Historically, Hebrew is regarded as the language of the Israelites. It is one of the world’s oldest languages, spoken and written today nearly the same as it was over 2,000 years ago. Sometime between 200 and 400 AD, Hebrew ceased to exist as an everyday spoken language. However, through the centuries, is remained in its written form as the language of Jewish liturgy, literature, intra-Jewish commerce, and poetry. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived once again as a spoken and written language; now referred to as “Modern Hebrew.” This renaissance of Hebrew as a spoken language is largely ascribed to Eliezer ben Yehudah who devoted his life to its revival and adapted it for modern use through the introduction of thousands of modern terms. Hebrew gradually came into use among the Jewish settlers in Palestine and became the official language of the state of Israel when that nation was created in 1948.

Hebrew is a West Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. Modern Hebrew and Modern Standard Arabic are the two official languages of Israel, although Modern Hebrew is considered to be the primary official language.

As of 2013, there were about 9 million Hebrew speakers worldwide, of whom 7 million speak it fluently. About 75% of the population of Israel (5,8 million) speaks Hebrew as a first language. Some 60% of Israeli Arabs are also proficient in Hebrew, and 30% prefer speaking Hebrew over Arabic. The United States has the second largest Hebrew speaking population, with 220,000 fluent speakers, mostly from Israel.

Hebrew Linguistic Features

a) Phonology

Modern Hebrew pronunciation developed from a mixture of the different Jewish reading traditions, generally tending towards simplification. Hebrew has 5 vowels: i, u, e, o, a, i, and 20 consonants. There is no contrast between short and long vowels. Vowels are not usually written, though some of them may be represented by semivowels.

b) Morphology

Gender: masculine, feminine. The gender of animate beings reflects their sex. Thought gender assignment to animal species and plants is arbitrary.
Number: singular, dual, plural.
Pronouns: personal, possessive, demonstrative, interrogative, indefinite.
Verbal: Verbs are based on consonantal roots that are not actual words but just a sequence of consonants.

c) Syntax

Like most other languages, the vocabulary of the Hebrew language is divided into verbs, nouns, adjectives, and its basic sentence structure is SVO (Subject-Verb-Object), but when the object is a question-word it is moved to the front of the sentence. Many Hebrew sentences have several correct orders of words i.e., one can change the order of the words in the sentence and keep the same meaning.

Hebrew Script, Orthography and Lexicon

The Hebrew alphabet is a consonantal script read from right to left, composed of 22 letters. It derives from the Phoenician alphabet that evolved into an Aramaic script and later into the Jewish ‘square’ script that is the standard printed form. A cursive Hebrew script is used in handwriting: the letters tend to be more circular in form when written in cursive, and sometimes vary markedly from their printed equivalents.

A Few Facts About the Hebrew Language

Hebrew is the original language of the Bible. It has played a central role in the cultural history of the Jewish people for the past three millennia, and has had an important impact on Western culture. Ancient Hebrew names such as Jacob, Joseph, Sarah, and Mary, and old Hebrew words or concepts such as “amen,” “hallelujah,” “hosanna,” “Sabbath,” and “Messiah” have survived, resisting translation in many languages and cultures.

Because praying and reciting the Bible in the original Hebrew have always been central to synagogue worship, contact with Biblical Hebrew has never ceased. The preservation throughout the ages of the morphological structure of BH accounts for the relative uniformity in the various historical layers of the language. Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Judaean state by the Romans (70 c.e.), spoken Hebrew declined by the end of the second century and remained dormant for over 1500 years until it was revived in the 19th century. During this dormant period, Hebrew still existed in its written form, and was used in Jewish liturgy and rabbinic texts.

Hebrew Language vs. Jewish Culture

Every country and every nation has its own people, language, religion, and culture, and they are called by different names, as is the case of the Israelites who may also be called Jewish and Hebrew.  “Jewish” is the word used to refer to everything that relates to the culture and religion of the Jews. It includes their nationality, ethnicity, religion, and traditions. The State of Israel is established as a Jewish nation whose people are descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“Hebrew,” on the other hand, is used to refer to a descendant of Abraham or an Israelite, but is also used to refer to their cultural and religious ties and those who have converted to Judaism. It is more often used to refer to the ancient Canaanite language of the Israelites, though. It is the official language of the State of Israel but is also used by Samaritans and other non-Jewish groups. There are many forms of the Hebrew language: one is classical Hebrew which is used for prayer and study; and the other one is modern Hebrew which is spoken by most of the Jewish people and the official language of Israel.

A Touch of Hebrew Literature

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion
And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.
An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father
Both in their temporary failure.
Our two voices met above
The Sultan’s Pool in the valley between us.
Neither of us wants the boy or the goat
To get caught in the wheels
Of the “Had Gadya” machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,
And our voices came back inside us
Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been
The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

Yehuda Amichai

The Old Acacia Tree

Neither daylight nor the darkness
See how silently I wander.
Not on mountain, nor in valley,
Does an old acacia ponder.

The acacia solves all mysteries,
Tells my fortune while I tarry.
I shall ask the tree to tell me
Whom O whom, am I to marry?

Where will he be from, O Acacia,
Is it Poland, Lithuania?
Will he come with a horse and a carriage
Or with staff and sack will he appear?

And what presents will he bring me –
Necklace of pearls and coral flower?
Tell me, will he be fair or dark-haired?
Still unmarried or a widower?

If he’s old, my dear Acacia,
I won’t have him, please don’t try me.
I’ll tell my father; you may slay me,
But to an old man do not tie me!

At his feet I’ll fall and with tears I’ll cry;
To an old man do not tie me.

Hayyim Nahman Bialik