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.

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: How would you translate “mansplaining” to Hebrew?

Fun question. Here’s how I would approach it:

  • ‘To explain’ is lehasbir להסביר (in simulated Hebrew: lhsbir)
  • ‘Man’ is gever גבר (SimHebrew: gbr)
  • Blend the two: lehasgvir להסגביר (lhsgbir)

Interesting, the online Hebrew-English dictionary Morfix recognises the word hasgvarah הסגברה as a noun, but not as a verb. The Academy of the Hebrew Language doesn’t recognise either, as yet.

Q&A: What percentage of modern Hebrew vocabulary is native Semitic?

Seriously, who’s measuring, and does it matter? What’s to say what’s “native Semitic”? Does that mean original Akkadian (the antecedent to Hebrew), or Northwestern Semitic/Canaanite which it became (and which itself had many foreign influences, from the Hittites and Sea Peoples as well as Egyptian)?

Do words such as Sanhedrin (from the Greek for “Council”), avir (air), cartis (card), téatron (theatre), itztadion (stadium)—all from Greek at least a thousand years before any modern European language began to emerge—count as “native”?.

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Q&A: What is the linguistic explanation for many masculine nouns in Hebrew taking the feminine plural form, and vice versa—feminine nouns taking the masculine plural form (e.g., רחובות ארוכים, דרכים ארוכות)?

Bottom line: the real reason is because it sounds better to the native ear. Most linguists dislike this kind of explanation, because it has no neat, ‘rational’ basis—i.e., it doesn’t fit into a neat, predictable category—and yet it ultimately explains most, if not all, exceptions to neat rules in all languages. Thus:

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Q&A: What are the Hebrew equivalents of NATO radio alphabet’s “Alpha, Bravo, Charlie” etc.?

It’s known as the alef-bet tzlili (sound-based alphabet), and is as follows:

  • AlefAlef א אָלֶף
  • BetBoaz ב בֹּעַז
  • GimmelGimmel ג גִּימֶל
  • DaletDavid ד דָּוִד
  • HehHagar ה הגר
  • VavVav וָו
  • ZayinZe’ev ז זְאֵב
  • ḤetHavvah ח חַוָּה
  • TetTiaḥ ט טִיחַ
  • YodYonah י יוֹנָה
  • KafKarmel כ כַּרְמֶל
  • LamedLeah ל לֵאָה
  • MemMoshe מ מֹשֶׁה
  • NunNesher נ נֶשֶׁר
  • SamekhSamekh ס סָמֶךְ
  • AyinAyin ע עַיִן
  • PehPesel פ פֶּסֶל
  • TzadiTzipor צ צִפּוֹר
  • QufQoraḥ ק קוֹרַח
  • ReshRuth ר רוּת
  • ShinShamir ש שָׁמִיר
  • TavTelem ת תֶּלֶם

English avoids redundancies that occur in Hebrew like “I had a dream” instead of “I dreamed a dream”. What are other phrases in Hebrew that are technically “mistranslated” into English to avoid similar redundancies?

The Academy of the Hebrew Language has fallen into the mindset that everything must have its own dedicated verb. Thus, one can’t just simply put on a shoe (na’al), but ‘shoe’ it on (lin’ol); similarly, a sock (gerev) one must ligrov it—and so on.

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Q&A: In Genesis 15:6, what nuance, if any, does the Hiphil/causative form of “believed” (וְהֶאֱמִין) indicate about the nature of Abram’s response to the divine promise of innumerable descendants?

It indicates the overcoming of natural scepticism. 

There is no plain-vanilla—i.e., pa’al—version of the root a-m-n. In other words, there is no verb le-émon לֶאֱמוֹן. Belief is something that needs to be applied to oneself—the default mode is disbelief. (As they say in Missouri—’Show me.’)

Similarly, there is no verb for ‘going far’: when one simply goes, one holekh—but when one goes far, one marḥiq lekhet—lit. ‘make distance going’.

So when Abraham is persuaded that God will do all that He is promising, he is actively overruling his natural scepticism, to make himself believe.


Q&A: Why do Hebrew and Aramaic sound so similar?

Actually, they sound very different—about as different as French from Italian, and for similar reasons.

In Hebrew, most words are stressed on the last syllable, whereas in Aramaic, it is the penultimate one. This is evident in the oft-recited Kaddish (mourning) prayer, which is perhaps the most commonly recited Aramaic text in Jewish prayers:

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