About Learning Hebrew with Berlitz
Hebrew is one of the world’s oldest languages, spoken and written today in much the same way as it was more than two thousand years ago. After ceasing to exist as a spoken language about 250 BC, it was reborn as a modern language in the 19th century, and today it is the principal language of the state of Israel. Books, newspapers, and magazines published in Israel today are written in a Hebrew that is much the same as the language of the Bible.
For over three millennia Hebrew has been the religious, and often the literary and secular, language of the Jewish people. A Semitic tongue, it was spoken during the period of the migration of the Patriarchs into Palestine and remained the language of the Jews throughout the Old Testament period. In the post-biblical period Hebrew gradually gave way to Aramaic as the spoken language, but continued throughout the centuries to serve as the language of ritual and prayer.
The renaissance of Hebrew as a spoken language in the 19th century may be ascribed almost entirely to the efforts of one man: Eliezer ben Yehudah, who devoted his life to the revival of the language, and at the same time adapted it for modern use through the introduction of thousands of modern terms. Hebrew gradually came into use among the Jewish settlers in Palestine and became the official language of the state of Israel when that nation was created in 1948. Today about 4 million people speak Hebrew either as their maternal, adopted, or religious tongue.
The earliest Hebrew alphabet, based on the Phoenician, dates from about 1000 BC. During the 5th century BC it gave way to an Aramaic script, which over time evolved into the one used in Israel today and in synagogues throughout the world. It consists of 22 letters (all consonants, with no capitals), five of which have a different form when they appear at the end of a word. The names of the letters are based on Hebrew words: e.g., aleph, beth, gimel, daleth are from the words for “ox”, “house”, “camel”, and “door” respectively. These were later adopted by the Greeks as alpha, beta, gamma, and delta.
The alphabet is written from right to left without vowels. Thus the word kelev (dog) appears as the Hebrew equivalents of, from right to left, k, 1, and v. It is therefore impossible for one not familiar with the language to know how to pronounce a word from the way it is written. About the 8th century a system developed for indicating vowels through the use of small dots and dashes placed above and below the consonants. These signs are still in use today, but they are confined to school books, prayer books, and textbooks for foreigners, and are not to be seen in newspapers, magazines, or books of general use. The text above contains the vowel signs as well as a series of marks called the trope, which indicates the notes to be used when the passage is chanted in the synagogue.
English words of Hebrew origin include amen, hallelujah, sabbath, rabbi, cherub, seraph, Satan, kosher, manna, shibboleth, and behemoth. There are also the names of the Jewish holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Chanukah, and Purim), as well as such as terms as Torah, bar mitzvah, haggadah, and megilah. More recent contributions are kibbutz and sabra.