Q&A: If I time traveled to Israel in the times of King David, how much of my Hebrew would people understand?


Interesting question. The good news is that the Hebrew of King David’s time is actually closer to modern Hebrew than that of the Second Temple period (with its considerable Aramaic influences).  This is partly due to the deliberate efforts of the Zionist leadership to hark back to the nation’s heroic past, and partly because, in the revival of Hebrew in the modern era, the narratives of the Hebrew Bible provided far more source material than the Second Temple period, when the Talmudic Sages (who were virtually the only ones putting things down in writing) tended to slip into Aramaic all the time.

As a result, the glimpses of dialogue that we see in David’s time sound remarkably contemporary.  Two examples, out of many:

1. When the young David was on the run from King Saul and took refuge in the Philistine town of Gat, he realised that he was recognised and might be turned over to Saul, so he started foaming at the mouth and acting like a lunatic. When Achish, King of Gat (who admittedly was a Philistine, but his words are translated into the Hebrew of the time for the biblical story) saw this, he exclaimed to his underlings (I Sam. 21:15–16):

ה תִרְאוּ אִישׁ מִשְׁתַּגֵּעַ, לָמָּה תָּבִיאוּ אֹתוֹ אֵלָי. טז חֲסַר מְשֻׁגָּעִים, אָנִי, כִּי-הֲבֵאתֶם אֶת-זֶה, לְהִשְׁתַּגֵּעַ עָלָי

which, to a modern Israeli ear (regardless of the translation you might read in the King James or other translations) reads like: 

Look at him—he’s off his rocker! Why [the heck] have you brought him to me? Am I lacking in nutters that you bring this guy to go loco on me?

2. A few years later, when David is king and prancing with glee in front of the Ark of the Covenant as it was ceremoniously transferred to its specially prepared abode in the City of David (Jerusalem), his wife Michal (daughter of King Saul, and a right princess), thought that this was unbecoming behaviour for a king, and confronted him with a question with what she thought was crushing sarcasm (II Sam. 6:20):

?מַה-נִּכְבַּד הַיּוֹם מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל אֲשֶׁר נִגְלָה הַיּוֹם לְעֵינֵי אַמְהוֹת עֲבָדָיו, כְּהִגָּלוֹת נִגְלוֹת אַחַד הָרֵקִים.

which might have been said today by an educated sarcastic, Israeli wife today, meaning:

How dignified today is the King of Israel, making a spectacle of himself in front of the mothers of his servants, for all the world like one of the gibbering vagrants?

Such dialogue brings the text alive for the modern Israeli, and illustrates how—in terms of vocabulary, at least—an educated, well-spoken Israeli today could easily be understood in David’s time. That said, he or she would have to restrict themselves to native Hebrew words—i.e. without the ones borrowed from European, Aramaic or even Arabic—and generally use a literary register of the sort used in modern Hebrew poetry (including contracted possessives, instead of sheli, shelkha, which are of later vintage).

Finally, there is the issue of pronunciation. Extrapolating from other surviving Semitic languages, such as Arabic and Syriac, the common thinking among linguists today is—

  1. that the /r/ sound in ancient Hebrew was pronounced with an alveolar trill (“front of the mouth”), rather than in the throat, as in modern Hebrew (and French)
  2. that unstressed tavs were pronounced like the English /th/
  3. that the letters ḥet, tet, ayin and quf were pronounced distinctly, as in Arabic.

While the former two points are likely, I am not at all convinced about point #3 (this is just a personal opinion, mind you). If the only surviving European language today were, say, Italian, it would be wrong to extrapolate that French or English should be pronounced like it—and the same is true for Hebrew vis-à-vis Arabic. Because of its position at the nexus of three continents, Canaan was awash with all sorts of non-Semitic folk—including Indo-Europeans such as Hittites (from the region of modern Turkey) and Philistines (a Grecian people from somewhere in Aegean). We know that, in the second millennium BCE, this brought about what is known today as the Canaanite Shift, whereby the vowels /e/ and /o/ were introduced into Canaanite (which we now know as Hebrew)—in contrast to other Semitic languages, which typically had only three (/a/, /i/, /u/). If the vowel set changed, it is entirely possible that the pronunciation of Hebrew did, as well, with the traditional pharyngeal (guttural) of pronunciation of Semitic languages further east or to the south diminished or muted entirely, as it is today.

P.S. If you go, please let me know: I’d love to tag along…


(Originally written in reply to a question at Quora.com).

6 thoughts on “Q&A: If I time traveled to Israel in the times of King David, how much of my Hebrew would people understand?

  1. Wow! Thank you for sharing! I’m new into learning Arabic (I’ve learned by myself for little over a year) and I have two questions.
    1. How similar is Hebrew to arabic? 2. Does the people who speak Hebrew understand arabic? Sorry for stupid questions but I have always wondered that!


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