In Praise of Learning Modern Hebrew Too

I believe Biblical Hebrew (BH) should be learned as a living language, spoken and enjoyed in every way one would learn a second language. But there’s a problem: We only have about 8000 words of Biblical Hebrew, and if we include all possible evidence, our corpus is still much smaller than any modern language (and is highly literary in form). Basically, there’s not enough evidence to reconstruct a vernacular for everyday speech. So what do we do? There’s two options: (1) You can coin neologisms and invent constructions based on existing evidence. That’s a perfectly legitimate approach. Some people do it really well, and I appreciate their hard work. But let me suggest a better way with richer rewards: learn to speak Modern Hebrew (MH) too. It is well studied, and thanks to the work of incredible linguists like Edit Doron, we have a good sense of the continuities and discontinuities between BH and MH.

Now, I think you should learn to speak BH for as much BH that there is. I’m not arguing we should teach BH by teaching MH (Israeli children still have to learn BH!). My claim here is simply that when the BH evidence ends and our imaginations must begin, there are far more benefits to using MH to supplement the evidence. We can either spend years learning BH and an artificial reconstruction of its gaps––one that an infinitesimal amount of people on the planet are truly fluent in––or we can learn BH and MH alongside each other and have access to the media, culture, scholarship, and history of nine million MH speakers. In other words: Why use Joe teacher’s invented BH word for computer when you can learn מחשב and be understood by millions of Israelis?

I understand there are issues here. Learning MH will not make you fluent in BH. Compared to BH, there are perhaps more differences in MH than similarities (there is a case to be made that because language evolution in motivated in certain specified and constrained ways, some features of MH today may have been inevitable for BH). I am aware that MH is not simply BH on the streets of Tel Aviv. It is part Bible, part mishna, part Aramaic, along with various Slavic, Indo-European, and Semitic influences. The syntax is significantly influenced by Indo-European elements (not the first semitic language to borrow in this way — go read Akkadian!), an entire section of the lexicon is basically neologisms from English, and there are many aspects of MH that ancient Israelites would not understand, including its pronunciation.

However, I want to suggest that a sufficient amount of features from BH survive in MH as to justify its use alongside BH in the classroom. In the words of Lewis Glinert:

[If] I catapult Moses 2000 years into a Tel Aviv street…neither the Hebrew grammar nor the lexical structure will pose major problems. It’s still basically the same Ancient Near Eastern language – much more the same than Old ‘English’ and Modern English.

We can dispute Glinert’s confidence here, but the basic premise seems right: Modern Hebrew is closer to Classical Hebrew than my text messages are to Beowulf. Hebrew’s history is all very complicated, and the origins of Modern Hebrew are no less complex (you’d need to look at the Hebrew Bible, early Jewish diglossia, mishnaic Hebrew, medieval Hebrew poetry, devotional works by Baal Shem Tov, and the early Zionist use of ‘vernacular’ Hebrew in Palestine…just to begin). Glinert’s point is that even with all this complexity, MH still shares a sufficient amount of continuity with its classical counterpart to be referred to as Hebrew. It’s strange, yes, but it’s truly Hebrew. This is the dominant view in the linguistics literature (e.g. it’s “an unusual case of continuity“). In fact, we might even say that MH shares so much with BH that after some explanation Moses and Ido from Ramat Gan could probably have a basic conversation today (unless Ido wants to talk about…well , anything after 1200 BCE).

Takamitsu Muraoka, patron saint of biblical scholars who learn Modern Hebrew.

MH is not BH. There are significant differences. However, there is more benefit to adapting MH than adopting isolated reconstructions (e.g. learning productive elements of post-BH like של). What follows is a simple beginner’s comparison of MH and BH. I’ll be referring throughout to this paper by Aaron Hornkohl. In sum:

The great similarities in orthography, morphology, morpho-syntax, and lexicon, as well as the significant overlap in syntax, mean that a high percentage of Modern Hebrew forms, words, and grammar—including many of the most basic elements of the language— echo and reinforce their biblical counterparts.

Let’s begin with the advantages:

Advantages of Learning MH

(1) Morphology. This is an area where MH is obviously semitic. MH morphology tends to follow the standard template morphology of BH, and so it is nearly identical to its biblical counterpart. Even the neologisms are ‘hebraized’ (טלוויזיה, אמבולנס, etc). There is remarkable continuity in morphology, and even the differences can be helpful (MH maintains a strong distinction between inflectional and derivational morphology, for example). If every other aspect of MH were completely different than BH, the amount of continuity in morphology should convince you on its own that MH is beneficial.

(2) Syntax. MH’s phrase structure and syntax have undergone seismic change. And yet, there are plenty of elements in MH syntax where BH syntax was readopted (e.g. periphrastic היה + Qotel). Despite the many differences (as we’ll see), there is still significant continuity that provides rich opportunities for internalising aspects of BH grammar. A quick survey: The semantics and syntax of the article and waw (although Israelis don’t observe the phonetic changes for waw in BH), the order of constituents in the noun phrase, complementation and clause structure (e.g. syntax of relative clauses, filler-gap dependencies, island constraints), congruency features between head and modifier, infinitive complements, dative clitic (lamed), smichut, existential יש, selectional restrictions, argument structure, continuity in lexical alternations, null copulas, directional heh, differential object marking, adjectival participles, active participles, contiguous TAM system (e.g. Qatal is past, Yiqtol forms futures, directives, and habitual/irrealis semantics), and virtually all the same binyanim: unmarked pa’al, causative hif’il, etc. I can go on, but you get the point.

Even where there is innovation, it is still ancient. Hornkohl writes,

…of the seven principal Modern Hebrew verbal forms—i.e., qatal, periphrastic haya qotelyiqtol, the active participle, the infinitive (construct), the imperative, and the shem peʿula verbal noun, only the last, which, again, is part of the Rabbinic system, is an innovation with respect to Biblical Hebrew.

(3) Orthography. The aleph-bet is the same and the orthography is almost identical to BH (except cursive!). Even the lack of nikkud in standard orthography is beneficial. Hornkohl explains,

There is pedagogical value in reading texts written in more plene orthography with minimal or no pointing: namely, that students can be coaxed away from sounding out known words syllable by syllable and toward the useful practice of reading by word shape according to context, which is how all fluent readers decode texts.

(4) Phonology (Pronunciation). Yes, the differences here between BH and MH are perhaps the most impressive (disappearing glottals, multiple vowel shifts, no gemination, several new phonemes). The primary advantage to learning standard (e.g. Sephardic) Israeli pronunciation is the opportunity to use what is shared between the two in the form of a real phonology (Tiberian vocalization preserves an ancient reading tradition, not an attested phonology). Yes, you’ll see some new phonemes and need to learn some new graphemes (e.g. the ‘j’ sound exists now in MH: גי), and the pronunciation is obviously different than what Moses would have spoken, but it is still mostly Hebrew phonology (e.g. roots are still mostly tri-consonantal). In other words: it’s still semitic. Don’t let indistinguishable gutturals or a runaway resh stop you.

(5) Grammar-Discourse Interface. Since “discourse is what makes us human” (Graesser et al. 1997: 164), and pragmatics involves universals of human behaviour, MH grammar yields much of the same pragmatic phenomenon for ordering and packaging information as its ancient counterpart. Although the code is frequently different, and the dominant word order is now SV, the ordering of constituents and role of discourse markers on attention operations, presupposition, implicature, downward entailment, Horn scales, ellipsis, and null forms, to name only a few features, all match BH.

(6) Lexicon. Although one should be careful not to assume some word in MH is equivalent to its BH counterpart, a large section of the MH lexicon is adapted from BH. Lexemes are often directly lifted from the Bible or are a clever reproduction of biblical elements:

For example, the word essence (מהות) derives from the BH what (מה) while the word quality (איכות) comes from the BH how (איך). Creative examples like these could be endlessly supplied. Even words that aren’t lifted from a biblical page are nonetheless semitic and/or related to an existing biblical word. And they’re fun! In my experience, learning common words I needed for conversation with Israelis improved my BH vocabulary. I simply noted where there were divergences and remembered them.

(7) Research and Culture. By learning to speak modern Hebrew, you are inadvertently learning several syntactic and lexical features of post-BH, an added benefit that can be useful in biblical research. You’re also becoming familiar with the culture and media of over nine million MH speakers. You can apply your knowledge of MH outside the Bible to a vast world of Israeli culture and scholarship.

Disadvantages

(1) Syntax. This is also where the differences are most apparent at first. Because there are so many differences, only a short survey is needed: MH is a partial pro-drop language now, the dominant word order is SV (VS is typically limited to null expletive structures), there are no verb chains, MH is tense-prominent, there are different semantic and syntactic conditions of absolute and relative tense interpretations, the imperative is not productive, and both it and the infinitive carry unattested pragmatic meaning (e.g. being bossy/condescending), MH is now a satellite-framed language, and alternations like the locative alternation and inchoative-causative alternation are often different, new forms like shem peʿula exist, as well as things like the Discursive Dative, and much, much more.

In one sense, it’s safer to assume MH syntax is discontinuous with BH until proven otherwise. Where it is continuous, MH tends to preserve some core of a BH element and then adds to it. The benefits remain, but users should be cautious about drawing conclusions from MH about BH. You need to be an Edit Doron to do this well. As far as the classroom is concerned, most of these things can simply be learnt and then adapted to their BH counterpart (where it exists). When I teach, I always tell students if something is MH and not BH.

(2) Lexicon. There are plenty of words in MH that either did not exist (electricity) or underwent semantic bleaching (כי). Various new particles now exist, including the interrogative ה) האם is considered far too formal or archaic) and the possessive של. Quite a few words have also undergone semantic drift and no longer carry the same meaning they did in BH. Gil’ad Zuckerman gives two amusing examples of the latter:

“How many Israelis know that an egla meshulleshet [Genesis 15:9] is not a triangular cow but ‘a heifer of three years old’? …Most Israelis misunderstand yeled sha’ashuim [Jeremiah 31:19] as ‘playboy’ rather than ‘pleasant child.’”

Personally, as a student I made many mistakes on vocabulary quizzes (try to argue with your professor that you did get the word right…in MH!). I also embarrassed myself enough times in conversation with Israelis to know you cannot simply lift any biblical word from the page and use it in conversation. For example, be careful referring to the letter zayin (it’s an obscenity), stick with מתחת for under not תחת, and be careful using the biblical word for anger (חרא) because it is a homophone for the word sh**. Small mistakes can also have disastrous effects. Famously, I once did the following with some accidental metathesis:

Exercising care is needed here.

(3) Grammar-Discourse Interface. This is also an area where there are some important differences. For example, left-dislocation is used frequently in BH but is ungrammatical in MH, where hanging topics with a nominative DP are required. It also has new discourse markers. Meanwhile, word order is similar but different: sentences are verb-initial when the verb has irrealis semantics, is passive, or signals higher register (newspaper, legal documentation). Like BH, word order is changed to code the information status of certain constituents, and certain adjuncts can be preposed for focus. However, unlike BH, PP and Accusative dislocates are now considered ungrammatical. Obviously, the situation is not the same. Much more can be said, but these examples suffice to show that major differences exist at in MH discourse.

(4) Morphology. Once in a conversation, I tried to conjugate a verb with the 2nd person plural feminine suffix. My Israeli friend looked at me, surprised, and said: “Wow, that’s fancy! But we don’t say that.” Certain forms of BH morphology are archaic in BH.

(5) Phonology (Pronunciation). This is perhaps the greatest difference between MH and BH. There are some important phonological and prosodic differences in MH that reflect contact between MH and various Indo-European languages (it was, after all, the work of revivers who spoke a variety of native languages).

“In one of the streets of Paris, in one of the cafes…I conversed in Hebrew for the first time with one of my acquaintances while we sat at a round table upon which stood two glasses of black coffee. The astonishing sounds of this dead ancient Eastern language mingled with the din of the gay sounds of the vibrant, lovely and rich French language.” Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1948), Prolegomena to the Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis.

(6) Novel constructions (e.g. Idioms). This is the only area where MH is basically not useful for reading BH and can be a positive disadvantage. פרה פרה [=cow, cow] means, “step by step”, תתחדש [=be new!] means ‘hope it goes well [with that new thing you just got]!, על הפנים [=on the face] means ‘dreadful!’ [e.g. a book/movie], and פעם שלישית גלידה [=third time ice cream] means something like, ‘bumping into each other three times in a row is no accident: let’s get together!’. Examples like this can be multiplied endlessly. The Hebrew ‘constructicon’ is filled not only with neologisms but with plenty of idioms that are incomprehensible to non-Israelis since they represent meaning that cannot be predicted from surface form. This will only get worse as times goes on.

One sign that Hebrew was dormant (not dead) was that it lacked L1 speakers. Another sign was that there was no change taking place in the grammar or lexicon. A changing language is a living language. The fact that Hebrew lives today mean we should expect its evolution to continue apace (despite formal attempts to prescribe correct language use). We still belong to a generation of Israeli speakers for whom the Bible is basically comprehensible. This will probably not be the case in 2100. A friend of mine showed his linguistics professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem a verse in the Bible and asked, “What does this mean?” The professor looked carefully at it and said, “I don’t know!” Like Arabic, the language will probably stratify into diglossic elements, so that learned Hebrew reflects and echoes BH but is never spoken in normal conversation, which at this pace will transform completely under contact with superstrates like English. Contact and evolution in the constructicon will continue to catalyse change in MH so that what is spoken becomes virtually unintelligible to someone who only reads BH (try speaking Maghrebi Arabic to a student of the Qu’ran, for example). Our generation has a special opportunity in that MH still reflects, echoes, and reinforces its BH counterpart.

Conclusion

As you can tell, MH will not make you proficient in BH. There are considerable differences between the two, and no one should assume what they hear in MH speech has been lifted from the Bible (similarities can be deceiving!). One always has to check some feature of MH against the biblical evidence before adapting it to BH speech. However, when faced with considerable gaps in our corpus, MH should be preferred and even prioritized since it represents a unique opportunity for internalising aspects of BH grammar in a complete spoken vernacular. When adapting MH to BH speech, the worst case scenario is that something foreign from Hebrew will be introduced (rather than, say, English). Remember: no biblical scholar prior to the 19th century had the opportunity to speak elements of BH with L1 speakers. Imagine what Gesenius or Reuchlin would have done with it!

So where should you begin? Of course, nothing is as effective as moving to Israel for an ulpan or making an Israeli friend in your city and meeting weekly for conversation practice. You can also use trusty Duolingo to learn some basic grammar and vocabulary. Lewis Glinert’s Reference Grammar is helpful. For serious tutoring, find an Israeli tutor on italki. In my experience, the Pimsleur materials are also great for commutes, and this teaching grammar is excellent. Israeli TV is widely available as well (with fun shows like סליחה על השאלה). There is no shortage of good resources out there.

Now go learn Modern Hebrew!