Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


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Q: Is there a rule for determining the vowels in Hebrew conjugation (present, past, future and passive)?

Yes, there is: it’s determined by the binyan (construction) of the verb.
There are seven binyanim, each with its characteristic pattern of vowels. Their names reflect the vowel pattern in the past tense (3rd person singular, masculine)—thus:

1181105_binyanim_table4

The appropriate binyan of a verb is determined by whether it is a simple verb, or one that refers to an action to or on something else; or a manipulation of an object or a person; or a continuous or repeating operation—or the passive corollary of any the above. (For more information on that, see my post on How do I know if a verb in hebrew is pa’al type, pi’el type, or other?)

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Q: Is it true that quotation marks in Modern Hebrew must always be ‘straight’ (“”) and never ‘curly’/‘smart’ (“”)?

That is correct: curly quotes look too much like the Hebrew letter yod (י), so they are avoided, lest people confuse the two.

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Why is the original Hebrew called “the Holy Tongue”?

Prior to the First Exile of the Judean aristocracy to Babylon in 586 BCE, Israelites referred to themselves as ‘Hebrews’ (ivrim – עברים)—e.g.:

  • And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew [Gen. 14:13]
  • And there was there with us a young man, an Hebrew [Gen. 41:23]
    when Moses was grown, that he went out unto his brethren, and looked on their burdens: and he spied an Egyptian smiting an Hebrew [Exodus 2:7]
  • And if thy brother, an Hebrew man, or an Hebrew woman, be sold unto thee [Deut. 15:12]
  • That every man should let his manservant, and every man his maidservant, being an Hebrew or an Hebrewess, go free [Jer. 34:9]
  • And he said unto them, I am an Hebrew; and I fear the Lord, the God of heaven, which hath made the sea and the dry land [Jonah 1:9]

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Has English grammar become part of Hebrew recently?

—such as I’m going to+verb, or more+<adverb/adjective> instead of <adverb/adjective>+more?

Answer: Actually, I would argue that modern Hebrew is fairly resistant to English grammatical forms—mainly because its grammar is much simpler (comprising the equivalent of past simple, present simple, and simple future), with no mechanisms for emulating tenses such as present perfect (e.g. I have gone) or present continuous (e.g. going) or conditional (would go).

As a result, the sample constructions that you suggest — e.g. going to <verb> and more <adjective> (instead of <adjective> more) are not only uncommon, but indicative of poor Hebrew usage.

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Is there any difference between the pre-exile Biblical Hebrew and post-Exile Biblical Hebrew?

Hugely, yes.

Post-Exile (First Exile, that is—in Babylon), Hebrew was flooded with Aramaic words and expressions, as the returning Judeans sought to introduce the sophistication of the prestigious and cosmopolitan Babylon, where they had lived for over three generations, into the provincial backwater of their ancestral land, where only poor and barely literate Judeans (“none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land”—II Kings 24:14) had remained after the Babylonian conquest some 75 years before.

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