Hebrew: the EASY language?


One of our MA in Biblical Languages students did an undergrad degree in French at the University of Oklahoma.  While on a brief visit to his old alma mater recently, he snapped this picture of one of the bulletin boards in the language department. Especially intriguing is the green flyer. So . . . Hebrew is a fun, EASY language! Who knew?

Of course, my students who are in the middle of learning first-year Hebrew don’t think it’s easy (although I have heard from a number of them that they do think it’s fun).  How easy is Hebrew compared to, say, Greek? Hebrew is simpler than Greek in a number of ways, and often simpler is easier. So here are a few tidbits for the interested reader. In my Koine Greek class, we learn 24 forms of the definite article (the). In Hebrew, we learn one basic form, with 3 slight (but recognizable) variations of it. In Greek, nouns and adjectives come in three different genders: masculine, feminine, and neuter. In Hebrew, they come in only two: masculine and feminine. In Greek, every noun theoretically has ten forms, since there are 5 cases (nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, and vocative) and two categories for number (singular and plural); in Hebrew, no case system exists, with the result that every noun theoretically has only four forms (an absolute and a construct form in the singular and plural). In Greek, the copula εἰμί/εἶναι is optional and so can be explicit or implied: John is a man and John a man.  In Hebrew, the copula הָיָה is always omitted in “present-time” contexts: John a man. Hey, why waste words?

So, these are just a few ways that Hebrew could be seen to be “easier” than other classical languages. There are other things that might make Hebrew seem more daunting (like a less familiar alphabetic script and sound system, a verbal system that is not tense-prominent, reading right-to-left). Is learning any language really ever *easy*? Absolutely not. But whether a language is easy to learn or not is no good reason to learn, or avoid, Hebrew or any other language. Acquiring a language like Hebrew does several things for you. It gives you access to great texts–sacred texts of the Hebrew Bible as well as Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic material. It trains your mind to think more clearly (and accurately!) about words, meaning, grammar, expression, and communicating thoughts. It gives you tools to determine whether that scholar in Newsweek or Time really knows what he/she is talking about, or whether they’re just blowing smoke. Same with pastors, theologians, and bloggers.

Give Hebrew a try. It’s easy! Well, maybe not easy, but simple. And if you join us on this journey at HBU, I can tell you exactly what Gandalf told Bilbo in An Unexpected Journey:

“If you return, you will never be the same again.”If you return, you will never be the same again

11 responses

  1. AGREED. I learned a modern language (Spanish), and took Greek and Hebrew all within a couple of years of each other. Hebrew was by far the most difficult in the beginning, but became gradually easier as the shock of a new alphabet and vowel changes wore off. But I’ve been taking Greek off and on for 5 years and still get tripped up on syntax now and again. Hebrew poetry is another ballgame though.

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  3. I took one year of Hebrew, then a couple of years later started reading the Old Testament in Hebrew. The only English Bible we had at the time was the KJV, and I kept getting tripped up on the archaic English. At least I had dictionaries for Biblical Hebrew (and koiné Greek for the New Testament).

    One thing that made reading Hebrew more difficult were the “first year lies” as they were jokingly called, all the teachings that the grammarians threw out that were wrong when compared to the Hebrew used in the Old Testament. This is especially true concerning verbs.

    Another thing that made studying Hebrew unnecessarily difficult was learning the Masoretic points. It is completely unrealistic the claim that they record Biblical era pronunciations, when they weren’t invented until 1000 years after Biblical Hebrew ceased to be spoken at the hearth and in the market, i.e. no one spoke it as a native language for that long a period. The Hebrew spoken by the scholars was in the spirit of medieval Latin—different pronunciation, different grammar, when applied to the Bible is wrong often enough as to be untrustworthy.

    I was a slow learner—it took about five times reading the Old Testament through before realizing that what I had been taught concerning verbal conjugations was wrong except for recognizing forms. It took about another five times before I made it a practice to hide the Masoretic points. Today I read a text that has no points on my computer, a practice that makes the language simpler.

    Another thing that made learning Hebrew harder were the dictionaries I had available—Gesenius, BDB, Analytical—they had glosses that may have been correct for medieval Hebrew, but are sometimes wrong for Biblical Hebrew. That Gesenius and BDB were not Christians I think had a bearing on why they made some of the glosses they chose.

    Get rid of the crud listed above, then it’s true that Biblical Hebrew is an easier language to learn than Greek and Latin, and more useful than Latin.

    • Thanks for registering your opinion, even if I don’t share your skepticism! 🙂 All said, even if we *don’t* “get rid of the crud listed above,” I still think Hebrew is a simpler language than the others I mentioned. Blessings, –Phillip.

      • My “skepticism”? I find that amusing.

        Of the professors teaching Biblical Hebrew whom I have met either face to face or online, only one could claim to have read the whole Old Testament through, and that one did so twice decades ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if that includes textbook authors. As a result, such teachers may know much about the scholarship about the language, but little about the text itself.

        As for me, I never set out to be a Biblical Hebrew language scholar, all I wanted to do is read the Bible. I have read both testaments through, cover to cover, more than 20 times (I lost count) in their original languages. Greek was not a challenge, not because of difficulty, but because it’s well known and what I learned in class I find is still accurate today. Not so with Hebrew.

        With Hebrew, the challenge is, how much of what I learned in class is “first year lies” and how much survives reading the text through for myself? Everything I listed above as “crud” are things I had to discard as not accurately describing the text of the Old Testament. I also speak a few modern languages, so when I read Gesenius and BDB, I found glosses that don’t fit the patterns of language use I learned from modern languages, so I ended up writing my own dictionary just to help me study the Old Testament.

        So what survived? Most of what I learned about nouns, adjectives, pronouns and the forms of verbs. What didn’t survive are the Masoretic points, much of syntax, the meanings of the verbal conjugations and binyanim. In short, the conjugations reflect not time as in tense or aspect, rather mood, some of which are not found in English.

        Hebrew is an easier language than Greek or Latin, but getting rid of the crud makes it easier.

        And I find the word “skepticism” a humorous description.

      • Sorry, Karl, I didn’t mean to offend you. If you took my comment about “skepticism” to be an assessment of your general world view, please understand that I did not mean it that way at all. Rather, I was speaking to your view of the value of Masoretic pointing and the German scholarly tradition that you mentioned in your first reply. Your comments indicate that you find much about which to be suspicious, and I think it fair to say that such an attitude amounts to “skepticism” about those issues. If you disagree, then I suppose we’ll agree to disagree. That wasn’t the point of my reply, or of my initial post, after all. In the end, your penultimate sentence gets to the point of both, and I’m happy to see that we agree on that: whether one ditches “the crud” or not, Hebrew is still an easier language.

  4. Sorry, I see I misunderstood your first response.

    As for the German scholarly tradition, my view of it is highly influenced by the PhD dissertation by Dr. Samuel R. Külling “Zur Datierung der Genesis ‘P’ Stücke” which gives a history of said German scholarly tradition going back to the early 1800s, showing that even then it was based on a belief of evolution (before Charles Darwin’s birth) and a disbelief in the accuracy of the Bible. Gesenius is listed as an early though not cutting edge practitioner of what has come down to us as “higher criticism”. How can anyone who trusts God’s word accept those beliefs?

    As for the Masoretes, their points are not canon, rather the work of humans, not only humans but ones who didn’t believe the Bible. As a human work, it contains errors. Even an error rate as low as 1% gives one error every three to five verses. Even Jewish rabbis recognize that the Masoretic points contain errors, so why should Christians treat them as sacrosanct?

    I expect this to be my last comment on this subject. And no, I was not offended.

    In closing, I encourage all Christians to learn the Biblical languages, koiné Greek for the New Testament, and the easier language Biblical Hebrew for the Old, then read a little bit each day in order to understand God’s word more deeply.

  5. Gracious me. I love what you do, more than you know…but dude…bro…almost every lexical verb (and there are approximately a kadgillion of them, I checked) is a triradical root with the qamets pataq, which for the uninitiated, means that they all sound like “a-A’. Shavah, Shavar, Shavak, Kavar, Kavad, Kavat, Dabar, Davar, Barak, Batan…and on into oblivion. Verb forms make up for the 24 uses of the Green definite article. Qal, Hiphal, Nifal, Piel,Pual, Hithpael, Hophal with each one having some tense variant (perfect, imperfect, preterite, infinitive construct, jussive, cohortative, infinitive absolute, imperative…you should be tired at this point just reading about it. I am a first-year Hebrew student and I love learning it but i also HATE learning it. 🙂 God bless you all!

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