Hebrew: מה?

Hey Hebrew, how you doin’?

Ok, that was corny. Maybe I should have said, “remember me?” since I did look at the Hebrew alphabet when I was younger (albeit very, very briefly). But what little I could remember has long since disappeared so I’m starting from fresh. Hebrew marks number 32 in the project. Only five left until part two!

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32. Hebrew
33. Danish
34. Filipino
35. Polish
36. Lao
37. Catalan

Hebrew is in the Semetic language family, along with Arabic. It’s spoken by about 5 million people in Israel and in various communities throughout the world, notably the United States.

REGIONAL HISTORY: Hebrew is one of the oldest languages on the blog. Early forms of written Hebrew stretch back to the 11th century BC and was spoken in Israel. The language was used by Israelites until enslavement through Babylonian rule in the 6th century BC. Hebrew was was later replaced with another local language called Aramaic (Jesus spoke this language) until they were freed by Cyrus the Great.

Collectively, the forms of Hebrew spoken from the 10th century BC to the 4th century AD are known as Classical Hebrew. The Hebrew Bible, also called the Tanakh, is written in one of the earlier stages of Classical Hebrew, called Biblical Hebrew. Much of the Talmud, another religious book in Judaism, is written in Mishnaic Hebrew, the last phase in this language’s stage. The widely known square-ish alphabet also appeared in the 1st century.

Hebrew was mostly used liturgically among Jewish people after 70 AD but not as a spoken language. In the middle ages, scholars attempted to analyze and explain Biblical Hebrew; diacritics were also introduced to help people pronounce Biblical Hebrew. Modern Hebrew, however, didn’t appear until the 1800s, thanks to the efforts of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. This reconstructed version eventually gained momentum among the Jewish community and soon became recognized as an official language.

WRITING SYSTEM: Hebrew uses an abjad, which an an alphabet without vowels. It has 22 letters, five of which change when at the end of a word, and is read from right to left. For learning to read Hebrew, I used My Hebrew Dictionary, which has a helpful reference for pronouncing the letters (the final positions of consonants are noted):

א – silent
בּ / ב – b as in boy / v as in very
ג – soft g as in glue
ד – d as in do
ה – h as in house
ו – v as in very
ז – z as in zoo
ח – ch as in Bach
ט – t as in trail
י – y as in yellow
כ and ך (final) / כּ and ךּ (final – very rare) – k as in kite / ch as in Bach
ל – l as in lay
מ / ם (final) – m as in me
נ / ן (final) – n as in new
ס – s as in say
ע – silent
פּ / פ and ף (final) – p as in pay / ph as in phone
צ / ץ (final) – cz as in czar
ק – k as in kite
ר –  a rough “r” sound, but rolled
שׁ / ש – sh as in she / s as in say
תּ / ת – t as in tree

As you may have noticed, some of the consonants have dots, which indicate that the consonant should sound harder. However, Hebrew does have a system of adding vowels called niqqud, which involves adding diacritics in the form of dashes and dotes around the consonants. However, Modern Hebrew is written without these; niqqud is mostly used for beginners and those reading the Hebrew Bible.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS: The alphabet alone is really appealing and I’ve been trying to understand it. While I can read some letters, I still wonder about pronunciation, as vowels are not noted (e.g., Hebrew is עברית or Ivrit, but technically looks like “vryt”. I would rather learn to use it the way everyone else does and not use niqqud, so this could be a problem. But I do love the rhythm of Hebrew and how it sounds.

Predictably, I like music sung in Hebrew. Here’s a song by one of my favorite Israeli singers that might convince you (along with the Spanish subtitles):

My Hebrew Dictionary: Hebrew Pronunciation
Judaism 101: Hebrew Alphabet
Wikipedia (Hebrew alphabet, Hebrew language)

4 thoughts on “Hebrew: מה?

  1. If you’d like to meet for coffee I’ll be happy to help with your pronunciation. And I have some good beginning Hebrew books if you’d like to borrow one or two.

    1. Hi Michelle! I’m sorry I didn’t respond before … and now I’ve already done the review. But perhaps we can still meet for coffee and I could hear your thoughts (or just catch up)?

  2. As someone who’s been studing hebrew on and off since hebrew school, (eons ago), I can tell you that it’s next to impossible without spending serious time in Israel. In your update post, you might comment a bit on the root-based verb system (much easier than English, really) and on cursive writing, which can be very stylized. B’hatzl’cha.

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