About יונתן אור-סתיו

Hebrew-English translator, editor, author. מתרגם עברית–אנגלית, עורך באנגלית, וסופר.

Q&A: Was modern Hebrew less Europeanized before Israeli independence?

On the contrary: it was a lot more Europeanised—for the simple reason that, even after the hundreds of words that Eliezer Ben-Yehudah had introduced into the lexicon to make Hebrew useable as a modern everyday language , it still lacked many terms needed for contemporary life.

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Q&A: What is the origin of the quadriliteral/doubled roots in Hebrew? Do they come from another language system?

In biblical Hebrew, such doubling—of short, two-letter roots, or of the second letter—was used to suggest repetition, a cyclical or self-referential action, or some other process of that sort.

Examples:

  • b-l-b-l is a doubling of b-l, (a derivative of Babel, after the Tower of Babel in Gen. 11:9) to mean ‘to confuse, confound, jumble up’.
  • t-l-t-l is a doubling of the last two letters of the root n-t-l, to signify ‘to shake [something] back and forth’
  • g-l-g-l, from the root g-l-l (‘mound’, esp. of rocks), to mean rolling (orig., of a large boulder, e.g. to cover a well).

The import of four-letter roots from European languages didn’t really occur in earnest until the Hellenist period (~300BCE onwards).

Q&A: Why is USA called ארץ הברית (= Land of the Covenant) in Hebrew?

It isn’t. It’s called ארצות הברית (lit. “Countries of the Covenant/Alliance”)—which is indeed a poor translation of “United States”, as many people have remarked over the years.

A far more accurate translation would have been המדינות המאוחדות (Hamdinot Hameuḥadot)—but that’s more of a mouthful, and too close to האומות המאוחדות (HaUmot Hameuḥadotthe United Nations), so the poor translation has stuck.

So if you had any furtive hopes that the Hebrew name of the U.S. harboured an unknown divine approbation, I’m sorry to dash them—but there it is.

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.

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Q&A: Did the Modern Hebrew revivers want the Sephardic accent to become the new Hebrew accent, or a blend of the Ashkenazi and Sephardi accents?

The “Language Committee” of the early Zionist period (precursor to the Academy of Hebrew Language) debated this topic at length, along with teachers of the Hebrew schools. The majority opinion was that the Sephardi pronunciation was preferable, for several reasons:

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Q&A: What are some examples of Hebrew slang and idioms?

Slang and idioms are two very different things.

Hebrew slang is predominantly Palestinian Arabic, or derivations thereof—e.g. mastul מסטול (stoned, zonked), ahabal אהבל (imbecile), dir balak דיר בּאלאכּ (God help you [if you do this]), saḥbak סחבק (close friend), fadiḥah פדיחה (embarrassing mistake, booboo), etc.

Hebrew idioms are predominantly literary and usually of biblical or Talmudic origin—e.g.:

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