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Project Hebrew

September 23, 2010

It is an amazing fact that the word ‘excited’ has no Russian equivalent. It seems to be such a common feeling that it’s unbelievable how Russian manages without it. Translators translate it into Russian as either ‘glad’ or ‘aroused’ or something similar to ‘pleasantly agitated’ – which sounds awkward even in Russian. So I can’t say ‘I’m excited!’ in my native language and I’m saying it in English. I’m excited because tomorrow I am going to my first class of a new language. In recent days, I have toyed with the idea of studying several different languages and I shared my feelings about Finnish in an earlier post. However, I have since sobered up (figuratively, of course) and realized that there is little chance I will summon enough motivation to study the language without a tutor. With my hectic schedule I do need someone to report to at least once a week, otherwise I’ll always find an excuse not to study. And I do need someone to practice speaking with.

So walking past the synagogue the other day, I decided to drop in and ran straight into a bearded guy who happened to be a teacher of Hebrew, so I immediately arranged private classes with him beginning this Friday. Now I’m not going to write a long essay on why I chose Hebrew but there seems to be a nice mix of practical and sentimental reasons: I’m half-Jewish, I’ve got family in Israel and, even though they can all speak Russian, I have found myself in situations in Israel where being able to speak Hebrew would have made things more convenient and would have made me feel less like a fool. And the fact that it’s an ancient culture and a beautiful county which I love add to the sentimental feeling.

Hebrew, or Ivr’it, as it is called both in Hebrew and in Russian, is a Semitic language and as such a member of the Afro-Asiatic language family. It is the most famous example of a dead language having been resurrected and being now alive and well.

According to some Jewish traditions, Hebrew was the language of creation and it was the language spoken before things got messed up at the Tower of Babel.

Israeli guides claim that the Hebrew alphabet was the first writing system with letters corresponding to sounds (instead of hieroglyphs, syllable writing, etc), however sources suggest that it developed along with other scripts used in the region during the late second and first millennia BC.

Eventually, Hebrew was displaced as the everyday spoken language of most Jews, and its chief successor in the Middle East was the closely related Aramaic language. It is being debated whether it happened during the Hellenistic period (in the 4th century BC) or at the end of the Roman period (about 200 AD).

For centuries afterwards it remained a language of prayer, studies and religious texts, the language of the Torah and the Talmud.

Then it was revived in its modern version. Hebrew’s revival was initiated in the late 19th century by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who immigrated to Palestine in 1881. The language was reconstructed as a spoken language, retaining its Semitic vocabulary and written appearance but taking on European phonology. It also borrowed a number of idioms and literal translations from Yiddish, which was the first language of many European Jews (Ashkenazi) settling in Palestine.

So tomorrow 9 a.m. is my first class. Anybody who knows Hebrew or has attempted to study it before, I would love to hear from you. What are your impressions from learning the language? What is the fun part and what are the stumbling blocks?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. jacobtullos permalink
    September 24, 2010 4:17 pm

    Wow, what and excellent choice for a language. My current dead language project is Koine Greek, but I’ve always wanted to work my way back through Aramaic and Hebrew (Hebrew being easy since, like you said, it’s been resurrected), with a quick stop through Latin, of course. I would be “pleasantly agitated” as well, if I were you

  2. September 24, 2010 5:10 pm

    Had my first class today and it was fantastic. It turned out that the guy teaching me Hebrew is a well-known writer in Russia. Teaching Hebrew is his second job. A very interesting person. We started by speaking and I was just picking up words and phrases and jotting them down in Russian letters. So by the end of the first half-hour I was able to carry out some very basic conversation. Then we started learning the letters and trying to read words. Very exciting. The language has a different logic to most other languages in that the same letter can be read differently depending on the ‘word model’ or something like that (am yet to figure out what exactly it means) – basically speakers of the language have a range of models in their brain and read words accordingly. Vowels are not written at all but the speakers know which vowel should follow a particular consonant in a particular word depending on the model of the word.

  3. denis s. (the 2nd lyceum) permalink
    September 27, 2010 1:38 pm

    Hello, Alex!
    I’ve always wanted to learn some ancient language for only one reason – to read Bible in original. The native language in which Bible was written is Hebraic – so called “ancient Hebrew”. So what I’m about… Next time you see your tutor, please ask him if there is a significant difference between ancient Ivr’it and modern, or perhaps he knows both of them and even can teach both)))

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