Hebrew language

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The Modern Hebrew language is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. What makes it unique is that the original Bible, the Torah, by Orthodox Jews held to be recorded in the time of Moses 3,300 years ago, was written in Biblical Classical Hebrew. Jews have always called it the לשון הקודש Lashon haKodesh ("The Holy Tongue") as many of them believe that it was chosen to convey God's message to humanity. After the first Destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BC, Hebrew was replaced in daily use by Aramaic, but and became primarily a religious and literary language, used mostly in prayer and to study the Mishnah (part of the Talmud).

Hebrew was reborn as a spoken language during the late 19th and early 20th century as Modern Hebrew, replacing Arabic, Ladino, Yiddish and other languages of the Jewish diaspora as the spoken language of the majority of the Jewish people living in Israel.

Modern Hebrew is the primary official language of the state of Israel, (Arabic also has official language status). The Hebrew name for the language is עברית, or `Ivrit (pronounced eevREET [ivr\it]).

Hebrew (עברית [‘Ivrit])
Spoken in: Israel
Region: Israel and other countries
Total speakers: Over 6 Million, as all Israeli Jewish citizens as well as its Arabs speak it
Ranking: not in top 100


Official status
Official language of: Israel
Regulated by: Academy of the Hebrew Language
(האקדמיה ללשון העברית)
Language codes
ISO 639-1he
ISO 639-2heb



While the term "Hebrew" as a nationality is customarily used to refer to the ancient Israelites, the classical Hebrew language was essentially identical to the language spoken by their neighbors, the Phoenicians and the Canaanites.

Hebrew strongly resembles Aramaic and to a lesser extent South-Central Arabic, sharing many linguistic features with them.

Early history

Hebrew is an Afro-Asiatic language. This language family probably originated in northeast Africa, and began to diverge around the 8th millennium BC, though there is much debate about the actual date. (Although this theory is espoused by most archeologists and linguists, it is at odds with the traditional reading of the Torah.) Speakers of Proto-Afro-Asiatic spread northeast, eventually reaching the Middle East.

At the end of the 3rd millennium BC the ancestral languages of Aramaic, Ugaritic and other various Canaanite languages were spoken in the Levant alongside the influential dialects of Ebla and Akkad. As the Hebrew founders from northern Haran filtered south into and came under the influence of the Levant, like many sojourners into Canaan including the Philistines, they adopted Canaanite dialects. The first written evidence of distinctive Hebrew, the Gezer calendar, dates back to the 10th century BC, the traditional time of the reign of David and Solomon. It presents a list of seasons and related agricultural activities. The Gezer calendar (named after the city in whose proximity it was found) is written in an old Semitic script, akin to the Phoenician one that through the Greeks and Etruscans later became the Roman script used today in almost all European languages. The Gezer calendar is written without any vowels, and it does not use consonants to imply vowels even in the places where more modern spelling requires it (see below).

Numerous older tablets have been found in the region with similar scripts written in other Semitic languages, for example Protosinaitic. It is believed that the original shapes of the script go back to the hieroglyphs of the Egyptian writing, though the phonetic values are instead inspired by the acrophonic principle. The common ancestor of Hebrew and Phoenician is called Canaanite, and was the first to use a Semitic alphabet distinct from Egyptian. One ancient Canaanite document is the famous Moabite Siloam Inscription. Less ancient samples of Old Hebrew include the ostraka found near Lachish which describe events preceding the final capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity of 586 BC.

The most famous work originally written in Hebrew is the Bible, though the time at which it was written is a matter of dispute. The earliest extant copies were found among the Dead Sea Scrolls. Those who believe that the Bible is an accurate history argue that the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) was written in the 15th century BC with parts of Genesis going back much further. Those who accept the documentary hypothesis claim that although the texts of the Pentateuch were written down relatively late, perhaps as late as 500 BC, it is apparent that some of them date back to as early as the 9th century BC. Further, that our knowledge of the older forms of the Hebrew language is limited due to the editing that the texts must have undergone in the process of being written down.

The formal language of the Babylonian Empire was Aramaic (its name is either derived from "Aram Naharayim", Mesopotamia, or from "Aram," Canaanite for "highland," the ancient name for Syria). The Persian Empire, which had captured Babylonia a few decades later under Cyrus, adopted Aramaic as the official language. Aramaic is also a North-West Semitic language, quite similar to Hebrew. Aramaic has contributed many words and expressions to Hebrew, mainly as the language of commentary in the Talmud and other religious works.

In addition to numerous words and expressions, Hebrew also borrowed the Aramaic writing system. Although the original Aramaic letter forms were derived from the same Phoenician alphabet that was used in ancient Israel, they had changed significantly, both in the hands of the Mesopotamians and of the Jews, assuming the forms familiar to us today around the first century A.D.. Writings of that era (most notably, some of the Dead Sea Scrolls found in Qumran) are written in a script very similar to the "square" one still used today.

Later history

The Jews living in the Persian Empire adopted Aramaic, and Hebrew quickly fell into disuse. It was preserved, however, as the literary language of the Bible. Aramaic became the vernacular language of the renewed Judaea for the following 700 years. Famous works written in Aramaic include the Targum, the Talmud and several of Flavius Josephus' books (several of the latter were not preserved, however, in the original.). Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in AD 70, the Jews gradually began to disperse from Judaea into foreign countries. For many hundreds of years Aramaic remained the spoken language of Mesopotamian Jews, and it is still spoken by a few thousand Jews from the area known as Kurdistan [1], as well as many non-Jews); however, it gradually gave way to Arabic, as it had given way to other local languages in the countries to which the Jews had gone.

Hebrew was not used as a spoken language for roughly 2300 years. However the Jews have always devoted much effort to maintaining high standards of literacy among themselves, the main purpose being to let any Jew read the Hebrew Bible and the accompanying religious works in the original (see rabbinic literature, Codes of Jewish law, The Jewish Bookshelf). It is interesting to note that the languages that the Jews adopted from their adopted nations, namely Ladino and Yiddish were not directly connected to Hebrew (the former being based on Spanish and Arabic borrowings, latter being a remote dialect of Middle High German), however, both were written from right to left using the Hebrew script. Hebrew was also used as a language of communication among Jews from different countries, particularly for the purpose of international trade.

The most important contribution to preserving traditional Hebrew pronunciation in this period was that of scholars called Masoretes (from Masoret 'tradition'), who from about the seventh to the tenth centuries CE devised detailed markings to indicate vowels, stress, and cantillation (recitation methods). The original Hebrew texts used only consonants, and later some consonants were used to indicate long vowels. By the time of the Masoretes this text was too sacred to be altered, so all their markings were in the form of pointing in and around the letters.


The revival of Hebrew as a spoken language was initiated by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (אליעזר בן־יהודה) (1858-1922). Ben-Yehuda, previously an ardent revolutionary in Tsarist Russia, had joined the Jewish national movement and emigrated to Palestine in 1881. Motivated by the surrounding ideals of renovation and rejection of the diaspora lifestyle, Ben-Yehuda set out to develop a new language that the Jews could use for everyday communication.

While at first many considered his work as fanciful, the need for a common language was soon understood by many. A Committee of the Hebrew Language was established. Later it became the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an organization that exists today. The results of his work and the Committee's were published in a dictionary (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew). Ben-Yehuda's work fell on fertile ground, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew was well on its way to becoming the main language of the Jewish population.

Modern Hebrew

Ben-Yehuda based Modern Hebrew on Biblical Hebrew. When the Committee set out to invent a new word for a certain concept, it searched through the Biblical word-indexes and foreign dictionaries, particularly Arabic. While Ben-Yehuda preferred Semitic roots to European ones, the abundance of European Hebrew speakers led to the introduction of numerous foreign words. Other changes which had taken place as Hebrew came back to life were the systematization of the grammar -- the Biblical syntax was sometimes limited and ambiguous -- and the adoption of standard Western punctuation.

Russian influence is particularly evident in Hebrew. For example, the Russian suffix -acia is used in nouns where English has the suffix -ation. It is so both in direct borrowings from Russian, for example "industrializacia", industrialization, and in words that do not exist in Russian (thus, colloquial English "cannibalization" turns into Hebrew "canibalizatcia"). English influence is also very strong, perhaps due to the thirty years of British rule under the Mandate and the dense ties with the United States. Yiddish influence is also found, in some diminutives for instance. Finally, Arabic, being the language of numerous Mizrahic and Sephardic Jewish immigrants from Arab countries as well as of the Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, has also had an important influence on Hebrew, especially in slang.

Modern Hebrew is printed with a script known as "square". It is the same script, ultimately derived from Aramaic, that was used for copying of Bible books in Hebrew for two thousand years. This script also has a cursive version, which is used for handwriting.

Modern Hebrew has a rich jargon, which is a direct result of the flourishing youth culture. The two main features of this jargon are the Arabic borrowings (for example, "sababa", "excellent", or "kus-emmek", an expression of strong dissatisfaction which is extremely obscene both in Arabic and in Modern Hebrew), and the obfuscated idioms.

Due to the relatively small size of the basic vocabulary, numerous foreign borrowings and simple inflexional rules, Hebrew is an easy language to learn. Foreign accents are usually treated with patience by Israeli Hebrew speakers.

Hebrew has been the language of numerous poets, which include Rachel, Hayim Nahman Bialik, Shaul Tchernihovsky, Lea Goldberg, Avraham Shlonsky and Natan Alterman. Hebrew was also the language of hundreds of authors, one of whom is the Nobel Prize laureate Shmuel Yosef Agnon.

Geographic distribution

Hebrew is spoken primarily in Israel by its close to six million Jews as well as by the two million Arabs who live there. However, outside of Israel, Sephardic Jews, mainly in France (with over half a million Jews), and expatriate Israelis, mainly in the United States, (about half a million people), tend to use it as a home language. Usually, most Ashkenazi Jews not born in Israel, (about eight million people), find it difficult to learn and use Hebrew as a colloquial spoken language. The minority (perhaps 20% at most) who attended Jewish schools or yeshivas usually have a greater familiarity with it and can read and even write Hebrew, but speaking it only seems to really take root and flourish when enough time is spent in Israel itself talking with native Hebrew speakers.

Most American and European Jews have not visited Israel and cannot say much in Hebrew. Hebrew is therefore not spoken by them nor is it understood much by the vast majority of Jews in many areas outside of Israel where there are large Jewish populations, especially in countries such as Argentina, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Russia, South Africa, Ukraine, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

As part of Judaism, Hebrew is used in varying degrees for religious study and prayers more frequently. Usually, the more Orthodox Jews attend all-Jewish Hebrew and religious schools whereas the majority of Jews tend to be highly proficient in the language of their countries of residence and less interested in learning Hebrew. Nevertheless, in North America, efforts such as the National Jewish Outreach Program and synagogues offer free "crash courses" in Hebrew reading to tens of thousands of Jews each year in order to introduce Jewish adults to Hebrew reading for the first time.



In practice, there is also Ashkenazi Hebrew, still widely used in Ashkenazi Jewish services and studies in Israel and abroad. It was influenced by the Yiddish language.

Sephardi Hebrew is the basis of Standard Hebrew and not all that different from it, but traditionally it had a slightly bigger variety of pronunciation. It was influenced by the Ladino language.

Mizrahi (Oriental) Hebrew is actually a collection of dialects spoken liturgically by Jews in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world. It was influenced by the Arabic language.

Nearly every immigrant to Israel is encouraged to adopt Standard Hebrew and its nuances as their daily language. As a dialect, Standard Hebrew was originally based on Sephardi Hebrew, but has been further constrained to Ashkenazi phonology to form a unique modern dialect. For example, the "r" sound of Standard Hebrew resembles the guttural sound of German, Yiddish, and French, rather than the trilled consonant common in Semitic languages.

Languages strongly influenced by Hebrew

Yiddish, Ladino, Karaim, and Judeo-Arabic were all highly influenced by Hebrew. None are completely derived from Hebrew, but all are full of Hebrew loanwords. See [2] for similar cases.



The Hebrew word for vowels is tnu'ot. The modern Israeli Hebrew language has 5 vowels:

  • /a/ (As in "car")
  • /e/ (As in "set")
  • /i/ (As in "beak")
  • /o/ (As in "horn")
  • /u/ (As in "soup")

Each vowel has three forms: short, long and interrupted (hataf). There is no audible distinction between the three in modern Israeli Hebrew, and the type of a vowel is determined entirely by its position inside a word.

Ancient Hebrew did not have diphthongs. Although diphthongs do exist in modern spoken Hebrew, grammar rules discourage their use. Thus, the root Y-Kh-L, 2nd person singular, future should have been conjugated tuykhal, however the correct form is tukhal.

Hebrew phonetics include a special feature called schwa. There are two kinds of schwa: resting (nah) and moving (na' ). The resting schwa is pronounced as a brief stop of speech. The moving schwa sounds much like the English schwa.

Hebrew also has dagesh, a strengthening. There are two kinds of strengthenings: light (qal, known also as dagesh lene) and heavy (xazaq or dagesh fortis). There are two sub-categories of the heavy dagesh: structural heavy (xazaq tavniti) and complementing heavy (xazaq mashlim). The light affects the phonemes /v/ /g/ /d/ /kh/ /f/ /t/ in the beginning of a word, or after a resting schwa. Structural heavy emphases belong to certain vowel patterns (mishkalim and binyanim; see the section on grammar below). Complementing strengthening is added when vowel assimilation takes place. As mentioned before, the emphasis influences which of a pair of allophones is pronounced. Interestingly enough, historical evidence indicates that /g/, /d/ and /t/ used to have strengthened versions of their own, however they had disappeared from virtually all the spoken dialects of Hebrew. All other consonants except aspirates may receive an emphasis, but their sound will not change.

Hebrew has two kinds of stress (taa'm): on the last syllable (milra' ) and on the penultimate syllable (the one preceding the last, mile'l). The former is more frequent. Specific rules connect the location of the stress with the length of the vowels in the last syllable; however due to the fact that Modern Hebrew does not distinguish between long and short vowels, these rules are often ignored in everyday speech. Interestingly enough, the rules that specify the vowel length are different for verbs and nouns, which influences the stress; thus the mile'l-stressed �khel (="food") and milra' -stressed okh�l (="eats", masculine) are written in the same way. Little ambiguity exists, however, due to nouns and verbs having incompatible roles in normal sentences. This is, however, also true in English, in, for example, the English word "conduct," in its nominal and verbal forms.

One-letter words are always attached to the following word. Such words include: the definite article; prepositions b (="in"), m (="from"), l (="to"); conjunctions sh (="that"), k (="as", "like"), v (="and"). The vowel that follows the letter thus attached depends in general on the beginning of the next word and the presence of a definite article which may be swallowed by the one-letter word. The rules for the prepositions are as follows: in most cases they are followed by a moving schwa, and for that reason they are pronounced as be, me and le. If a preposition is put before a word which begins with a moving schwa, then the preposition takes the vowel /i/. For example, *be-khlal becomes bi-khlal (="in general"). If l or b are followed by the definite article ha, their vowel changes to /a/. Thus *be-ha-matos becomes ba-matos (="in the plane"). However it does not happen to m, therefore me-ha-matos is a valid form, which means "from the plane".

* indicates that the given example is not grammatically correct


The Hebrew word for consonants is i'curim.

Labial Velar Alveolar
/b/ (1)
/v/ (1, 2)
/p/ (1)
/f/ (1)
/j/ (semi-vowel; weak)
/k/ (1, 3)
/x/ (1, 6)
/t/ (4, 5)
/l/ (Always pronounced as the "l" in "learn", not "land")
Glottal Dental Foreign Borrowings
/h/ (semi-vowel, a voiced aspirate, akin to the American pronunciation of /h/ in "hot")
/a'/ (7)
/z/ (pronounced as the "z" in "zebra")
/ts/ (5)
/S/ (pronounced as the "sh" in "fish"; in the examples written as "sh")
/dZ/ (Sounds like the "j" in "Jill")
/Z/ (Sounds like the "j" in the French "Jacqueline")
/tS/ (Sounds like the "ch" in "Chill")


  1. The pairs (/b/, /v/), (/k/, /kh/), (/p/, /f/), written respectively by the letters bet (ב), kaf (כ) and pe (פ) have historically been allophonic. All three are still mutually exclusive (in words derived from Hebrew roots), however due to /w/ merging with /v/, /x/ merging with /kh/, and the introduction of initial /f/ through foreign borrowings, none remained strictly allophonic (that is, incapable of creating a minimal pair).
  2. The phoneme /v/ is represented by two letters: vet (ב, unemphasized bet) and vav (ו). Although Modern Hebrew pronunciation does not differentiate between the two, the latter is historically weaker due to its being a semi-vowel (/w/).
  3. The phoneme /k/ is represented by two letters: kaf (כ) and quf (ק). Although Modern Hebrew pronunciation does not differentiate between the two, the latter was once pronounced more deeply, like the Arabic /q/.
  4. The phoneme /t/ is represented by two letters: tet (ט) and tau (ת, compare to the Greek theta θ and tau τ). As mentioned earlier, the former was once pronounced with emphasis. However, it seems that the letter tau (without dagesh) once represented a fricative phoneme /th/. For example, what in Modern Hebrew sounds as "Beit Lexem" was transcribed (through Greek) into English from Old Hebrew as "Bethleem", also demonstrating note nr. 5. The traditional Ashkenazi pronunciation of tau without dagesh as "s" is believed to be a result of this.
  5. Similarly to Modern Arabic, Old Hebrew had the phonemes /ts/ and /t/ (written by the letter tet) emphasized. Currently, there is no community of Hebrew-speakers which expresses this in speech; however the emphasis led to several types of phonetic change that still exist. The exact nature of the emphatic feature is a matter of debate; the most commonly suggested possibilities are pharyngealization (as in Arabic) and glottalization (as in Ethiopic).
  6. The phoneme /x/ is represented by two letters: xet (ח) and khaf (כ, unemphasized kaf). Although Modern Hebrew speakers seldom differentiate between the two, apart from a few Sephardic speakers, the former was historically a voiceless pharyngeal fricative (like Arabic ح).
  7. Like /x/, /a'/ was once pronounced as a voiceless pharyngeal fricative, resembling "ar" in "heart" but deeper. Modern Ashkenazi (European, except Dutch) reading tradition ignores this; however Sephardic (North-African) Jews and Israeli Arabs accent these phonemes, in a fashion which resembles Arabic `ain ع. Georgian Jews pronounce it as a glottalized g. Western European Sephardim and Dutch Ashkenazim traditionally pronounce it as "ng" in "sing" — a pronunciation which can also be found in the Italki tradition and, historically, in south-west Germany.

Historical sound changes

Greek transcriptions provide evidence that Biblical Hebrew maintained the proto-Semitic consonants gh, kh for longer than the writing system might suggest. Thus `Amorah is transcribed as Gomorrha in Greek, whereas `Eber is transcribed as Eber with no intrusive g; since comparative Semitic evidence shows that proto-Semitic *gh and *` both became `ayin in later Hebrew, this suggests that the distinction was still maintained in Classical times.


Hebrew grammar is mostly analytical, lacking inflectional mechanisms for dative constructs, and having no systematic ablative, accusative or dative constructs. However inflection does play an important role in the formation of the verbs, nouns and the genitive construct, which is called "smikhut". Words in smikhut are often combined with hyphens.

Hebrew has only a definite article, "ha-". It is a contraction of an earlier form, probably *hal, the assimilation of the /l/ being evident in the emphasis that normally follows the article. In smikhut, only the main noun (that is the noun to which the other nouns connect) can receive the article.

The two main parts of the Hebrew sentence ("mishpat") are the subject ("nose") and the predicate ("nasu"). They are adjusted to each other in gender and person. Thus, in a sentence "ani okhel", "I eat"/"I am eating", "ani", "I", is the subject, and "okhel", "eating" (singular masculine present of the root A-K-L in Pa`al) is the verb (Hebrew does not have a system of auxiliary verbs). The subject always receives the definite article, unless it is a pronoun or a name.

Other parts of the Hebrew sentence are the direct object ("musa"), and complements to any noun ("levai"). Unlike English, complements follow the noun, rather than precede it, and also like the verb they follow the subject's gender, person and article. Thus, "Ha-chatul ha-qatan akhal et ha-gvinah", "The small cat ate the cheese", the subject is "ha-chatul", "the cat", the complement is "ha-qatan", "the small", the predicate is "akhal", "ate" (3rd person masculine past of the root A-K-L in Pa`al), and "ha-gvinah", "the cheese" is the object. Note that both the words for "cat" and for "small" received the definite article.

The Hebrew grammar distinguishes between various kinds of indirect objects, according to what they specify. Thus, there is a division between objects for time ("tiur zman"), objects for place ("tiur makom"), objects for reason ("tiur sibah") and many others. Additionally, Hebrew distinguishes between various kinds of verbless fragments, also according to their use, such as "tmurah" for elaboration, "qriah" for exclamation, "pniyah" for approach and "hesger" for disclosing the opinion of a certain party using direct speech (e.g. "le-da'at ha-rofe, ha-i'shun mazik la-briut", "[according to] the opinion of the doctor, smoking is harmful to health").

A sentence may lack a subject. In this case it is called "stami", or "causual". If several parts of the sentence have the same function and are attached to the same word, they are called "kolel", "collective". Two or more sentences who do not share common parts and are separated by comma are called "mishpat mehubar", or "added". In many cases, the second sentence uses a pronoun that stands for the other's subject; they are generally interconnected.

A sentence in which one or more of the parts are replaced by a clause ("psukit") is called a compound sentence, or "mishpat murkav". Compound sentences use the preposition "she-", "that". For example, in the sentence "Yosi omer she-hu okhel", "Yosi says that he is eating", "Yosi omer" ("Yosi says") is the main sentence, followed by a direct subject clause "hu okhel" ("He is eating").


The Hebrew word for "verb" is po'al.

The Hebrew Language verbs are inflected by gender, person, number, mood, and tense. The base form for verbs is the 3rd person masculine singular past active indicative.

Person, number, and gender

There are three persons in the Hebrew language: the 1st person, also called "speaking"; the 2nd person, also called "present" (as in presence); and the 3rd person, also called "hidden" (in the present tense, all persons have identical forms, differing only by number and gender). For each person, there are both singular and plural forms. The archaic dual number present in the noun system (e.g. yom (="day"), yomayim (="two days"), yamim (="days") is not used in the verb system.

Usually the person affects the suffix of the verb. Thus lamadti means "I learned", lamadta means "You (masculine singular) learned", lamdu means "they learned". The stem lamd- remains constant.

The inflection by gender is full; that is, Hebrew distinguishes between lamadet (="you learned", feminine) and lamadta (="you learned", masculine).


There are three tenses in the indicative mood: hoveh (="present"), avar (="past") and a'tid (="future"). There is no perfect tense, but the perfect aspect can be derived from the context. To emphasize the imperfect/progressive aspect of an action, the auxiliary verb "to be" may be used, as in the English progressive tenses. However, unlike English, this form is only used for emphasis and distinction, and is not required to express an imperfect sense.

Mood and voice

Additionally, there is an imperative form called tsivui, used primarily with the 2nd person, although 3rd person imperative forms similar in form to the future tense exist—yavi-na (="let him bring"). An infinitive form exists as well.

Passive binyans (see below) have neither an imperative nor an infinitive form.

Verb classes

As in other Semitic languages, verbs (like nouns) are derived from a three-letter root (which signifies a certain general concept, such as K-T-V for writing) into numerous patterns through the use of intermediate vowels and prefixes. Hebrew grammarians usually classify the verb system into 7 basic groups (called the binyanim, plural of binyan), each of which conjugates in a certain way, which is usually apparent in the binyan 's name. Thus, the Nif'al binyan specifies the presence of the syllable "ni" in the beginning of the verb (either directly or as a residual emphasis on a different beginning). The Pa'al binyan is sometimes called Qal—perhaps because without diacritics (little dots that serve as vowels in written Hebrew) it could be confused with Pi'el.

There are 3 active binyans (Pa'al, Pi'el, Hif'il) and 4 passive ones (Nif'al, Pu'al, Huf'al, Hitpa'el). Usually Pi'el verbs---e.g. tipel (="handled, took care of")—become passive in Pu'altupal, (="was handled, was taken care of"). Similarly, the active Hif'il corresponds to the passive Huf'al. Nif'al is often used as the passive of Pa'al—thus the Pa'al form sagar (="closed"), turns into the Nif'al form nisgar (="was closed"); however, ancient usage suggests that it was originally used as a reflexive structure, and modern Hebrew has many verbs in Nif'al that have an active sense, e.g. nixnas (="entered"). In modern Hebrew, hitpa'el carries the reflexive function.

The system of the binyan is relatively easy to understand and grasp; however it has numerous exceptions due to regular phonological effects like assimilation.

Participles and gerunds

English gerunds such as "my winning the prize was a surprise" are expressed by noun forms equivalent to the infinitive of the verb.

Participles may be formed from all verbs (using the indicative form) and used as nouns or adjectives. e.g. the Hebrew for "guard" (the profession) is the present participle "(he) guards" ("shomer"). Participles may also be used to describe state, and would then usually be accompanied by words such as "while" or "as", e.g. "as he is painting, time goes by". Prefixes may be used with participles to describe time, e.g. mishekamti (="once I stood up"); lixshetakum (="when you get up",future, masculine).

The noun

The Hebrew word for "noun" is shem etsem

Hebrew nouns are inflected by gender, number (and sometimes by possession) but not by case. Nouns are generally correlated to verbs (by shared roots), but their forming is not as systematic, often due to loan words from foreign languages.


Hebrew distinguishes between masculine nouns—such as yeled (="boy, child")—and feminine nouns—such as yaldah (="girl"). There is no neuter gender. Generally, almost all nouns that end in "ah" are feminine. Sometimes, as in the example, a feminine form can be formed through adding a final "ah" to a masculine noun (written as the letter "he").


Generally, Hebrew distinguishes between singular and plural forms of a noun. Masculine plural forms usually end with the suffix "-im"; feminine singular "-ah" turns into "-ot". Thus we get the forms yeladim (="boys, children"), and "yeladot" (="girls"). Hebrew also has a dual number, but its modern use is restricted to particular nouns, such as shavua (="week"), which becomes shvu'ayim (="two weeks"). Body parts and things that come in pairs have duals, for example mishqafayim (="eyeglasses") and raglayim (="feet"). However for most nouns the dual form is discarded in favor of the plural. Thus, dirah (="apartment"), becomes shtei dirot (="two apartments"), rather than *diratayim.


Possession may be indicated by a possessive pronounsheli (="my, mine")—but ancient Hebrew used inflection, and such inflection is still in use in literary Hebrew, as well as in particular idioms in modern spoken Hebrew. They noun receives a suffix signifying the person to whom an object belongs. Thus, dirah (="apartment"), may change into dirati (="my apartment"), diratxa (="your apartment"), diratam (="their apartment"), etc.

Forming words

There are basically two ways of forming Hebrew nouns. The first way is similar to the system of the verb. A root is adopted into a pattern of vowels, prefixes and suffixes (called, in this case, the "meter", or "mishkal"). The root A-D-M, related to "red", "man" (Adam), and "earth", is adopted into the meter qatelet (which is a typical meter for words denoting diseases), to create ademet (="measles", derived from the meaning "red"). Qatelet is a form of pronouncing meters, with the 'q', 't', and 'l' standing for the actual three letters of the root.

The second way is the addition of two existing stems. For example, qol (="sound") and no'a (="motion") create together qolno'a, (="cinema").

Writing system

Modern Hebrew is written from right to left using the Hebrew alphabet. Modern scripts are based on the "square" letter form, in which most of the letters are made by adding lines to the letter resh (ר). In handwriting, a similar concept is used, however where printed letters have right angles, scripts have arcs. All Hebrew consonant phonemes are represented by a single letter. Although a single letter might represent two phonemes (thus the letter "bet" represents both /b/ and /v/), they always differ only in vocality (whether they are voiced or unvoiced), and so can be considered a single consonant. In addition, the voiced form normally has a dot in the center, known as a dagesh, though this convention is not always followed, especially in older texts.

Vowels are optional and written as dots and dashes under the text. Different combinations of dots and dashes signify different types of vowels. A convenient rule to remember is that long vowels have an even number of dots and dashes. The semi-vowels hei, vav and yud can represent both a consonant (/h/, /v/ and /y/, respectively) or a vowel, which presence is ambiguous. In the latter case, these letters are called "emot qria" ("matres lectionis" in Latin, "mothers of reading" in English). With a vowel, the letter alef is mute. When a vowel is absent, alef stands for /a/. The letter hei in the end of a word also sounds like /a/ and signifies the feminine gender. The letter waw standing after the vowels /u/ and /o/ lengthens them, and so does the letter yud after the vowel /i/.

Emphases are written as a dot inside the letter. There is no written differentiation between different types of emphases and schwas.


The Hebrew language is normally written in the Hebrew alphabet. Due to publishing difficulties, and the unfamiliarity of many readers with the alphabet, there are many ways of transcribing Hebrew into Roman letters. The most accurate method is the International Phonetic Alphabet. It is used (in a simplified ASCII form) in the section concerned with Phonology, to describe the sounds of the Hebrew language. However, the IPA is quite obscure and redundant when it comes to transcribing the words of a single language to a general audience. Therefore the system that this article will feature will try to restore the sound of Hebrew, and at least some orthographic peculiarities. The system comes down to the following:

  • The letter tsadeh (צ) is transcribed by "c" so that it could be distinguished from other combinations of /t/ and /s/ although "ts" or "tz" is usually acceptable.
  • The letter a'in (ע) with various vowels is transcribed as a', e', i', o' and u'.
  • The letter shin (ש) is transcribed by "sh".
  • Both the letter tav (ת) and the letter tet (ט) are transcribed by "t".
  • The letter he (ה) at the end of a word, which stands for feminine gender, is transcribed by "ah" (it is read /a/)
  • The letter quf (ק) is transcribed by "q" (it is read /k/).
  • Single-letter prepositions and the definite article are separated with a dash (-) from their subject.
  • Stresses and schwas are not marked since the stresses are not pronounced, and the schwa's locations are apparent.
  • The vowels are always written.
  • The letter yod is usually transcribed by "y".


Common phrases in Hebrew

See also

External links

Hebrew language Wikipedia

ar:لغة عبرية bg:Иврит ca:Hebreu [[de:Hebr�ische Sprache]] es:Hebreo eo:Hebrea lingvo [[fr:H�breu]] id:Ibrani ia:Hebreo he:עברית nl:Hebreeuws ja:ヘブライ語 [[no:Hebraisk spr�k]] [[nn:Hebraisk spr�k]] pl:Język hebrajski ro:Limba ebraică ru:Иврит fi:Heprea sv:Hebreiska tokipona:toki Iwisi zh-cn:希伯来语

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