Posted by: N.S. Palmer | November 3, 2008

Puttering Around with Languages

By N.S. Palmer

Lately, I’ve started to work seriously on improving my Hebrew. I’m sorry to say that it’s never been glued on very tightly. I’ve known a few Hebrew words (plus a few words of Yiddish that I picked up) and could read phonetically through the Hebrew prayers and such. But I haven’t really understood the language very well. It’s been a thrill to be able to pick up my Hebrew Bible and finally read it — and finally understand it! — in Hebrew.

At the same time as I’ve been boning up on my biblical Hebrew, I’ve been studying modern conversational Hebrew. The first thing that struck me is that modern Hebrew seems slightly simplified from the ancient constructions and pronunciations. For example, certain Hebrew letters — called the begadkephat letters — are pronounced differently in ancient Hebrew if they have a dot (dagesh) in the middle of them. In modern Hebrew, however, three of those letters are pronounced the same whether or not they have a dot. The vowel sounds have also become a lot simpler. It’s as if the founders of the modern Hebrew language looked at what worked and what didn’t, and kept only what worked. The result is easier to learn and speak correctly. Well, except for all those gutturals.

I’m wondering if the changes from ancient to modern Hebrew resemble those in the change from Attic Greek (the language of classical Athens, Plato, Aristotle, and all those guys) to Koine Greek (the language of the Christian scriptures, the Septuagint, and Roman writers such as Marcus Aurelius). Like modern Hebrew seems simplified from ancient Hebrew, Koine was a simplified, streamlined version of Attic Greek.

Can monkeys speak Greek, by the way? Opinions differ. Matthew Arnold was a 19th century poet and classical scholar (someone who studies civilisations such as ancient Greece) at Oxford. He once debated T.H. Huxley, an English biologist nicknamed “Darwin’s bulldog” for his polemics supporting the theory of evolution. After listening to Huxley pontificate at length on the theme that human beings were descended from monkeys, Arnold averred that it might be true, but as for the monkeys, “something must have inclined them to Greek.”

I’ve noticed a few other things about Hebrew. It’s similar in various ways to a lot of other languages. The most obvious similarity is in the alphabet. The Hebrew alphabet is aleph, bet, gimmel, dalet, etc., while the Greek alphabet is alpha, beta, gamma, delta, and so on. The reason is that the Hebrew and Greek alphabets both come from related Northwest Semitic languages. Greek is an Indo-European language, not Semitic, but the Greeks got their alphabet from the Phoenicians — a seafaring people who traded all over the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians, in turn, got it from Palestine, the same area where the ancient Israelites were scribbling away. Of course, our modern Western alphabets come mainly from the Greek alphabet, so we share the similarity.

There are other similarities that pop up — some of them probably because of cross-pollination between languages, some probably just coincidences. In any event, they make Hebrew easier to learn.

If you’ve had Spanish, for example, you know that “later” is mas tarde — literally, “more late.” In Hebrew, it’s yoter meuchar — “more late.” In Spanish, you can omit the pronoun that goes with a verb if you can tell from the verb who’s doing the action; it’s sometimes true in Hebrew. In Spanish, words are usually accented on the final syllable, as in Hebrew. And in the Spanish past tense, if memory serves, the accent in the verb shifts to the syllable before last — just as in Hebrew.

In French, you say “I don’t want” with je ne veux pas, but “I don’t want anything” is je ne veux rien — literally, “I don’t want nothing.” It’s very similar in Hebrew: ani lo rotze is “I don’t want,” while ani lo rotze klum (“I don’t want nothing”) means “I don’t want anything.” In French, you sometimes add an extra word to indicate how intensely a verb is meant. For example, je t’aime means “I love you,” but je t’aime bien — literally, “I love you well” means “I like you.” Something similar goes on in Hebrew. Ani ohev Yisrael means “I like Israel,” but Ani ohev et Yisrael — whose literal translation is the same, since the Hebrew “et” marks the direct object — means “I love Israel.” Also, in modern Hebrew, words get slurred together a lot, just like in French.

In German, a verb in the present tense indicates either (1) an action in the present, or (2) an action that started in the past and is still going on in the present. Ich bin da means “I am here” or “I have been here and still am here.” Likewise in Hebrew, Ani po — literally, “I here,” because Hebrew omits the “am” — means either “I am here” or “I have been here and still am here.”

As similar as our languages are, it’s amazing that people have so much trouble getting along.

Copyright 2008 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as credit and URL ( are included.

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