Q&A: How similar are modern spoken Hebrew and modern spoken Arabic? Are they mutually intelligible at all?

It’s a curious thing: with some words, you think that the two languages are like French and Spanish: the pronunciation is different, but the words are clearly cognates. For example, the sentence:“Tonight, at 10:15, I and you* will eat something at home with our son.

In Arabic it’s: Eliom bileil, es-sa’ah asharah uriba, ana u’inti ḥanaakel shi bilbeit maa ibbena.

In Hebrew is: Hayom balailah,* besha’ah eser vareba,* ani ve’at nokhal mashehu babait im bnenu.

But then the next sentence can be so different, you’d think they belong to completely different language families—e.g.: ‘But tomorrow, after work, what do you say we go to town together with our friends and have dinner at the restaurant? OK?

In Arabic: Bas bukra, ba’ad ush-shirrel, shu ra’ek nruḥ albalad sawa maa rif’atna, uḥanat’asha bilmatam? M’niḥ?

In Hebrew: Aval maḥar, aḥrei ha’avodah, mah da’atekh shenelekh* yaḥad la’ir im ḥavereinu, venokhal aruḥat-erev bamis’adah? Beseder?

As with other languages, these similarities and differences are clues to the fact that the two languages diverged a considerable time ago, when the ancestors of Hebrew and Arabic speakers were the same people of tribal nomads living in the same environment. Recent research suggests this was about 2350 BCE, in Sumer (southern Iraq of today)—which, coincidentally, is roughly where the biblical Abraham (mythological forefather of Arabs and Hebrews) is thought to have come from (albeit five hundred later—and some researchers think that his family actually hailed from the border region of today’s northern Iraq and southern Turkey).

The other evening, when my wife and I were watching the third season of Fauda (a TV series about an undercover Israeli security unit operating in the West Bank), there was a scene where a young Palestinian man shows a newspaper report to his girlfriend. “Katabu alai!” (‘They wrote about me!’) he told her, all excited, and even my wife (who knows little to no Arabic, and has no linguistic inclinations whatsoever) couldn’t help noticing the resemblance: ‘Katvu alai!’ she exclaimed the Hebrew equivalent, delighted at recognising something. But her surprise is indicative that, apart from very basic words here and there, the two languages are mostly utterly unintelligible to each other in speech.

And yet, with a little effort and some good, conversation-based language instruction, a Hebrew speaker can acquire a basic command of spoken Arabic fairly quickly (much as Palestinian Arabs can, and do, pick up conversational Hebrew). In fact, there’s a joy, to it, too. You gotta love a language where there’s a word for ‘Let’s have lunch’ (ḥanatraddahgo heavy on the ‘dd’), and the word for ‘I think’ (in the sense of I believe) is bzzn.

As we say in Hebrew, veyaffah sha’ah aḥat qodem (‘The sooner, the better’). When people can speak and understand each other’s language—and certainly when they break bread together—they’re much less likely to hate and fear each other.

*To highlight the similarities, I’m using the Arabic syntax (‘I and you’, rather than ‘you and I’), and ‘today at night’ instead of ‘tonight’); emulating the Hebrew spelling of the word reba rather than its pronunciation (reva); and using the high-register Hebrew way of saying ‘our son’ (bnenu instead of haben shelanu).


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