It can be intimidating to approach Hebrew for the first time. A different writing system, a different language family. Not to mention reading the other way around! But don’t worry, the Devil is not so black as he is painted, or rather written.

Hebrew vs. Yiddish

Hebrew’s history has been marked by ups and downs, it even happened that Hebrew disappeared from common use for 1800 years. At that time, it was used for liturgy and literary purposes exclusively. That’s when Yiddish hit the streets. The recipe for Yiddish is quite simple: on a base made of Germanic languages lay out a bit of Hebrew, then mix it with some Slavic and season with Romanesque borrowings – et voilà, Yiddish is served.

It is plain to see this linguistic mixture for instance in the oldest written Yiddish sentence: “Gut tag im betage se wer dis machzer in beshakneses trage”. Connotations with German are certainly apt.

The differences between Hebrew and Yiddish are countless. One of them concerns the alphabet. The same writing system is used in various ways. Surprisingly enough, no vowels are written in Yiddish, and because of that the ability to read depends on one’s knowledge of vocabulary and grammatical structures. Hebrew, in contrast, sometimes uses vowel and accent signs to help interpret the texts properly.

Until World War II, Yiddish was spoken by 11 million users. At present, the number of its speakers is estimated at 3 to 4 million people, mainly in the USA, Israel (especially among ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities), Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Mexico and Argentina.

Meanwhile, the then newly-created state of Israel decided to go back to its roots after the war. Thanks to the work done by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, it was Hebrew that became the official language of the country. However, it is not an easy task to revive a nearly dead language and, out of the blue, convince people to start using it. The same as with an old computer that for years has been lying, gathering dust in the corner, the language needed some updates. Of course, even though without them we would be able to communicate using Hebrew, still the Biblical language would lack some evident functions such as for instance a name for a computer.

Hebrew 2.0

In this modern version of the ancient language we make use of a vast database of neologisms, and there is a tab for borrowings. Additionally, the creators of the modern language have provided us with new grammatical tenses, which supplement the existing aspects (perfect and imperfect). The pronunciation has been standardised and nouns have ceased to decline according to cases. Does this mean that a simple browser will suffice to translate my deportation order or communicate with locals during a holiday? Well yes but actually no. Let’s not forget that Modern Hebrew remains a Semitic language, and because of that it follows an entirely different set of rules from those that Indo-European languages do. The Internet may be of much help when communicating with one of the 8 million speakers of Hebrew. However, when it comes to translating documents, I would recommend it to be handled by professional translators only.  


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