Hebrew for beginners
Starting to learn Hebrew? Congratulations! You're embarking on a beautiful journey into one of the world's most ancient and unique languages that carries a fascinating history. But learning a language should be about more than just the rules and translating nouns and conjugating verbs- that wouldn't be fun, would it? To keep you engaged, here are some random-but-amazing factoids that you may not have known about Hebrew when you decided to study it, but that might help you appreciate it a little more going forward. Something to keep in mind when losing sleep over those irregular verb conjugations. (Just kidding. Kind of.).
Hebrew is really ancient.
Like, REALLY ANCIENT. One of the first recorded uses of written Hebrew is in an agricultural calendar. Known as the Gezer calendar, it is written in "paleo-Hebrew"- or Phoenician- script. The calendar is dated to the 10th century BCE, which makes it over 3,000 years old.
Hebrew is written from right to left.
You probably already knew this. However, what you may not have know is the reason. Hebrew, being very ancient, was originally engraved or etched. Actual writing with ink came later. Engraving takes much more strength than writing, so the theory is that Hebrew was written from right to left because it allowed the engraver to leverage their dominant arm- usually the right- to work effectively.
In contrast, English, a later language, was written from the start. It developed from left to right so that the writer- now using their dominant arm to write rather than to etch- could write without smudging the ink as they went along. So if you happen to be left-handed- you're at an advantage when writing in Hebrew nowadays. Can't help you with English, though. Sorry.
The Hebrew alphabet is an abjad.
This is a fancy way of saying that the Hebrew alphabet is made up of JUST CONSONANTS. The spoken sounds of a language are generally divided into vowels (the "pure" sounds that are unrestricted by the vocal tract) and consonants. In English, the vowel sounds are represented by letters- A, E, I, O & U- as part of the alphabet, right alongside the consonants.
This is why, when you read the word "M-O-M", for example, you immediately know how to pronounce the word- you know that it rhymes with "Tom" and not with "groom" or "dream". Even if you're reading the word for the very first time, the letter O that's part of the word tells you what vowel sound goes there. In Hebrew, however, there are NO vowel letters. The word "mom" would just be written "MM", and if you were reading it for the first time, you wouldn't know if it was pronounced "MoM" or "MooM" or "MeeM" or "MeM", etc.
So how do Hebrew readers know how to pronounce a word's vowels...? When learning how to read, Hebrew students use a diacritic system of dots and dashes, collectively known as "niqqud", that helps guide vowel pronunciation. However, this is dispensed with pretty quickly, and most Hebrew readers just end up recognizing what written words mean- and their pronunciation- by context. It becomes second nature after a very short time.
Hebrew has consonant sounds that are... interesting.
Speaking of vowels and consonants, Hebrew has some consonants that can be a bit tricky for English speakers to master. Two of the most interesting ones are .)ח( and KHET )ר( those represented by the letters RESH.
The letter RESH corresponds to the letter "R" in English, but the pronunciation of the consonant is much closer to how you might sound it in French ("terroir ”) or German ("pretzel"). To get a feel for it, try saying the word "are" repeatedly while moving the top of your tongue back towards your throat; eventually, you will hear some "friction" start to happen in the sound- that's the RESH sound. Another way to try it is to repeat the word "go" while moving the tongue back towards the throat and softening the "g" sound until it becomes a RESH.
The letter KHET can be thought of as a combination between a really hard "h" sound and a really soft "k" sound. It can be awkward to do at first, so you might want to try it on your own- grab a glass of water, stand over a sink, and gargle while using your voice. As you're gargling, place your hand at the base of your neck and feel where the sound is coming from. Now try gargling water without using your voice, while still feeling for the sensation of movement at the base of your neck. Finally, try to recreate the same sense of movement without using any water at all- that is the KHET sound.
Don't worry- this gets easier with practice...
Hebrew letters are words.
Really! The letter AYIN (ע), for example, means "eye" and the letter PEH (פ) means "mouth"; but what really makes Hebrew special is that some letters function as prepositions. Prepositions are the "little" words in the sentence like "as", "in", "of" etc., that mark the relationship between nouns and verbs. In Hebrew, many of these prepositions are written as single letters, and because there are no single- letter words in Hebrew, these are always attached to the word that comes after them.
For instance, we add the second letter of the alphabet, the letter BET (ב), to any word to make it mean "in". BAYIT means "house", BA'BAYIT means "in the house"; KHEDER means "room", "BA'KHEDER" means "in the room". Other "prepositional particle" letters are the letters MEM (מ), SHIN (ש), HEH (ה), VAV (ו), KAF (כ), and LAMMED (ל). Hebrew words, at their core, are actually pretty short- especially when compared with English words. If you see one of these letters at the beginning of a word, there's a good chance that instead of a really long Hebrew word, you're actually looking at 2 separate words [core word + preposition particle].
Hebrew is a regulated language.
Yes, you read that correctly – there is an official governing body of the Hebrew language, known as the Academy of the Hebrew Language ( A'AKADEMIYA LA'LASHON HA'IVRITהאקדמיה ללשון העברית), which researches and regulates the use of modern Hebrew. It was established in 1953 by the Israeli government to serve as the "supreme institution for scholarship of the Hebrew language". It is currently situated in the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and in addition to researching biblical, medieval, and modern Hebrew, one of its main tasks is to come up with as many as 2000 new words in Hebrew each year. These words are assigned to objects and concepts that wouldn't have existed in Hebrew in ancient times.
No words like telephone (שח-רחוק, "Sach-Rahchok"), "or "internet (מרשתת, "Mirshetet") in the Bible, right? However, most of these words don't find their way into the regular everyday language used by native Hebrew speakers, who tend to just use the original English words. So breathe easy- "telephone" is "TELEFON" and "internet" is "INTERNET". This is very helpful- if you forget one of your Hebrew nouns, you can always try saying the word in English using an Israeli accent and see what happens...
Hebrew is the only successfully resurrected language in the history of the world, ever.
Although we know ancient Hebrew primarily as the language in which the Bible was written, it was actually a spoken language that was common in the Near East in ancient times. However, following the destruction of the Second Temple and the exile of the Jewish population of Judea, it fell out of daily use. For 2000 years, it was only used by the Jews in the diaspora for religious study and prayer. Jewish communities in the diaspora either spoke the language of the people around them or developed unique languages like Yiddish (Judeo- Germanic) or Ladino (Judeo-Spanish). Hebrew was given the status of "Holy Language"- "Lashon Ha'Kodesh"- and using it in daily life was considered disrespectful.
All of this changed in the 19th century when, influenced by the Jewish Enlightenment movement ("Tnu'at Ha'Haskalah") and the awakening of Jewish national revival ideologies ("Shivat Zion"), the Russian- Jewish linguist Eliezer Ben Yehuda moved to Jerusalem. While living there, he became convinced that resurrecting Hebrew as a living, spoken language for use in everyday life would be the best way to enable communication between Jews from all over the world. Reviving Hebrew as a spoken modern language became his life's work- he created the first modern Hebrew dictionary, and he even raised his son, Ben-Zion, entirely in Hebrew. This made Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda the first child to have Hebrew as their first language in almost 2000 years! Thanks to Ben Yehuda's efforts, Hebrew went from being basically a dead language to one spoken by almost 10 million people worldwide within the span of a century- and it remains the only successfully resurrected language in history. How cool is THAT?
There are many more amazing, wonderful, and exciting things to learn about Hebrew. We encourage you to take your time and enjoy learning about the language, as well as learning to use it. And remember to keep at it, and to keep having fun with it! Even if you have to conjugate irregular verbs. Remember, it could be worse. You could be trying to learn French! (Just kidding. Kind of.)