BCE), both language isolates, and Egyptian (3000 BCE), a sister branch of the Afroasiatic family, related to the Semitic languages but not part of them. Amorite appeared in Mesopotamia and the northern Levant circa 2000 BC, followed by the mutually intelligible Canaanite languages (including Hebrew, Phoenician, Moabite, Edomite and Ammonite, and perhaps Ekronite, Amalekite and Sutean), the still spoken Aramaic, and Ugaritic during the 2nd millennium BC.

Semitic languages. Wikipedia.

The Northwest Semitic languages are the ones of greatest interest to us. This includes two important branches: Aramaic and Canaanite.


Aramaic was the common tongue among Jews around the time of classical antiquity so it’s tempting to think it was around during the imagined time of the Exodus, but even its beginnings came well after (more than 300 years after).

Aramaic is thought to have first appeared among the Aramaeans about the late 11th century BCE. By the 8th century BCE it had become accepted by the Assyrians as a second language…in the 7th and 6th centuries BCE it gradually supplanted Akkadian as the lingua franca of the Middle East…Aramaic had replaced Hebrew as the language of the Jews as early as the 6th century BCE. Certain portions of the Bible—i.e., the books of Daniel and Ezra—are written in Aramaic, as are the Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds. Among the Jews, Aramaic was used by the common people, while Hebrew remained the language of religion and government and of the upper class.

Aramaic language, Encyclopaedia Britannica.
The Carpentras Stele was the first ancient inscription ever identified as “Aramaic”. Although it was first published in 1704, it was not identified as Aramaic until 1821, when Ulrich Friedrich Kopp complained that previous scholars had left everything “to the Phoenicians and nothing to the Arameans, as if they could not have written at all”.

Canaanite Languages

Now we’re getting somewhere. Canaanite gave rise to Hebrew as well as other languages which are extinct. Many of these languages are mentioned in Torah: Moabite, Edomite, and Ammonite.

The dialects were all mutually intelligible, being no more differentiated than geographical varieties of Modern English. This family of languages has the distinction of being the first historically attested group of languages to use an alphabet, derived from the Proto-Canaanite alphabet, to record their writings, as opposed to the far earlier Cuneiform logographic/syllabic writing of the region, which originated in Mesopotamia.

These extremely closely related tongues were spoken by the ancient Semitic-speaking peoples of Canaan and Levant, an area encompassing what is today Israel, Jordan, the Sinai Peninsula, Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, and also some areas of southwestern Turkey (Anatolia), western and southern Iraq (Mesopotamia) and the northwestern corner of Saudi Arabia.

The Canaanites are broadly defined to include the Hebrews (including Israelites, Judeans and Samaritans), Amalekites, Ammonites, Amorites, Edomites, Ekronites, Hyksos, Phoenicians (including the Carthaginians), Moabites and Suteans…Hebrew is the only living Canaanite language today.

Canaanite languages. Wikipedia.


When we ask the question of what language did the people of the Exodus speak, the answer so obvious that it seems ridiculous to even ask it is of course Hebrew. But it’s not that easy. Hebrew became a language 400 years after the Exodus.

The earliest examples of written Paleo-Hebrew date back to the 10th century BCE.  Nearly all of the Hebrew Bible is written in Biblical Hebrew, with much of its present form in the dialect that scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BCE, during the time of the Babylonian captivity….The language was not referred to by the name Hebrew in the Bible, but as Yehudit (transl. ‘the language of Judah’) or Səpaṯ Kəna’an (transl. ”the language of Canaan”).  Mishnah Gittin 9:8  refers to the language as Ivrit, meaning Hebrew; however, Mishnah Megillah refers to the language as Ashurit, meaning Assyrian, which is derived from the name of the alphabet used, in contrast to Ivrit, meaning the Paleo-Hebrew alphabet.

Hebrew language. Wikipedia.

So, yes, in the 14th century BCE, Hebrews would have spoken Canaanite, not Hebrew per say. But we know that Canaanite was a collection of dialects that were then mutually intelligible and later split in to different languages, including Hebrew (and that would have been Classical or Biblical Hebrew, not anything very close to modern Hebrew). Even early Hebrew wasn’t called that, it was called “the language of Canaan.” So there couldn’t have been much of a linguistic shift over the transition. Rather, it was likely that people split off from each other and, slowly, the different dialects became more distinct.


Arabic is the most commonly spoken and written language today not only in Egypt and the rest of North Africa but also in many parts of the Levant and in a variety of places all over the world. It developed relatively recently though. Classical Arabic began in the late 6th century CE. Proto-Arabic may have its beginnings as early as the 9th century BCE (still 500 years too late for our purposes) but the earliest form that could be called Arabic wasn’t until the 1st or 2nd century BCE.

Writing Systems

The writing systems evolved from out of Egyptian hieroglyphs into Proto-Sinaitic (mostly dated to between the mid-19th and the mid-16th century BCE and/or proto-Canaanite (around 1550 BCE). Then to Phoenician or Paleo-Hebrew around 1100 BCE. This is a vast oversimplification and involves huge debates I’m not the slightest bit versed in.

The Phoenician alphabet…is an early development of the Proto- or Old Canaanite or Proto-Sinaitic script, into a linear, purely alphabetic script, also marking the transfer from a multi-directional writing system, where a variety of writing directions occurred, to a regulated horizontal, right-to-left script.  Its immediate predecessor, the Proto-Canaanite, Old Canaanite or Proto-Sinaitic script, used in the final stages of the Late Bronze Age, first in either Egypt or Canaan and then in the Syro-Hittite kingdoms, is the oldest fully matured alphabet, and it was derived from Egyptian hieroglyphs.

The Phoenician alphabet was used to write the Early Iron Age Canaanite languages, subcategorized by historians as Phoenician, Hebrew, Moabite, Ammonite and Edomite, as well as Old Aramaic. Its use in Phoenicia (coastal Levant) led to its wide dissemination outside of the Canaanite sphere, spread by Phoenician merchants across the Mediterranean world, where it was adopted and modified by many other cultures. It became one of the most widely used writing systems…it diversified into numerous national alphabets, including the Aramaic and Samaritan, several Anatolian scripts, and the early Greek alphabets. In the Near East, the Aramaic alphabet became especially successful, giving rise to the Jewish square script and Perso-Arabic scripts, among others.

Phoenician alphabet. Wikipedia.
The chart shows the graphical evolution of Phoenician letter forms into other alphabets. Phoenician alphabet. Wikipedia. (open image in a new tab to see a larger version)


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