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Hebrew is a Semitic language originally spoken in the regions now known as Israel and Jordan, serving as the primary language of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible). As a member of the Canaanite branch of the West Semitic languages, it is closely related to Phoenician and to Aramaic. Since it passed out of daily use by the 1st century CE, its original pronunciation is lost to the ages, but liturgical use by Judaism has led to several competing pronunciations maintained in the Jewish diaspora. Modern Israeli Hebrew-speakers regard the pronunciation of the Yemeni version as the most refined, and linguists sometimes consider it the variant closest to how the language was spoken in ancient times.

Revived as a living language in the late 19th century, Hebrew is the official language of the state of Israel, where it is the dominant spoken language (although English, Russian and Arabic are commonly used as well). Hebrew also ranks, along with Latin and Greek, as one of the traditional classical languages of Western education. Much like them, it is often considered to have magical properties by virtue of being old and associated with an ancient religious tradition. Practitioners of bullshit sometimes like to use random Hebrew words as incantations in the mistaken belief that they actually do something. An entire form of analysis — known as gematria — devotes itself to adding up random number-letter pairings in the Bible and even the Quran and then somehow divining some deeper, profound meaning from them.

Hebrew is made up of 22 letters alef (א), bet (ב), gimel (ג‎), dalet (ד), he (ה), vav (ו), zayin (ז), chet (ח‎), tet (ט‎), yod (י), kaf (כ), lamed (ל), mem (מ), nun (נ), samech (ס), ayin (ע), pe (פ), tsadik (צ), qof (ק), resh (ר), shin (ש), tav (ת).

Hebraists write Hebrew from right to left (like Arabic), which is good news for lefties but bad news for everyone else.

Lack of vowels[edit]


Hebrew is written with what's called an impure abjad; the writing system mostly does not represent vowels, but with a few exceptions. Before the Masoretes invented the modern system of vowel markings in the 7th-9th centuries CE, written Hebrew had no vowels. The reader must understand what vowels would be present in speech through inference. This is standard practice for Semitic languages, which tend to be abjads or have relatively small vowel inventories. In modern Hebrew the letters Aleph (א) and Ayin (ע) are silent and take the sound of the vowel ascribed to them. Historically, however, they did have sounds in the Biblical era.

This, coupled with its lack of use as a living language between the 1st and 19th centuries CE, is why the original pronunciation of most Hebrew words is lost to us and must be reconstructed by the comparative method, and part of the reason why the Sacred Tetragrammaton (YHWH) is pronounced "Yahweh" (the scholarly reconstruction) by some and "Jehovah" by others (based on a flawed transliteration into Latin).

A series of vowel markings, called Niqqudim, were eventually developed in the middle ages. Niqqudim are more commonly found in prayer books and texts intended for diaspora audiences. However, they are almost never found in Israel and Torah scrolls and most other religious documents are not written with niqqudim either.

History and Semiticity[edit]

Hebrew is a member of the Semitic language family, which includes Arabic, Aramaic, Maltese, Babylonian and Amharic. The semitic family itself is part of the larger Afro-Asiatic family of languages that includes Egyptian and the Berber languages.[1]:26 Hebrew is more specifically a Canaanite language, which includes Phoenician. Canaanite inscriptions are attested from the 17th century[1]:17 but specifically Hebrew inscriptions are only attested beginning in the 10th century.[1]:43 During this time, Hebrew was written in the Paleo-HebrewWikipedia alphabet, which is only distantly related to the modern Hebrew alphabet.

After the exile, Hebrew was gradually replaced by Aramaic and was eventually only used for literary purposes. The old Paleo-Hebrew alphabet was gradually replaced by the much more well-known modern Hebrew alphabet as well.[1]:113 Hebrew was eventually revived in the late 19sup>th and early 20th centuries[1]:269-270

Biblical Hebrew's known vocabulary may have been about 8,000 words tops, which is nowhere near enough for a modern usable language. Modern Hebrew solved that problem by adapting biblical era root words to new uses. Furthermore, Modern Hebrew had to incorporate vocabulary for things that didn't exist in the time of classical Hebrew. In some cases they are direct borrowings from English, other European languages, or even Arabic. Sometimes a word would be formed as a sort of "loan-translation" (technically called a calque) such as iton for "newspaper" which is derived from et (time) the same way Zeitung is from the German Zeit, or "tapuakh adama" (apple of the Earth) for potato, based on French pomme de terre. Of course, other languages have done similar things and given the global importance of English, English loanwords are quite common in many languages these days. Some loanwords aren't even noticed by native speakers any more — about 40% of the English lexicon is ultimately French/Latin derived, for instance, yet nobody questions the Germanic status of English.

Most Afro-Asiatic languages make use of a noun case known as the Construct StateWikipedia; Hebrew speakers refer to this as smikhut (סמיכות‬ supporting or adjacency). Essentially it is when two nouns could be combined to form a third distinct noun. In Classical Hebrew this could be used to demonstrate possession much like the Genitive Case in Indo-European languages. Modern Hebrew rarely uses the Construct State in this fashion. Instead, Modern Hebrew speakers rely on the preposition shel (של) which is similar to de in Spanish. That's not to say that Construct State is totally eliminated, however. Modern Hebrew will use it but it is more typically found in things such as names or when the two combine into one (e.g. the aforementioned "tapuakh adama") or when there's some other type of qualifier. This transition, however, was actually underway in the later Classical period and shel as a preposition is in more recent parts of the Bible.

Nonetheless, the differences have led some observers to erroneously claim that the grammar arose from attempts by European diaspora communities to fit the grammar of their native languages onto Biblical Hebrew, and hence claim that Modern Hebrew is "not a true Semitic language" but rather a relexified Yiddish (a Germanic language). It's a plausible story, especially considering most of the early Jewish immigrants to Palestine were Ashkenazi Jews, but is historically inaccurate.

The phonology, however, is unquestionably based on the Ashkenazi Hebrew reading tradition, which shows obvious Yiddish influence in the emphatic consonants that either reduce to the same sound as their non-emphatic equivalents, or become more familiar Germanic sounds (sʼ > t͡s).[2] Still, some changes appear unrelated; for example, in Biblical Hebrew, the sound t changed to the th sound in thick after a vowel. In the Ashkenazi tradition this became s instead of th (e.g. "shabbos"), but in Modern Hebrew this sound change no longer occurs at all.

Language of babies and Adam and Eve[edit]

Because of its centrality to the Bible, a number of people have ascribed mystical powers to Hebrew. Various people including self-taught linguist Isaac Mozeson have claimed that all the world's languages originated from Hebrew.[3] Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II attempted to raise babies without any human contact to see if they would speak Hebrew, apparently without success. James IV of Scotland tried a similar experiment by marooning children on Inchkeith Island in the Firth of Forth; one contemporary report suggested this produced Hebrew-speaking infants, although other (probably more reliable) sources say the children died.[4][5]

Itamar Ben-Avi, born in 1882, was the first person to grow up with Modern Hebrew as his first language. This is largely due to the fact that his father, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who largely invented modern Hebrew, deliberately isolated him from any other languages growing up and spoke it exclusively at home.[6]

See also[edit]

  • YiddishWikipedia, a Germanic language historically spoken by Ashkenazi Jews
  • Sanskrit, which serves as the sacred language of Hinduism

External links[edit]