Hebrew language

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Languages

עִבְרִית Ivri't 
Pronunciation: [ʔivˈrit] (standard Israeli), [ʕivˈɾit] (standard Israeli ( Sephardi)), [ʕivˈriθ] ( Oriental), [ˈivʀis] ( Ashkenazi)
Spoken in: Israel and other countries, including Argentina, Belgium, Brazil, Chile, Canada, Sweden, France, Germany, Iran, Lebanon, Netherlands, Nigeria, Russia, Wales, Jamaica, Panama, United Kingdom, Mongolia, United States and Uruguay. It has also served as the liturgical language of Judaism for over 3,500 years.
Total speakers: Extinct as a spoken language by the 4th century AD; Sephardi Hebrew revived in the 1880s, and now with around 7 million speakers, (United States: 195,375).1

1United States Census 2000 PHC-T-37. Ability to Speak English by Language Spoken at Home: 2000. Table 1a. PDF (11.8  KiB)

Language family: Afro-Asiatic
   West Semitic
    Central Semitic
     Northwest Semitic
Writing system: Hebrew alphabet 
Official status
Official language in: Flag of Israel Israel
Regulated by: Academy of the Hebrew Language
האקדמיה ללשון העברית(HaAqademia LaLashon Ha‘Ivrit)
Language codes
ISO 639-1: he
ISO 639-2: heb
ISO 639-3: either:
heb – Modern Hebrew
hbo –  Ancient Hebrew

Hebrew (עִבְרִית, ‘Ivrit) is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family, and spoken by more than seven million people in Israel and used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world. In Israel, it is the de facto language of the state and the people, as well as being one of the two official languages (together with Arabic), and it is spoken by the majority of the population. Hebrew is also spoken as a mother tongue by the Samaritans, though today fewer than a thousand Samaritans remain. As a foreign language it is studied mostly by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, archeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilisations and by theologians.

The term "Hebrew" is named after Abraham who was known as Ha-Ivri, (Hebrew plural, Ivrim; misread as Ha-Ibri), which occurs in Genesis 14:13 with the phrase Avram ha-Ivri, and is the origin of the English word Hebrew. Its cognates were also used (in ancient times) to designate the Aramaic spoken by the Judean population. See Judeo-Aramaic.

The core of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is written in Classical Hebrew, and much of its present form is specifically the dialect of Biblical Hebrew that scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BC, around the time of the Babylonian exile. For this reason, Hebrew has been referred to by Jews as Leshon Ha-Kodesh (לשון הקודש), "The Holy Language", since ancient times.


As a language, Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite group of languages. Hebrew (Israel) and Moabite (Jordan) are Southern Canaanite while Phoenician (Lebanon) is Northern Canaanite. Canaanite is closely related to Aramaic and to a lesser extent South-Central Arabic. Whereas other Canaanite languages and dialects have become extinct, Hebrew has survived. Hebrew flourished as a spoken language in Israel from the 10th century BC until the Babylonian exile. After that it was gradually replaced by Aramaic, the cosmopolitan language of the Jewish elite (see below, Aramaic displacing Hebrew as a spoken language), though some scholars believe that there were still some native speakers of Hebrew until shortly before the Byzantine era. From the beginning of the 1st millennium Hebrew continued in use as a religious and literary language until the 19th century, when it was revived as a spoken language.

Most linguists agree that after the 6th century BC, when the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered the ancient Kingdom of Judah, destroying Jerusalem and exiling its population to Babylon and after Cyrus The Great, the King of Kings or Great King of Persia, gave them permission to return, Biblical Hebrew came to be replaced in daily use by new dialects of Hebrew and a local version of Aramaic. After the 2nd century AD when the Roman Empire exiled most of the Jewish population of Jerusalem following the Bar Kokhba revolt, Hebrew gradually ceased to be a spoken language, but remained a major literary language. Letters, contracts, commerce, science, philosophy, medicine, poetry, and laws were written in Hebrew, which adapted by borrowing and inventing terms.

Hebrew persevered along the ages as the main language for written purposes by all Jewish communities around the world for a large range of uses (poetry, philosophy, science and medicine, commerce, daily correspondence and contracts, in addition to liturgy). 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 once converse in Latin. It has been 'revived' several times as a literary language, and most significantly by the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement of early and mid-19th century. Near the end of that century the Jewish activist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who was no scholar or linguist, owing to the ideology of the national revival (Hibbat Tziyon, 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 such as Ladino (also called Judezmo), Yiddish and Judeo-Arabic, 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 Aramaic. 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. English and Arabic still remain formal languages in Israel to this day.


Hebrew is a Semitic language, and as such a member of the larger Afro-Asiatic phylum.

Within Semitic, the Northwest Semitic languages formed around the 3rd millennium BC, grouped with the Arabic languages as Central Semitic. The Canaanite languages are a group within Northwest Semitic, emerging in the 2nd millennium BC in the Levant, gradually separating from Aramaic and Ugaritic.

Within the Canaanite group, Hebrew belongs to the sub-group also containing Edomite, Ammonite and Moabite. Another Canaanite sub-group contains Phoenician and its descendant Punic.

Gezer calendar and other archaic inscriptions

The first written evidence of distinctive Hebrew, the Gezer calendar, dates back to the 10th century BC 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.

The Shebna lintel, from the tomb of a royal steward found in Siloam, dates to the 7th century BC.
The Shebna lintel, from the tomb of a royal steward found in Siloam, dates to the 7th century BC.

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 ostraka found near Lachish which describe events preceding the final capture of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar and the Babylonian captivity of 586 BC.

Classical Hebrew

In its widest sense, Classical Hebrew means the spoken language of ancient Israel flourishing between the 10th century BC and the turn of the 4th century AD. It comprises several evolving and overlapping dialects. The phases of Classical Hebrew are often named after important literary works associated with them.

  • Archaic Biblical Hebrew from the 10th to the 6th century BC, corresponding to the Monarchic Period until the Babylonian Exile and represented by certain texts in the Hebrew Bible ( Tanach), notably the Song of Moses (Exodus 15) and the Song of Deborah (Judges 5). Also called Old Hebrew or Paleo-Hebrew. It was written in a form of the Canaanite script. (A script descended from this is still used by the Samaritans, see Samaritan Hebrew language.)
  • Biblical Hebrew around the 6th century BC, corresponding to the Babylonian Exile and represented by the bulk of the Hebrew Bible that attains much of its present form around this time. Also called Classical Biblical Hebrew (or Classical Hebrew in the narrowest sense).
  • Late Biblical Hebrew, from the 6th to the 4th century BC, that corresponds to the Persian Period and is represented by certain texts in the Hebrew Bible, notably the books of Ezra and Nehemiah. Basically similar to Classical Biblical Hebrew, apart from a few foreign words adopted for mainly governmental terms, and some syntactical innovations such as the use of the particle shel (of, belonging to). It adopted the Imperial Aramaic script.
  • Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew from the 3rd century BC to the 1st century AD, corresponding to the Hellenistic and Roman Periods before the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and represented by the Qumran Scrolls that form most (but not all) of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Commonly abbreviated as DSS Hebrew, also called Qumran Hebrew. The Imperial Aramaic script of the earlier scrolls in the 3rd century BC evolved into the Hebrew square script of the later scrolls in the 1st century AD, also known as ketav Ashuri (Assyrian script), still in use today.
  • Mishnaic Hebrew from the 1st to the 3rd or 4th century AD, corresponding to the Roman Period after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem and represented by the bulk of the Mishnah and Tosefta within the Talmud and by the Dead Sea Scrolls, notably the Bar Kokhba Letters and the Copper Scroll. Also called Tannaitic Hebrew or Early Rabbinic Hebrew.

Sometimes the above phases of spoken Classical Hebrew are simplified into "Biblical Hebrew" (including several dialects from the tenth century BC to 2nd century BC and extant in certain Dead Sea Scrolls) and "Mishnaic Hebrew" (including several dialects from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD 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 AD, Classical Hebrew ceases as a spoken language, roughly a century after the publication of the Mishnah, apparently declining since the aftermath of the catastrophic Bar Kokhba War around 135 AD.

Mishnah and Talmud

The term generally refers to the Hebrew dialects found in the Talmud תלמוד, 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 משנה that was published around 200 CE 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 תוספתא. 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 גמרא, generally comments on the Mishnah and Baraitot in 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.

Medieval Hebrew

Aleppo Codex: 10th century Hebrew Bible with Masoretic pointing (Joshua 1:1).
Aleppo Codex: 10th century Hebrew Bible with Masoretic pointing (Joshua 1:1).

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 AD 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 BC, 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 script, precursor to the Arabic script, 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.

In 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 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 metres. 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.

Liturgical use

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. 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 Ladino 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.

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.

Modern Hebrew


In the Modern Period, from the 19th century onward, the literary Hebrew tradition as pronounced in Jerusalem 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 many 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.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

The literary and narrative use of Hebrew was revived beginning with the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement. The first secular periodical in Hebrew, Hameassef (The Gatherer), was published by Maskilim litterati in Königsberg from 1783 onwards. In the mid-19th century, publications of several Eastern European Hebrew-language newspapers (e.g. HaMagid, founded in Lyck, Prussia, in 1856) multiplied. Prominent poets were Chaim Nachman Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky; there were also novels written in the language.

The revival of the Hebrew language as a mother tongue was initiated by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) (אליעזר בן–יהודה). 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 Achad 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 common everyday matters), many soon understood the need for a common language amongst Jews of the Palestine Mandate who at the turn of the 20th century were arriving in large numbers from diverse countries and speaking different languages. It has been said that Hebrew unified the new immigrants coming to Mandate Palestine, creating a common language and culture. A Committee of the Hebrew Language was established. Later it became the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an organization that exists today. The results of his and the Committee's work were published in a dictionary (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew). 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 Chasidic sects, most notably those under the auspices of Satmar, refused to speak Hebrew and only spoke Yiddish. However, while this ideological stance persists in certain quarters, almost all members of these groups have learned modern Hebrew in order to interact with outsiders.

Russia and the Soviet Union

Russian has separate terms for Ancient Hebrew ( Древнееврейский язык, "ancient Jewish language") and Modern Hebrew ( Иврит, directly borrowed from the Hebrew name).

The Soviet authorities considered the use of Hebrew "reactionary" since it was associated with both Judaism and Zionism, and the teaching of Hebrew at primary and secondary schools was officially banned by the Narkompros (Commissariat of Education) as early as 1919, as part of an overall agenda aiming to secularize education (the language itself didn't 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 in the West, teachers and students who attempted to study the Hebrew language were pilloried and sentenced for "counter revolutionary" and later for "anti-Soviet" activities. Later in the 1980s years in the USSR, Hebrew studies reappeared due to people struggling for permission to go to Israel ( refuseniks). Several of the teachers were imprisoned, for example, Ephraim Kholmyansky, Yevgeny Korostyshevsky and others responsible for a Hebrew learning network connecting many cities of USSR.


Birobidzhan Jewish National University works in cooperation with the local Jewish community of Birobidzhan. The university is unique in the Russian Far East. The basis of the training course is study of the Hebrew language, history and classic Jewish texts. In recent years, the Jewish Autonomous Oblast has grown interested in its Jewish roots. Students study Hebrew and Yiddish at a Jewish school and Birobidzhan Jewish National University. In 1989, the Jewish centre founded its Sunday school, where children study Yiddish, learn folk Jewish dance, and learn about the history of Israel. The Israeli government helps fund the program. Chief Rabbi Mordechai Scheiner has commented the progress at School No. 2, Birobidjan's Jewish public school with 670 students, 30 percent of whom are Jewish. Pupils learn about Jewish history, and the Hebrew and Yiddish languages.

Modern Israeli Hebrew

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 tongue and often brought into Hebrew idioms and literal translations from Yiddish. Similarly, the language as spoken in Israel has adapted to Ashkenazi Hebrew phonology in the following respects:

  • the elimination of pharyngeal articulation in the letters chet and ayin
  • the conversion of /r/ from an alveolar flap ([ɾ]) to a voiced uvular fricative ([ʁ]) or trill ([ʀ]) (see Guttural R)
  • the pronunciation (by many speakers) of tzere as [eɪ] in some contexts (sifrey and teysha instead of Sephardic sifré and tésha' )
  • the elimination of vocal schwa (zman instead of Sephardic zĕman)
  • some of the letter names (yud and kuf instead of Sephardic yod and qof)
  • in popular speech, penultimate stress in proper names (Dvóra instead of Dĕvorá; Yehúda instead of Yĕhudá)
  • similarly, penultimate stress in nouns or verbs with a second or third person plural suffix (katávtem "you wrote" instead of kĕtavtém; shalom aléykhem (greeting) instead of shalom alekhém).


Scholars differ on the classification of the resulting language. Most regard it as a genuine continuation of Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, while conceding that it has acquired some European vocabulary and syntactical features, in much the same way as Modern Standard Arabic (or even more so, dialects such as Moroccan Arabic). Two dissenting views are as follows:

  • Paul Wexler claims that modern Hebrew is not a Semitic language at all, but a dialect of "Judaeo-Sorbian". He argues that the underlying structure of the language is Slavic, but "re-lexified" to absorb much of the vocabulary and inflexional system of Hebrew in much the same way as a creole.
  • Ghil'ad Zuckermann compromises between Wexler and the majority view: according to him, "Israeli" (his term for Israeli Hebrew) is a Semito- European hybrid language, which is the continuation not only of literary Hebrew but also of Yiddish, as well as Polish, Russian, German, English, Ladino, Arabic and other languages spoken by Hebrew revivalists. Zuckermann's multi-parental hybridization model is based on two main principles: the Congruence Principle and the Founder Principle. According to the Congruence Principle, the more contributing languages a linguistic feature exists in, the more likely it is to persist in the target language. Based on feature pool statistics and recognizing simultaneous multiple sources, the Congruence Principle is in contrast to the family tree tool in historical linguistics. The Congruence Principle challenges Wexler's relexification model. The Founder Principle underlines the impact of the founder population on the emerging language. Thus, " Yiddish is a primary contributor to Israeli Hebrew because it was the mother tongue of the vast majority of revivalists and first pioneers in Eretz Yisrael at the crucial period of the beginning of Israeli Hebrew". According to Zuckermann, although the revivalists wished to speak Hebrew, with Semitic grammar and pronunciation, they could not avoid the Ashkenazi mindset arising from their European background. He argues that their attempt to deny their European roots, negate diasporism and avoid hybridity (as reflected in Yiddish) failed. "Had the revivalists been Arabic-speaking Jews (e.g. from Morocco), Israeli Hebrew would have been a totally different language – both genetically and typologically, much more Semitic. The impact of the founder population on Israeli Hebrew is incomparable with that of later immigrants." The Founder Principle challenges the traditional revival view, according to which Israeli Hebrew is Hebrew revived and thus Afro-Asiatic ( Semitic).

So far, neither view has gained significant acceptance among mainstream linguists. However, some linguists, for example American Yiddish scholar Dovid Katz, have employed Zuckermann's glottonym "Israeli" and accept his notion of hybridity. Few would dispute that Hebrew has acquired some European features as a result of having been learned by immigrants as a second language at a crucial formative stage. The identity of the European substrate/adstrate has varied: in the time of the Mandate and the early State, the principal contributor was Yiddish, while today it is American English.

Regional dialects

According to Ethnologue, the currently spoken dialects of Hebrew are "Standard Hebrew (General Israeli, Europeanized Hebrew)" and " Oriental Hebrew (Arabized Hebrew, Yemenite Hebrew)". These refer to two varieties used for actual communication by native speakers in Israel; they differ mainly in pronunciation, and hardly in any other way.

Immigrants to Israel are encouraged to adopt "Standard Hebrew" as their daily language. Phonologically, this "dialect" may most accurately be described as an amalgam of pronunciations preserving Sephardic vowel sounds and some Ashkenazic consonant sounds with Yiddish-style influence, its recurring feature being simplification of differences among a wide array of pronunciations. This simplifying tendency also accounts for the collapse of the Ashkenazic [t] and [s] allophones of ת (/t/) into the single phone [t]. Most Sephardic and Mizrahi dialects share this feature, though some (such as those of Iraq and Yemen) differentiate between these two pronunciations as /t/ and /θ/. Within Israel, however, the pronunciation of Hebrew more often reflects the diasporic origin of the individual speaker, rather than the specific recommendations of the Academy. For this reason, over half the population pronounces ר as [ʀ] (a uvular trill, as in Yiddish and French) or as [ʁ] (a voiced uvular fricative, as in Standard German), rather than as [r], an alveolar trill, as in Spanish. The pronunciation of this phoneme is often used among Israelis as a shibboleth or determinant when ascertaining the national origin of perceived foreigners.

There are mixed views on the status of the two dialects. On the one hand, prominent Israelis of Sephardic or Oriental origin are admired for the purity of their speech and Yemenite Jews are often employed as newsreaders. On the other hand, the speech of middle-class Ashkenazim is regarded as having a certain Central European sophistication, and many speakers of Mizrahi origin have moved nearer to this version of Standard Hebrew, in some cases even adopting the uvular resh.

It was formerly the case that the inhabitants of the north of Israel pronounced beth rafe (בי"ת רפה, bet without dagesh, literally loose beth: ב) as /b/ instead of /v/, in accordance with the conservative Sephardic pronunciation. This was regarded as rustic and has since disappeared. It is said that one can tell an inhabitant of Jerusalem by the pronunciation of the word for two hundred as "ma'atayim" (מאתיים, as distinct from "matayim", as heard elsewhere in the country). Today, Israeli Hebrew is virtually uniform, the only noticeable variation being along ethnic lines. It is widely felt that these differences, too, have been disappearing among the younger generation.


Aramaic is a North-West Semitic language, like Canaanite. Its name derives either from "Aram Naharayim" in Upper Mesopotamia or from "Aram", an ancient name for Syria. Various dialects of Aramaic coevolved with Hebrew throughout much of its history. In fact, the words in Greek and Hebrew at the time corresponding to the word "Hebrew" (Εβραις, Εβραιστι, עברית) usually referred to Aramaic.

The language of Jesus and the Neo-Babylonian Empire was a dialect of Aramaic. The Persian Empire that captured Babylonia a few decades later adopted Imperial Aramaic as the official international language of the Persian Empire. The Israelite population, who had been exiled to Babylon from Jerusalem and its surrounding region of Judah, were allowed to return to Jerusalem to establish a Persian province, usually called Judea. Thus Aramaic became the administrative language for Judea when dealing with the rest of Persian Empire.

The Aramaic script also evolved from the Canaanite script, but they diverged significantly. By the 1st century CE, the Aramaic script developed into the distinctive Hebrew square script (also known as Assyrian Script, Ktav Ashuri), extant in the Dead Sea Scrolls and similar to the script still in use today.


By the early half of the 20th century, modern scholars reached a nearly unanimous opinion that Aramaic became a spoken language in the land of Israel by the start of Israel's Hellenistic Period in the 4th century BCE, and thus Hebrew ceased to function as a spoken language around the same time. However, during the latter half of the 20th century, accumulating archaeological evidence and especially linguistic analysis of the Dead Sea Scrolls has qualified the previous consensus. Alongside Aramaic, Hebrew may also have survived as a spoken language, since the Qumran evidence indicates that Hebrew texts were comprehensible to the rank-and-file. Some further evidence for this contention has been found in the Christian Bible story of Paul speaking to a crowd of Jews têi hebraïdi dialéktôi lit.'in the Hebrew dialect'. However, the standard translation for this Greek passage is 'in the Aramaic vernacular of Palestine' . In a groundbreaking article Griatz suggested that Hebrew, rather than Aramaic, lay behind the composition of the Gospel of Matthew. Griatz dates the demise of Hebrew as a spoken language to the end of the Roman Period. Hebrew nonetheless continued on as a literary language down through 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, Aramaic functioned as the international language with the rest of the Mideast, and eventually Greek functioned as another international language with the eastern areas of the Roman Empire. Communities of Jews (and non-Jews) are known, who immigrated to Judea from these other lands and continued to speak Aramaic or Greek.

Many Hebrew linguists postulate the survival of Hebrew as a spoken language until the Byzantine Period, but some historians do not accept this. The Hebrew of the Dead Sea Scrolls distinguishes the Dead Sea Scroll Hebrew from the various dialects of Biblical Hebrew out of which it evolved: "This book presents the specific features of DSS Hebrew, emphasizing deviations from classical BH." The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church which once said, in 1958 in its first edition, that Hebrew "ceased to be a spoken language around the fourth century BC", now says, in its 1997 (third) edition, that Hebrew "continued to be used as a spoken and written language in the New Testament period". An Introductory Grammar of Rabbinic Hebrew says, "It is generally believed that the Dead Sea Scrolls, specifically the Copper Scroll and also the Bar Kokhba letters, have furnished clear evidence of the popular character of MH [Mishnaic Hebrew]." And so on. It is widespread among Israeli scholars to treat Hebrew as a spoken language as a feature of Judea's Roman Period.


The international language of Aramaic radiated into various regional dialects. In and around Judea, various dialects of Old Western Aramaic emerged, including the Jewish dialect of Old Judean Aramaic during the Roman Period. Josephus Flavius initially drafted his account of The Jewish War in Old Judean Aramaic but later recast it into Koine Greek to publish it for the Roman imperial court. Unfortunately Josephus's Aramaic version has not survived.

Following the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Jews gradually began to disperse from Jerusalem to foreign countries, especially after the Bar Kokhba War in 135 CE when the Romans turned Jerusalem into a pagan city named Aelia Capitolina.

After the Bar Kokhba War in the 2nd century CE, the Jewish Palestinian Aramaic dialect emerged from obscurity out of the vicinity of Galilee to form one of the main dialects in the Western branch of Middle Aramaic. The Jerusalem Talmud (by the 5th century) used this Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, as did the Midrash Rabba (6th to 12th century). This dialect probably influenced the pronunciation of the 8th-century Tiberian Hebrew that vocalizes the Hebrew Bible.

Meanwhile over in Babylon, the Babylonian Talmud (by the 7th century) used Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, a Jewish dialect in the Eastern branch of Middle Aramaic. For centuries Jewish Babylonian remained the spoken language of Mesopotamian Jews and the Lishana Deni. In the area of Kurdistan, there is a modern Aramaic dialect descending from it that is still spoken by a few thousand Jews (and non-Jews), though it has largely given way to Arabic.

Hebrew continues to strongly influence all these various Jewish dialects of Aramaic.

Other coexisting languages

Besides Jewish dialects of Aramaic, other languages are highly influenced by Hebrew, such as Yiddish, Ladino, Karaite and Judeo-Arabic. Although none is completely derived from Hebrew, they all make extensive use of Hebrew loanwords.

The revival of Hebrew is often cited by proponents of international auxiliary languages as the best proof that languages long dead, with small communities, or modified or created artificially can become living languages used by a large number of people.


Hebrew has two kinds of stress: on the last syllable (milra‘) and on the penultimate syllable (the one preceding the last, mil‘el). The former is more frequent. Specific rules connect the location of the stress with the length of the vowels in the last syllable. However, due to the fact that Israeli Hebrew does not distinguish between long and short vowels, these rules are not evident in everyday speech. They usually cannot be inferred from written text either, since usually vowels are not marked. The rules that specify the vowel length are different for verbs and nouns, which influences the stress; thus the mil‘el-stressed ókhel (="food") and milra-stressed okhèl (="eats", masculine) differ only in the length of the vowels (and are written identically if vowels are not marked). Little ambiguity exists, however, due to nouns and verbs having incompatible roles in normal sentences. This is also true in English, for example, with the English word "conduct" in its nominal and verbal forms.


The vowel phonemes of Modern Israeli Hebrew

The Hebrew word for vowels is tnu'ot (תְּנוּעוֹת). The orthographic representations for these vowels are called Niqqud. Israeli Hebrew has 5 vowel phonemes, represented by the following Niqqud-signs:

phoneme pronunciation in
Modern Hebrew
approximate pronunciation
in English
othographic representation
"long" * "short" * "very short" / "interrupted" *
/a/ [a] (as in "spa") kamats ( ָ ) patach ( ַ ) chataf patach ( ֲ )
/e/ [ɛ̝] or [e̞] (as in "bet") tsere male ( ֵי ) or tsere chaser ( ֵ ) segol ( ֶ ) chataf segol ( ֱ ), sometimes shva ( ְ )
/i/ [i] (as in "ski") khirik male ( ִי ) khirik chaser ( ִ )  
/o/ [ɔ̝] or [o̞] (as in "gore") kholam male ( וֹ ) or kholam chaser ( ֹ ) kamatz katan ( ָ ) chataf kamatz ( ֳ )
/u/ [u] (as in "flu" but with no diphthongization) shuruk (וּ) kubuts ( ֻ )  
* The severalfold orthographic representation of each phoneme attests to the broader phonemic range of vowels in earlier forms of Hebrew. Some linguists still regard the Hebrew grammatical entity of Shva na—marked as Shva (ְ)—as representing a sixth phoneme, /ə/.

In Biblical Hebrew, each vowel had three forms: short, long and interrupted (khataf). However, there is no audible distinction between the three in modern Israeli Hebrew, except that tsere is often pronounced [eɪ] as in Ashkenazi Hebrew.


The Niqqud sign " Shva" represents four grammatical entities: resting (nakh / נָח), moving (na' / נָע), floating (merahef / מְרַחֵף) and "bleating" or "bellowing" ('ge'iya' / גְּעִיָּה). In earlier forms of Hebrew, these entities were phonologically and phonetically distinguishable. However, in Modern Hebrew these distinctions are not observed. For example, the (first) Shva Nach in the word קִמַּטְתְ (fem. you crumpled) is usually pronounced [ə] (or [ɛ]) ([ki'matɛt]) even though it should be mute, whereas the Shva Na in זְמַן (time), which theoretically should be pronounced, is usually mute ([zman]). Sometimes the shva is pronounced like a tsere when accented, as in the prefix "ve" meaning "and".

One-letter words

One-letter words are written attached to the following word. Such items include: the definite article ha (/ha/) (="the"); prepositions be (/bə/) (="in"), mi (/mi/) (="from"), le (/lə/) (="to"); conjunctions she (/ʃe/) (="that"), ke (/kə/) (="as", "like"), ve (/və/) (="and"). The vowel that follows the letter thus attached depends in general on the beginning of the next word and the presence of a definite article which may be swallowed by the one-letter word.

The rules determining the vowels to follow these prepositions are complicated and vary with the formality of speech. In most cases they are followed by a moving schwa, and for that reason they are pronounced as be and le. In more formal speech, 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 is weakened), but in colloquial speech these changes often do not occur. For example, colloquial be-kfar (="in a village") corresponds to the more formal bi-khfar. If l or b are followed by the definite article ha, their vowel changes to /a/. Thus *be-ha-matos becomes ba-matos (="in the plane"). However it does not happen to (the form of "min" or "mi-" used before the letter "he"), therefore mé-ha-matos is a valid form, which means "from the airplane".

* indicates that the given example is grammatically non standard


The Hebrew word for consonants is ‘itsurim (עיצורים). The following table lists the Hebrew consonants and their pronunciation in IPA transcription:

Bilabial Labiodental Alveolar Post-
Palatal Velar Uvular Glottal
Nasals m מ n נ
Stops p פּ b בּ t ט,ת,תּ d ד,דּ k ק,כּ g ג,גּ ʔ א,ע
Affricates ʦ צ
Fricatives f פ v ב,ו s ס,שׂ z ז ʃ שׁ ʒ x ח,כ,ך ʁ ר h ה ɦ
Trills ʀ ר
Approximants j י
Laterals l ל

The pairs /b, v/, /k, x/ and /p, f/ have historically been allophonic. In Modern Hebrew, however, all six sounds are phonemic, due to mergers involving formerly distinct sounds (/v/ merging with /w/, /k/ merging with /q/, /x/ merging with /ħ/), loss of consonant gemination (which formerly distinguished the stop members of the pairs from the fricatives when intervocalic), and the introduction of syllable-initial /f/ through foreign borrowings.

ע was once pronounced as a voiced pharyngeal fricative. Most modern Ashkenazi Jews do not differentiate between א and ע; however, Mizrahi Jews and Arabs pronounce these phonemes. Georgian Jews pronounce it as a glottalized q. Western European Sephardim and Dutch Ashkenazim traditionally pronounce it [ŋ] (like ng in sing) — a pronunciation which can also be found in the Italki tradition and, historically, in south-west Germany. (The remnants of this pronunciation are found throughout the Ashkenazi world, in the name "Yankl" and "Yanki", diminutive forms of Jacob, Heb. יעקב.)

Hebrew also has dagesh, a strengthening. There are two kinds of strengthenings: light (kal, known also as dagesh lene) and heavy (khazak or dagesh forte). There are two sub-categories of the heavy dagesh: structural heavy (khazak tavniti) and complementing heavy (khazak mashlim). The light affects the phonemes /b/ /k/ /p/ (historically, also /g/, /d/ and /t/) in the beginning of a word, or after a resting schwa. Structural heavy emphases belong to certain vowel patterns (mishkalim and binyanim; see the section on grammar below), and correspond originally to doubled consonants. Complementing strengthening is added when vowel assimilation takes place. As mentioned before, the emphasis influences which of a pair of (former) allophones is pronounced. Historical evidence indicates that /g/, /d/ and /t/ also used to have allophones marked by the presence or absence of dagesh kal: these have disappeared from modern Hebrew pronunciation though the distinction in writing still appears in fully pointed texts. All consonants except gutturals and /r/ may receive the heavy emphasis (dagesh khazak).

Historical sound changes

Standard (non-Oriental) Israeli Hebrew (SIH) has undergone a number of splits and mergers in its development from Biblical Hebrew.

  • BH /b/ had two allophones, [b] and [v]; the [v] allophone has merged with /w/ into SIH /v/
  • BH /k/ had two allophones, [k] and [x]; the [k] allophone has merged with /q/ into SIH /k/, while the [x] allophone has merged with /ħ/ into SIH /x/
  • BH /t/ and /tˤ/ have merged into SIH /t/
  • BH /ʕ/ and /ʔ/ have usually merged into SIH /ʔ/, but this distinction may also be upheld in educated speech of many Sephardim and some Ashkenazim
  • BH /p/ had two allophones, [p] and [f]; the incorporation of loanwords into Modern Hebrew has probably resulted in a split, so that /p/ and /f/ are separate phonemes.


Terminal syllabic stress is by far the most common, penultimate stress being the only other grammatically acceptable option. The two options have names: Terminal stress is called milera (מלרע) and penultimate mil'eil (מלעיל). Spoken Hebrew admits of more stress variation than the official dialect. Stress has phonemic value, e.g. "ילד", when pronounced /'jeled/, means "boy", whereas when pronounced /je'led/ it means "will give birth to".


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.

Writing system

Modern Hebrew is written from right to left using the Hebrew alphabet. Modern scripts are based on the "square" letter form (which was developed from the Aramaic script). A similar system is used in handwriting, but the letters tend to be more circular in their character, when written in cursive, and sometimes vary markedly from their printed equivalents.

Vowel signs

Original Biblical Hebrew text contained nothing but consonants and spaces and this is still the case with Torah scrolls that are used in synagogues. A system of writing vowels called niqqud (from the root word meaning "points" or "dots") developed around the 5th Century CE. It is used today in printed Bibles and some other religious books and also in poetry, children's literature, and texts for beginning students of Hebrew. Most modern Hebrew texts contain only consonant letters, spaces and western-style punctuation and to facilitate reading without vowels matres lectionis (see below) are often inserted into words which would be written without them in a text with full niqqud. The niqqud system is sometimes used when it is necessary to avoid certain ambiguities of meaning (such as when context is insufficient to distinguish between two identically spelled words) and in the transliteration of foreign names.

Consonant letters

All Hebrew consonant phonemes are represented by a single letter. Although a single letter might represent two phonemes — the letter "bet," for example, represents both /b/ and /v/ — the two sounds are always related "hard" ( plosive) and "soft" ( fricative) forms, their pronunciation being very often determined by context. In fully pointed texts, the hard form normally has a dot, known as a dagesh, in its centre.

There are twenty-seven symbols, representing twenty-two letters, in the Hebrew alphabet, which is called the "aleph bet" because of its first two letters. The letters are as follows: Aleph, Bet/Vet, Gimel, Dalet, He, Vav, Zayin, Chet, Tet, Yod (pronounced Yud by Israelis), Kaf/Chaf, Lamed, Mem, Nun, Samekh, Ayin, Pe/Fe, Tzadi, Qof (pronounced Koof by Israelis), Resh, Shin/Sin, Tav.

  • The letters Bet, Kaf and Pe (historically, also the letters Gimel, Dalet and Tav) are softened to fricatives when following a vowel (except when doubled). In a fully pointed text, this distinction is indicated by the use of dagesh to denote the hard sound. (Occasionally, a horizontal line called rafe, written above the letter, is used to indicate the softened sound.) This has led to the misconception that there are separate letters "Vet", "Chaf" and "Fe".
  • The letter Shin/Sin is usually pronounced Sh, but occasionally S. In fully pointed texts, this distinction is indicated by a dot at the top left hand corner (for Sin) or the top right hand corner (for Shin). This may indicate that the pronunciation prevailing when the consonantal spelling of Hebrew was fixed was different from that prevailing when the system of pointing was devised, so that the Sin dot is a permanent reminder saying "this letter is spelled Shin but pronounced Samech". (In Samaritan Hebrew Shin is pronounced Sh wherever it occurs, and there is no "Sin".) Others regard Sin as a genuine phoneme separate from both Shin and Samech and believe that it must once have had a distinct pronunciation.
  • There are two written forms of the letters Kaf/Chaf, Mem, Nun, Pe and Tzadi. Each of these is written differently when appearing at the end of a word than when appearing at the beginning or in the middle of the word. The version used at the end of a word is referred to as Final Kaf, Final Mem, etc. Except in the case of Mem, the difference is that the final form has a tail pointing straight down, whereas in the normal form it bends to the left to point to the next letter.

Mater lectionis

The letters he, vav and yod can represent consonantal sounds (/h/, /v/ and /j/, respectively) or serve as a markers for vowels. In the latter case, these letters are called "emot q'ria" (" matres lectionis" in Latin, "mothers of reading" in English).

The letter he at the end of a word usually indicates a final /a/, which usually indicates feminine gender, or /e/, which usually indicates masculine gender. In rare cases it may also indicate /o/, such as in שְׁלֹמֹה (Shlomo, Solomon). It may also indicate a possessive suffix for 3rd person feminine singular (סִפְרָהּ, her book), but in that case the he is not a mater lectionis but the consonant /h/, although in spoken Hebrew the distinction is rarely made. In texts with niqqud the he is written with a mappiq in the latter case. Correct pronunciation must be guessed according to context and niqqud may be used for disambiguation.

Vav may represent /o/ or /u/, and yod may represent /i/ or /e/. Sometimes a double yud is used for /ej/ or /aj/ (this convention is derived from Yiddish). In some modern Israeli texts, the letter alef is used to indicate long /a/ sounds in foreign names, particularly those of Arabic origin.

In some words there is a choice of whether to use a mater lectionis or not, and in modern printed texts matres lectionis are sometimes used even for short vowels, which is considered to be grammatically incorrect though instances are found as far back as Talmudic times. Spelling with matres lectionis is called male (full), while spelling without matres lectionis is called haser (defective). In Talmudic times texts from Palestine were noticeably more inclined to male spellings than texts from Babylonia: this may reflect the influence of Greek, which had full alphabetic spelling. Similarly in the Middle Ages Ashkenazim tended to use male spellings under the influence of European languages, while Sephardim tended to use haser spellings under the influence of Arabic.

Indicating stress

There is no one universally accepted sign for indicating stress in Hebrew texts. Usually stress is unmarked. In some vocalized texts, such as prayer books, when the stress is not on the last syllable it is marked with a small stroke placed underneath the first consonant of the stressed syllable to the left of the vowel mark (occasionally, as in Davidson's grammar, a different sign is used, to avoid confusion with meteg, see next paragraph). In vocalized Biblical texts stress is shown by the appropriate cantillation mark.

A secondary stress in a word may be marked with a vertical stroke, called a meteg (מתג), placed to the left of the vowel: this symbol is available in Unicode. Meteg is most usually found two syllables before the main stress: thus, when the following consonant carries a shva, it follows that that shva is a sounded one. (For example, the word ochlah, her food, is written in the same way as āchěla, she ate, but meteg on the first syllable shows that āchěla is intended.)

These signs are used, if at all, only in texts with niqqud.

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