Why I love Hebrew

After the last post I feel obliged to say a few words about Hebrew as well. And as it will probably turn out, there will be more than a few by the time I finish writing this.

Japanese is like art. You look at it, you’re fascinated with it, and you may see as many meanings in it as your imagination will allow you. Hebrew, on the other hand, is like science.

In many ways, Hebrew is very similar to Western languages. It has a proper alphabet (no vowel letters or capital ones, though), it has spaces (unlike Japanese), it has grammar and spelling rules and all that stuff. What makes it special (along with Arabic, probably) is the structure of a typical Hebrew word, I mean mostly nouns, adjectives and verbs here.

A typical Hebrew word consists of a pattern and a stem. In most cases the stem is either three or four letters. The pattern is whatever left after you take out the stem, or at least in the simplest cases. Let’s take the word “shalom”, for example, which literally means “peace” or “well-being”, but often just “hi”. There are different ways to write it. The most commonly used one is


(Read right-to-left.)

However, when learning Hebrew, it makes much more sense to write it as


Note all the three differences: a tiny dot above ש, a T-shaped mark under it and a tiny dot above ו. The first dot is not very interesting: it’s just that there are two different letters that look almost the same: shin (שׁ) and sin (שׂ). These dots just mark the difference, and normally they are omitted, just like you often omit various diacritics in English loanwords like “fiancee”.

The other two marks are much more interesting. They are vowels. Turns out, Hebrew predates vowel letters, and due to religious reasons it was not feasible to add them later on. So diacritic marks known as nekudot ([neh-koo-DOT], meaning just “dots”) were invented. The T-shaped one is “a”, and the dot above ו is “o”. A funny thing, even though the letter ו (vav) is normally pronounced as “v”, the presence of that dot makes it silent, therefore turning it into a vowel letter (the letter itself is silent, but the dot is still pronounced as a vowel). There is a good reason for this: before nekudot were invented, some consonant letters were used as both consonant and vowel ones. The most commonly used are ו (v/o/u), י (y/i) and ה (h/a/e, but can only be silent at the end of a word, where it typically is silent). But sometimes י stands for “a”, or ה stands for “o” at the end of a word or other weird things happen. This weirdness comes from religious texts too, which can’t be changed, so the language had to adapt to reflect the correct pronunciation.

But that all is annoying and not really fun. What’s important is that this word has a stem, namely ש-ל-מ. Never mind that ם turns into מ and vice versa. ם is just the right way to write מ at the end of a word, and that’s purely a graphical feature specific to just five letters (of 23). But since ש-ל-מ is not exactly a word, the standard forms of letters are used. So both שלום and שלומך have the same stem.

What’s the pattern then? In Latin, it could be written as 1-a-2-o-3. In Hebrew, it’s kind of hard to write because you can’t write nekudot without letters, and all nekudot are a part of the pattern (except the dot from the letter shin, which is actually a part of the letter and therefore belongs to the stem together with the letter). The most common way to write patterns is to put some random stem in it, preferably a one that doesn’t distort the pattern (which is a pretty common occurrence known as gizra [geez-RAH]). The usual stem is ק-ט-ל, which is a bit uncomfortable because its meanings are associated with killing, but it works the best as the letters are very gizra-neutral and don’t wreak havoc on the pattern.

The order of the letters is important. It’s also a very rare thing of the pattern letters to get intermixed with the stem letters. In fact, there is only one pattern where that happens, and there are strict rules for that one. Note, however, when I say “letters” here, I mean full-fledged consonants. וֹ in שלום is no longer a letter in that sense and therefore it jumps in between ל and ם quite easily.

The whole stem-pattern business has enormous impact on the learner. In a random Western language, when you see an unfamiliar word, you can sort of guess its meaning if you know its stem. Say, if you know what “white” means, you can probably guess the meanings of “whiting”, “whiteness” and similar words. Hebrew goes much further because sometimes even apparently unrelated words share a common stem or a pattern. Say, you know that פיגוע [pee-GOO-ah] is a terrorist act. And then you see פגיעה somewhere. You instantly recognize the stem, and knowing that the pattern קטילה [ktee-LAH] usually means some action, but not as intense as the pattern קיטול [kee-TOOL], you deduce that it must be some other bad action, but not as bad as a terrorist act. An assault perhaps, or some other kind of offense. Then you look at the context:

מה לעשות במקרה של פגיעה משריפה?

Even with my poor Hebrew, I can read that roughly as “What to do in a mikra of pgia from fire?” Now I know, as I’m reading this on a news website, that there is a lot of fires in Israel now, probably due to arsons and dry weather combined. Given all that, I’d guess that “mikra” is something like “situation” and “pgia from fire” is something like an arson, and it’s probably an article explaining what to do if you suspect someone of starting a fire or if you witnessed it, or something along that lines.

Now, I’m fairly sure that פגיעה is pronounced [pgee-AH], but I’m not sure at all about מקרה. It could be [mee-KRAH] or [mah-KREH] or anything. The lack of nekudot doesn’t help to figure out the correct vowels, but knowledge of the patterns does. If I knew what pattern that is, I could probably guess pronunciation with enough confidence, just like I did with פגיעה because it’s a pretty distinguishable pattern, thanks to the way how י and ה are placed.

I really just made up all this by just looking at a random news website just now. Now let me consult my dictionary and see what I got right.

First, מקרה is pronounced [mee-KREH]. Almost got it right. I guessed the meaning right from the context, it’s really an occurrence, or a case. “מה לעשות במקרה של” [MAH lah-ah-SOT beh-mee-KREH SHEL] is literally “what to do in case of…” And I would have been even more sure if I knew how the phrase [MAH kah-RAH] (what happened?) is spelled (that’s מה קרה, but I’ve never seen it before, only heard).

Second, פגיעה is a blow (a physical or a moral one), a hit, damage, an injury. And looking at the further text, it seems I was wrong about arsons after all. A more appropriate translation would be “What to do when fire hits?” or “What to do in case of fire injury?”, which kind of makes sense, as I think, because any reasonable person probably already knows that in case of a suspected arson the only right thing to do is call the cops, but many people don’t know everything that should be done in case of fire or fire injury.

Still, as you can see, even as I encountered two totally unfamiliar words, I was able to guess their meanings to some extent.

Thanks to gzarot (plural of gizra), though, this exercise becomes much more complicated. In this case, their effect is minimal (that “e” at the end that I got wrong). But there are cases when a mere presence of a certain letter in a certain position breaks everything. Say, words like מדבר [meed-BAR], מגדל [meeg-DAL] and מערב [mah-ah-RAV] belong to the same pattern, but see how the last one is pronounced? All thanks to the letter ע which doesn’t like “i” before it and the lack of a vowel after it, but absolutely loves the “a” vowel on both sides. Gzarot get even worse with words like שומר [shoh-MER] and גר [GAR] which also belong to the same pattern… or, rather, would belong to the same pattern if it was possible to squeeze the root ג-ו-ר into it. But since it’s impossible (for no reason), the middle letter of the stem just disappears and the whole pattern is changed so drastically, that it’s easier to say it’s replaced by another pattern altogether. Thankfully, gzarot are rules, not exceptions. Meaning that if it works that way with this particular stem and this particular pattern, it will work the same way with another stem/pattern pair that satisfies the same condition. If we take the same “shomer” pattern and the  ד-ו-ר stem, we know it’ll be דר [DAR] and nothing else. Sometimes the rules are ambiguous, though, but they still usually limit the possibilities to two or three.

And yet, with all this weirdness, the most of the language vocabulary suddenly turns from a list of seemingly random words into a nice table of stems (about 4000 of them) and patterns (about 200), and a set of gzarot to learn. That’s an order of magnitude less than tens of thousand words for a typical random language. What’s especially good about it is that once you know a word, it’s easy to restore both spelling and pronunciation. If you remember the word קרה from the phrase מה קרה and then you remember the pattern מגדר, then you may misread the word מקרה as [mee-KRAH], as I did above, but even if you don’t remember how it’s pronounced at least you’ll get the spelling right (without the vowels), so you won’t get [mee-KHRAH] or [mee-GRAH] because you know the stem. And once you’ve seen that type of a word, you’ll figure out the gizra, and then you can apply it to different words as well. Now when I see מפנה, I know it’s [mee-FNEH], and not [mee-FNAH]. Ditto for משנה [mee-SHNEH]. Apparently the gizra here is that when a stem with the third letter י (which often turns into a silent ה at the end, just like here) goes into the pattern of מגדל, the last vowel changes to “e” (before the silent ה):

מִגְדָּל ← מִקְרֶה

(The one dot is “i”, the three-dots triangle is “e”, the two dots are silent in this case, and never mind the dot in the middle of ד).

See how learning separate words turns into learning whole groups of words. What’s even better is that different gzarot often don’t interfere with each other. If I know that ע likes “a” around it and the silent ה “e” before it in this pattern, I can easily read מערה as [mah-ah-REH].

Then there are various suffixes and endings that can be attached to a word, and that could change the pattern as well, but that’s another story. It’s enough to say that there are rules for that too. And learning rules is much more pleasant process than learning seemingly random sequences of characters that are called meaningful words for some reason that escapes me completely.

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