Language portraits -- Part 5: What is modern Hebrew?

What is modern Hebrew? It has something to do with the bible, hasn‘t it. In this language portrait, the language shall be examined in a more detailed way.

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Modern Hebrew is a Northwest Semitic, Canaanite language. Within the latter, it is the only non-extinct representative. The term „modern Hebrew“ refers to the language of the state of Israel.

Why do you differentiate between Biblical and Modern Hebrew?

In fact, linguists divide the Hebrew language into four main stages: Biblical Hebrew, Mishnaic Hebrew, Medieval Hebrew and Modern Hebrew.

Hebrew had almost died out as a general lingua franca since late antiquity. In the diaspora, it still survived as a liturgical and written language. The latter applied not only to the sacred context, but generally in books and letters. Hebrew only became a general lingua franca again with the founding of the State of Israel in 1948. Nowadays, it has once again become a general modern standard language. Hebrew is so far the only sacred language that has been successfully revived as a general lingua franca. However, some linguistic features have changed over time, which is why a distinction is made between modern and biblical Hebrew. The differences between modern and ancient Hebrew are, however, smaller than those between ancient and modern Greek, for example.

On the idea of reviving a sacred language

As mentioned earlier, Hebrew never completely died out. It was still used in sacred contexts by Jews in the Diaspora. Due to the influences of the contact languages, the language was pronounced differently. The three major directions of pronunciation were:

  • Ashkenazi pronunciation

  • Sephardi pronunciation

  • Yeminite pronunciation

The pronunciation of modern Hebrew is based on Sephardic pronunciation, especially in the vowel system (you can read more about Sephardic Jews in another article).

At the end of the 19th century, the idea of nationalism emerged in Western and Eastern Europe. For this reason, the idea of finding an everyday idiom for the entire Jewish people arose for the first time, and with it grew the idea of reviving Hebrew. Vocabulary and grammar were more closely adapted to European surrounding languages.

The first person to speak exclusively Hebrew with his children was Eliezer Ben-Jehuda, who is also considered the "father of Hebrew."

A major challenge of Hebrew as a modern lingua franca was the introduction of new vocabulary, where much was borrowed from other languages.

What script is used in Hebrew?

Modern Hebrew is also written in the Hebrew alphabet. The script is written from right to left and a pure consonant script. Optionally, there are also vowel diacritics. However, the punctuation in Ivrit is based on the Latin tradition. Other Jewish languages, such as Yiddish or Ladino, are also written in the Hebrew alphabet.

A former sacred language for drinking coffee and gossiping?

Not everyone is in favour of reviving the former sacred language. There are also currents in ultra-Orthodox Judaism (which is also pluralistic and by no means uniform) that reject the use of Hebrew in everyday life and want to use it exclusively for religious purposes.

And yet Ivrit has become modern and suitable for everyday use, and it is possible to converse in Ivrit in a café. But like all languages, this discussion on usage is political and would go beyond the scope here. Those who immigrate to Israel can learn the language in an Ulpan, an intensive course.

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Sources: (25.01.2022, 13:29) (25.01.2022, 13:22) (25.01.2022, 13:22) (26.01.2022, 11:18) (25.01.2022, 13:27)

Smadar Raveh-Klemke, Ivrit bekef: Hebräisch für Deutschsprachige. Lehrbuch mit CD, Hamburg: Hempen Verlag, 5. Eds 2017.


Photo: Lavi Perchik via Unsplash

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