Posted by: N.S. Palmer | August 4, 2013

If You Don’t Know, They Won’t Tell You

By N.S. Palmer

Lately, I’ve been studying Modern Hebrew.

Since I’m already somewhat familiar with Biblical Hebrew, I know that Modern Hebrew is more than just an update of the older language. It’s a simplification.

Simplification also occurred in the evolution from Attic Greek (the language of Plato and Aristotle in ancient Athens) to Koine Greek (the language of the Jewish Septuagint, the Christian scriptures, and later writers such as Marcus Aurelius).

For example, in Biblical Hebrew, the pronunciation of some consonants changed if they had a dot (dagesh) inside them. Those consonants are called the begadkefat letters as a mnemonic device to remember which letters they are: bet, gimmel, dalet, kaf, pey, and tav. In Modern Hebrew, the consonant pronunciations don’t change for most of those letters.

On the other hand, Modern Hebrew does get confusing when it comes to vowels.

The consonants are pretty consistent, but the vowel sounds are all over the place. A tsere might be pronounced as a “long a” as in Biblical Hebrew, or it might be an “eh,” or it might be something else. A shewa might be an “uh” or an “e” or an “a.” You just have to know: there’s usually nothing in the text to tell you.

I suppose that there’s at least some point to it, since Hebrew is usually written without any vowel marks. All you get are the consonants. If you don’t know the word, or (in the case of homonyms) if you can’t deduce which word it is from the context, then you can’t pronounce it anyway.

The Chinese language poses a similar problem for Western speakers. When written in traditional characters, Chinese words are ideograms whose meaning comes from what they picture. Simple components picture different things, and you can combine them to get more complex words.

But the ideograms tell you nothing, nada, zip, nichts, rien, klum about how the word is supposed to be pronounced.

The Chinese government uses a system called Pinyin to write words phonetically. In what was probably an example of the “not invented here syndrome,” Pinyin replaced an older, Western system called Wade-Giles. If you’ve ever seen the Chinese capital city name Beijing spelled as “Peking,” the latter is the older, Wade-Giles rendering.

But there’s a problem with Pinyin: It wasn’t designed for foreigners. It was developed to teach Chinese children how to pronounce words.

As a result, it often isn’t much help to English speakers. Ordinary roman (a,b,c …) letters are not pronounced in Pinyin as English speakers would expect. You often can’t figure out the pronunciation from the Pinyin version. Whether you’re reading in Chinese characters or in Pinyin, you simply need to know how the word is pronounced. As a result, the Pinyin phonetic version (romanization) is almost useless.

I guess that it’s like a lot of things in life, whether it’s marriage, fitness, or building a house. There are few shortcuts, and it’s sometimes harder than it should be. You just have to put in the work. Sometimes, even that’s not enough, but you still have to do your best.

P.S. An excellent and relatively inexpensive Modern Hebrew book is Esther Raizen’s Modern Hebrew for Beginners. I recommend that you stay away from Ivrit Min Hahatchala (Hebrew from Scratch), which is the worst language instruction book that I’ve ever seen — and I’ve seen a lot of them.

Copyright 2013 by N.S. Palmer. May be reproduced as long as byline, copyright notice, and URL ( are included.

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