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Hebrew Language: History, Facts and Learning Tips

Hebrew is one of the world’s most ancient languages. It’s more than 3,000 years old, but it’s enjoying a second lease on life after its revival about 150 years ago.

According to the 22nd edition of Ethnologue, 4,380,000 people speak Hebrew as their first language, while 3,950,000 use it as their second language. Worldwide, Hebrew has 9,303,950 speakers.

Hebrew is one of the Bible’s languages and its revival still interests and fascinates many across the globe.

Considering that Israel, a mostly Hebrew-speaking country is one of the most promising economies on earth, learning Hebrew will take you far if you are interested in translation or interpreting services as a career choice.

Learning a new language improves your memory, gives your brain a boost, helps you communicate with more people and enhances your understanding of other cultures. Knowing Hebrew’s past, its path to revival and understanding Modern Hebrew will provide you with insight into the resilience of an ancient language.

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Hebrew’s Past

The earliest available texts in Hebrew date from the second millennium BCE. The documents show that the Canaan invaders were Hebrew-speaking tribes from Israel. The common belief is that ancient Hebrew was the language of choice until 587 BCE when Jerusalem fell.

Three eras divide Hebrew’s history:

● Classical or Biblical Hebrew – Until the third century BCE

● Rabbinic or Mishnaic Hebrew – Written records date from around 200 AD

● Medieval Hebrew – From the sixth to the thirteenth century AD

● Modern Hebrew – The current language spoken in Israel and learnt by Jews around the world

Hebrew’s oldest form is in some of the poems in the Old Testament, such as the Song of Deborah. Some of the words used during that period came from different Canaanite languages, Sumerian and Akkadian. Aside from the Old Testament, several other texts from this period still exist.

Rabbis of old even believed that Adam and Eve spoke Hebrew. According to Jewish folklore, people on earth were Hebrew speakers before the building of the Tower of Babel.

When Jews were purged from Israel and dispersed in various settlements around the area and other countries, Hebrew as a spoken language started to disappear. Written Hebrew remained for holy texts and Jewish prayers.

The decline of Hebrew as a spoken language went on from the 9th until the 18th century. Although spoken Hebrew remained stagnant, changes occurred in the written version, as liturgical writers added to the vocabulary, with new words and fresh meanings to existing ones. Moreover, at least 2,000 to 3,000 new words, created from old roots, were added to the philosophical, philological and scientific collection of terms.

Hebrew’s Revival

The later part of the 19th century was the start of Hebrew’s revival. It was fully established as a spoken language by 1948.

Many scholars contributed to reviving Hebrew. The most notable one is Hebrew lexicographer, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He was one of those who added new words to the Hebrew dictionary.

Ben-Yehuda was a Jewish nationalist, who believed that the best destiny for the Jewish people was returning to Israel, their homeland and have a revival of Israel’s language. Ben-Yehuda was born in Luzhky, Lithuania and received a religious education. When he was young, he already showed interest in Hebrew literature. Seeing the rise of nationalist movements in parts of Europe, he became more determined than ever to build a nation where Hebrew would be the national language.

At the age of 23, he and his wife went to Palestine and he changed his birth name, Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman, to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He taught his son to speak only in Modern Hebrew. He tried different methods to convince people to speak Hebrew. After several failed attempts, he was able to persuade some educators who shared his vision for the language.

When he arrived in Palestine, he said:

“In order to have our own land and political life, we must have a Hebrew language in which we can conduct the business of life.”

He collected all the material he could find to create the dictionary of Modern Hebrew. He realized that since Jews who came back to Israel were from different countries, the version of Hebrew they spoke was laced with words from other languages.

The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew was a 17-volume set that Ben Yehuda started publishing in 1910. The entire volume was finished a few years after his death, in 1922.

His grandson, who bears the same name as his grandfather, clarified why his grandfather decided to revive spoken Hebrew in an interview in Breaking News Israel:

“He did it because he had a vision of the Jewish people, from all over the world, coming to eretz zion v’yerushalim(the land of Zion and Jerusalem), to the national core of the Jewish people. He believed that the reason for problems within the Jewish world was because we were not a nation.”

The younger Ben Yehuda has written a few books about his grandfather. When he goes to media interviews, he wants to clear his grandfather’s reputation, since not everyone in the Jewish world appreciates what his grandfather did.

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Fast Facts about Hebrew

Just as interesting as the history of the Hebrew language is, several facts about the language will intrigue you. We already know that Hebrew is an ancient language that is now enjoying a revival. It’s a holy language, and one of the languages used in the Holy Bible.

But did you know that the language is an abjad? Hebrew has 22 letters and some of them are vowels. The vowels are not marked in the abjad writing system. The reader must add the most apt vowel to what he or she is reading. It’s intriguing, isn’t it? It’s also challenging.

Other interesting facts are:

● The Academy of the Hebrew Language is the official organization that makes the decision on which new words to add to the dictionary. The Israeli government established it in 1953. It does not mean that all users follow their decisions. For example, while ‘chocolatier’ is shololadai in Hebrew, no one uses the term.

● In Biblical Hebrew, the word for ‘yes’ did not exist. The closest word was ken, that means ‘true’ or ‘so.” In Modern Hebrew, ken is the term for ‘yes’ while lo means ‘no.’

● According to the 2015 census statistics, around 212,747 people in the U.S. speak Hebrew.

● Hebrew nouns have genders, being either masculine, feminine or neutral.

● The verb ‘to be’ does not have an equivalent in Hebrew. So instead of saying, “I am here” you will only say, “I here”.

Tips for Learning Hebrew

Hebrew is a Semitic language, just like Arabic. It does share some similarities with the Arabic language. Likewise, Hebrew script flows from left to right.

Although its alphabet only has 22 letters, the Hebrew language is a challenge for English speakers. However difficult it is, your willingness to learn and your determination will help you through the lessons.

So here are some tips from that will help you along:

1. Expose yourself to actual Hebrew words

Children today are taught to learn the words instead of the alphabet. You can apply this to your Hebrew learning tricks. Learn some simple words, which will help you become familiar with the pronunciation, instead of memorizing the alphabet. Listening to the pattern and sound of the language is more helpful.

2. Listen to music / watch videos

You can do this by listening to Hebrew music and other recorded learning materials. You can also watch shows and movies from Israel with Hebrew subtitles. Another option is to listen to Hebrew broadcast on radio or TV. The sounds will help you with the pronunciation.

3. Read children’s books

For a beginner, it is best to start small. One effective way to start learning Hebrew is to read children’s books. The texts are short and very easy to read.

4. Go online

The Internet provides language learners with vast resources of free and premium Hebrew lessons. You can find some lessons on YouTube in English and Hebrew. Some channels on YouTube provide you with free lessons when you subscribe, or limited lessons that can augment your formal Hebrew lessons. Whichever way you want to learn Hebrew, going online is a good option.

5. Sign up for Hebrew lessons

If you think you will learn faster and better with a coach, sign up for Hebrew lessons right here.

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Let the journey of Hebrew from obscurity to wide use as your inspiration to learn the language. Hebrew may present a challenge to you in the beginning, but remember, nothing in this world comes easy. Good luck.

About the author:

Sean Hopwood, MBA is founder and President of Day Translations, a legal translation agency, dedicated to the improvement of global communications.

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