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Number of Speakers: 5.3 million
Geographical Center: Israel
Hebrew is one of the three official languages of Israel (alongside Arabic and English), and is spoken by some 4.8 million people in that country. There area about 300,000 speakers of Hebrew in other countries including the US, the UK, Australia, Germany, Canada, and the Palestinian West Bank and Gaza. It is unique among the world's languages in constituting the only successful attempt to revive a dead language (which is technically defined as a language with no native speakers).
According to the Ethnologue database, Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite subgroup of the Southern group of the Central Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family. Others consider Hebrew to belong to the Canaanite subgroup of the Northwestern group of the Semitic branch of the Afroasiatic language family (cf. Devens 2001: 296; Berman 1992: 118-9). Modern Hebrew is the only modern member of the Canaanite language subgroup. Other languages in the subgroup include Old (Biblical, Classical) Hebrew, Ugaritic, Phoenician, and Eblaitic. The closest modern language to Hebrew is Arabic.
Modern Hebrew can roughly be divided into two dialects, which can be referred to as the Europeanized (or Ashkenazi) and Oriental (or Sephardic) dialects. The socially more prestigious Europeanized dialect tends to be spoken by Jews of European descent while the Oriental dialect is spoken by descendents of Jews who emigrated from Arab countries. The main feature distinguishing these two varieties is the retention of certain sounds in the Oriental dialects which are also present in Arabic, but which are absent in the languages spoken by the Jews of Europe. Younger speakers of Hebrew tend to speak the Europeanized dialect, regardless of their family's heritage.
Hebrew is written in the square Hebrew script. Like most other writing systems of the Near East, the square Hebrew script has evolved out of the ancient Aramaic script. The earliest preserved texts in the square script date back to the 5th century BC. The script is not cursive, in the sense that even in handwriting the letters are not connected to each other. Hebrew is written from right to left. Hebrew script is a consonantal alphabet, consisting of 22 consonant symbols. Five of the consonant signs have a special word-final form. In some texts, especially for beginning readers for children and foreigners, prayer books, and Bibles, vowels are indicated by diacritics. In most texts, however, vowels are generally not marked, although the letter yod can be used to indicate the vowels /e/ or /i/ as well as the consonant /y/, and the consonant vav can be used to indicate the vowels /o/ and /u/ as well as the consonant /v/. A text in which the vowel diacritics are written is called vowelled, vocalized, or pointed. Here is a sentence written in Hebrew, written in both unvowelled and vowelled form:
Unrelated Jewish languages such as Yiddish and Ladino are also written in Hebrew script.
The pronunciation of Modern Hebrew was modeled on how Biblical Hebrew was traditionally read by speakers of other languages. It follows, then, that some of the more interesting characteristics of Modern Hebrew phonology arise from the imperfect transfer of Biblical phonology.
Biblical Hebrew had processes of both gemination (the doubling of a consonant) and of spirantization (the pronunciation of a stop as a fricative). While Modern Hebrew has not retained gemination, its residual effect is seen in the three consonant alternations which still participate in spirantization in the modern language. These alternations are b/v, p/f, and k/kh. As an example of spirantization, while /bait/ "a house" is pronounced [bait] (with a [b]) in isolation, but it is generally pronounced [vait] (with a [v]) when preceded by a vowel, as when it follows the conjunction u "and" in the phrase u vait "and a house". In Biblical Hebrew the consonant in these alternations would always be pronounced as a stop if it were geminated (that is, as bb, pp, or kk rather than vv, ff, or khkh). And in Modern Hebrew we see the effect of this rule even though there is no gemination. For example, davar "a word" and diber "he spoke" come from the same root. While in diber the consonant in question is preceded by a vowel, it is nonetheless pronounced as a b rather than as a v, because in Biblical Hebrew this word has a geminate middle consonant: dibber.
Biblical Hebrew had a set of emphatic (pharyngealized) consonants, an unvoiced velar stop q, and two pharyngeal fricatives (one voiced and one unvoiced), as does Standard Arabic. These sounds are not retained in the language of most modern speakers. The emphatic consonants are pronounced like their non-emphatic counterparts, the q is pronounced as k, and the unvoiced pharyngeal fricative is pronounced as regular h. Only the Oriental dialect of Hebrew retains the pharyngeal fricatives. However, all of these lost sounds are still written with distinct letters in the orthography.
Other notable phonological traits of Hebrew include vowel reduction in non-final nouns in certain sorts of phrases. For example, bait "house" becomes beyt in a phrase like beyt ha-sefer "school" (literally "house of the book").
As in other Semitic languages, much of the Hebrew word stock is derived by applying various templates (vowel and affix patterns) to a set of roots consisting of three or four consonants. For example, from the root l-m-d having the basic meaning of "learn" are derived words such as lamad "he learned", limed "he taught", lamdan "researcher", and limudi "didactic". As an example of a template, many nouns denoting professions are derived using the template CaCaC, where each C is substituted with a root consonant, as in hayat "tailor", ganav "thief", katav "journalist", and zamar "singer". It should be noted, though, that these are particularly transparent examples and that knowing a word's root and template does not guarantee that its precise meaning can be predicted.
The conjugation of the Hebrew past tense uses only suffixes, as in lamad "he learned", lamd-a "she learned", lamd-u "they learned", lamad-nu "we learned" while the future tense uses both prefixes and suffixes, as in yi-lmad "he will learn", ti-lmad "she will learn", yi-lmad-u "they will learn", ni-lmad "we will learn". Modern Hebrew is unusual in that while its past and future forms are true verb forms which agree in person, number, and gender, for the present tense it uses a participle agreeing only in gender and number, as seen in the masculine singular forms ani/ata/hu lomed "I/you/he learn" and the feminine singular forms.ani/at/hi lomedet "I/you/she learn". Hebrew also has imperative and infinitive forms.
Nouns are either masculine or feminine in gender. They may be singular or plural, although a few nouns can also appear in dual number. Plurals are usually formed by adding -im or -ot, depending on the noun's gender, as in the masculine sefer "book" > sfarim "books". Adjectives agree with nouns in both number and gender. The definite article is ha-, but there is no indefinite article. An adjective in a noun phrase carries the definite article if the noun is definite, a phenomenon often referred to as definiteness spread. For example, from the words sefer "book" and gadol "big", we can form the indefinite noun phrase sefer gadol "a big book" and the definite ha-sefer ha-gadol "the big book". To express possession, Hebrew has a construction known as the "construct", which is composed of two or more nouns, only the last of which can be definite, as in sifre ha-yeled "the boy's books". While in Biblical Hebrew the construct occurs frequently, in Modern Hebrew it is usually replaced with a phrase using the preposition shel "of", as in ha-sfarim shel ha-yeled "the boy's books".
The usual word order in Hebrew is Subject-Verb-Object (SVO), as in English. For example, the sentence "The boy read a book" is translated as ha-yeled (S) kara (V) sefer (O). A special preposition et is used before a definite direct object, as in ha-yeled kara et ha-sefer "The boy read the book".
The core stock of Modern Hebrew vocabulary is drawn from the Hebrew of the Bible and the Talmud, and to a lesser extent from later periods of written Hebrew after it had ceased to be a spoken language. Because Hebrew was not a spoken language for many centuries before its revival, many new words were required to adapt it to the realities of the modern world. Several different strategies were used to fill this void. Many new words were coined using existing Hebrew roots, such as sha'on "clock" from the existing sha'a "hour". Some words from Biblical Hebrew were given new meanings, such as sofer "writer" (Biblical "scribe"). And yet more words were borrowed from other languages, especially Arabic (adiv "polite), German/Yiddish (gumi "rubber"), and Russian (patefon "phonograph"). Many slang terms are borrowings from Arabic, such as zift "junk". Borrowings sometimes provide new roots, to which templates can be applied to derive novel words. For example, from the borrowed noun telefon "telephone", the root t-l-f-n can be extracted, from which the new verb tilpen "to telephone" has been coined.
Although Modern Hebrew has diverged from Biblical Hebrew in terms of phonology, vocabulary, and to some extent syntax, Modern Hebrew is still firmly rooted in the Biblical model from which it has developed, and educated speakers of Modern Hebrew can generally read Biblical texts with ease.
ROLE IN SOCIETY
With its large Arab minority (20%) and large number of Jewish immigrants speaking a variety of languages (notably 600,000 Russian speakers), Israel is a very multilingual society. However, on an official and social level, use of Hebrew is encouraged at all levels, a practice strengthened by the important role Hebrew plays as a symbol of Jewish nationalism. Although Arabic and English share some official status alongside Hebrew in Israel, Hebrew is the dominant language for official, public and private use of its 5,500,000 citizens, and it is the language used at all places of work except in the Arab sector. Government schools teach in either Hebrew or Arabic, but Hebrew is a compulsory subject for students through the tenth grade even in Arabic schools. Educational policy has recently evolved from one of neglecting immigrant languages to one of recognizing them as a valuable resource and investing in their maintenance (especially Russian and Amharic). Use of English in Israel has also continued to grow.
Hebrew enjoys an active press, with newspapers, magazines, books, and digital media. It is used as a language of formal education through the university level.
Hebrew as a spoken language appears to have died out by approximately the 3rd century AD. However, it continued to be used as a liturgical language and, during the Middle Ages, the written language of certain Jewish scholarly traditions and schools of thought. In Europe at the end of the 18th century, modern forms of literature emerged in Hebrew, including novels and social satire, but it remained a purely written medium. In 1881 a Lithuanian student who adopted the name Eliezer ben Yehuda moved to Jerusalem and encouraged Jews to return to their ancestral land of Palestine and to adopt the Hebrew language, under a movement called Zionism. A language committee was established in Palestine and so were schools, out of which the first native speakers of Modern Hebrew emerged. Under the British Mandate in 1922, Hebrew was given official status in Palestine alongside Arabic and English, a status which it retained when Israel became an independent state in 1948.
Berman, Ruth A. 1992. “Modern Hebrew”. In: Bright, William (Editor-in-Chief). International Encyclopaedia of Linguistics. Vol. 2. Oxford University Press, Oxford and New York. Pp. 118-123.
Devens, Monica S. 2001. "Modern Hebrew". In Facts about the World’s Languages: An Encyclopaedia of the World’s Major Languages, Past and Present. Edited by Jane Garry and Carl Rubino. The H. N. Wilson Company, New York and Dublin. Pp. 296-299.
Hadas-Lebel, Mireille. 1998. Parlons Hébreu. Paris: L'Harmattan.
Spolsky, Bernard and Elana Shohamy. 1996. "National Profiles of Languages in Education: Israel: Language Policy". On the Language Policy Research Center web site at http://www.biu.ac.il/hu/lprc/lprcprof.htm.
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