|Pronunciation||[(ʔ)ivˈʁit] - [(ʔ)ivˈɾit][note 1]|
|Native to||Israel, West Bank, Golan Heights;[not in citation given] used globally as a liturgical language for Judaism|
|Extinct||Ancient Hebrew extinct by 400 CE, surviving as a liturgical language|
|Revival||4.4 million native speakers of Modern Hebrew in Israel (2012), over half a million outside Israel
as L1 or L2 by all 8.2 million Israelis
Paleo-Hebrew alphabet (historical)
|Signed Hebrew (oral Hebrew accompanied by sign)|
Official language in
|Israel (as Modern Hebrew)|
|Regulated by||Academy of the Hebrew Language
האקדמיה ללשון העברית (HaAkademia LaLashon HaʿIvrit)
heb – Modern Hebrew
hbo – Classical Hebrew (liturgical)
smp – Samaritan Hebrew (liturgical)
none – Ammonite (extinct)
obm – Moabite (extinct)
xdm – Edomite (extinct)
Hebrew (//; עברית Ivrit [ʔivˈʁit] ( listen) or [ʕivˈɾit] ( listen)) is a West Semitic language of the Afroasiatic language family. Historically, it is regarded as the language of the Israelites and their ancestors, although the language was not referred to by the name Hebrew in the Tanakh.[note 2] The earliest examples of written Paleo-Hebrew date from the 10th century BCE. Today, Hebrew is spoken by a total of 9 million people worldwide.
Hebrew had ceased to be an everyday spoken language somewhere between 200 and 400 CE, declining since the aftermath of the Bar Kokhba revolt.[note 3] Aramaic and to a lesser extent Greek were already in use as international languages, especially among elites and immigrants. It survived into the medieval period as the language of Jewish liturgy, rabbinic literature, intra-Jewish commerce, and poetry. Then, in the 19th century, it was revived as a spoken and literary language, and, according to Ethnologue, had become, as of 1998, the language of 5 million people worldwide. The United States has the second largest Hebrew speaking population, with 220,000 fluent speakers, mostly from Israel.
Modern Hebrew is one of the two official languages of Israel (the other being Modern Standard Arabic), while premodern Hebrew is used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world today. Ancient Hebrew is also the liturgical tongue of the Samaritans, while modern Hebrew or Arabic is their vernacular. As a foreign language, it is studied mostly by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, and by archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, as well as by theologians in Christian seminaries.
The Torah (the first five books), and most of the rest of the Hebrew Bible, is written in Biblical Hebrew, with much of its present form specifically in the dialect that scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BCE, around the time of the Babylonian captivity. For this reason, Hebrew has been referred to by Jews as Leshon Hakodesh (לשון הקדש), "the Holy Language", since ancient times.
The modern word "Hebrew" is derived from the word "Ibri" (plural "Ibrim"), one of several names for the Israelite (Jewish and Samaritan) people. It is traditionally understood to be an adjective based on the name of Abraham's ancestor, Eber ("Ebr" עבר in Hebrew), mentioned in Genesis 10:21. This name is possibly based upon the root "ʕ-b-r" (עבר) meaning "to cross over". Interpretations of the term "ʕibrim" link it to this verb; cross over and homiletical or the people who crossed over the river Euphrates.
In the Bible, the Hebrew language is called Yәhudit (יהודית) because Judah (Yәhuda) was the surviving kingdom at the time of the quotation (late 8th century BCE (Is 36, 2 Kings 18)). In Isaiah 19:18 it is called the "Language of Canaan" (שפת כנען).
According to Avraham ben-Yosef, Hebrew flourished as a spoken language in the Kingdoms of Israel and Judah during about 1200 to 586 BCE. Scholars debate the degree to which Hebrew was a spoken vernacular in ancient times following the Babylonian exile, when the predominant international language in the region was Old Aramaic.
Hebrew was nearly extinct as a spoken language by Late Antiquity, but it continued to be used as a literary language and as the liturgical language of Judaism, evolving various dialects of literary Medieval Hebrew, until its revival as a spoken language in the late 19th century.
In July 2008 Israeli archaeologist Yossi Garfinkel discovered a ceramic shard at Khirbet Qeiyafa which he claimed may be the earliest Hebrew writing yet discovered, dating around 3000 years ago. Hebrew University archaeologist Amihai Mazar said that the inscription was “proto-Canaanite" but cautioned that, "The differentiation between the scripts, and between the languages themselves in that period, remains unclear,” and suggested that calling the text Hebrew might be going too far.
The Gezer calendar also dates back to the 10th century BCE at the beginning of the Monarchic Period, the traditional time of the reign of David and Solomon. Classified as Archaic Biblical Hebrew, the calendar presents a list of seasons and related agricultural activities. The Gezer calendar (named after the city in whose proximity it was found) is written in an old Semitic script, akin to the Phoenician one that through the Greeks and Etruscans later became the Roman script. The Gezer calendar is written without any vowels, and it does not use consonants to imply vowels even in the places where later Hebrew spelling requires it.
Numerous older tablets have been found in the region with similar scripts written in other Semitic languages, for example Protosinaitic. It is believed that the original shapes of the script go back to Egyptian hieroglyphs, though the phonetic values are instead inspired by the acrophonic principle. The common ancestor of Hebrew and Phoenician is called Canaanite, and was the first to use a Semitic alphabet distinct from Egyptian. One ancient document is the famous Moabite Stone written in the Moabite dialect; the Siloam Inscription, found near Jerusalem, is an early example of Hebrew. Less ancient samples of Archaic Hebrew include the ostraca found near Lachish which describe events preceding the final capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity of 586 BCE.
In its widest sense, Biblical Hebrew means the spoken language of ancient Israel flourishing between the 10th century BCE and the turn of the 4th century CE. It comprises several evolving and overlapping dialects. The phases of Classical Hebrew are often named after important literary works associated with them.
Sometimes the above phases of spoken Classical Hebrew are simplified into "Biblical Hebrew" (including several dialects from the 10th century BCE to 2nd century BCE and extant in certain Dead Sea Scrolls) and "Mishnaic Hebrew" (including several dialects from the 3rd century BCE to the 3rd century CE and extant in certain other Dead Sea Scrolls). However, today, most Hebrew linguists classify Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew as a set of dialects evolving out of Late Biblical Hebrew and into Mishnaic Hebrew, thus including elements from both but remaining distinct from either. By the start of the Byzantine Period in the 4th century CE, Classical Hebrew ceases as a regularly spoken language, roughly a century after the publication of the Mishnah, apparently declining since the aftermath of the catastrophic Bar Kokhba War around 135 CE.
Around the 6th century BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered the ancient Kingdom of Judah, destroying much of Jerusalem and exiling its population far to the East in Babylon. During the Babylonian captivity, many Israelites learned Aramaic, the closely related Semitic language of their captors. Thus for a significant period, the Jewish elite became influenced by Aramaic.
After Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, he allowed the Jewish people to return from captivity. As a result,[improper synthesis?] a local version of Aramaic came to be spoken in Israel alongside Hebrew. By the beginning of the Common Era, Aramaic was the primary colloquial language of Samarian, Babylonian and Galileean Jews, and western and intellectual Jews spoke Greek, but a form of so-called Rabbinic Hebrew continued to be used as a vernacular in Judea until it was displaced by Aramaic, probably in the 3rd century CE. Certain Sadducee, Pharisee, Scribe, Hermit, Zealot and Priest classes maintained an insistence on Hebrew, and all Jews maintained their identity with Hebrew songs and simple quotations from Hebrew texts.
While there is no doubt that at a certain point, Hebrew was displaced as the everyday spoken language of most Jews, and that its chief successor in the Middle East was the closely related Aramaic language, then Greek,[note 3] scholarly opinions on the exact dating of that shift have changed very much. In the first half of the 20th century, most scholars followed Geiger and Dalman in thinking that Aramaic became a spoken language in the land of Israel as early as the beginning of Israel's Hellenistic Period in the 4th century BCE, and that as a corollary Hebrew ceased to function as a spoken language around the same time. Segal, Klausner, and Ben Yehuda are notable exceptions to this view. During the latter half of the 20th century, accumulating archaeological evidence and especially linguistic analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls has disproven that view. The Dead Sea Scrolls, uncovered in 1946-1948 near Qumran revealed ancient Jewish texts overwhelmingly in Hebrew, not Aramaic.
The Qumran scrolls indicate that Hebrew texts were readily understandable to the average Israelite, and that the language had evolved since Biblical times as spoken languages do.[note 4] Recent scholarship recognizes that reports of Jews speaking in Aramaic indicates a multilingual society, not necessarily the primary language spoken. Alongside Aramaic, Hebrew co-existed within Israel as a spoken language. Most scholars now date the demise of Hebrew as a spoken language to the end of the Roman Period, or about 200 CE. It continued on as a literary language down through the Byzantine Period from the 4th century CE.
The exact roles of Aramaic and Hebrew remain hotly debated. A trilingual scenario has been proposed for the land of Israel. Hebrew functioned as the local mother tongue with powerful ties to Israel's history, origins, and golden age and as the language of Israel's religion; Aramaic functioned as the international language with the rest of the Middle East; and eventually Greek functioned as another international language with the eastern areas of the Roman Empire. According to another summary, Greek was the language of government, Hebrew the language of prayer, study and religious texts, and Aramaic was the language of legal contracts and trade. There was also a geographic pattern: according to Spolsky, by the beginning of the Common Era, "Judeo-Aramaic was mainly used in Galilee in the north, Greek was concentrated in the former colonies and around governmental centers, and Hebrew monolingualism continued mainly in the southern villages of Judea." In other words, "in terms of dialect geography, at the time of the tannaim Palestine could be divided into the Aramaic-speaking regions of Galilee and Samaria and a smaller area, Judaea, in which Rabbinic Hebrew was used among the descendants of returning exiles." In addition, it has been surmised that Koine Greek was the primary vehicle of communication in coastal cities and among the upper class of Jerusalem, while Aramaic was prevalent in the lower class of Jerusalem, but not in the surrounding countryside. After the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt in the 2nd century CE, Judaeans were forced to disperse. Many relocated to Galilee, so most remaining native speakers of Hebrew at that last stage would have been found in the north.
The Christian New Testament contains some clearly Aramaic place names and quotes. Although the language of such Semitic glosses (and in general the language spoken by Jews in scenes from the New Testament) is usually referred to as "Hebrew"/"Jewish" in the text, this term often seems to refer to Aramaic instead[note 5][note 6] and is rendered accordingly in recent translations. Nonetheless, many glosses can be interpreted as Hebrew as well; and it has been argued that Hebrew, rather than Aramaic or Koine Greek, lay behind the composition of the Gospel of Matthew. (See the Hebrew Gospel hypothesis or Language of Jesus for more details on Hebrew and Aramaic in the gospels.)
The term "Mishnaic Hebrew" generally refers to the Hebrew dialects found in the Talmud, excepting quotations from the Hebrew Bible. The dialects organize into Mishnaic Hebrew (also called Tannaitic Hebrew, Early Rabbinic Hebrew, or Mishnaic Hebrew I), which was a spoken language, and Amoraic Hebrew (also called Late Rabbinic Hebrew or Mishnaic Hebrew II), which was a literary language. The earlier section of the Talmud is the Mishnah that was published around 200 CE, although many of the stories take place much earlier, and was written in the earlier Mishnaic dialect. The dialect is also found in certain Dead Sea Scrolls. Mishnaic Hebrew is considered to be one of the dialects of Classical Hebrew that functioned as a living language in the land of Israel. A transitional form of the language occurs in the other works of Tannaitic literature dating from the century beginning with the completion of the Mishnah. These include the halachic Midrashim (Sifra, Sifre, Mechilta etc.) and the expanded collection of Mishnah-related material known as the Tosefta. The Talmud contains excerpts from these works, as well as further Tannaitic material not attested elsewhere; the generic term for these passages is Baraitot. The dialect of all these works is very similar to Mishnaic Hebrew.
About a century after the publication of the Mishnah, Mishnaic Hebrew fell into disuse as a spoken language. The later section of the Talmud, the Gemara, generally comments on the Mishnah and Baraitot in two forms of Aramaic. Nevertheless, Hebrew survived as a liturgical and literary language in the form of later Amoraic Hebrew, which sometimes occurs in the text of the Gemara.
Because as early as the Torah's transcription the Scribe has been the highest position in Judaism, Hebrew was always regarded as the language of Israel's religion, history and national pride, and after it faded as a spoken language, it continued to be used as a lingua franca among scholars and Jews traveling in foreign countries. After the 2nd century CE when the Roman Empire exiled most of the Jewish population of Jerusalem following the Bar Kokhba revolt, they adapted to the societies in which they found themselves, yet letters, contracts, commerce, science, philosophy, medicine, poetry, and laws continued to be written mostly in Hebrew, which adapted by borrowing and inventing terms.
After the Talmud, various regional literary dialects of Medieval Hebrew evolved. The most important is Tiberian Hebrew or Masoretic Hebrew, a local dialect of Tiberias in Galilee that became the standard for vocalizing the Hebrew Bible and thus still influences all other regional dialects of Hebrew. This Tiberian Hebrew from the 7th to 10th century CE is sometimes called "Biblical Hebrew" because it is used to pronounce the Hebrew Bible; however properly it should be distinguished from the historical Biblical Hebrew of the 6th century BCE, whose original pronunciation must be reconstructed. Tiberian Hebrew incorporates the remarkable scholarship of the Masoretes (from masoret meaning "tradition"), who added vowel points and grammar points to the Hebrew letters to preserve much earlier features of Hebrew, for use in chanting the Hebrew Bible. The Masoretes inherited a biblical text whose letters were considered too sacred to be altered, so their markings were in the form of pointing in and around the letters. The Syriac alphabet, precursor to the Arabic alphabet, also developed vowel pointing systems around this time. The Aleppo Codex, a Hebrew Bible with the Masoretic pointing, was written in the 10th century, likely in Tiberias, and survives to this day. It is perhaps the most important Hebrew manuscript in existence.
During the Golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, important work was done by grammarians in explaining the grammar and vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew; much of this was based on the work of the grammarians of Classical Arabic. Important Hebrew grammarians were Judah ben David Hayyuj, Jonah ibn Janah, Abraham ibn Ezra and later (in Provence) David Kimhi. A great deal of poetry was written, by poets such as Dunash ben Labrat, Solomon ibn Gabirol, Judah ha-Levi and the two Ibn Ezras, in a "purified" Hebrew based on the work of these grammarians, and in Arabic quantitative or strophic meters. This literary Hebrew was later used by Italian Jewish poets.
The need to express scientific and philosophical concepts from Classical Greek and Medieval Arabic motivated Medieval Hebrew to borrow terminology and grammar from these other languages, or to coin equivalent terms from existing Hebrew roots, giving rise to a distinct style of philosophical Hebrew. This is used in the translations made by the Ibn Tibbon family. (Original Jewish philosophical works were usually written in Arabic.) Another important influence was Maimonides, who developed a simple style based on Mishnaic Hebrew for use in his law code, the Mishneh Torah. Subsequent rabbinic literature is written in a blend between this style and the Aramaized Rabbinic Hebrew of the Talmud.
Hebrew persevered through the ages as the main language for written purposes by all Jewish communities around the world for a large range of uses—not only liturgy, but also poetry, philosophy, science and medicine, commerce, daily correspondence and contracts. There have been, of course, many deviations from this generalization such as Bar Kokhba's letters to his lieutenants, which were mostly in Aramaic, and Maimonides' writings, which were mostly in Arabic; but overall, Hebrew did not cease to be used for such purposes. This meant not only that well-educated Jews in all parts of the world could correspond in a mutually intelligible language, and that books and legal documents published or written in any part of the world could be read by Jews in all other parts, but that an educated Jew could travel and converse with Jews in distant places, just as priests and other educated Christians could converse in Latin. For example, Rabbi Avraham Danzig wrote the Chayei Adam in Hebrew, as opposed to Yiddish, as a guide to Halacha for the "average 17-year old" (Ibid. Introduction 1). Similarly, the Chofetz Chaim, Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan’s purpose in writing the Mishna Berurah was to “produce a work that could be studied daily so that Jews might know the proper procedures to follow minute by minute”. The work was nevertheless written in Talmudic Hebrew and Aramaic, since, “the ordinary Jew [of Eastern Europe] of a century ago, was fluent enough in this idiom to be able to follow the Mishna Berurah without any trouble.”
Hebrew has been revived several times as a literary language, most significantly by the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement of early and mid-19th-century Germany. Near the end of that century the Jewish activist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, owing to the ideology of the national revival (Shivat Tziyon [(שיבת ציון)], later Zionism), began reviving Hebrew as a modern spoken language. Eventually, as a result of the local movement he created, but more significantly as a result of the new groups of immigrants known under the name of the Second Aliyah, it replaced a score of languages spoken by Jews at that time. Those languages were Jewish dialects of local languages, including Judaeo-Spanish (also called "Judezmo" and "Ladino"), Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and Bukhori (Tajiki), or local languages spoken in the Jewish diaspora such as Russian, Persian, and Arabic.
The major result of the literary work of the Hebrew intellectuals along the 19th century was a lexical modernization of Hebrew. New words and expressions were adapted as neologisms from the large corpus of Hebrew writings since the Hebrew Bible, or borrowed from Arabic (mainly by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) and older Aramaic and Latin. Many new words were either borrowed from or coined after European languages, especially English, Russian, German, and French. Modern Hebrew became an official language in British-ruled Palestine in 1921 (along with English and Arabic), and then in 1948 became an official language of the newly declared State of Israel. Hebrew is the most widely spoken language in Israel today.
In the Modern Period, from the 19th century onward, the literary Hebrew tradition revived as the spoken language of modern Israel, called variously Israeli Hebrew, Modern Israeli Hebrew, Modern Hebrew, New Hebrew, Israeli Standard Hebrew, Standard Hebrew, and so on. Israeli Hebrew exhibits some features of Sephardic Hebrew from its local Jerusalemite tradition but adapts it with numerous neologisms, borrowed terms (often technical) from European languages and adopted terms (often colloquial) from Arabic.
The literary and narrative use of Hebrew was revived beginning with the Haskalah movement. The first secular periodical in Hebrew, Hameassef (The Gatherer), was published by Maskilim literati in Königsberg (today's Kaliningrad) from 1783 onwards. In the mid-19th century, publications of several Eastern European Hebrew-language newspapers (e.g. HaMagid, founded in Ełk in 1856) multiplied. Prominent poets were Hayim Nahman Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky; there were also novels written in the language.
The revival of the Hebrew language as a mother tongue was initiated in the late 19th century by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He joined the Jewish national movement and in 1881 immigrated to Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Motivated by the surrounding ideals of renovation and rejection of the diaspora "shtetl" lifestyle, Ben-Yehuda set out to develop tools for making the literary and liturgical language into everyday spoken language. However, his brand of Hebrew followed norms that had been replaced in Eastern Europe by different grammar and style, in the writings of people like Ahad Ha'am and others. His organizational efforts and involvement with the establishment of schools and the writing of textbooks pushed the vernacularization activity into a gradually accepted movement. It was not, however, until the 1904-1914 Second Aliyah that Hebrew had caught real momentum in Ottoman Palestine with the more highly organized enterprises set forth by the new group of immigrants. When the British Mandate of Palestine recognized Hebrew as one of the country's three official languages (English, Arabic, and Hebrew, in 1922), its new formal status contributed to its diffusion. A constructed modern language with a truly Semitic vocabulary and written appearance, although often European in phonology, was to take its place among the current languages of the nations.
While many saw his work as fanciful or even blasphemous (because Hebrew was the holy language of the Torah and therefore some thought that it should not be used to discuss everyday matters), many soon understood the need for a common language amongst Jews of the British Mandate who at the turn of the 20th century were arriving in large numbers from diverse countries and speaking different languages. A Committee of the Hebrew Language was established. After the establishment of Israel, it became the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The results of Ben-Yehuda's lexicographical work were published in a dictionary (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew). The seeds of Ben-Yehuda's work fell on fertile ground, and by the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew was well on its way to becoming the main language of the Jewish population of both Ottoman and British Palestine. At the time, members of the Old Yishuv and a very few Hasidic sects, most notably those under the auspices of Satmar, refused to speak Hebrew and spoke only Yiddish.
In the Soviet Union, the use of Hebrew, along with other Jewish cultural and religious activities, was suppressed. Soviet authorities considered the use of Hebrew "reactionary" since it was associated with Zionism, and the teaching of Hebrew at primary and secondary schools was officially banned by the People's Commissariat for Education as early as 1919, as part of an overall agenda aiming to secularize education (the language itself did not cease to be studied at universities for historical and linguistic purposes). The official ordinance stated that Yiddish, being the spoken language of the Russian Jews, should be treated as their only national language, while Hebrew was to be treated as a foreign language. Hebrew books and periodicals ceased to be published and were seized from the libraries, although liturgical texts were still published until the 1930s. Despite numerous protests, a policy of suppression of the teaching of Hebrew operated from the 1930s on. Later in the 1980s in the USSR, Hebrew studies reappeared due to people struggling for permission to go to Israel (refuseniks). Several of the teachers were imprisoned, e.g. Yosef Begun, Ephraim Kholmyansky, Yevgeny Korostyshevsky and others responsible for a Hebrew learning network connecting many cities of the USSR.
Standard Hebrew, as developed by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was based on Mishnaic spelling and Sephardi Hebrew pronunciation. However, the earliest speakers of Modern Hebrew had Yiddish as their native language and often brought into Hebrew idioms and calques from Yiddish.
The pronunciation of modern Israeli Hebrew is based mostly on the Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation. However, the language has adapted to Ashkenazi Hebrew phonology in some respects, mainly the following:
The vocabulary used within the Hebrew language has been altered from its original form due to its reintroduction to various cultures of organic life throughout time. The mouth to ear pedagogical method used in transmitting Hebrew to generations of children has undergone Europeanization in each attempt resulting in the radically unique and unpredictable course that maintains its current form under the classification of Modern Hebrew. This "course that Modern Hebrew has embarked upon is the sure sign that Hebrew has been reborn."
In Israel, Modern Hebrew is currently taught in institutions called Ulpanim (singular: Ulpan). There are government owned as well as private Ulpanim offering online courses and face-to-face programs.
Currently, 90% of Israeli Jews are proficient in Hebrew, and 70% are highly proficient. Some 60% of Israeli Arabs are also proficient in Hebrew, and 30% prefer speaking Hebrew over Arabic. However, Hebrew is the native language of only 49% of Israelis over the age of 20, with Russian, Arabic, French, English, Yiddish and Ladino being the native tongues of most of the rest. Some 26% of Russian immigrants and 12% of Arabs speak Hebrew poorly or not at all.
Due to the current climate of globalization and Americanization, steps have been taken to keep Hebrew the primary language of use, and to prevent large-scale incorporation of English words into Hebrew vocabulary. The Academy of the Hebrew Language of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem currently invents about 2,000 new Hebrew words each year for modern words by finding an original Hebrew word that captures the meaning, as an alternative to incorporating more English words into Hebrew vocabulary. The Haifa municipality has banned officials from using English words in official documents, and is fighting to stop businesses from using only English signs to market their services. In 2012, a Knesset bill for the preservation of the Hebrew language was proposed, which includes the stipulation that all signage in Israel must first and foremost be in Hebrew, as with all speeches by Israeli officials abroad. The bill's author, MK Akram Hasson, stated that the bill was proposed as a response to Hebrew "losing its prestige", and children incorporating more English words into their vocabulary. Hebrew is also an official national minority language in Poland, since 6 January 2005.
Biblical Hebrew had a typical Semitic consonant inventory, with pharyngeal /ʕ ħ/, a series of "emphatic" consonants (possibly ejective, but this is debated), lateral fricative /ɬ/, and in its older stages also uvular /χ ʁ/. /χ ʁ/ merged into /ħ ʕ/ in later Biblical Hebrew, and /b ɡ d k p t/ underwent allophonic spirantization to [v ɣ ð x f θ] (known as begadkefat). The earliest Biblical Hebrew vowel system contained the Proto-Semitic vowels /a aː i iː u uː/ as well as /oː/, but this system changed dramatically over time.
By the time of the Dead Sea Scrolls, /ɬ/ had shifted to /s/ in the Jewish traditions, though for the Samaritans it merged with /ʃ/ instead. (Elisha Qimron 1986. Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls, 29). The Tiberian reading tradition of the Middle Ages had the vowel system /a ɛ e i ɔ o u ă ɔ̆ ɛ̆/, though other Medieval reading traditions had fewer vowels.
A number of reading traditions have been preserved in liturgical use. In Oriental (Sephardi and Mizrahi) Jewish reading traditions, the emphatic consonants are realized as pharyngealized, while the Ashkenazi (northern and eastern European) traditions have lost emphatics and pharyngeals (although according to Ashkenazi law, pharyngeal articulation is preferred over uvular or glottal articulation when representing the community in religious service such as prayer and Torah reading), and show the shift of /w/ to /v/. The Samaritan tradition has a complex vowel system which does not correspond closely to the Tiberian systems.
Modern Hebrew pronunciation developed from a mixture of the different Jewish reading traditions, generally tending towards simplification. Emphatic consonants have shifted to their ordinary counterparts, /w/ to /v/, and [ɣ ð θ] are not present. Many Israelis merge /ʕ ħ/ with /ʔ χ/, do not have contrastive gemination, and pronounce /r/ as a uvular trill [ʀ] (or voiced uvular fricative) rather than an alveolar trill, as in many varieties of Ashkenazi Hebrew. The consonants /tʃ dʒ/ have become phonemic due to loan words, and /w/ has similarly been re-introduced.
Hebrew grammar is partly analytic, expressing such forms as dative, ablative, and accusative using prepositional particles rather than grammatical cases. However, inflection plays a decisive role in the formation of the verbs and nouns. E.g. nouns have a construct state, called "smikhut", to denote the relationship of "belonging to": this is the converse of the genitive case of more inflected languages. Words in smikhut are often combined with hyphens. In modern speech, the use of the construct is sometimes interchangeable with the preposition "shel", meaning "of". There are many cases, however, where older declined forms are retained (especially in idiomatic expressions and the like), and "person"-enclitics are widely used to "decline" prepositions.
Like all Semitic languages, the Hebrew language exhibits a pattern of stems consisting typically of "triliteral", or 3-consonant consonantal roots (4-consonant roots also exist), from which nouns, adjectives, and verbs are formed in various ways: e.g. by inserting vowels, doubling consonants, lengthening vowels, and/or adding prefixes, suffixes, or infixes.
Hebrew uses a number of one-letter prefixes that are added to words for various purposes. These are called inseparable prepositions or "Letters of Use" (Hebrew: אותיות השימוש, Otiyot HaShimush). Such items include: the definite article ha- (/ha/) (="the"); prepositions be- (/bə/) (="in"), le- (/lə/) (="to"; a shortened version of the preposition el), mi- (/mi/) (="from"; a shortened version of the preposition min); conjunctions ve- (/və/) (="and"), she- (/ʃe/) (="that"; a shortened version of the Biblical conjunction asher), ke- (/kə/) (="as", "like"; a shortened version of the conjunction kmo).
The vowel accompanying each of these letters may differ from those listed above, depending on the first letter or vowel following it. The rules governing these changes, hardly observed in colloquial speech as most speakers tend to employ the regular form, may be heard in more formal circumstances. For example, if a preposition is put before a word which begins with a moving Shva, then the preposition takes the vowel /i/ (and the initial consonant may be weakened): colloquial be-kfar (="in a village") corresponds to the more formal bi-khfar.
The definite article may be inserted between a preposition or a conjunction and the word it refers to, creating composite words like mé-ha-kfar (="from the village"). The latter also demonstrates the change in the vowel of mi-. With be and le, the definite article is assimilated into the prefix, which then becomes ba or la. Thus *be-ha-matos becomes ba-matos (="in the plane"). Note that this does not happen to mé (the form of "min" or "mi-" used before the letter "he"), therefore mé-ha-matos is a valid form, which means "from the airplane".
Like most other languages, the vocabulary of the Hebrew language is divided into verbs, nouns, adjectives, and so on, and its sentence structure can be analyzed by terms like object, subject, and so on. However, speakers of languages such as English, French, Urdu or Persian may find the structure of Hebrew sentences quite surprising.
Modern Hebrew is written from right to left using the Hebrew alphabet, which is an abjad, or consonant-only script of 22 letters. The ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet is similar to those used for Canaanite and Phoenician. Modern scripts are based on the "square" letter form, known as Ashurit (Assyrian), which was developed from the Aramaic script. 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. The medieval version of the cursive script forms the basis of another style, known as Rashi script. When necessary, vowels are indicated by diacritic marks above or below the letter representing the syllabic onset, or by use of matres lectionis, which are consonantal letters used as vowels. Further diacritics are used to indicate variations in the pronunciation of the consonants (e.g. bet/vet, shin/sin); and, in some contexts, to indicate the punctuation, accentuation, and musical rendition of Biblical texts (see Cantillation).
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Hebrew has always been used as the language of prayer and study, and the following pronunciation systems are found.
Ashkenazi Hebrew, originating in Central and Eastern Europe, is still widely used in Ashkenazi Jewish religious services and studies in Israel and abroad, particularly in the Haredi and other Orthodox communities. It was influenced by the Yiddish language.
Sephardi Hebrew is the traditional pronunciation of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews and Sephardi Jews in the countries of the former Ottoman Empire, with the exception of Yemenite Hebrew. This pronunciation, in the form used by the Jerusalem Sephardic community, is the basis of the Hebrew phonology of Israeli native speakers. It was influenced by the Judezmo language.
Mizrahi (Oriental) Hebrew is actually a collection of dialects spoken liturgically by Jews in various parts of the Arab and Islamic world. It was possibly influenced by the Aramaic and Arabic languages, and in some cases by Sephardi Hebrew, although some linguists maintain that it is the direct heir of Biblical Hebrew and thus represents the true dialect of Hebrew. The same claim is sometimes made for Yemenite Hebrew or Temanit, which differs from other Mizrahi dialects by having a radically different vowel system, and distinguishing between different diacritically marked consonants that are pronounced identically in other dialects (for example gimel and "ghimel".)
These pronunciations are still used in synagogue ritual and religious study, in Israel and elsewhere, mostly by people who are not native speakers of Hebrew, though some traditionalist Israelis are bi-dialectal.
Many synagogues in the diaspora, even though Ashkenazi by rite and by ethnic composition, have adopted the "Sephardic" pronunciation in deference to Israeli Hebrew. However, in many British and American schools and synagogues, this pronunciation retains several elements of its Ashkenazi substrate, especially the distinction between tsere and segol.
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