Everything You Know About “How Many Languages Can a Human Learn and Maintain?” is WRONG. Here’s Why…

Possibly one of the emotionally charged topics in the language learning world (and one that no one has good answers to, myself included) is the topic about how many languages a human being can learn.

We will never know the answer to that questions for way too many reasons. Here are some of them:

  • While most language enthusiasts haven’t thought about it (or have been put in a position to think about it), the language vs. dialect debate is getting increasingly muddy. Should the Caribbean English Creoles count as separate languages? The ISO 639-3 codes seem to think so. But would governments think so? How about universities? And obviously different areas where this question is more relevant will approach it differently (such as Jamaica and Italy, two completely different countries).

 

  • There is no definite way to quantify or even qualify proficiencies (except for, maybe, extended interviews on tape or eyewitness accounts of polyglots at conferences or gatherings). Even test results aren’t safe, given how many people may pass them and proceed to forget everything. (And if people can forget their native language, this is certainly also a possibility).

 

  • Human history and, by extension, history of human languages, is too long and too varied to take all the variables into account. I may have said this before in another one of my articles, but in some places like Western Africa or Melanesia, speaking ten languages is seen as normal. In many areas of the west, especially former British colonies, ten languages is seen as nearly superhuman if not in fact outright disbelieved by some people. This is despite the fact that there is no dearth of polyglot videos on the internet.

 

  • In addition to that, different areas of the world and different time periods would measure fluency differently. Mezzofanti, considered by some the greatest polyglot of all time, obviously had no usage for words pertaining to computers in any of his languages given as they did not exist when he was alive. He probably didn’t need to discuss complicated matters of science, either. Also (and this is another thing a lot of languages gurus don’t even realize because the languages they tend to choose) not all languages on the planet have that vocabulary. (In the event that you would talk about it, you would possibly use loanwords, primarily from a colonial language, or even switch into English or another colonial language periodically. However yes, there are some languages that have that vocabulary even though you think they might actually not.)

 

We will never know the answer to how many languages a human being can possibly know, and I highly encourage you to distrust ANYONE who tries to come up with an answer to the question. Because in attacking the question, they get the methodology wrong for all sorts of reasons.

 

Here are some of them:

 

  • Only taking into account their language experiences and those of their friend circle, which tend to be overwhelmingly skewed mostly towards politically powerful languages of Europe and sometimes Asia. Dialect continuums are not accounted for. If you think that Italian and Spanish are the equivalent of closest languages there are, give it some more thought. The Persian Languages are even closer, as are the “BCS” languages (Bosnian, Croatian and Serbia) not also to mention my own pet languages, the Melanesian Creoles (of Tok Pisin, Pijin and Bislama). Not all language counts are created equal, and this point alone would be capable of disqualifying the question altogether, but I’ll go on.

 

  • Not realizing that technology has changed and will continue to change. Mezzofanti didn’t have Memrise and many of the memory tools that I use on a daily basis. Technology has the capability of turning us into superhuman versions of our ancestors. An average person who has trained with contemporary first-person shooter games (which I never play, by the way) would have significantly better reflexes and hand-eye coordination than pretty much ANY soldier that fought in the Second World War. They would be considered SUPER SOLDIERS back then (this was a factoid I picked up from the 2016 Games for Change Conference). But for some reason almost no one considers that a similar thing is also happening for language learning and skill acquisition.

 

  • Using Ziad Fazah’s “Viva el Lunes” performance in order to automatically disqualify anyone who claims to speak 50+ languages. For those unaware, I’ll summarize it in one sentence. Liberian/Lebanese Polyglot who won Guinness Book of World Record’s title for most multilingual person goes on Chilean television, is tested and struggles even with basic sentences in most of his languages. But to dismiss any claims of that nature just because of ONE incident is a logical fallacy, and while I haven’t met anyone who has significantly pulled off that number, I wouldn’t automatically revert to skepticism. Just because of one person who may have likely overestimated his abilities doesn’t mean that we as a species should hold ourselves back. Who knows? There may be someone who may actually speak 59+ languages and who actually CAN show the skills. You never know!

 

I get it. A lot of people have deep insecurities, including many in the polyglot community. The temptation to knock others down or be dismissive only shows defensiveness and maybe a poor attempt to hide your own imposter syndrome. This is why I’m willing to consider anyone’s language proficiency based on claims alone (note I said “CONSIDER” not “definitively judge”, because there is no way to really do that.)

 

  • Using data about famous polyglots that have been dead for centuries (or even those that are STILL ALIVE) in order to draw conclusions as to what human beings in the 21st century can do. Really? In the case of the ones that have been dead for hundreds of years, they’re not relevant to our brains and our technology and our learning abilities NOW. Maybe they could be used in order to speculate about limits before the technological revolutions that happened during my lifetime, but we’re changing now and most people who answer the “how many languages is it possible to know?” question don’t acknowledge how contemporary technology sets our time period apart.

 

  • Different vocabulary thresholds for different languages. One person whose opinion I very much value said that a vocabulary of about 16000 words were required to reach a C2 level (the highest possible level, considered equivalent to a highly educated native speaker) in a language. But here’s the thing: in Bislama (an English Creole that is the primary language of Vanuatu), there are literally about 4,000 words (excluding proper nouns, which would bring the count up to 7,000) IN THE ENTIRE LANGUAGE. So if you speak with one-quarter of that amount with some languages, you get a near-native vocabulary, an advantage not afforded to languages like French and Swedish with significantly larger vocabulary lists (Swedish’s list of loan words from English ALONE is likely larger than the comprehensive vocabularies of the Melanesian Creoles COMBINED). And before you say “well, that’s just concerning Creole languages”, the same variety of comprehensive word counts can also be found the further away you get from the developed world AND the further you delve into languages without as much political support.

 

If there is a definitive limit for amount of languages learned, even to a high level, we will never know what it is, in part because of all of the factors that I lay out here.

 

It’s an interesting mental exercise that, let’s be honest, is usually used to discourage people and create skepticism so that some people can have their egos buttressed, but it’s one with no definitive answer (in the Talmud, we end such debates with the word “teyku”, meaning “let it remain unresolved”. And that’s what we’re going to have to go with this debate as well.)

 

What do I intend to do? Well, for one, I’m going to try my best and learn many languages, some to fluency, others to degrees of curiosity, and I fulfill MY vision. Because if you constantly live in the fear of judgment of others, you’ll never live your full life.

 

And that’s something you deserve to do! Don’t let ANY discouragement get you down!

come back when you can put up a fight

I really need to start using new pictures of myself.

The Hardest Things about Learning English Creole Languages

As a teenager I constantly wondered if there were languages closer to English than any of the national languages of Europe I’ve heard were closely related (anything Scandinavian, Dutch, Romance Languages, Afrikaans [despite not really being European in a full sense] etc.)

Turns out they DO exist, not only in Scots but also with English Creole Languages, of which there are many spanning multiple continents. So far I’m fluent in five of them, and my Jamaican Patois book is in the mail (I’ve decided that I’ll be focusing only on Hungarian and Lao as far as new languages are concerned until I’m fluent in one of them, but it occurs to me that given how similar “Jamaican” is to Trinidadian Creole and Salone Krio, I may be inclined to make an exception for it because it wouldn’t be a source of active stress).

I really look forward to learning Jamaican Patois however much of a “snail ride” it is.

However, as much as I sometimes make it out to be that way in conversation, learning English Creole Languages isn’t always very easy.

There were unique challenges they presented that I haven’t seen in the other clusters of languages I’ve focused on (e.g. Scandinavian, Celtic, and soon Southeast Asian and Pacific!)

Let me tell you a bit more about them:

 

  • Slurring and Very Quick Speech is Common to Many Creole Languages

 

After all, Creoles are highly efficient!

Hopping from your phrasebooks or your textbooks (yes, textbooks exist for English Creole Languages, particularly for the Peace Corps) to the “real world” of that language is a difficult task.

The clear words that you saw on the page may be jumbled in ways you didn’t even think possible. Entire syllables will be left out and you’ll need to train yourself. At first it will be like “did you get the general idea?” but then you’ll learn to manage well enough.

The clearest versions of the Creoles tend to exist (1) on radio and TV (2) in materials for missionaries (who partner with native speakers in order to tell stories about Jesus or Biblical characters or what-have-you) and (3) governmental notices that have been localized (often developed countries assist with these productions, also using voice actors who are native speakers or fluent local speakers). These may act as a “gateway” to you understanding your dream creole in its full form the way the locals do.

I’ll give you one example: Solomon Islands Pijin uses “blong olketa” (belonging to them, belonging to all of them, of them, etc.) You may hear it pronounced as “blokta”. And that’s one example of hundreds.

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often use Standard English On / Off in their speech, making it difficult to get a “consistent” stream of it in some areas of Creole-speaking countries.

 

Trinidadian Creole forms the future and past differently from English. There is also no such thing as a passive verb. (These are all things my book says). It’s close enough to English that some people, even Trinidadians, don’t even believe it is a separate language.

Despite that, especially among people who have specialized in medicine or engineering or something similar, you’ll hear a pattern in which they’ll hop between Standard English and their Creole without even thinking about it. This isn’t unique to English creoles and it is called “code switching”.

It may leave you confused. If I used too much English or too little English, what will happen? What sort of situations should I use this much English in? Will I come off as rude?

These are all questions you’ll get a “feel” for and there are so many right answers depending on the community in which you use these languages.

Much like with languages from countries in which English is commonly spoken (e.g. Swedish, Dutch) you’ll have to learn how to mirror how English loans and phrases are used in conversations. Imitating native speakers is your best bet (after all, that’s how we all learn our first language!)

And then, sometimes, you have the opposite problem…

 

  • Speakers of some Creole Languages often throw in words from their own native languages you may have never encountered before. This is especially common in music.

A non-existent problem on the radio and TV, this can be an issue in music especially (or if you’re overhearing conversations).

The Creoles of Melanesia and Africa are poised between the native languages and the European languages and have to dance delicately between them (the Carribean Creoles don’t have this dynamic, although they, like the African and Pacific English Creoles, are a fusion between the many languages that the African slaves spoke and understood but in a version that would be comprehensible to the slaveowners.)

Because of this, the people who write the comprehensive dictionaries (even if they’re native speakers of these languages themselves) can’t always keep up. My Yiddish teacher told me that Yiddish was like learning five languages in one (German, Hebrew, Polish, Russian and Ukrainian). These creoles are sometimes like learning many, many more of these in one (although their vocabulary loans are more lopsided towards English than Yiddish is towards German).

It’s not uncommon for songwriters singing in Melanesian creoles to hop into their native language or Standard English while singing their creoles in between. Here’s an example:

Related to that is…

  • Some speakers of Creole Languages may have their pronunciation altered due to the phonemes of their native language.

 

As a native English speaker, I have to be careful with my accent in speaking many other languages and I sometimes have to work on it a lot. If I don’t, it may cause a significant amount of discomfort in native speakers who may then be inclined to switch to English if they’re lazy enough (which, sadly enough, most people are).

But imagine if your native language is spoken by 2,000 people on your island somewhere in the Solomons. You will primarily use Solomon Islands Pijin and English to communicate with other people at home and abroad respectively. But you don’t really need to worry about perfecting your accent in Pijin because back from its earliest days on the plantations in Queensland people spoke it with whatever accent they used from their native language. That’s largely still the case (although there are people who speak these Creoles as their native language, Creoles by definition have to have large enough vocabulary to be a mother tongue of someone, that’s what makes them distinct from Pidgins).

The downside? You may hear some vowels, phonemes and individual words mutating in ways you didn’t even think possible. You may hear some basic phrases change into something that is only borderline recognizable to you. Some accents in these creoles can be so difficult that you may actually draw blanks during some areas of a conversation. But as long as you know how to respond with ease and / or get the context, that’s okay.

That’s an issue that primarily comes up when dealing with the spoken language (so when having conversations or watching artistic productions, on radio broadcasts these languages tend to be used as clearly as possible).

 

  • In Some Contexts, You May be Better Off Using English

 

Feel free to disagree with me on this one if your experience says otherwise.

Alas, there are some people in countries where Creoles are spoken that may look down on their local creoles as languages of the uneducated or peasants. In the case of the Caribbean creoles it could be that, depending on context, your attempts to speak their language may be construed as making fun of their accents.

Much like Yiddish was seen throughout a lot of its history as a language that was inferior to both German and the languages of the Bible and the Talmud (and sometimes seen as the language of “women and the uneducated”), in some areas this view of the Creole language can still be present. Interestingly in an age of mass language death this may be changing and there will no doubt be thousands of fluent speakers of these creoles who will be WILLING to practice with you.

Suffice it to say that, despite that, learning the local language is always a fantastic idea. Keep in mind that Standard English plays a role in each of the places where these Creoles are spoken – it’s not like it’s genuinely foreign to people who live in Jamaica or Vanuatu or Sierra Leone. Not at all.

The many languages of these places all play a different role, but the Creoles truly echo the local cultures in unison because, for a number of reasons, they ended up being the languages around which these countries would unify when they became independent. And they continue to play important roles (not a single one of the creoles I’ve mentioned here is endangered, although Trinidad and Tobago does also have this other French creole language that seems to be quite weak as of the time of writing).

2015-03-17 20.17.12

Here’s hoping you meet success in your journeys, wherever they take you!

3 Ways in Which My Religious Education Has Helped Me, and another 3 in which it Hindered Me

I have many sides to myself that I show on this blog. One side that’s actually very important to me is the fact that I’m Jewish. I am pleased to say that in Jewish communities throughout the world that I am VERY far from the only one with a “global outlook” and a curiosity about other cultures, languages, peacemaking and bridge building.

However, my relationship with Judaism hasn’t always been very easy. During my preteen years as well as my early teen years (including all of high school), I was very religious and often had an extraordinary fear of a God that would punish me for every single minor infraction.

I used to be genuinely afraid of a lot of things, but suffice it to say that I’ve become someone different since then, and while my own beliefs about God and Judaism are just as confusing as the topics themselves, I think that I could make any all-powerful God anywhere very proud with the work I’m doing, not also to mention the fact that Jewish communities throughout the world already look to me as an inspiration (and not just because I’m a synagogue cantor).

That said, this was a topic that many of you have requested, and so allow me to tell you about how my religious background helped me and other ways in which it held me back.

Three bad, then three good:

  1. Religion made me afraid of the “real world” for a long time. Sometimes that fear still lingers. Sometimes it even causes me to “look down” on American popular culture in general.

 

During my time at my Orthodox Jewish Day school I was paradoxically taught all about the gentile world in my secular studies classes, all the while I was being instilled with a fear of gentiles, especially Europeans (and especially Eastern Europeans) as well as Muslims (regardless of where they were from).

Thankfully, thanks to the foresight of my parents I did not develop any prejudice in the slightest and I knew all the while that all human beings and cultures are worthy of expression, love and appreciation wherever they are.

However, one fear in which my family AND my Jewish Day School teachers were fairly united in was the fact that they were both fearful (and sometimes disdainful) of the American culture that lie outside of the world of the Jewish Day school.

I went to a high school not even knowing what a blowjob was and people outright refused to explain it to me because they thought it would offend me. I was afraid of talking to other people and my first week of high school I actively rebuffed other people’s desires to know me.

Looking back, it was genuinely frightening and I think I should be proud of myself of the truly global citizen I’ve learned to become.

But slight tinges of the disdain of the “tuma’a” (impurity) of the “treyfe Medine” (the Un-Kosher State, namely, the one with the fifty stars and stripes on its flags) still remain in my heart ever-so-slightly. I’m still fearful of many aspects of American culture, and I don’t have this reaction to any other culture anywhere.

Perhaps it might have also been strengthened by anti-Americanism I may have witnessed in other countries and rubbed off on my (Israel and Germany did have particularly strong strains of it, in my experience).

Thankfully I’m getting better by the day at being a more open-minded person and I feel that I actually have a long way to go on that journey!

 

  1. Religion made me unduly afraid of negative consequences and “screwing up”

 

And this fear was doubled by the insane amount of testing that exists in the American school system.

I was actually extraordinarily relieved to have got my MA and not continued with schooling, because the approval-seeking tendencies were just hurting me too much and genuinely made me afraid to express my opinions. These days, as a teacher myself, I try to help my students “recover” from the damage that our schools inflict on them—namely, that they instill a fear of learning into us rather than a love of learning.

As far as religion is concerned, I was afraid about everything. Picking up snowballs and pens on Shabbat would probably incur a divine wrath of sorts, and then some of my classmates tried to make me feel as though I would have to kill a sheep for each time I ever did that in my life once the Temple was rebuilt.

There was always the idea that I was not good enough and being human was not okay. The extraordinary prevalence of many, many rules, back when I first went to my mini-Yeshiva in 1999 or so, meant that I was always discovering new ways to screw up and commit transgressions.

What no one ever told me, however, was that a journey to holiness and fulfillment is actually found through “screw-ups”, and you can see this in literally all of the life stories of every character in the Hebrew Bible!

I encourage myself to screw up more often. I encourage my students to do so as well. After you’ve gotten all of the bad behaviors, bad drawings, bad writing out of your system, you’ll only know how to act / draw / write well from there on out.

 

  1. Religion made me feel guilty about having fun.

I really liked computer games when I was a preteen and I didn’t want any of my teachers or peers to find out. Back in those days Age of Empires was a very big hit and eventually other people would bring it into conversation and I would feel uneasy about it. And I haven’t even touched on the whole drama that ensued with Magic: the Gathering. Or, even worse (or better), male-female dynamics.

My teachers chided me against “filling my mind with garbage” (and I’m glad to be filling my mind with even more garbage and being called a champion and a hero because of it). And then this, too, was made worse by the school system because I was made to think that these hobbies just meant less time for the SAT.

But this brings us into another failure of education (which also seems to have strengthened all of the various negatives that my religious upbringing has given me), and that is the fact that it ignores the fact that “Trojan Horse learning” – trying to get people to learn without having them realizing it – is the most effective way.

Suffice it to say that religion also brought a number of extraordinary blessings to my life as well, and to my language learning journeys specifically (it goes without saying that all skills are linked, y’know?)

 

  1. Religious Education and Practice made me disciplined and focused on goals and results. It also taught me to have a firm sense of purpose.

 

This was actually extraordinarily helpful in regards to language learning and goal acquisition. Visualizing negatives actually really help with this, and the same way I had learned to visualize negatives in religious school (insult your siblings? No paradise for you!) I had learned to visualize negatives in my professional life.

If I don’t learn Krio well enough now, there may come a point in which my father’s stories from his time in Sierra Leone will be locked out from me forever. Maybe if I learn it well enough, I could actually use it as a conversation starter (even though he doesn’t speak it) and it could job memories about things he never thought about telling me before.

It also really helped me with visualizing positives.

If I do learn Swedish well enough, I can read the letters from my deceased family members. Not only that, but I will also be able to speak the language of my ancestors firmly and fluently in a way that would make both them and me proud.

If I do learn how to read and understand Hungarian, I will be able to partake of a culture that my grandmother’s family saw themselves as a part of. I would be able to read the prayer books of my hopeful ancestors that came to this country and turned to these books, with Hungarian on one side and Hebrew on the other, as a source of hope when the world was going to pieces.

I would be able to read both sides of books that enabled my own place in the world today.

I merely transferred the goal-oriented thinking from my religious sphere to my secular studies with extraordinary ease and I’ve been thankful for it ever since.

 

  1. It endowed me with the understanding that “You are not expected to finish the job, but you are not free to quit”

This is a quote from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers). For those unaware, it is a small sliver of the Talmud (six chapters long) that is a collection of Jewish sayings from Late Antiquity. They, too, reflect a scribal culture that is partly influenced by the Persian Empire, then by Hellenism, then by the Eastern Roman Empire, and a lot of quotes from the book are indeed helpful with endowing you with a sense of purpose.

I should also take this time to thank the masterful authors of these texts. Ancient Wisdom is extraordinary and if you haven’t read a lot of collections of Ancient Wisdom (from anywhere in the world), I highly recommend you do so right now. Well…after you’re done reading this, that is…

In Pirkei Avot there is a sentence that says that you are not expected to finish the job but you are not free to quit it. This understanding was very helpful for skill acquisition, given that, no matter what you do, every educational experience you have ever had will be a part of you forever, and that you will never complete any task completely (even if it is learning your native language perfectly. Still a lot of things I have yet to learn about English, even though I speak it very well!)

 

  1. Religion enabled me to understand the fact that to understand a culture you have to understand practices and texts and engage with them very frequently.

 

This was essential for language learning and language learning’s more in-depth twin, cultural learning (which is a hundred times more difficult!)

Learning enough words in a language and even stringing them into sentences is one thing. Learning the culture to which it is attached is another thing, and unless you master the latter, the former is going to be stunted (although it is possible to speak it well, no doubt, even under those circumstances, but probably not to a fantastic degree).

I look at the languages I’ve learned the best. Yiddish brought with it a vast collection of cultural touchstones some of which have been as influential as far as Southeast Asia and Australia. Yiddish wasn’t just words on a page. It was Chelm and Hershele Ostropolyer and Avrom Sutzkever and Badkhonim (roughly explained: Town of Fools, Trickster Character in Yiddish Folktales and Theater, 20th-century poet who lost is one-day-old son in the Vilna Ghetto, and humoristic performers at Jewish weddings that were trained in making the bride cry).

Cultural literacy takes extraordinary work and in some cases there are native speakers that have gaps in it (like I do with American popular culture). That said, I’ve been in the reverse situation where I can name a lot of Finnish popular music artists and then got told by a Finnish native speaker that she didn’t listen to Finnish-language music at all (well, I don’t tend to listen to English-language music either, so I guess that makes two of us).

Yiddish and Finnish were far from the only ones, I bonded with the Solomon Islands with their radio and back when I was in college my knowledge of Russian popular music (which is still quite strong) made me friends. In New York, despite the fact that my Russian is significantly weaker than it was, it still makes me a lot of friends!

Learning Judaism to me wasn’t just about the commandments or the bagels or the Jewish Summer Camp I never attended. It was about the Talmud, contemporary Israeli literature, Borsht Belt Comedians, Mickey Katz and many others besides.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Putting it all into one sentence: religion made me fearful, but it also made me determined. I don’t exactly know what sort of life I would have if I were raised in a completely secular manner, but chances are I would be writing an article instead on “3 ways my secular upbringing helped me, and 3 ways that it hindered me”.

It is what it is. What’s there to say?

kegn dem shtrom

Against the Stream, then and always (2011)

How to Learn to Read the Hebrew Bible in the Original

Happy Fourth of July! Over the course of the past week I wondered to myself, “Lord (no pun intended), what topic would be REALLY good and/or suitable to discuss and post on American Independence Day?”

Yes, I could write about American English but often that may come to be a bit too predictable….

Instead, I have come to write about a topic that many of you have been BEGGING me for—namely, the Hebrew of the Scriptures!

I think that the Bible and the United States go very well tog…never mind that…

Anyhow, time to begin!

DSC00096 (2)

Antwerp, the home of the world’s oldest printing presses

A lot of people have told me throughout the years (people of all religions, mind you) that they would like to learn enough Hebrew in order to read the Bible. Another common question I get is “how similar (or different) are Hebrew as it is spoken in Israel today and Hebrew as it is used in the Scriptures and prayers?”

Excellent question!

  • Modern Hebrew has words from English (thanks to the British Mandate), French (thanks to it having been the international language in the days of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew) and Slavic Languages / Yiddish (given as that was the culture of many of the founding fathers of contemporary Israel). Biblical Hebrew has absolutely none of these.

 

However, one thing that may surprise you is the fact that there are loan words from other languages in Biblical Hebrew, although thanks to a millennia-long gap, post-colonialism and too many other factors to list, it’s not easy to detect all of them.

The culture of the Bible is one in which the Hebrews find themselves interacting with many, MANY other ethnicities. The sheer amount of them is staggering and nowadays I would venture that that sort of diversity of small mini-nations as described in the Bible would be found in places like Northern Australia, Melanesia and areas of Indonesia.

Obviously some of the big “players” would include the quilt of cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Eastern Mediterranean. As time goes on in the Bible, the array of mini-cultures starts to coalesce into global powers like Assyria, Egypt and Old Babylon. During the time of the “United Kingdom of Judah and Israel” (as my professor Wayne Horowitz used to call it), the union (a bit like a Poland-Lithuania or a Denmark-Norway, as it were) became a regional military power (as noted in the book of Samuel). This happened during the reigns of David and Solomon and the kingdoms split after Solomon’s death.

So what does this have to do with loanwords?

Hebrew is fairly purest at times, or so it seems…until you realize that the extent of loans or cognates from languages like Akkadian or Sumerian cannot be fully realized in their entirety.

One such Sumerian loanword in Hebrew is a word used to refer to the Divine Realm, “היכל” (Heykhal).

With knowledge of Akkadian, a lot of the Bible’s “hidden references” come to light, and we may never truly discover the full scope of it. (Jeremiah is said to have been able to read it, and that there are idiomatic and pattern parallels between his book of prophecy and those of prominent Akkadian language poets)

Planet Earth’s first great empire was Sumer, and then (much like Judah and Israel did later on), they coalesced into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. Like the Israelites, the Akkadians were also Semites, while the Sumerians were not. The tension apparently did result in the union’s dissolution later on down the line.

It’s unsurprising, then, that loanwords from these languages ended up in Hebrew.

Later on in the age of the Talmud, the Mishnah (the “alpha” version of the Talmud, with the “beta” version, the Gemara, coming later on) uses loanwords from Greek and even some from Latin (note to those unaware: Greek was the American English of the Eastern Roman Empire). The same way that Dutch youth may use a lot of English, German and French loan words in their speech, the Tanaim of the Mishnah also used loans from other languages that they recognized.

I’ve come a long way since Jewish Day School, haven’t I?

In short: Modern Hebrew -> Contemporary European Influence, Biblical Hebrew -> Influence from the Languages of Antiquity, Talmudic Hebrew -> Influence from OTHER languages of Antiquity (and we still haven’t even touched on the Hebrew as used by Jewish poets throughout the Diaspora for millennia!)

 

  • Verb Structure is different.

 

Like Irish (which shares a LOT of uncanny similarities to Biblical Hebrew in terms of its grammatical setup, causing people to think that the Celts were the Lost Ten Tribes), Biblical Hebrew uses a “Verb-Subject-Object” sentence structure. When God speaks to Moses, the words translate to “he-spoke God to-Moses to-say”

Modern Hebrew resembles something closer to English, Yiddish or Slavic Languages in terms of its sentence structure. Translating word-by-word from Modern Hebrew into English is less of a hassle for this reason.

 

  • Pronunciation CAN be different (in Ashkenazi or Temani Spheres)

 

Jews from Yemen and Jews from Ashkenaz (Central-Eastern Europe), especially deeply religious ones, may use different pronunciation than what Israelis will use in conversation.

But Israelis of all stripes, however, will use the Sephardic pronunciation in using Modern Hebrew.

Here’s why:

Yiddish has Hebrew loan-words in it. These Hebrew words in Yiddish (that can sometimes be significantly detached from their Hebrew-language meanings in the most absurd ways, including being some of the rudest words in the language…) are pronounced using the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

In the early days of Zionism, Yiddish was seen as a Ghetto Language, something to be shed. As a result, the Hebrew pronunciation adopted was that of the Sephardi Jews, so as to become detached from the Old World culture. Oddly enough, Modern Hebrew took a lot of idioms of Ancient Hebrew origin from Yiddish back into its contemporary version (although obviously the meanings shifted yet again in some cases!)

What does this mean for you?

There’s an Orthodox Jewish community right across the street from where I’m writing this. Sometimes they play Hasidic pop songs sung in Ashkenazi-pronounced Hebrew. This means that, unless you’ve had particular training listening to that brand of Hebrew, it may be strange to you (like listening to versions of English that you may have never heard in your life for the first time!)

Some Biblical Hebrew classes will have you use the same Sephardic pronunciation that you use for Modern Hebrew. But in some cases you may need to get used to (or at least recognize) the  Ashkenazi or Temani variant depending on what sphere you’re in.

 

  • Forms of Hebrew used in Antiquity can be wildly inconsistent.

 

The Mishna uses modified plural endings for verbs. Some portions of the Bible show slightly-different grammatical patterns. And then this isn’t even touching on the “kri uktiv”, the idea that some words in the Bible are not pronounced as they are written!

(HOWEVER! Your editor will usually let you know in some way how to pronounce the word in the event of “kri uktiv”, which is just the Hebrew term for “read and written”. Oh, “kri uktiv” is Sephardic, and in Ashkenazi it would be “kri u’ksiv”. Fun).
Imagine having no one tell you this and then be expected to read texts with very little prior knowledge in Hebrew from the Five Books of Moses and the Mishna and the prayers. 10-year-old me was very confused indeed.

And that’s why I became a teacher to prevent other people from being so confused.

 

I want to Read the Bible in Hebrew. Where do I start and where should I put my resources? I’ve never studied a “dead language” before…HELP!

 

Jared Gimbel to the rescue!

You need to recognize a number of things first:

  • The building block of the narrative will be verbs. Verbs, like in Modern Hebrew and in other Semitic Languages, will be made out of “shorashim” (the Hebrew word for “roots”), in which there will be a set of three letters that will indicate a certain meaning. These shorashim are not limited to verbs, but also nouns or adjectives that are connected to that action as well.

Most Shorashim in the Bible will be three letters long, and a lot of them will appear very frequently in the bible, verbs like “to send”, “to call out”, “to say”, “to go”, “to return” will be featured regularly. Learn to recognize verbs like these, and let translations of the Hebrew Bible into the language of your choice guide you.

  • The names of characters will be different! The English names of Biblical Characters are taken from the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible). The same is true with the names of the Biblical characters in European Languages or indigenous languages of places colonized by Europeans (the Americas, Africa, Oceania, among others)

In the case of English, you’ll note that the names changed by virtue of the restrictions that Greek had in regards to adopting sounds from Hebrew. Isaac is a Greek-ified version of the Hebrew “Yitzkhak” (and in Yiddish it came under Polish influence and became “Itsik”), and Jacob is a version of “Yaakov” (which is “Yankev” in Yiddish – again, under Polish influence).

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob become Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yaakov in Hebrew, and Avrohom, Itzik and Yankev in Yiddish. This is SO MUCH FUN, RIGHT?!!?

Also the Bible features a LOT of place names (and people names) that are mentioned once and sometimes they’re almost never brought up again. One issue I’ve seen with students trying to read the Bible is that they may not be able to recognize when a proper name is, in fact, a proper name.

Again, using translations on the side (as long as you’re paying attention, which I’m sure you are) will help you hone your “sixth sense” as to what is a place-name and what is a person-name. Even more confusing: place-names and personal names can also MEAN THINGS!

(What’s more, some Biblical characters are actually named after incidents, including…you got it…Isaac and Jacob. These word games don’t translate into any other language! Aren’t you excited to learn this stuff?

  • Words will appear over and over again in the Bible. Recite aloud. The more you’ll encounter these words, the more you’ll come to recognize them.

Favorites would include “leemor” – “to say”, which is also used to indicate an indirect statement (in plain English this means the “that” in “I said that this blog is the best in the world”), “hineh” (behold!), any words relating to birth and death at all, as well as prepositional phrases, which provide the learner as much frustration in Hebrew as they do with almost any language I can think of that isn’t a Creole.

  • Context always helps.

The fact that you’ve probably heard most of the stories before will actually help you with any information that you may be blanking on, whether it be verb tenses, prepositional phrases, or even a shoresh!

Think about what the people in the story might be doing or saying, how much info you can piece together given what you have already.

You have an exciting journey ahead of you. You are going to be able to read the most influential piece of literature in human history. And believe me, it is a VERY fulfilling feeling to get to read the Masoretic text in the original. Your friends will be impressed…as will I!

Happy Fourth of July!

2015-07-06 11.22.31