Hebrew Language Origins: Where does Hebrew come from

  • Hebrew
    Language Origins:
    Where does Hebrew come from
    Hebrew language is the official language of Israel. Let’s see Hebrew language origins, and talk about Hebrew speaking population and countries!

Introduction to the Hebrew Language

The Hebrew language is not popular like it’s used to be but still, it is an important world language. It might be even more unique than any language you have ever heard because it is a “holy” language. Many people around the world actually call it “Jewish language” because the history of Hebrew language, and some also refer to it as “Israelite language” , "Jews language”, and “Hebrews language”.

In this article, you are going to learn more about the origin of the Hebrew language, Hebrew speaking population, the benefits of learning this language, Hebrew speaking countries and similarities of Hebrew language with other languages. We’ll also mention Hebrew alphabet and how’s life in Israel. So, get comfortable, and let’s start.

Hebrew Language Origin & History

Hebrew is one of the world’s oldest languages. It is the last surviving Canaanite language, actually. The name of the language comes from “Eber”, the son of Shem and it means “region across or beyond”. Also, Hebrew descendants are called “Semites” which is also a name that comes from Shem.

Hebrew is known as the language of the Bible, Jewish prayers, and Israel’s official language. It is a Semitic language of the Northern Central group. In ancient times, it was spoken in Palestine but then it was replaced by the western dialect of Aramaic at the beginning of 3rd century BC and it started to be used as a literary language. However, in the 19th century, the language was revived and it became the official language of Israel.

The historians divided the Hebrew language into four periods. These are Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Medieval Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew, which is also called Classical Hebrew was spoken until the 3rd Century BC and those were the times which a huge part of the Old Testament was written. After Biblical Hebrew, the Hebrew language involved in Mishnaic Hebrew and became the building block of Jewish traditions. However, it wasn’t a spoken language and because of that, the language has started to fade out around AD 200. Then by borrowing many words from Spanish, Arabic, Greek and many other languages, the Medieval Hebrew period had come and was used from the 6th century to 13th. This helped the language to evolve more. At last, Modern Hebrew became the official language and Israel, and thanks to that, the language is still alive today.

The oldest evidence of the Hebrew language is, of course, the Old Testament. To be more specific, it is the “Song of Deborah”, which is chapter 5 of Judges. 

The Modern Hebrew is still based on Biblical Hebrew but it has many important differences that helped the language to revive. The language has been through some developments that will meet modern necessities. These developments make Hebrew both one of the oldest and one of the youngest languages in the world.

Which Countries Speak Hebrew?

Hebrew has become Israel’s official language in 1922. It means most of its residents speak Hebrew as their native language but since the country has a lot of immigrants, other languages like English, Yiddish, and Arabic are also spoken in Israel widely. However, since Hebrew is not that popular like it used to be, it is accepted as a minor language in many other countries like Poland, and Ukraine.

Still, after Israel’s Hebrew speaker population, the United States of America comes second. The country has almost 220,000 fluent Hebrew speakers. Hebrew is also spoken in the countries which have wide Jewish communities such as France, with about 490,000 Jews and Canada that has 375,000 Jews citizens.

Even though it has a small population nowadays, because of its cultural importance, there are still people who are learning Hebrew.

Life in Israel

So, how is life in Israel which is the only country that accepts Hebrew as an official language?

Israel, compared to other countries in its region, has high living standards. However, just like living standards, the cost of living is also very high. So, if you are planning to move to Israel, the country of Holy Land, you should be prepared for this. In fact, according to recent researches, Israel is the eighth-most expensive country in the world. Especially Tel Aviv which is a city on Israel’s Mediterranean coast is the most expensive place to live in the whole Middle East.

The people of Israel are very warm and hospitable. This is definitely an advantage if you just moved to Israel because people will be happy to help you. Israelis are comfortable and they want everyone to be comfortable just like them, so don’t be surprised when you meet one because they will act like they have known you forever. They speak loudly but that is just the way they speak, they are not angry or anything. It’s their norm and before you get used to this, don’t be offended.

Israel is accepted as a more modern country than its contiguous countries. There is a lot of different kind of people but for example, the Israel dress code is more relaxed than you think. Expect the religious neighbors, of course. Women in Israel have more rights than women in other Middle East countries. They are seen as equal to men and can work in every job that men can work. It is normal.

When it comes to transportation, busses and trains are the main choices of traveling. Those are the fastest and cheapest way of travel in the country. On the other hand, taxis are a little bit expensive but especially if you are a foreigner. Since you don’t know the country in general, taxi drivers might trick you like in any other country. Be careful.

In summary, moving to Israel may be a rough experience for you if you don’t know their culture and their norms but as you get used to, be sure that it will feel like home.

Is It Easy to Learn Hebrew?

You may think that learning Hebrew is hard because it’s a very old language, it is written from right towards left, it has a different alphabet than the Latin but believe in us, it is not that hard. Let us show you how easy it can be, and talk about the Hebrew alphabet.

First of all, there are 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet and yes, it totally looks different than Latin but, 22 letters mean that you will learn the alphabet easier than you think. Only five of the letters look different according to where they are used in a sentence like the end of it, the middle of it, or the beginning of it. Still, it is so much less to memorize than in Japanese, Chinese or Russian.

Of course, if you are already speaking a Semitic language, like Arabic, it is a piece of cake for you because they are really alike. If you are a total stranger to any Semitic languages, it is still okay because Modern Hebrew is impacted by a lot of languages that you might be very familiar with. For example, Polish, German, and Russian. The Hebrew grammar is gender-based like these languages. 

If you are an English speaker, probably the most difficult part of learning Hebrew will be the accent for you. For example, you should roll the letter R while pronouncing it and let’s be honest, it is not easy for a native English speaker.

Although, the Hebrew language is one of the oldest languages and it’s not popular nowadays, it is still fun and interesting to learn it. Imagine reading the Old Testament in its original language. Cool, isn’t it?

The Benefits of Learning Hebrew Language

The Hebrew language is one of the most unique languages in the world. The reason is not its grammar, its structure, or its pronunciation. The reason why Hebrew is so unique is its history. This is a language that came back from death. It is the survivor of old languages. Some researches even show that Hebrew is the first written language with an alphabet and grammar. Learning Hebrew means to be a part of this unique history, and embracing it.

Hebrew is one of the original languages of the Bible. If you learn Hebrew, you will be able to read and understand the Bible in its original language. This benefit is not limited even if you are not a religious person because to read something in its original language is more enjoyable than you can ever imagine. You will be able to understand what the book says more clearly because there isn’t a bridge between you and the book. It is just you and it and everything is more direct.

The coolness of learning Hebrew doesn’t end with these. Do you know that Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, and the Latin alphabet actually share the same roots with an ancient alphabet? This alphabet is called the Phoenician alphabet which is a dead one now. Phoenician was the language of the Phoenician people and the language helped so many other languages to build their own alphabet.

Learning Hebrew means that visiting some magnificent historical places like Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. Of course, you can visit these places without knowing the Hebrew language but one of the most amusing things about traveling is being able to talk to local people and listen to these places’ stories by them.

Hebrew is the official language of Israel, we all know that now. Israel is one of the world’s fastest-growing high technology economies and day by day the countries importance levels upon the world stage. It means in a very close future, people will do anything to work in Israel because of its huge job opportunities. Even if you don’t work there, countries will be dealing with Israel for their technology, and knowing Hebrew will provide you a good benefit.

In short, learning Hebrew is a great opportunity to get to know an important part of the world’s culture and so on, to be able to a part of the world’s economy.

Semitic Languages and Similarities with Hebrew

Similarity with other languages is one of the most important things while you are learning a language. If the language you want to learn shares common characteristics with another language, and it probably does because of the language families, it will provide you help in two main ways. First, if you learn the language you are planning to do, you will be able to learn similar languages easier than ever. Or, if you already know to speak a similar language, you will be able to learn the language you want to learn faster.

Like we all know, Hebrew is one of the oldest languages in the world. Since a language is something that evolves and turns into different languages over time, Hebrew has a lot of siblings when it comes to similarities. However, while reading about the similarities between Hebrew and other languages, we should keep in mind that the Hebrew alphabet is only used in Hebrew through history. So, we shouldn’t wait to see alphabetical similarities but instead, similarities that come from the roots. Those roots come from Semitic languages and to understand Hebrew’s similarities with other languages, we should know that.

The Semitic languages which were previously named Syro-Arabian languages are a branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Their origin comes from the Middle East but with immigrants, the languages have spread worldwide. The most broadly spoken Semitic languages are, in order, Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, Hebrew, Tigre, Aramaic, and Maltese. Since these languages are all Semitic language family, they share similarities. Especially, the similarities between Hebrew, Aramaic, and Arabic languages have been accepted for a long time by linguists.

So, if we want to look up to similarities of Hebrew with other languages, we should first take a look at Arabic and Aramaic. So, let’s start.

Similarities Between Hebrew and Arabic

Arabic is a Central Semitic language and this is the reason why it is closely related to Hebrew, Aramaic, and Phonecian. It is the language of the Quran and there are 25 countries that accept Arabic as their official language and some of them are Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco.

The main reason why Hebrew and Arabic are similar is that they are from the same language family, of course. So, if you ask us “How similar are they?”, we will answer you “They are as similar as German is similar to English”. (You can check our article on German language origins here.) If you are a translator or somebody that has a lot of knowledge about languages, when you listen to a Hebrew or Arabic conversation, you will understand the similarities.

Both languages are bidirectional. This means they are written and read from right to left. They also rely on modes of three-letter roots. This is officially called “Triconsonantal Roots” and it is a root holding a sequence of three consonants. To be more clear, in both languages, there are same group of letters and they are different words that are related to each other.

Between Hebrew and Arabic, some of the letters look similar or even have similar names. For example, in the Hebrew alphabet, the first letter is “alef” (א) and the Arabic alphabet’s first letter is “alif” (ا). Also, even though pronunciation might be different, some words of both languages like “laylah” which means “night” or “baqar” which means “cattle” are the same. Like they share the same words, they also have many similar words in common. Here is a list that shows some of the similar words between Hebrew and Arabic:

 

     Boy = Yeled (Hebrew) = Walad (Arabic)

     Gir = Bat = Bent

     Mother = Em = Umm

     Father = Av = Ab

     King = Malik = Melekh

     Camel = Gamal = Jamal

 

These are only some basic similarities that will help you to learn Hebrew as an Arabic speaker or the other way around.

Similarities Between Hebrew and Aramaic

Aramaic is a language that belongs to the Northwest Semitic group of the Afroasiatic language family, just like Hebrew, of course. It’s a language that was originally spoken by the Aramaeans which are ancient Middle Eastern people. Because some parts of the Bible like the books of Daniel and Ezra were written in Aramaic, Aramaic had replaced Hebrew and took the title “the language of the Jews” from it at the beginning of the 6th century BCE. After that, Hebrew was spoken as the language of religion and government but only by upper-class people while Aramaic was spoken by everyone. However, the language was replaced by Arabic around 650 CE.

Just like the Hebrew alphabet, the Aramaic alphabet was also based on the Phoenician alphabet and this is the most important similarity between these two languages. Actually, the Aramaic alphabet existed long before the Hebrew alphabet. It is believed that the ancient Israelites adopted this alphabet. So, it makes their alphabet so much similar to each other.

Just like Arabic, Aramaic is also written from right to left and this is another similarity between Hebrew and Aramaic. While writing down, neither of them use vowels or capital letters. It is just the way their writing system works.

These two languages are both the language of Jews. While praying, a person who speaks Aramaic natively says Hebrew words or vice visa, probably without even knowing. However, they have pretty much similar words in common. For example, if you say “malakha” which means “angel” in Aramaic, a person who speaks Hebrew will understand what you mean because, in Hebrew, it means “mal'akh”. Here is some similar words of Hebrew and Aramaic:

 

     to eat = akhal (Hebrew) =  'akal (Aramaic)

     to build = banah = benaya

     to cry = baka’ = dama’

           

Of course, there are similar words more than we give an example of but since the Aramaic language is recognized as endangered today and it doesn’t have so many speakers in the world, it is hard to reach more examples. It is safe to say that they are both languages of the Bible and most of their similarities come from the common words they use while praying.

Hebrew Basics

So far, we have learned some basic information about the Hebrew language. Like, it has 22 letters in its alphabet, it is both written and read from right to left, etc. While learning Hebrew, if you are an English speaker natively, it will be hard for you to pronounce Hebrew words.

Because, to give an example, “R” sound is similar to French. It is a throaty sound. Or, again, while you are saying “ch”, you need to pronounce “h” sound roughly by using your throat. However, by a lot of practice, there is nothing you can’t do!

Once you learned the alphabet, it means you left the hard times behind and now you can learn basic phrases. Here are some daily phrases in Hebrew:

 

     Hello! = Shalom!

     What’s your name? = Mah shim’cha?

     My name is … = Sh’mi …

     Nice to meet you! = Naim meod lekahir ot-ha!

     Good morning! = Boker tov!

     Good afternoon! = Tzooraim tovim!

     Good evening! = Erev tov!

     Thank you very much. = Toda raba.

     You’re welcome. = Bevakasha.

     Please! = Bevakasha!

     See you later! = Lehit-raot!

     Yes = Ken

     No = Lo

     Sorry! = Slicha!

     How are you doing? = Ma nishma?

     Do you speak English? = Atah medaber Angleet?

 

Don’t forget, while you are learning Hebrew, don’t be afraid to make mistakes. It is totally normal, probably you are completely a stranger to this language. Just start with small steps, set your goals up, and with hard work, everything will be great. Time, effort, and practice will be your best friends on this road, don’t turn your back to them.

Translation of Hebrew Language

If you don’t know how to speak Hebrew, or you don’t have enough time and motivation to learn it but you still need it, Hebrew language translation can be quite challenging. But don’t worry. We are always here to help you. A translation is not something you want to risk, it is an important job and you only should trust professionals that were trained for this.

If you want to move to Israel, or you have important documents to get translated, or maybe if you need a basic translation for your job, you can trust our professional translators.

Whenever, whatever or however you need, our online Hebrew translation office provides Hebrew translation services to its clients. We are working with people who are professionals in their fields. You can always reach us and we will be happy to help you!

About the author: Nazlıcan is an American Studies student from İzmir. She loves poetry, and her biggest dream is to own a boutique hotel one day.