Why Hebrew Will Break Your Heart Before It Lets You Start Loving It
See Part I: The Road to Hebrew. In this series, I talk about Biblical and Modern Hebrew more or less interchangeably. In most ways, they are, though each has many words, grammatical patterns, and stylistic elements the other lacks.
It’s one thing if you’re raised around Hebrew, especially if you put years into preparing to become a bat or bar mitzvah, that near-universal coming of age that puts unaided thirteen-year-olds in front of Torah scrolls.
But say you’re a grownup starting from scratch. Say you’ve studied, at one point or another, German, French, Latin, Greek, Czech, Russian, Japanese, and Chinese. And after all, Hebrew is mastered by millions of immigrants to Israel, and many of its prominent speakers, ministers and ambassadors even, didn’t even start learning until they were adults. So you have reason to expect few surprises when it comes to this new language. Right?
Hebrew is member of what’s called the “Semitic Subgroup” of the “Afro-Asiatic” family of languages. That is a non-informative way of saying that Hebrew is closely related to some languages in its region (Arabic, Amharic in Ethiopia, what’s left of Aramaic in Iraq and Israel), distantly related to others (Berber and Coptic in Northern Africa, Hausa and Somali in Sub-Saharan Africa), and totally unrelated to its other neighbors such as Turkish, Persian, or Greek, to say nothing of English.
Related languages share core vocabulary. The word for ‘house’ in the Semitic languages is always some variation on bet or beta. ‘Peace’ is always salam or slom or something along those lines.
But they also share a certain grammatical machinery, certain basic architectural principles, certain ways of doing things. This is hard to communicate. It’s not the sort of thing many people think about or know how to explain.
Take the way languages build words. English and Japanese do this in comparable ways. Start with a word like open. I can use it as a verb or an adjective. I can add a little suffix to it and get opens or opened. Another little suffix gets me opening or opener. So you take a word, see, and put little affixes on it to make a new, related word.
Hebrew does that, too, but it does something else that is deeply alien to speakers of languages like ours. Watch this, and try it with kh as the ‘ach!’ sound, like Groundskeeper Willie on The Simpsons.
patakh ‘(he) opened’
pitakh ‘(he) loosened’
patukh ‘open (as in The house is open)’
This is not pearls on a string like open, opened, opener. This is something else entirely. Linguists break up words like this into two parts that come together like the two halves of a zipper.
So the part that means just ‘open’ is a series of consonants, p – t – kh. You get the different variations on ‘open’ by weaving the consonants together with the other side of the zipper, just by plugging in different vowels or leaving a slot empty.
Here’s what ‘opener,’ and ‘opening’ look like from this perspective:
English has a weakly analogous pattern with verbs like swim, swam, swum or drink, drank, drunk. If you can think of these words as consisting of strings of consonants, S-W-M or D-R-N-K, just with different vowels plugged in according to meaning, then you’re starting to think Semitic.
This Explains a Lot, Actually.
But only when you learn to step out of your English-speaking head.
Thinking of the consonants of a word as a separate thing isn’t just some eggheaded idea. It’s a psychological reality of the Semitic mind. Hebrew speakers, just like their Arabic- and Amharic-speaking cousins, have these things, these consonantal roots, in their heads, even if they’re illiterate.
And it explains why, when the early Hebrews adapted the Canaanite writing system to their language, they made the choices that, from our perspective at least, were really unfortunate.
Here’s how you write the words patakh, pitakh, and petakh in Hebrew:
That’s right. One letter per consonant, going from right to left. No vowels.
If you’re still getting used to this, then you know my pain, and I know yours. If this is news to you, welcome to the worldwide family of people who grew up with real alphabets and struggle with whatever this is.
Sarcasm aside, the Hebrew alphabet is an honored survivor from a period in which transparency was about the last thing on anyone’s mind. From China to Mesopotamia and Egypt, the writing systems that developed between 3000 and about 1000 BCE were not vehicles for promoting literacy. They were shorthand, a way of prompting the memory cells of people who were presumed to already know every word in the language.
So no, the Hebrews didn’t leave their vowels out to make our lives more difficult. They left them out because writing was for people who already knew the language — and back then, who else would try? — and because most of the meaning is just in the consonants anyway.
As Hebrew lost ground to Aramaic and Greek the last centuries before the Common Era, people began to forget the older pronunciations. By the early Middle Ages, Jewish scholars had worked out a system of dots and dashes for encoding vowel sounds for sacred texts, a system used to this day for school children and adults learning Hebrew as a second language.
Here’s how that leaves our three words from above, patakh, pitakh, and petakh.
And here’s something typical of knee-high Modern Hebrew. Bambah, a popular children’s snack: without the vowel markers, it’s simply BMBH.
Outside kindergarten and the immigrant absorption centers, you’re on your own in a vowelless culture.
Naturally, it isn’t all bad. The vowels <o> and <i> tend to get written down quite often, surfacing in the guise of the letters vav and yud.
But from a beginner’s point of view, it’s all still deeply unfair — you have to know a word before you can read it.
Again, English has some weak analogies. You have to know the words laughter, daughter, and though to know what to make of the <gh> in each of them. You have to pick up on context before you can know whether read is supposed to sound like ‘reed’ or ‘red.’
But There’s More to It. Much More.
Semitic writing is not just a relic, not just another variation on the theme of alphabetic systems. It’s reflective of an all-encompassing way of looking at reality.
The Semitic world sees the abundance of things and ideas around us as mere reflections off a much smaller core of reality, a weave of three-letter threads.
Take the simple root shin-khaf-nun, sh-kh-n, the common thread to a web of meanings — some mystical, some workaday.
shakhan ‘dwell, abide, settle down’
shekhinah ‘the Divine Presence’
mishkan ‘dwelling place, Temple’
shakhun ‘living, dwelling’
shekhunah ‘settlement, colony, neighborhood’
The famous one of course is shekhinah, the mysterious and unmistakably female presence of G-d — G-d’s dwelling among us — that at various times was thought to be in the Temple, the mishkan, in Jerusalem.
English and languages like it need a bucket of words to show us all these meanings, and once we choose one of them, we’re stuck. An English-only speaker wouldn’t guess the mystical connections between dwelling, neighbor, and Divine Presence in a million years.
In the Semitic world, nuance and ambiguity hang in the air like smoke in a hookah lounge. In an English translation, for instance, the author of Ecclesiastes laments “Vanity of vanities … all is vanity.” But in the Hebrew, vanity is hevel, which also means ‘vapor’ or ‘air’ or ‘emptiness.’ And it is connected, by its three-letter ligament, to other meanings: hehvil is ‘to give off vapor’ and ‘to lead astray.’ And wafting over everything is the connection to Hevel, the Abel of Genesis, the first human to be murdered for vanity, for vapor, for no good reason at all.
In the Hebrew world, all these meanings are suspended in the air. We can pull down whichever one suits our fancy, but the others are still there.
Great. So What Does This Mean for Us?
Learning a new language means wrapping oneself in a new reality, which is the sort of thing that only makes sense once it’s already over with. You can’t really speak French well until you can think in French, which involves learning to think like French-speaking people do.
How do they think, really? Hard to say. Hard to pin down.
Learning to think like a Hebrew speaker isn’t easy to do, but I hope I’ve shown here that it is fairly easy to describe, to conceptualize.
I hope this helps, and I hope you’ll tell me if it does.