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Learn To Read Hebrew

Hebrew is a fascinating language to get to know, despite the fact that learning to read it can be daunting at first


Hebrew is a fascinating language to get to know, despite the fact that learning to read it can be daunting at first. One of the biggest barriers to learning a new language is mastering its alphabet. Whereas someone who speaks English can find their way around reading Spanish, French, German, Italian- any language that uses the Latin letters, really- Hebrew presents a number of key challenges. Let's take a look at some of the features that make Hebrew such a unique language to read (and speak!):


1. The Hebrew Letter Shapes - What To Know?


The "Hebrew letters" we currently use are probably better described as "Aramaic letters"- the original Hebrew alphabet is not in use today, although you can find it in inscriptions and on key archeological findings in museums around the world. The official name for this Ancient Hebrew alphabet is the Paleo-Hebrew Script, and it is only used today by the Samaritans. It much more closely resembles its ancestor, Proto-Canaanite, than anything the average Hebrew speaker would currently recognize as "Hebrew". In contrast, the Aramaic letter system was only first used to write Hebrew around the year 300 B.C.E., and it's the one we still use for reading and writing Hebrew today. This alphabet is characterized by square letter shapes, as opposed to the rounder letters of Latin or the flowing, conjoined script of Arabic. Properly speaking, there are 22 letters in the modern Hebrew alphabet, and they all represent consonants (no vowels in the Hebrew alphabet! More about this in a minute). These letters' names are ALEPH, BET (sometimes pronounced VET), GIMMEL, DALET, HEH, VAV, ZAYIN, KHET, TET, YOD, KAF (or KHAF), LAMMED, MEM, NUN, SAMMEKH, AYIN, PEH (or FEH), TZADI, QUF, RESH, SHIN, and TAV.


In addition to the 22 basic letter shapes, there are five letters that have "final letters"- the letters KAF, MEM, NUN, PEH & TZADI are written differently when they appear at the end of words. So altogether, you need to familiarize yourself with 27 letter shapes- that's one more than the English alphabet, sure, but hey- at least it's not Russian (33 letters!)

2. What Is The Hebrew Language Direction?

Hebrew, like other Semitic languages, is written and read from right to left. Why is that? In ancient times, before words were written in ink on paper, they were engraved into tough substances like metal or stone. The act of engraving takes more hand-and-arm strength than writing, and so languages that started out engraved favored a writing direction that enabled better leverage for the strong arm- the right arm, in most people. This is why older languages are written and read from right to left and why newer languages- like the Germanic and Latin ones, written in pigment on top of surfaces rather than in them- go from left to right, so that the writing hand (the right one in most people, again) doesn't smudge the words as it goes along. While this can take some getting used to, the plus side is that if you're left-handed, Hebrew is friendlier to write in than other Western languages- less smudging all around! 

3. The (Lack of) Vowels in Hebrew

One of the biggest barriers for new readers of Hebrew is that there are no vowels in the alphabet, as mentioned above. What does this mean? Like a number of other languages that originated in the Ancient Middle East, Hebrew is an "abjad language". This means that the 22 letters of the alphabet all represent different consonant sounds. Hebrew is spoken using five vowel sounds that are actually very similar to the way the vowel sounds in Spanish are pronounced- AH like in "SaRAH", EH like the E in "Everything", EE like in "tEEth", OH like the O in "Overground", and OO like the vowel sound in "sUIt". However, unlike Spanish and other languages that use the Latin alphabet, we have no way of marking the vowel sounds with actual letters, the way Latin alphabet languages have the A, E, I, O, and U letters.


Over the years, different systems of marking the vowel sounds have developed, with the most popular one known as "Niqqud Tveriani". This is a series of dots and dashes that are written around the letters to represent the vowels. However, most native Hebrew speakers don't use the Niqqud system in everyday reading and writing, except when first learning to read as kids in elementary school. Why? Because there's actually no use for it once you are already familiar with a word- when you read words in any language, the letters are there only in order to function as graphic representations of a concept (the "word"); if you learn to recognize the word itself, you don't actually need the vowels to tell you how to sound it out. This is actually the same everywhere when you think about it- in English, when reading words, you do not actually sound them out in your head as you go along (right?). If that was how reading worked, you would always mispronounce common words such as "night", "read", or "drought", for example. As you advance in Hebrew, you'll see that very quickly you learn to recognize words that you are already familiar with by the letters alone, without any needing any "external" vowels; and once you recognize the word, you will already know how to pronounce it, and there will be no need for any outside vowel "help". In fact, the only time native Hebrew readers make use of the vowel system is when they are reading a new word for the first time. We use the same system in our book! So rather than be intimidated by the written language's lack of vowels, remember that it's actually not that different from how your mind processes written words in any language. Feel free to learn the Niqqud system at first, but then feel just as comfortable discarding it once you become familiar with a word's correct pronunciation.

4. The ALEPH, HEH, VAV & YOD Letters


Along with the above rules about Niqqud ("outside vowel markings", also known as "diacritics"), there are four letters that have evolved over the years to aid Hebrew readers in the pronunciation of written words. These are the letters ALEPH, HEH, VAV, and YOD. These letters, aside from acting as their original consonant sound markers, have an additional job in contemporary Hebrew- they can point to the existence of a particular vowel sound. The letters ALEPH and HEH can correspond mostly to the vowel sounds AH or EH, the letter VAV can correspond mostly to the vowel sounds OH and OO, and the letter YOD can correspond mostly to the vowel sound EE. This can be helpful when you're moving into reading without the Niqqud system- when modern Hebrew words are written without Niqqud, they're written with lots of ALEPH, HEH, VAV, and YOD letters "filling in" for the Niqqud system's dots and dashes, to help point the way for readers and remind them that there are vowel sounds where they appear.

5. The Preposition Letters


Prepositions are words that define relations between parts of a sentence. In English, these are words like "in", "at", "from", "to", etc. Hebrew has these words as well, but many of them are not written as their own separate words. Instead, they are written as single letters that are attached to the beginnings of words. There are seven such letters that, when they come at the beginning of a word, can signify a preposition- the letter MEM, the letter SHIN, the letter HEH, the letter VAV, the letter KAF, the letter LAMMED, and the letter BET. These letters represent the words corresponding to the English words "from", "that", "the", "and", "as", "to" and "in", respectively. If you see any of these letters at the start of a word, know that there's a chance that you're actually reading two "words"- a noun or adjective preceded by a preposition.

6. Prefixes and Suffixes in Hebrew


The Hebrew language loves prefixes and suffixes! In addition to the seven preposition letters mentioned above, there are letters that come at the beginnings and ends of words that can tell us a lot about tenses, speakers, amounts, and much more. Some of the most common ones include using the letters ALEPH, YOD, TAV, and NUN at the beginning of a verb to signify that it's in the future tense; the letters YOD, VAV, NUN, HEH and MEM at the end of a verb to signify that it's a verb in the past tense; and the letters YOD, KAF, VAV and HEH and the letter couplings of NUN + VAV, KAF + MEM, KAF + NUN, HEH + MEM, and HEH + NUN to indicate an object's possession. Once you get familiar with the various roles these letters can play when they appear at the beginnings and ends of words, it becomes a whole lot easier to work your way around any type of text in Hebrew- even Biblical Hebrew works this way!


7. Hebrew Abbreviations

Hebrew also loves a good abbreviation. In Hebrew, this tends to take the form of an initialism- you will often see a series of random-looking letters jumbled together with the second-to-last letter separated from the last letter by what looks like a single double-quotation mark ("). This is actually a grouping of the initial letters from a series of words that often go together to make up a common phrase or a name. This is similar to examples in English like "F.B.I." ("Federal Bureau of Investigation") or NATO ("North Atlantic Treaty Organization"); however, it is much more commonly used in Hebrew, and not only with names- whole phrases and idioms are often condensed into well-known abbreviations, even for the most mundane subjects, like "afternoon" (often given as the letters ALEPH + KHET + HEH + "+ TZADI, for "ACHAR HA'TZAHARAYIM" [אחה״צ - ״אחר הצהריים״]), or "homework" (SHIN + "+ BET, for SHIUREY BAYIT [ש״ב - ״שיעורי בית״]). To spot an abbreviation, look out for the telltale single double-quotation mark, which, no matter how long the abbreviation is, will always come before the final letter in the series.

8. Masculine and Feminine Nouns In Hebrew

Hebrew is a completely gendered language, which means that all nouns are either masculine or feminine. Whether a given noun will be masculine or feminine depends on a lot of factors; it's probably more useful to just remember that, in general, feminine singular nouns will end with either the letter HEH or the letter TAV, and all nouns ending in other letters will be masculine. In keeping with the above rule, masculine nouns become plural when you add the letter couple YOD + MEM to the end of the noun, and feminine nouns become plural when you add the letter couple VAV + TAV to the end of the noun.                  


Also, all cities and countries are feminine (except for the Vatican, which, for whatever reason, is rendered masculine. Go figure…)

9. Letters As Numbers

The modern numeral system used by most of the world today was only made popular in the West in the 13th century C.E. What did people use to denote numbers before that? Different writing systems had different solutions- and Hebrew, of course, used Hebrew letters to represent numbers. The first ten letters (ALEPH-YOD) represented the numerals 1-10, and then the letters KAF-TZADI represent the 10s (20-90), with the last letters of QUF-TAV representing the numbers 100, 200, 300, and 400. Even though most modern Hebrew writing utilizes the modern, Western numeral system, it is still pretty common to find the Hebrew letter numeral system in use, especially in texts that have an official and/or religious connotation. A common example is their use in marking days on any calendars that use the Hebrew months. When a Hebrew letter is used as a stand-in for a number, it will typically come with a single or double apostrophe attached to it.

10. LOAZI ("Foreign") Words

The final point to keep in mind when learning to read Hebrew is to remember the abundance of words in modern Hebrew that come from other languages. Words like "telephone", "internet", and "pajamas" have only entered the Hebrew language very recently and don't have any endemic Hebrew words that are commonly used to represent them. Hebrew words are typically quite short- if you come across a very long word in your Hebrew reading that stumps you and you're not quite sure what it means, check to see if maybe what you're reading is a Hebrew approximation of a well-known English word (or it might be from French, German, Russian, or Arabic, too!)

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