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Things you wanted to know about Hebrew but were afraid to ask

Q   Why is Hebrew called Ivrit?

A   Ivrit is from Ivri, one of the (rarer) Biblical names for Israelite. This word was translated into Latin as 'Hebraicus'.
      Ivrit came to be a common name for the Hebrew language in the Middle Ages -- we don't know why -- but actually, most Jews in Eastern Europe 100 years ago would have called Hebrew not Ivrit but Loshn Koydesh ('the holy tongue'). The use of the name Ivrit for Modern Hebrew was in fact a loud political statement, to the effect that Hebrew was no longer going to be a holy language of the synagogue and Cheder, but a secular modern language.


Q   When did ancient Hebrew 'die out'?

A   If by 'die out' you mean 'cease to be a native spoken language', this appears to have happened some time in the second century CE -- but, as with most 'language death', this was probably a gradual process. It wasn't that all Hebrew speakers were wiped out, although no doubt the main center of spoken Hebrew, Judea, was decimated by the Romans. Rather, the surviving speakers chose to adopt other languages as their main tongue.


Q   Is the Sephardi pronunciation more correct than the Ashkenazi pronunciation?

A   No.
      And let's get a few facts straight:

  1. The dominant Israeli or American Hebrew pronunciation, which is often called 'Sephardi', is just a DERIVATIVE of traditional Sephardi pronunciation, but without their characteristic guttural 'ayin' and 'chet'.
  2. Traditional Sephardi pronunciations (there were a variety) do preserve some ancient distinctions that Ashkenazim have lost, notably this guttural 'ayin' and 'chet'.
  3. However, most Sephardim had a much narrower range of vowel sounds than Ashkenazim; the Ashkenazi set of vowels is much closer to the standard nikkud (vowel pointing) which goes back to 8th-9th century Israel and is probably closer to the vowel sounds actually used in Biblical times. (We can't be sure.)
  4. Of all the pronunciations that have survived, by far the closest to ancient Hebrew is the Yemenite. They have preserved a distinct sound for every single consonant, except 'sin'!


Q   How did Ben-Yehuda revive Modern Hebrew?

A   Arriving in Israel as a fiery young Zionist in 1881, he started a movement to speak Hebrew in daily life. He was really a figure-head -- and a romantic one: Stories about his pact with his wife to raise their children only speaking Hebrew rapidly inspired young Zionists in places like Rehovot and Rosh Pina to follow suit.
      In fact, Jews had often spoken a little Hebrew among themselves, in trade or even for mystical reasons; and many Hebrew journalists and authors had been busy 'modernizing' the language in Europe. But Ben Yehuda made it a central part of the Zionist revolution -- and the massive Hebrew dictionary he created became a symbol of what Hebrew could achieve.


Q   Are all Modern Hebrew words taken from the Bible?

A   No, but lots of them are. In fact, a word count would show that the majority of words in an Israeli conversation are Biblical. Many others are based on ancient words, such as 'machshev' = computer, from the ancient verb 'chishev' = to calculate. Others are just plain international: 'provokatsya', 'demokrati', 'internet'...


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Last Modified February 12, 2006