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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Where do the swear words in Modern Hebrew come from? Do any of them originate in older stages of Hebrew?


As a student many years ago, I shared a workspace for a while with a Syrian student by name of Mahmood.

He was wary of me at first when he learned that I’m Israeli, but mellowed when he saw that I bore him no ill will. He only really relaxed, however, when I revealed to him that most of our swear words in Hebrew are Arabic.

‘Really?’ he asked, , intensely curious. ‘Give me some examples.’

So I told him of some of the obvious ones, such as k** u****k and in**-abuk (this is a family website, so I won’t spell them out), and more flowery ones, such as yaḥreb beitak (‘May your house be destroyed’). I also told him that there are Arabic expressions that we use not for swearing, but just as slang—such as tizzi**bi.

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Nice try—but (alas) no nargillah


Liron Lavi Turkenich is a young and engaging Israeli graphic designer with a commendable idea: bridge the cultural gap between Israel’s Hebrew speakers and its Arab population by creating a ‘hybrid’ font set comprising characters that are half Hebrew, half Arabic:


Fig. 1: A blend of the Hebrew and Arabic words for “language”, in the “Aravrit” font. Unfortunately, it looks nothing like the Arabic word, and most resembles the Hebrew word שנאה (sin’ah) = ‘hate’

I read briefly about this font (cleverly dubbed Aravrit—a play on the Hebrew words aravit and ivrit, i.e., ‘Arabic’ and ‘Hebrew’) a few months ago, and even adopted the first combined word that you see in the video (which allegedly depicts the word ‘language’ in both Hebrew and in Arabic) in my latest talk, about ‘Arabic Hebrew‘ (see Fig. 1).

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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?


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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Arabic Hebrew: An introduction to how modern Israelis really speak


Join me on Sunday, February 19, 2017  2:30 pm, at Congregation Emanu-El synagogue, Victoria, B.C., for the second talk in its series Sketches of Israel and the Middle East, when I address the topic Arabic Hebrew: An Introduction to How Modern Israelis Really Speak.

(Can’t make it that day? State your interest in attending the talk on another occasion (and preferred day and time) in our online poll.

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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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If the Hebrew and Arabic writing are derived from a common ancestor, why is one written in cursive and the other not?

From the time of the Canaanite enslavement in Egypt in the 1900s BCE the end of the First Temple—a period of 1400 years—Hebrew was written in the Canaanite script that was common to all Canaanite peoples. During their three generations of exile in Babylon, the Judean upper classes were exposed to the Assyrian/Aramaic script, which was inspired by the Canaanite script but had evolved, under centuries of Mesopotamian scribes, into a more disciplined set of forms designed around a squarish template (rather like that of the original calculator displays).

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When to say “Shalom” (and when not to)

A recurring trope in Hollywood films and American TV is that when Jews meet or part with each other, they say “Shalom!”. This is an amusing fallacy, based on the premise that all Jews speak Hebrew—which most people understand is not the case.

What is less known is that even native Israelis rarely greet each other that way.

In my talk about Arabic Hebrew: How Israelis Really Speak, I point out that this myth is similar to how, in American film and TV productions in the 1950s and ‘60s, native Americans (or “Indians”, as they were called back then) would always greet each other (and white men, in particular) with the word “How!”

In reality, there are only three situations when Hebrew speakers greet each other with the word Shalom!:

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