Hebrew: !שלום

It’s time to say shalom to Hebrew.  And not a moment too soon! While I can sort of read words now, I think I underestimated everything else.

SUMMARY: Hebrew, a Semitic language, dates back to Biblical times, when it was spoken by the Israelites. However, starting from 70 AD, the language was restricted to liturgical use and was not spoken commonly. It wasn’t until the late 1800s when a scholar named Eliezer Ben Yehuda helped construct Modern Hebrew from its Biblical counterpart. Modern Hebrew is an official language in Israel and spoken by five million of its inhabitants there, along with many in the United States and other regions around the world.

FINAL IMPRESSIONS: I can definitely understand the appeal of Hebrew. It is quite distinct from many languages in the way it sounds and I especially like the “x” (ח) consonant, which seemed to be frequent a lot in words I heard.

The vocabulary itself isn’t too hard to grasp either. Like Arabic, Hebrew words tend to be formed through roots or a set of three consonants. For example, if we look at the root l-m-d (למד), which means “learn” we can find words with this root that relate to that meaning, like lamdan (למדן) which mean “scholar”. This makes reading Hebrew much easier, especially as vowels are not used in everyday writing. Hebrew nouns also have gender (masculine and feminine).

Grammatically, Hebrew is SVO and like English and uses prepositions instead of noun cases. However, verb inflection occurs and it’s quite complicated.

First, the are seven patterns a verb (which is a root) can take called Binayim. I’ll try to explain:

-simple active (pa’al)
-intensive active (pi’el)
-causitive active (hif’il)
-simple passive (nif’al)
-intensive passive (pu’al)
-causitive passive (huf’al)
-reflexive (hitpa’el)

One thing I didn’t understand was whether or not every verb had this form. Anyway, once that form is determined, the verb root can be conjugated into present, past or future tense. But, it must agree with the subject’s masculine and feminine form. One thing to note is that the present tense doesn’t inflect by person (I, you, he/she, we, they) but the past and future tense does. (I’m assuming the present tense can be determined through pronouns or the context f the sentence?)

As an example, the present tense of the root sh-m-r (guard) in the pa’al form:

שׁוֹמֵר – (shomer) masculine singular – guards
שׁוֹמֶרֶת – (shomeret) feminine singular – guards
שׁוֹמְרִים – (shomrim) masculine plural – guards
שׁוֹמְרוֹת – (shomrot) feminine plural – guards

There are still unanswered questions I have, which concern me. I asked my friend Dominik who speaks Polish and Hebrew said he was able to notice some some similarities between Polish and Hebrew words; for example, בלגן (balagan) means disorder in Hebrew, while bałagan, which is Polish, means the same. This indicates a possible Slavic influence. Meanwhile, Dominik also said Hebrew letters like vav (ו), pe (פ) were similar to way Latin letters v and p became u and ph, respectively. In Hebrew, vav can become and “o” sound and pe becomes a “ph” sound.

Surprisingly, Dominik said that Hebrew seemed easier for him to learn despite learning it from a young age. My other friend Elad Ogden Gur-Arie, a native Hebrew speaker, said English was easy for him to learn and considered himself fluent during junior high school. As for Hebrew, he said unequivocally that the hardest part for English speakers would be learning the alphabet and the masculine/feminine nouns.

It seems like the more I read about Hebrew the more mysterious it seems (especially with Biblical Hebrew). I found it harder to find sources about Modern Hebrew, which complicated things. I think I’ll leave the clues for someone else to solve.

Still love Hebrew music though .. that’s definitely not a mystery.


Intelligibility: 3
Complexity: 2
Resonance: 3
Continuation: 2


All Things Hebrew – Why Hebrew is Different
I. L. Peretz Community Jewish School – History of Hebrew
LingvoZone – Hebrew
UCLA Language Materials Project – Hebrew
Wikipedia – Hebrew verb conjugation


2 thoughts on “Hebrew: !שלום

  1. Hey Keith,

    I heard about your project on The World in Words podcast, so I came to check it out. Very cool. Since you’re so interested in languages, I thought you might be interested to discover the long and meandering history of the word בלגן (balagàn), which you mentioned in your post (see link below). You almost got it right, but not quite. Modern Hebrew contains a lot of loan words from foreign languages–Yiddish, Arabic, English, French, etc.–and is a very lively and exciting language. I’m glad you gave it a try.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s