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It's been variously suggested on this site that the difference between Biblical Hebrew and modern Hebrew is like either the difference between:

  1. Old English and modern English
  2. Shakespeare's English (Early modern English) and modern English.

Which of these is the better analogy, and if it is the second, is it also fair to suggest that Old English versus modern English is like Aramaic versus modern Hebrew? Does knowledge (and fluency) in modern Hebrew translate to knowledge of Biblical Hebrew?

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I almost posted this exact question today. And where do we count Mishnaic Hebrew in here (that of the Talmudic era)? It is between the two in time and different from Biblical Hebrew in several ways. –  Frank Luke Oct 26 '12 at 20:54
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The mention of Aramaic is misplaced: as Eli Rosencruft indicates, Aramaic is not the same as Hebrew at any date: it is a separate language (or group of languages) quite closely related to Hebrew, but distinct from it - perhaps a suitable analogy would be Dutch to English, except that English has had a lot of its vocabulary replaced from French. Two prominent differences are that definite forms are made in Aramaic by suffixing -ah rather than by prefixing ha-; and the relative marker di corresponds to she-, asher and sometimes ke- in Hebrew –  Colin Fine Oct 27 '13 at 1:23
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@FrankLuke: The variety of English between Old English and Early Modern English is Middle English. It's the language Chaucer wrote in. So it's even harder for a native English speaker to understand than Shakespeare, but it doesn't look like a dialect of German the way Old English does. Beowulf is written in Old English. –  hippietrail Jan 12 at 14:38

3 Answers 3

up vote 14 down vote accepted

From a vocabulary perspective, reading Biblical Hebrew (BH) from a Modern Israeli Hebrew (MIH) perspective is probably somewhat akin to reading Shakespeare (but see cautions below about meanings). However, there are grammatical constructs and language nuances that make it tricky, leading a Hebrew professor I studied with to characterize reading BH without any BH education as like reading old English. Once you learn these differences the problem is probably largely averted. (Note: my study of MIH has been limited to something like 60 classroom hours; my focus has largely been BH.)

In the rest of this answer I'll be quoting from Biblical Hebrew for Students of Modern Israeli Hebrew by Marc Zvi Brettler, professor of Hebrew Bible at Brandeis. This book is used by rabbinic students at Hebrew Union College and, presumably, other places. It is aimed at students who already know Modern Hebrew.

From the author's preface:

Yet BH and MIH are two different languages -- or at the very least, two substantially different dialects of the same language. MIH is certainly useful for reading the Bible, but no one can understand the Hebrew Bible knowing only MIH. There are significant differences in vocabulary, spelling, verb formation, use of verbal suffixes, and word order.

Some constructs in BH are unknown in MIH, such as the vav conversive (reversing vav), which converts a perfect verb to imperfect or vice-versa. (BH doesn't really have "past" and "future" tenses so much as perfect and imperfect aspects -- another key difference.) Without knowing about this often-used construct one would make significant errors, some but not all of which might raise contextual alarms ("that doesn't make sense").

Some constructs are different. MIH tends strongly to subject-verb-object order and (to my understanding) doesn't use the direct-object marker et. BH, on the other hand, is less consistent; it tends to put the verb first with the subject and object following, but sometimes starts with the object. Since the verb construct tells you the number and gender of the subject, subjects are sometimes dropped as redundant, which can lead to ambiguity.

BH and MIH handle participles differently, and also some verb prefixes and suffixes. The book has extensive discussions of this. Some vocabulary is also different. While MIH vocabulary is derived from BH vocabulary, knowing only MIH doesn't always get you back to the core.

BH itself isn't completely uniform either. From the introduction:

The second problem alluded to in the term biblical Hebrew was that it implies that we have a single, unified language. On the contrary, we actually have several dialects that are merged in the Hebrew Bible. These dialects may be distinguished mainly in terms of chronology, geography, and genre.

He goes on to point out that the language changed over the span of a thousand years, particularly through exile when Aramaic had a stronger influence; that there were differences between the northern and southern kingdoms after the split; and that poetry is rather different from prose.

Throughout the book he offers some translation tips, which I quote from to illustrate the types of problems that can arise. (I'm going to sometimes transliterate for ease of composing this answer.)

Do not assume that a word has the same meaning in BH and MIH. Example: Song of Songs 4:1 שַׂעְרֵךְ כְּעֵדֶר הָעִזִּים, שֶׁגָּלְשׁוּ מֵהַר גִּלְעָד. The word galash in MIH means "ski", but here it means "descend".

(You can see how, given a root for "descend" and a need for the concept of downill skiing, the creators of MH might have applied the former to the latter. This isn't a unique example by any means.)

Vowels matter. In particular, be sure to distinguish between verbs and nouns. Example: Psalm 13:6 אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה, כִּי גָמַל עָלָי. Gamal with a qametz is the noun "camel", but gamal with a patach as here means "deal fairly" or "reward".

I understand from this book that vowel-driven nuances are way more common in BH.

He also points out issues with different classes of defective verbs, and with verbs that look the same in different binyanim (so you need to apply context).

Conclusion

A speaker of Modern Hebrew who is aware of the differences between it and Biblical Hebrew should be able to read BH about as well as we read Shakespeare. A speaker of Modern Hebrew who hasn't internalized those differences will make many mistakes. He will probably not realize he is making those mistakes, however; the language won't be cryptic to him, the way Old English would be to most of us. So neither of these is really the right analogy, but I don't have a better one to suggest -- a flavor of English that you think you understand and don't (unaided).


Please note: This answer was written for a neutral, academic audience and is not intended to be interpreted in the context of a religious belief or doctrine.

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Dr. Nunnally (graduate of Hebrew Union) told us a story of being in Israel and seeing a sign. It took him by surprise that the one of the words was derived from Ezekiel's vision of God's throne with the cherubim and wheels. –  Frank Luke Oct 28 '12 at 23:36
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@FrankLuke, IIRC, the word for "electricity" is derived from that vision. Perhaps the sign was for a power company? :-) –  Gone Quiet Oct 29 '12 at 0:04
    
That's it! I couldn't remember for sure without the memory jog. –  Frank Luke Oct 29 '12 at 0:08
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O wad some Pow'r the giftie gie us / To see oursels as others see us / It wad frae monie a blunder free us / An' foolish notion / What airs in dress an' gait wad lea'e us / An' ev'n Devotion. –  TRiG Nov 7 '12 at 0:23
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"Vowels matter" That would seem obvious, except the fact that MIH doesn't distinguish between long and short vowel pairs (Komatz-Patah, Tzeirei-Segol, Cheereek Malei-Chirik Chaseir, Kubutz-Shoorook, and Cholom-Komatz Kotton, not to mention the various Chatafs). The same might have been said of various consonant pairs (Tav-Teth, Khaf-Heth, Quf-Kof, Waw-Veth, Aleph-Ayin, Samekh-Sin) but MIH speakers are usually more attuned to those after years of writing with only consonants. –  Double AA Nov 13 '12 at 2:02

From this Hebrew article from the Haaretz newspaper dated September 5, 2008, titled "The Bible in translation to Modern Hebrew", with subtitle "87 year-old teacher publishes 14 pamphlets with a translation of the Bible [OT] to modern Hebrew raises controversy in the education system", you can see that Biblical Hebrew is not easy for Israeli kids to read. However, the fact that the article is from 2008 shows that until now no one thought that the difficulty was so great that our kids needed a translation. In any event, the article is talking about the secular schools. In the religious school system there is no question, the Masoretic text is used and kids do fine with it.

The IDF still gives out Masoretic text OT's to each new inductee, and commanders still quote from it, as do politicians.

I would say that the metric between modern and OT Hebrew, in its various dialects, is like modern English to Shakespeare's English, not modern English to Chaucer's English. The metric of Hebrew to Aramaic is like French to Italian.

There are several languages that we call Aramaic - Daniel, Jonathan, Onkelos, Talmudic, Syriac and modern. The Aramaic of Daniel and the Jonathan targum is apparently the vernacular of the first century and earlier. The Aramaic of the Onkelos targum and the Talmud are a similar, maybe later dialect. I can read Onkelos and even speak a little Talmudic Aramaic, as can most Israeli men trained in the religious education system. We sometimes use a silly pidgin of this language to speak privately in the presence of children, wives or secular Israelis. I have difficulty with Daniel and with targum Jonathan and need a dictionary. In the Old City of Jerusalem there is an Armenian community that speaks a modern Aramaic. We do not understand it either in writing or spoken. The Syriac Peshita is another form of Aramaic that we can read with the help of a dictionary though it is more challenging than targum Jonathan.

Apart from the problems of vocabulary and grammar, there is a stylistic problem and a cultural problem. Some of the OT (e.g. Job, Psalms) is written in a literary style that would make it a difficult read even if it were in modern Hebrew. Other parts such as Songs and proverbs have cultural references that are foreign to the modern mind.

The Mishnah is "easy Hebrew" for the speaker of modern Hebrew, apart from the subject matter, which requires a commentary to follow. The style of the Mishnah is simple, mnemonic prose, not at all "literary". It does have an ample sprinkling of Greek and Latin terms that require footnotes.

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Thanks this is a very useful answer. –  Jack Douglas Nov 11 '12 at 17:13

I wish to differ from the opinions given above. Although the answers present a more scholarly perspective and more references than what I have to offer - I think it is important to remember the cultural context. The Hebrew Bible is being taught in Israel throughout all years of schooling, which means that most MIH speakers are well acquainted with BH in a more intuitive way. I assume that Shakespeare, if to use the comparison, is read only in more advanced classes, and thus its language is foreign to ME speakers, more than BH to MIH speakers. To prove my point, looking at the two examples given in the first answer - there is no way a MIH speaker will understand galash as skiing (which is by the way used as descend in MIH as well) or gamal as camel. The meaning would be perfectly clear to most MIH speakers, simply because they have learned the other meaning early in their lives. Also, as a mostly Jewish society, the Hebrew Bible is very present in daily life use - it is often quoted, alluded, and part of the common mythical associations. So as much as it is a different language - it is available for someone who grew up in the MH-Israeli education system. Yet I agree there is room for errors, basing one's reading only on MIH.

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this is very interesting food for thought, thanks! –  Jack Douglas Oct 25 '13 at 13:01
    
Ella, "ME" means "Middle English", not "Modern English". Middle English is the language of Chaucer, quite a bit older than Shakespeare's Early Modern English. I actually don't know if there's an acronym or abbreviation for "Modern English". –  hippietrail Jan 12 at 14:47

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