General Background

Hebrew is an ancient language that has been spoken over many centuries in the land of Israel and preserved by Jews throughout the Diaspora as a medium of cultural and religious expression. With the rise of Zionism and re-establishment of the State of Israel, the Hebrew language revived as a spoken tongue and has embraced many new terms and constructions to reflect the reality of modern life.

Modern Hebrew draws on all the previous historical layers of the Hebrew language. New meanings are ascribed to ancient words and new words are created in line with patterns and paradigms native to the ancient tongue. As is the case for all languages, Hebrew has also absorbed some modern terms from other languages.

The consonant-vowel relationship in words is what earmarks a Semitic language. Consonants form roots which distinguish the primary semantic distinctions, and vowels are modifiers, indicating grammatical and secondary semantic meanings.

The Semitic root is generally made up of three letters (sometimes four, rarely five), though in early periods of development, there were also two-letter roots. Unlike the 29 consonantal phonemes of the Proto-Semitic language, Biblical Hebrew has 23 consonantal sounds, which are represented by the Hebrew alphabet of 22 signs (one letter does double duty).

Vowels are marked according to the Masoretic diacritical pointing system, which was adopted during the second half of the first millennium. It should be noted that since the Masoretes lived hundreds of years after Biblical Hebrew ceased to be spoken, the vowel vocalization does not necessarily reflect the vowel sounds used in Biblical times.

Hebrew has two groups of consonantal phonemes that are not found in modern Indo-European languages, the gutturals (pharyngeals and laryngeals) and the emphatics.

Words are based on the root through vowel patterning. There are two genders, masculine (which is unmarked) and feminine (which is usually marked, by the ending “-t”). Feminine adjectives are always marked with the feminine ending, but oddly, masculine numerals are marked with the feminine ending as well.

The masculine plural ending is largely “-im” and the feminine plural is usually “-ot”. There are singular, plural, and dual numbers. Dual is used in limited situations, often in relationship to pairs of body parts and units of time. Adjectives follow the gender and number of the nouns they modify.

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