8 Facts About Hebrew: No Vowels, Loans Words and Gender

Modern Hebrew is a relatively young language, based on an ancient Canaanite language which has been revived over and over again for literary, liturgical, and intercommunity use. The suppression of Jewish people at various points around the world made Hebrew nearly die out entirely several times. Modern Hebrew was revived only in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and is now the main spoken language of Israel.

Modern Hebrew is a combination of many versions of literary Hebrew, religious spelling and pronunciation, and other languages like Yiddish. The following facts explore Modern Hebrew in deeper detail!

A Few Facts about Hebrew

1. There were four main periods of majorly-used Hebrew up until modern times

These were: Biblical Hebrew (until the 3rd century BCE), Mishnaic Hebrew (religious use, between 3rd century BCE and around 70 CE), Medieval Hebrew (used between the 6th and 13th century CE), and Modern Hebrew (from the 19th century CE).

2. There are no vowels in the Hebrew alphabet

Instead, there are 22 letters (a few of which have multiple forms) and vowel sounds change depending on the word. To assist with reading, many Hebrew language learners use niqqud (markings) to indicate the vowel sound following a letter. The Hebrew alphabet is structured as so:

Hebrew letterNameIPASounds like
אAlef∅ or /ʔ/Either no pronunciation or a semi-audible glottal sound like when the t sound is obscured in “button” (bu’’on”)
בּBet or Vet/b/ (top), /v/ (bottom)Bold or above
גִּGimel/g/ (top), /ɣ/ (bottom)Gill or like Greek γάλα (where γ is somewhere between g and y)
דּDalet/d/ (top), /ð/ (bottom)*Dog or thin
הHe/h/ or /ʔ/ or ∅Hotel or no pronunciation or same glottal sound as alfa
וVav/v/ or /w/Vowel or Wheel
חChet/x/ or /χ/Loch or challah or Dachshund
כּKaf/k/ (top) or /x/ or /χ/ (bottom)King / clock or loch / challah
עAyin/ʕ/ or ∅Silent (modified by vowel)
פּPe or Fe/p/ (top), /f/ (bottom)Pig or fig
שׁShin/ʃ/ (top), /s/ (bottom)Shop or soon
תּTav/t/ (top) or /θ/ (bottom)*Top or think

* The /θ/ pronunciation of tav and the /ð/ pronunciation of dalet no longer exist in Modern Israeli Hebrew.

The greyed-out letters above are sofit versions of the letter which go at the end of words, but are pronounced the exact same otherwise. Many modern Hebrew letters which used to be pronounced slightly differently (ex/ samech and shin) are now identical.

The nikkud which modify sounds go above or below a consonant, except for a few which are isolated and make ‘vav’ into a ‘u’ sound. Words in Hebrew are also written and read from right to left.

3. Nine million people speak Modern Hebrew worldwide when including non-native speakers

Five million Israelis count Hebrew as their first language, as do half a million expatriate Jewish Israelis or those born in the diaspora and taught Hebrew from birth. 1.5 million immigrants to Israel speak Hebrew as a second language, and the same amount are Arab-Israelis whose first language is Arabic or similar.

4. Modern Hebrew has a number of loan words from English, Arabic, and others, especially when describing technology

It also borrows heavily from the Ashkenazi Jewish language, Yiddish, which is a fusion language of High German, biblical Hebrew, Aramaic, and some Slavic language.

5. The syntax of Modern Hebrew is entirely different from Biblical Hebrew

Biblical Hebrew was verb-subject-object (VSO), while modern Hebrew follows a subject-verb-object (SVO) structure. A Biblical Hebrew sentence might have literally translated as “Went David to the house”, while in Modern Hebrew it would be “David went to the house”.

However, Modern Hebrew maintains some VSO structure. It still places auxiliary verbs before main verbs and in the genitive form the “possessed” noun comes before the “possessor” (example, “the house of David” rather than “David’s house”).

6. Nouns are inflected for gender and number.

Words can be feminine, masculine, or in some cases, both. Most (but not all) feminine words end with ת (/-t/) or ה (/-a/). There’s no strict rule for what gender a noun might be, but naturally gendered things are usually classified by biology, and often the words come in masculine/feminine pairs. Kelev (כֶּלֶב) means ‘dog’, but kleva (כַּלבָּה) is specifically a female dog.

Most masculine nouns are pluralized by adding -im (ים-). Most feminine nouns use -ot (וֹת-). Some masculine nouns also take -ot, fewer feminine nouns take -im, and some nouns are completely irregular.

7. The definite article is a letter added to the word, and also helps indicate possession.

While Kelev (כֶּלֶב) means ‘dog’, ha-kelev (הַכֶּלֶב) means ‘the dog’, and ha-kelev shel Avraham (הַכֶּלֶב שֶׁל אַבְרָהָם) is “the dog of Abraham” – in English, “Abraham’s dog”.

8. Liturgical Hebrew is pronounced, spelled, and understood differently than Modern Hebrew. Current Liturgical Hebrew exists in three major forms across the global Jewish population.

TypeLocationMajor Influence
Ashkenazi HebrewCentral and Eastern Europe; certain spots in the USA; Haredi and Orthodox communities worldwide; Ashkenazi communities in IsraelYiddish; Western Syriac; Yemenite Hebrew; Central and Eastern European pronunciations
Sephardi HebrewSpain; Portugal; previously Ottoman-occupied territoriesGreek; Spanish; Arabic; Portuguese; Italian; Eastern Syriac
Mizrahi HebrewArab countries; Middle East; North AfricaArabic; languages east of Arabic countries

Several others, including Yemenite Hebrew, also vary somewhat.

Final Thoughts

Hebrew is quite unique in the world in how it manages to be both one of the newest and one of the oldest languages around. It’s symbolic of Jewish culture, used heavily in prayer and research even outside of Israel, and learning facts is learning about this world.

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