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Hebrew Lanugage Basics

Hebrew Lanugage Basics
on March 24, 2017

In this post, I’m going to discuss the Hebrew language. Before I get into it, though, I need to discuss a bit of what defines a language. I hate to sound academic, but before we dive into the Hebrew language, we need to discuss what a language is.

Actually, let’s discuss how languages are defined. Typically, a language is a collection of speech that people can understand. For example, speakers of English from the United States can easily understand speakers of English from Australia, albeit there are different accents. Then, of course, there are dialects… there are native English speakers from Scotland that are difficult, even for a Londoner to understand because the dialect is slightly different. Now that said, the distinction between some languages is somewhat artificial. For example, Flemish is one of the national languages of Belgium, but it’s really just a dialect of Dutch. 

Ok, so where am I going with this, and what does this have to do with the Hebrew language? I am trying to lay out that there is more than one Hebrew language.

For example, the Hebrew spoken during the time of the Old Testament is different from today’s Modern Hebrew (sometimes also referred to as New Hebrew). Additionally, while Modern Hebrew is the national language of Israel, there are many Jews who cannot speak the Hebrew language, and many Jews who speak other variants of the Hebrew language. For example:

For example, the Mountain Jews of the North Caucasus (present-day Russian Federation) originally migrated from present-day Iran. They call the language they speak Hebrew, but it's almost unrecognizable to a speaker of Modern Hebrew. The reason for this is that the language spoken by Mountain Jews incorporates elements of the ancient Hebrew language and Persian. 

Of course, Mountain Jews and their version of Hebrew are distinct from Georgian Jews, who are thought to have emigrated to Georgia from modern-day Iraq. Their version of Hebrew is also unintelligible to speakers of Modern Hebrew since it incorporates elements of Arabic and Georgian.

Of course, all of this is completely separate and apart European derivatives like Ashkenazi Hebrew, Sephardi Hebrew, Yemenite Hebrew, or Yiddish, each of which have completely different evolutionary backgrounds. 

Now at this point, you might be wondering, "Which version of Hebrew should I learn?" Well, many of the dialects of Hebrew I outlined above are in a state of decline, owing to the revival of Modern Hebrew. 

Although individual communities of Jews did much to preserve the languages / dialects they spoke, the modern state of Israel has done a lot to standardize the Hebrew language and modernize it– hence the term Modern Hebrew.

Hope that clears a few things up for you! To get started on the Hebrew alphabet, read this post next.

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