Q&A: Has modern Hebrew changed grammatically or phonologically from when it was first revived?

Yes—quite a lot. The best illustration of this is the Hebrew of the first native speaker of modern Hebrew, Itamar Ben-Avi, son of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the ‘father’ of modern Hebrew and compiler of its first dictionary.

Itamar Ben-Avi

I recently read his autobiography (החצוף הארצישראלי ‘The Cheeky Hebrew Boy’), and although much of his Hebrew is not much different from high-register academic Hebrew today, some of it seems almost comically affected (although it wasn’t—that’s just the Hebrew he was brought up with). Typical example (not from his autobio, but from another project of his):

זה לי ארבעים שנה פחות ארבע, שאני הוגה בכתב העברי יומם ולילה ממש. מעודי לא יכולתי להבין מדוע לעברים אל״ף-בית כה קשה ומסובך, ולנוכרים – כה קל ונעים לשימוש? יום אחד – ואני אז בן-עשר – פניתי לאבי ואשאלנו: …״

Rough English equivalent:

’Tis four years shy of forty now that I have been contemplating the Hebrew script—yea, verily, day and night. Never have I been able to fathom why the Hebrews have such a difficult and convoluted alphabet, while the foreigners – [one] so easy and simple to use? One day – and I was but a lad of ten – I turned to my father and enquired of him:…

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

davidsamuelsaul-a

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:

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Q&A: What does machmadim mean in the Song of Solomon 5:16?

cantique-des-cantiques-v-chagall

Song of Songs / Chagalle

In this chapter of the Song of Songs (or Song of Solomon, as it is sometimes known in English), the woman is describing her lover to her female confidantes. Some of it is rather graphic—but thankfully, the verse you’re asking about is fairly tame:

חִכּוֹ, מַמְתַקִּים, וְכֻלּוֹ, מַחֲמַדִּים; זֶה דוֹדִי וְזֶה רֵעִי, בְּנוֹת יְרוּשָׁלִָם

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Does the text in Genesis indicate literal or figurative “days” of creation?

It would nice, of course, to reconcile the biblical account of Creation with the modern scientific one—and the idea that the biblical “day” there was not really a day as we know it, but something much longer, like, say, an eon, is the most common method for doing so.

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If you were president of your country, and had the goal to revive the Latin language in your own nation or globally, how would you do it?

yehuda_painting

I would do well to study the case of the revival of Hebrew as a secular spoken language in everyday life in Palestine, a little over a century ago.

It almost didn’t happen.

Initially, only a handful of thinkers believed this goal was possible, or even desirable, and only one man (Eliezer Ben-Yehudah), actually devoted his life to achieving it—initially, by using his first-born son as the first subject.

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The importance of rhythm (or why Trump won the elections)

This is a very topical question, which I happened to touch upon in a recent post of my Hebrew blog, as it concerns the importance of rhythm in language .

Trump clearly twigged many years ago that the characteristic meter of English speech is the trochee (an element comprising a stressed syllable followed by an unstressed one)—as in the words mother, father, daughter, other, Anglo-Saxon, etc.—and that native English speakers subconsciously prefer it, and short Anglo-Saxon English words, to the meters and long words of other origin. He’s been exploiting this to pitch sales and close deals ever since.

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Is it possible to write Hebrew in Arabic script and vice versa?

Hebrew in Arabic—in principle, yes: Arabic has a direct equivalent of every Hebrew letter, plus six more. However, there are four caveats to this:

  1. The Hebrew gimmel, by default, is a hard g sound—whereas in Arabic, the equivalent letter (ج – jim) is like a soft g (//), like the English j. However, it could be decided that it is pronounced like a hard g, as in Egyptian Arabic.
  2. The Hebrew vav sounds like /v/, but its equivalent Arabic letter, waw (و) is pronounced like the English w. However, it could be decided that it is pronounced /v/, since Hebrew has no /w/ sound.
  3. The Arabic script has no hard /p/ letter—however, the Persian script (which is a near-identical derivative) does (پ)—so that could be used.
  4. The Hebrew tzadi is pronounced /ts/, but its Arabic equivalent, ṣād (ص) sounds like /s/—so one would have to decide that it is pronounced /ts/.

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Q&A: What does “part of a complete breakfast” mean in cereal commercials?

cornflakes-exp1119-620x400

This was a slogan first invented by a [well-known cereals company] about a century ago, in a bid to persuade people to include cereal (which was a new thing) as part of their breakfast. In truth, it’s meaningless, because what it’s actually saying (quite truthfully) is “For most of your nutritional needs, you need to eat other things.”

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Q&A: How does one write and say “My best wishes are with you” in Hebrew?

It all depends on the type of letter, or message:


If it’s a formal letter, such an ending would be over-egging it, a bit. In Hebrew, the convention is to end formal letters with just:

  • בברכה (bivrakhah = “with [a] blessing”) — the equivalent of the English “Sincerely,” or the even more formal “Yours faithfully,”
  • בכבוד רב (bekhavod rav = “with great respect”)

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