Linguistic Analysis of the Hebrew Language
There are more than 7,000 languages in the world and each one has their own set of rules governing the language. Each language is unique to itself but there are systems in place in all languages. These languages have a syntactic system, a morphological system, a phonological system, and an orthographic system. The Hebrew language is no different. It has a rich history, and a unique structure all its own. Hebrew is one of, if not, the oldest language in the world. Learning the history, the linguistic systems for this language and any language can help teachers teach English as a Second Language students, or ELLS.
Hebrew is one of the world’s oldest living languages. Hebrew is a Semitic language, which means, “Shemitic, from shem, the son of Noah” (Pelaia, n.d). “Hebrew is the official language of the State of Israel. The earliest Hebrew texts date from the second millennium B.C.E.” (Pelaia, n.d) According to Pelaia, in the beginning, Hebrew was not a spoken language. Most of what we know about the history of the Hebrew language is from the Bible. We can also trace the history of the Jewish people through the Bible and other sources, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The Hebrew Bible is one of the best resources to trace the history of the Jewish people and their language. “All people spoke one language (Genesis 11:1) until the construction of the tower of Babel, in southern Mesopotamia which occurred sometime around 4000 BC” (Pelaia, n.d.). Pelaia goes on to discuss how God confused the language of men and scattered the nations. It’s believed that the language spoken before the Tower of Babel was Hebrew because Adam and Eve’s descendants had Hebrew names, which meant they spoke some variation of Hebrew. The language was likely commonly spoken until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.
“Once Jews were exiled, Hebrew began to disappear as a spoken language, although it was still preserved as a written language for Jewish prayers and holy texts. During the Second Temple Period, Hebrew was most likely used only for liturgical purposes. Parts of the Hebrew Bible are written in Hebrew as is the Mishnah, which is Judaism’s written record of the Oral Torah” (Pelaia, n.d).
According to Pelaia, up until a century ago, Hebrew was not a spoken language. In 1880, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda wanted to revive the spoken language of Hebrew. He said he believed that the Jewish people needed to have their own language. “Today Israel is the official language of the state of Israel. It is also common for Jews living outside of Ideal to study Hebrew as part of their religious upbringings” (Pelaia, n.d) The language was likely commonly spoken until the fall of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E.
Hebrew’s Syntactic System
Syntax, or in Hebrew, Tachbir, in the study of linguistics, “…is the study of how words are combined to create phrases and clauses in the sentences of a language” (Freeman and Freeman, 2014). In the Hebrew language, their sentence structure is very different from that of English and some other languages. “Hebrew is written horizontally from right to left, like Arabic” (Language differences: English-Hebrew, n.d.).
In English, the structure of the sentence is important, however this is not so in Hebrew. “In English, the normal verbal sentence structure would be subject-verb-object. In Hebrew, verb sentence stature is verb-subject-object” (Eisenbrauns & Lake, 1990). There are exceptions to this. In some cases, the verb may be preceded by an adverb, or the verb may also be preceded by other modifiers or grammatical constructions. However, for the most part the verb is at the beginning of the sentence and the subject is at the end.
In Hebrew, according to Eisenbrauns & Lake, 1990, the syntax of the subject is also important. Perfect, imperfect, and imperative verbs have an implied subject, which means that one will not always need an explicit subject to complete a sentence in Hebrew. This is completely different from English. In English you need a subject and a verb to have a complete sentence.
According to Eisenbrauns & Lake, the most important ones for this topic are the indirect (dative) and the direct (accusative) objects. The dative object is used to denote the object indirectly affected by an action. The accusative object is the object that comes immediately after the verb or subject.
Just like English, Hebrew has adverbs, and adjectives, as well as conditional sentences. The only difference is that the verb comes first. No matter where the subject is in the sentence, it does not change the meaning of the sentence.
Hebrew’s Morphological System
Morphology, in the study of linguistics, “…is the study of meaningful parts of words” (Freeman and Freeman, 2014). It can also be defined as “… is the field in linguistics, which deals with breaking down a word into its smallest units, each with its individual meaning. A morpheme is the most basic linguistic unit, the smallest meaningful element of speech or writing.” Hebrew uses suffixes and prefixes just as they do in English. Most of these suffixes in Hebrew are only one character, unlike English, which can be one or multiple letters. Each character can mean one thing, or many things, and needs to be examined to understand what the word is trying to say.
Hebrew’s Phonological System
“The Hebrew alphabet comprises twenty-two letters, all of which are consonants and whose shapes in the first instance were similar to the objects which they are supposed to have signified” (Harrison, 1955). Modern Hebrew is phonetically simpler than Biblical Hebrew and has fewer phonemes, but it is phonologically more complex. “It has 25 to 27 consonants and 5 to 10 vowels, depending on the speaker and the analysis. Hebrew vowels are pronounced AH, EH, EE, OH, OOH and AY. Most all the vowels are symbols placed either directly underneath the letter, above the letter, or next to the letter” (Ivrit, n.d.). “All Hebrew words start with a consonant, and then vowels are added. Each one is placed closely associated with which it is pronounced, generally directly under the constant” (Harrison, 1955).
Here is an example of a word written in Hebrew. Notice the symbols are the constants and the dots are the added vowels. According to The Webster’s New World Hebrew Dictionary, this word means: “In a condition of need or want.” Notice the markings about the characters. Those markings are the vowels or nekudot.
Hebrew’s Orthographic System
Orthography is more than just spelling. It refers to “all aspects of writing, including the spelling, the punctuation, the spacing, and the special features such as boldface or italics” (Freeman and Freeman, 2014). This is a complex system as the language does not actually have vowels. Vowels are marked by the dots on other characters. Originally the language did not have any vowels. We learn a lot of the Hebrew language from the Bible and other ancient texts such as the Dead Sea scrolls. Hebrew is written with characters, not letters like most other languages. The character can have different dots and dashes to show how it should be pronounced as well as whether the letter is a vowel or not.
Most people assume the Hebrew did not have vowels in its early stages because there were no vowels in the Torah. In Hebrew, vowels are called nekudot. The vowels or nekudot were not marked in the Torah as you mark vowels with a series of dots. Does this mean there were no vowels in its early stages?
The truth is that while there are no vowels written in the Torah, that is not accurate. The vowels or the nekudot were not marked in the Torah, but they were divine just the same. The nekudot were given to Moses by God on Mount Sinai. The Hebrew language was passed down orally from generation to generation. It was not until Ezra the scribe, who lived around 348 BCE, revealed the vowels and taught these vowels to the Hebrew Nation. Until then, Hebrew was never written down. Because nekudot are marked by dots, it was impossible to mark them. This does not mean they did not exist.
A diacritic is a sign such as an accent or cedilla, which when written about or below a letter indicates a difference in pronunciation from the same letter when unmarked or differently marked.
Hebrew and English
All languages have a history all their own, and use basic systems, such as orthography, phonological, morphological, and syntactic. Although there are many differences between the languages there are also some similarities.
The Hebrew language is complex yet interesting, deeply rooted in history. Many languages, including English, are affected by history, but they do not have the extensive background as Hebrew does.
The syntax system is different from English. In the Hebrew language, their sentence structure is very different from that of English. In English, the structure of the sentence is important, however this is not so in Hebrew. “In English, the normal verbal sentence structure would be subject-verb-object. In the Hebrew language verb sentence stature is verb-subject- object” (Eisenbrauns & Lake, 1990). The Hebrew verb grammar is like English in that it has past, present, and future tenses, conditionals, imperatives, and infinitives. It has the active and passive voice and differentiates between transitive and intransitive. There are some minor differences,
Hebrew’s word order is more flexible than the rigid Subject-Verb-Object syntax of the English language. Written and spoken Hebrew sentences often start with the verb, followed by the subject. Adjectives come after the noun they modify.
The Morphological System is not all that different from that of English. The Hebrew system is written horizontally from right to left, like Arabic. For an English speaker, they would feel like they are turning to the last page of a Hebrew book, when it is the first page.
The Phonological system is a bit different from that in English. Hebrew also stresses the last, or penultimate syllable, in a work whereas English is more random as to what syllable they stress. Hebrew has five or six vowel sounds and more than 20 consonant sounds. In English, there are 26 letters, 21 consonants and 5 vowels, though at times Y is considered a constant. “The lack of discrimination in Hebrew between long and short vowels results in the familiar problem of correctly pronouncing English words such as ship/sheep or bit/beat. As with many learners of English, Hebrew native speakers struggle with the (/θ/ /ð/) sounds, such as in the words then, think and clothes. They may also have difficulties with the /w/ and /v/ sounds, pronouncing vine as wine, or vice versa” (Language differences: English-Hebrew, n.d.).
How does examining another language help English teachers teach English? It’s important to learn the differences and similarities in any language your students speak so you can help them learn English if they are ELS. It’s also important to learn the structure of other languages as it helps us learn the structure of our own. Teachers should be aware of the basic structure of any language spoken in and outside their classroom. When you understand the student’s background, you can use this knowledge to help them understand their new language. For example, if you know that Hebrew places their verbs before their subject in a sentence you can explain to your students that while this is how you do it in Hebrew, this is how it is done in English. By building on the skills the student already has, you can help them learn this new language.
To go even further, learning a second language can advance and strengthen the teaching of your ELS. If you learn a second language, you will have more empathy for your students who are struggling to learn English. You can understand their frustrations, concerns, and empathize with them. You might even be able to use some of the lessons and things you were taught to help your students.
“When you’re in a language class from the perspective of a learner, you get to know the feeling of making mistakes, the challenge of expressing your ideas clearly, making sense of the grammar rules, pronouncing words the right way, getting embarrassed, and feeling nervous to speak. This experience can then help you improve your communication skills as a teacher with your own students and give you an idea how to respond to the difficulties they have. And most importantly, you’ll have a better sense of how to help them overcome these struggles and challenges” (How Learning a Second Language Can Help You Teach English, 2020).
There are many languages in the world and each of the are unique, and they each have
Their own set of rules governing the language. These languages have a syntactic system, morphological system, phonological system, and orthographic system. The Hebrew language is no different. It has a rich history, and a unique structure all its own. Hebrew is one of, if not, the oldest language in the world. Learning the history, the linguistic systems for this language and any language can help teachers teach English as a Second Language students, or ELLS.
Eisenbrauns, W., & Lake. (1990). An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Abbreviations and Sigla.
Freeman, D. E,. & Freeman, Y. S., (2014). Essential Linguistics: What Teachers Need to Know to Teach (7th ed.). Heinemann.
Harrison, R. K. (1955). Biblical Hebrew: [the original language of the Old Testament, an expressive medium for conveying fundamental spiritual truths, full of simplicity and power]. Hodder And Stoughton.
How Learning a Second Language Can Help You Teach English. (2020, January 8). BridgeUniverse – TEFL Blog, News, Tips & Resources. https://bridge.edu/tefl/blog/learning-second-language-can-help-teach-english/
Ivrit. (n.d.). Hebrew Phonology | Biblical Hebrew. Retrieved November 20, 2021, from https://biblicalhebrew.org/hebrew-phonology.aspx
Language differences: English-Hebrew. (n.d.). Esl.fis.edu. Retrieved November 20, 2021, from http://esl.fis.edu/grammar/langdiff/hebrew.htm
Pelaia, A. (n.d). What’s the History of the Hebrew Language? Learn Religions.
I teach middle school through high school Special Education English. Some of my students are low. They might be in 6th grade for example, but their reading level is as low as kindergarten. I must differentiate each lesson for each of my students. For my low students, we work on letter sounds and blending letters together to create words. Studying Phonology helped me come up with different ways to teach them. It is important to use different methods, so my students do not get stuck on one method.
For example, at my son’s school they use the Foundations reading system. He must hear the words in the exact language they use in Foundations. I am trying to break him of that and with this new knowledge of Phonology I have a better understanding of how to help him.
In my classroom, I do not have any students who speak Hebrew. However, I do have students who speak Spanish and English. Even though I do not have any Hebrew speakers, the knowledge I have gained in this class will help all my students. Understanding the concepts in Linguistics helped me to learn more of my own language.
With this new knowledge, I have added a few new things to my curriculum. Everything I learned in this class can help my students and my ELLS. In teaching Special Education, I have noticed a lack of understanding in most concepts in English. I have started teaching my students different roots and affixes. I have access to a list of terms that they will learn in other classes, and I take the affixes and roots of those words and teach them. So, when my students go to their other classes, be it math or Social Studies, they will have a basic knowledge of the terms they are learning.