The Hebrew language (עִבְרִית, Ivrit) is a Semitic language and the official language of the State of Israel. Between 200 and 400 CE, Hebrew ceased being used as a spoken language and remained in use primarily as a liturgical language. In the 19th century, as a greater number of linguistically diverse Jews began relocating to Palestine, it became clear that a common language was needed for communication, and thus, a movement began to re-establish Hebrew as the mother tongue of the Jewish community. Today, there are roughly 5 to 9 million speakers of Hebrew, including both native speakers and second language speakers.
According to a 2009 study by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are roughly 220,000 speakers of Hebrew in the United States, making it roughly the 28th most spoken language in the country. The United States is also home to the largest Hebrew-speaking population outside of the State of Israel. The largest concentration of Hebrew speakers in the United States can be found in the Greater New York Area, California, Florida, and New Jersey.
The three primary dialects of Hebrew are Ashkenaz, spoken by Jews whose descendancy is from Northern Europe and is influenced significantly by Yiddish; Sephardi/Mizrachi, which is spoken by the majority of Israelis; and Temami, which is primarily spoken by the Yemenite Jews.
Generally speaking, Modern Hebrew adopted morphemes from Biblical Hebrew, the orthography of Mishnaic Hebrew, and pronunciation from Sephardic Hebrew. While Biblical Hebrew was primarily a verb-subject-object (VSO) language, it gradually shifted to a subject-verb-object (SVO) language over time, and Modern Hebrew has retained the SVO word order.
The syntax of Modern Hebrew is derived mainly from Mishnaic Hebrew, although it has also been influenced by other languages that have come into contact with Hebrew over time. Modern Hebrew is party analytic and also fusional synthetic, and inflection is used in the formation of verbs and nouns. Hebrew verbs contain a root consisting of three or four consonants and allotted to one of seven derived stems, known as binyanim, and each of these derived stems follows a certain pattern of conjugation. Hebrew nouns are inflected for number and state, but not for case, and every noun contains a gender (sometimes both). Adjectives in Hebrew follow the noun that is being modified and must agree in gender, number, and definiteness.
While Modern Hebrew is derived from Biblical Hebrew and thus maintains a large number of Biblical Hebrew words, a large number of new lexical terms have been created for the casual vernacular, science and technology, journalism, etc. Modern Hebrew also includes loanwords from Arabic, Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino (a Romance language derived from Old Spanish), German, Polish, Russian, and English. Loanwords adopted by Mishnaic Hebrew from Canaanite languages, Akkadian, Aramaic, and Greek have also been passed down to Modern Hebrew.
The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 consonant-only letters and originally derived from the Aramaic script. Since the Hebrew alphabet does not include vowels, they are either understood implicitly or can be indicated by using diacritic marks above or below the letters. The Hebrew script is written and read from right-to-left, as with Arabic and other related Semitic languages that also derived their scripts from Aramaic.
FUN FACTS: Hebrew is the only successful example of reviving a previously “dead” spoken language in modern times. After nearly 1,500 years remaining dormant as a spoken language (although it was still used as a liturgical and literary language), it was re-introduced in a modern form through a mass education campaign, and Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is considered to be the “father” of Modern Hebrew. Also, Hebrew verbs take a distinct form depending on whether the subject is male or female.
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