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How Different are Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew?

The revival of Hebrew as a spoken language in the 19th century is one of those amazing linguistic stories that makes people wonder.  How could a religious-cultural group recreate the language of their ancestors and re-adopt it as a mother language after not speaking it for 2000 years? Is that really possible? Well, yes – they did it. But did they do it perfectly? Of course not. That would be inhuman.

Some people will claim that the language of Israel today is the same as the language of Solomon`s Kingdom…which sounds a little like propaganda. Other people, mostly disgruntled students who had trouble with Biblical Hebrew, claim that it`s a different language entirely. Neither claim is really true.

Hebrew Alphabet
The Hebrew alphabet

I studied both simultaneously (Biblical Hebrew at university, and Modern Hebrew on my own) and I always felt I was learning a single language – although 2 different varieties. Some people say it`s like an English speaker reading the King James Bible, and I think that`s  valid comparison. Reading Biblical Hebrew to me always felt similar to reading that somewhat archaic translation of the Bible in English. You know, it`s clearly English and a lot of it makes sense but there are parts when you understand the words but have no idea what the sentence means because of weird syntax; there are parts when the words have a different meaning than the modern meaning; there are lots of ambiguous sentences that could be understood in very different ways; and there are times when sentences seem to be unfinished and essential information is missing and it`s not clear why. Also, the content can be confusing. Like, why are we suddenly talking about the Moabites with no transition whatsoever?

Biblical Hebrew passage with English translation

Biblical Hebrew is harder to read than the King James Bible for one reason: there is no punctuation. Reading Biblical Hebrew is often like looking at a jumble of words and trying to figure out how they relate to each other grammatically, especially when the sentences are longer. When there is no puncutation, it`s hard to know where one clause finishes and another begins, so you can get lost fairly easily. Modern Hebrew has been standardized in terms of syntax and punctuation, and it`s much easier to look at a sentence and know how the words relate to each other.

If Hebrew was revived, then why is Modern Hebrew different?

Modern Hebrew was “revived” in the 19th century as a spoken language, but it wasn`t like they just took Biblical Hebrew and started speaking it again. They looked at Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew (rabbinic writings from the Talmud) and literary Hebrew from throughout the centuries and tried to create a standard Hebrew language from all of those pieces. But the people who adopted the newly revived Hebrew language weren`t always able to speak the new language the way they intended to, which impacted how the language is spoken today.

Hebrew Newspaper article about the most ancient form of Hebrew

Let`s look at a few aspects of the two forms of Hebrew:

Morphology  – the way that words are formed and fit together

Hebrew root letter system melech
An example of the Hebrew root system

This aspect of Modern Hebrew is almost exactly the same as Biblical Hebrew. Hebrew words are mostly derived from 3 consonant roots, and different word types are created by inserting those roots into templates that determine the vowel sounds and surrounding consonants.

In this example there are three root letters at the top that correspond to English m-l-ch

(like the “ch” in German). The first word מלך “melech” means “King”, the second one מלכות “malchuut” means “Kingdom”, and the third one מלך “malach” means “He ruled”.

מלך “Malach” is the 3rd person past tense form of the verb, to which we could add some suffixes to create other past tense forms like מלכתי “Malachti” (I ruled), מלכנו “Malachnu” (We ruled), etc.

I won`t give a full overview here, but just enough to point out that this is exactly the same in both Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew.

Vocabulary

The core vocabulary of Modern Hebrew comes from Biblical Hebrew. A large majority of simple nouns and verbs – at least those that existed in the days of the Bible – are the same. But there are also a lot of words in the Hebrew Bible that are not used in Modern Hebrew, and some that are used differently.

The Bible was obviously written in a very different world from the one we live in today, which means that some Biblical Hebrew are used today to represent a different thing, but a thing that performs the same function. There`s the word ספר (“sefer”) which simply means book in modern Hebrew. In the times of the Bible it was a scroll or parchment with writing on it. It wasn`t an actual bound book…or a Kindle book. 🙂

The classical language`s age means that its vocabulary is very limited. There are around 8,000 Hebrew words in the Bible, while Modern Hebrew has over 100,000 words. Most of those new words are genuinely Hebrew words – words intentionlly created from Hebrew roots and placed into the Hebrew “templates” I mentioned above, creating a new modern meaning related to the ancient root meaning. A good example is the word for computer, מחשב (“machshev”). It comes from the root letters ח-ש-ב (ch-sh-v), with the meaning of “think”. So you could say that “machshev” literally means something like “Thinking device”.

Hebrew vocabulary has been adjusted and greatly expanded to make it suitable for modern life.

Syntax

Most languages you know about are probably SVO (subject-verb-object) in syntax, or maybe SOV (subject-object-verb) like Japanese. But Biblical Hebrew was VSO, which is common in Semitic languages.

  • דיבר האיש אל מאש  “diber ha-ish el-moshe” (The man spoke to Moses).  Word for word: spoke the man to moses.

Since the languages that most early adopters of revived Hebrew were SVO, Modern Hebrew became SVO. The same sentence in Modern Hebrew:

  • האיש דיבר אל מאש  “ha-ish diber el-moshe”.  Word for word: the man spoke to moses.

That`s one major difference. Aside from that, it`s worth noting that Biblical Hebrew shows a lot of variation in syntax and probably contains a lot of mistakes too, which makes it harder to follow.

Modern Hebrew`s syntax has been standardized and is pretty straightforward.

Verb system

The conjugations and verb forms are the same in most cases, but the meaning they convey is somewhat different.

In Modern Hebrew, tense is conceptualized in the same way as it is in most Indo-European languages, using past, present, and future. In other words, actions are either before now, now, or after now.

In Biblical Hebrew and other Semitic languages, there are only two tenses: perfect (completed action) and imperfect (incomplete action). People who know Modern Hebrew will sometimes be confused because they see the perfect tense (which looks just like the past tense in Modern Hebrew) and assume that it`s a past action, like “He ate it”. But really it`s a completed action, and depending on the context could be translated as something like “He will have eaten it” – because at some hypothetical point in the future the action will be complete. Similarly, they may understand the imperfect tense as the future tense, when it actually means something like “He was going to eat it”. These are just examples, and often the tenses do correspond – but there are differences to be careful of.

Then how is present tense expressed in Biblical Hebrew?

It`s expressed using the imperfect tense, and the participle (similar to “ing” forms in English) is used to show continuous action.  The Biblical Hebrew participle becomes the present tense in Modern Hebrew.

Don`t worry if you understand clearly, the main point is that the verb forms look identical but can be misunderstood.

Pronunciation

Biblical Hebrew these days is usually pronounced with Modern Hebrew pronunciation, so lots of people aren`t aware of how Biblical Hebrew used to be pronounced. It had a lot of sounds that are not present in MH, but are present in Arabic. They`re not present in MH because Hebrew was first revived by Yiddish-speaking Europeans, and I`m sure they tried hard but they just couldn`t easily reproduce some of the original Hebrew sounds, so some of them merged with other sounds or were replaced by approximations. I spent a summer studying Hebrew in Jerusalem, and I found it ironic that the most authentic Hebrew was being spoken as a second language by Palestinians! Because they have all of those sounds in Arabic, and when they speak Hebrew they use them. This is also true of Jews who immigrated to Israel from Arab countries (who are mostly elderly now).

Some example differences:

Hebrew letter ayin-in Biblical Hebrew there was an emphatic glottal stop sound (`ayin), that kind of sounds like you`re vomiting. In Modern Hebrew it becomes a simple glottal stop (meaning you stop your voice by closing your throat). But it`s basically silent when people speak at a natural pace.Hebrew letter khetHebrew letter Het

-in BH there were two sounds (Het and khaf) that merged to become “kh” in MH.

in BH there were emphatic consonants. For example there was a simple “t” sound (taf) and an emphatic one (Tet) which changes the surrounding vowels.

Hebrew letter taf

Hebrew letters taf

 

 

Of course most sounds are similar, and Hebrew speakers are generally aware of the different letters that have merged.

Summing up

There are significant differences, but most literate native speakers of Hebrew can read Biblical Hebrew and understand it. That is partly because of the similarities with Modern Hebrew, but also because most of them study the Bible in school, and if they`re religious then they study the Bible continuously and read Biblical Hebrew on a regular basis. Through exposure they become familiar with the differences.

As a second language learner, I always thought of Biblical Hebrew as archaic and somewhat cryptic literary Hebrew, but still Hebrew. Honestly I had just as much trouble reading my academic textbooks in English in university. Slap a bunch of big words into a run-on sentence and watch the students suffer!

  • Uri Zackhem

    Hi Paul,
    I like you channel very much.
    Regarding Hebrew, the linguist Gilad Zuckerman argues that Israeli (this is how he calls modern Hebew) is really a different language, based on Yiddish. It has lost most of the noun inflections of biblical Hebrew, i.e. most speakers will say הבית שלי (my house) rather than ביתי (my house). The latter, if used, will be considered higher register, or just odd. The dual suffix, marking two: e.g. עיניים (two eyes) is fossil, and the native speaker will say שני קילומטר (two kilometres) although I heard an Israeli Palestinian saying: הלכתי קילומטריים (I walked two kilometres) as the dual is live and kicking in Arabic. In school we have to study the archaic Tiberian punctuation laws, which is really needless. For the Bar Mitzva, we have to learn the cantillation marks…
    Take care,
    U

  • David Fried

    Uri,

    The dual number has always been fossilized in Hebrew, even in the Biblical period. It is used only for natural pairs, such as parts of the body, and fixed expressions such as “sh’nataim” (two years) or “khodshayim,” (two months) just as in Israeli Hebrew. It has never been possible to say “sifrayim” for “two books” or “b’notaim” for two daughters, and there has never been a dual adjective form–all duals take plural adjectives.

    In my experience all Israelis understand the pronominal suffixes perfectly well, even if they only use them in speech in a few fixed expressions like “ishti” (my wife.) What has really died is the combination verb + pronominal suffix, where the suffix functions as the object. No Israeli will ever say, or even write, “b’lekhti habayta” for “When I went home” or “when I go home”, or “K’tavtiv” (I wrote it.)

    What’s really happening in spoken Hebrew is, I think, linguistic change as a function of the Israeli character and personality. My strong impression is that efforts to speak grammatical Hebrew are stigmatized and open you up to mockery. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. As a non-native speaker of Hebrew, I can roll with it. But I think it has a lot to do with how much spoken Hebrew has changed even in the 45 years since I studied at ulpan. I take it you’re an Israeli. What do you think?