Apart from the context (which is the biggest clue), there is slight, but detectable difference in length:
You can get most of the gist of the Hebrew Bible without knowing biblical Hebrew, but you would lose out on many subtleties—such as:
- The meaning of names
- Hebrew cognates (related words)
- The brevity of biblical Hebrew
- Poetic structures
An excellent question, because the agonizing and linguistic contortions surrounding this word among non-Hebrew speakers have always puzzled me.
The traditional translation—lovingkindness—is totally inapt on several grounds: it’s a made-up word, cloyingly sentimental, semantically wrong, and rhythmically horrible, wreaking havoc on the meter of any verse in which it is present.
Absolutely—especially if the standard modern Israeli pronunciation is involved, whereby many letters (such aleph and ayin; tet and tav; het and khaph; kaph and quph; shin and samekh) sound alike that in the traditional Sephardi or Yemenite pronunciation, do not.
To demonstrate this—and the utter failure of conventional, quasi-phonetic transliteration of Hebrew in Roman characters to maintain the distinctions in Square Hebrew script between such homophones—see my poem, Modern-day Ecclesiastes, which begins:
The short answer is that you fairly quickly develop an intuitive sense, from hearing (or reading) how other people use that verb. But if you’re looking for a broad rule of thumb to get you going, here it is:
Fed up with repeated mispronunciation of Arabic names and words in Western media, I offer this simple primer of ten things that every Westerner (esp. broadcasters) should know about Arabic names and terms:
Ancient Egyptian paid the price of being over-exclusive. Since the skill of writing (and reading) hieroglyphic, hieratic, and demotic writing was jealously guarded by a small, exclusive caste of scribes, once the Alexandrian and Roman conquests undermined the old Pharaonic regime and made Greek the new language and culture of the elite, that skill became largely redundant, and died out with the scribes.