Arabic As A Springboard To Learning Hebrew

One might ask why someone who spent so many years (really, decades) studying Arabic would suddenly switch to Hebrew. In my own personal case, it was not so much a sudden shift for me, as Hebrew had long been a “back-burner” language that I wanted to study.

Originally, I sought to read the Old Testament in its original language because I learned that if one does that, then one discovers that Moses did not part the Red Sea but rather “the sea of reeds” in the original Hebrew. (Note: If you are not sure what we are talking about, keep on reading – you will get the answer at the end of this article).

The other pressing reason for me was that when I was in the first-ever M.A. program for Arabic in the first cohort, the then-Director of the program told us that by the time we finished the program in four summers, there would be a Doctorate of Modern Languages (DML) program for Arabic that we could apply for.

That did not turn out to be the case, so I looked at the requirements for Ph.D. programs in various U.S. universities and most of them indicated that one had to also know at least one other Semitic language, preferably Modern Hebrew, to at least an Intermediate High level of proficiency. So, I originally intended to only study Modern Hebrew for one summer in the Middlebury College Intensive Summer Immersion program.

I had such a great experience during that summer, in which there were only 50 students in total in all levels of the Hebrew School, that I came back for a second summer, where I tested into Level 3 (of 5 total levels then) completely leaping over Level 2. This success prompted me to return for yet a third summer to the Hebrew School, in which I tested into the Level 3.5 Broadcast and Print Journalistic Hebrew, taught by an actual Israeli journalist who had also written for a number of U.S. publications.

During the third summer, I also had the opportunity to participate in some co-curricular activities with some Hebrew professors from Cambridge and Oxford and from Paris. I also simply like learning different foreign languages and thought a knowledge of Hebrew would be useful even later if I continued with Arabic, as it would help me to understand the development of Semitic languages generally.

Those who know Arabic or have studied Arabic before have an advantage if they ever want to learn either Modern Hebrew (עִבְרִית חֲדָשָׁה) or Biblical Hebrew (עִבְרִית מִקְרָאִית); the reverse is also true. The reason that Arabic can be used to accelerate one’s learning and acquisition of Hebrew is that both Arabic and Hebrew are members of the Semitic Language Family.

The word Semitic is derived from the name of one of Noah’s sons in the Old Testament/Torah: Shem (שֵׁם). In fact, there is a branch of knowledge called Semitics, in which one can earn advanced degrees by learning two or more Modern Semitic languages and various combinations of ancient Semitic languages. This is possible because the Semitic languages share some basic common characteristics.

What are the main characteristics of the Semitic Family of Languages?

In broad strokes, the general characteristics of Semitic languages are, as follows1:

  1. Guttural sounds (i.e. sounds made in the back of the throat)
  2. Three root letters for most verbs and nouns, though some older ones only have two
  3. Meaning is derived from various forms and patterns within these forms
  4. Pronoun suffixes to nouns, verbs, and prepositions
  5. Common basic vocabulary: yd (hand), ktb (write), etc. So for hand, we have: يَد – יָד, both pronounced “yad“. For to write, we get: كَتَبَ – כָּתַב, pronounced: “katav” and “kataba” respectively.

What are the branches of the Semitic Family of Languages?

The Semitic Family of Languages is broadly divided into an Eastern branch, consisting of languages such as Akkadian — with its dialects Assyrian and Babylonian — and a Western branch (Hebrew, Aramaic, and Phoenician).

Akkadian, one of the earliest known Semitic languages, has been documented in writing dating as far back as the 24th century B.C. While not the oldest written language, Akkadian is significant in ancient Near Eastern history. The oldest confirmed writing system is Sumerian cuneiform, with inscriptions that predate both Chinese script and Akkadian.

As far as the earliest known Hebrew inscriptions are concerned, texts such as the Gezer calendar suggest that proto-Hebrew was in use during the 10th century B.C. Nonetheless, this does not position Hebrew as the world’s oldest language as claimed by some. Modern Hebrew script owes its form to the influence of the Aramaic script, particularly following the Babylonian exile.

The Gezer calendar is an ancient inscription discovered near the town of Gezer, in modern Israel, that dates back to the 10th century B.C. It is considered one of the earliest examples of Hebrew script. This small inscribed limestone tablet is about the size of a postcard, and it appears to be an agricultural calendar describing the months of the year in relation to crop cycles or farming activities.

The Gezer calendar’s significance lies in several key aspects:

  1. Linguistic Development: It provides evidence of the early phonetic development of the Hebrew language. The alphabet used in the inscription is an early form of the Hebrew script, which evolved from the Phoenician alphabet.
  2. Cultural Insights: It offers insights into ancient Israelite society, specifically agricultural practices and the organization of time based on those practices during the period in which the Kingdom of Israel was being established.
  3. Scriptural Context: As one of the oldest Hebrew texts, it potentially informs our understanding of the linguistic context of the Hebrew Bible, although it predates the biblical texts.
  4. Paleographic Evidence: It serves as a source for understanding the transition from Proto-Canaanite script to ancient Hebrew script, helping to illustrate the development of writing systems in the Levant.

The Gezer calendar’s discovery was important for biblical archaeology and the study of Semitic languages. It helps to confirm the antiquity and continuity of the Hebrew language from ancient times into the present day.

The Western branch of the Semitic Family of Languages is subdivided into a Northwest Group and a Southwest Group. The Northwest Group includes Ugaritic2, Canaanite-Phoenician, Hebrew, and Aramaic. Aramaic is further divided into Western Aramaic (which includes Biblical Aramaic3 and Samaritan dialects) and Eastern Aramaic (including various Judeo-Aramaic dialects and Syriac). The Southwest Group of the Western branch of the Semitic Family of Languages comprises the Ethio-Semitic languages such as Ge’ez (classical Ethiopic), its modern counterparts Amharic, Tigre, and Tigrinya, as well as Arabic in all its forms: Classical, Quranic, Modern Standard Arabic, and all its dialects. Additionally, Maltese4, which developed from an Arabic dialect, is now an independent language with a significant lexical borrowing from Italian and English.

Note: If you know a lot about languages, you might not agree with everything I wrote here. To get the latest and most correct information on the categorization of languages, look at fresh research. What we know about languages can update when new studies or findings come out.

All of that is the theoretical foundation that enables one to use one Semitic language, like Arabic, as a springboard to learn and acquire another Semitic language like Modern Hebrew5. So, let’s look at some specifics now.

Since I am presuming that those reading this do not know Hebrew script, I also write Hebrew in a simplified form of transliteration. For those who are interested in Biblical Hebrew6, I would suggest learning Modern Hebrew first, as this will help you learn Biblical Hebrew even faster, though there are some grammatical differences, and some of the vocabulary has since acquired quite different meanings. For example, the Biblical word for a halo around an angel’s head now means “electricity” in Modern Hebrew.7

Deep-Dive: From Ezekiel to Electricity

This linguistic transformation is quite fascinating! The Biblical word that once described a halo around an angel’s head has now evolved to signify something entirely different in Modern Hebrew: electricity.

Let’s delve into the details:

Biblical Context

In the book of Ezekiel (specifically Ezekiel 1:4), we encounter this intriguing word. The passage describes a vision where Ezekiel witnesses a stormy wind from the north, a great cloud with flashing fire, and a brilliance surrounding it. From the midst of this phenomenon emerges something resembling the color of Hashmal (חַשְׁמַל).

But what does Hashmal mean in this context? The truth is, we don’t have a definitive answer. Some interpretations suggest it refers to a shining substance or polished bronze. Elsewhere in the same chapter, it’s associated with the brightness of copper.

Modern Hebrew Transformation

Fast forward to Modern Hebrew, where the word Hashmal (חַשְׁמַל) has taken on a new identity: electricity. The Hebrew poet Yehuda Leb Gordon proposed this meaning in the late 1800s, drawing inspiration from the Greek word “elektron” (ἤλεκτρον), which originally referred to amber (a shiny, bronze-colored substance). Interestingly, “elektron” is also the root of the word “electricity” due to early experiments with static electricity using rubbed pieces of amber.

Arabic can even help those who might be interested in ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs8. For example, the Egyptian symbol for “T” depicting a loaf is used in nearly the same way as the Tā’ marbūta (تاء مربوطة) in Arabic.9

Let’s look at some specific examples now from writing:

The Hebrew alphabet consists of 22 consonant letters, four of which can also function as vowels.

Interestingly, some Hebrew letters change their appearance when placed in a final position: there are precisely five such letters that exhibit this morphological change.

This characteristic differs from Arabic, where letters can adopt up to three distinct forms in addition to their standalone shape. Consequently, foreign students learning Arabic must be aware of potentially over 112 letter formations, considering the various contexts within words.

Furthermore, Arabic utilizes crucial non-alphabetical symbols for writing, such as the Tā’ marbūṭa (تاء مربوطة) and the Hamza (ء). These symbols often present an extra layer of complexity for beginners studying the language.

Modern Hebrew has only five distinct vowel sounds; however, the written system uses 15 different marks to denote vowels, reflecting an older Hebrew pronunciation that experiences notable shifts, especially when followed by guttural consonants. Some of these Hebrew consonants have archaic pronunciations that resemble the contemporary sounds of certain Arabic letters, like Ṣād (ص) or ‘Ayn (ع).

Moreover, Aleph, the inaugural letter of the Hebrew alphabet, shares a similarity with the Arabic Alif. In both languages, this letter frequently acts merely as a supporting structure to indicate the associated vowel sound10.

Creating a perfectly matched table of Arabic and Hebrew letters is challenging, as the two alphabets do not correlate one-to-one in terms of phonetics or character representations. The following table should therefore only be seen as an aid, as there are always exceptions.

Arabic letterHebrew letter
ʾAlif (ا), Hamza (ء)ʾAleph (א)
Bāʾ (ب)Bet (בּ) when with dagesh; vet (ב)
Tāʾ (ت)Tav (ת)
Ṯāʾ (ث)Sometimes corresponds to Shin (שׁ)
Ǧīm (ج)Gimel (ג)
Ḥāʾ (ح), Ḫāʾ (خ)Ḥet (ח) – with ch like ch in Loch Lomond or the ch in the German composer Bach
Dāl (د)Dalet (ד)
Ḏāl (ذ)Zayin (ז)
Rāʾ (ر)Resh (ר)
Zayn (ز)Zayin (ז)
Sīn (س), Šīn (ش)Shin (שׁ) – in Hebrew a small dot to the upper right indicates “sh”;
Samekh (ס) – like “s” in English sun
Ṣād (ص), Ḍād (ض)Ṣadi (צ) – in Ancient Hebrew more like Arabic Ṣād; now more like “ts”
Ṭāʾ (ط)Ṭet (ט)
Ẓāʾ (ظ)Ṣadi (צ) – in Ancient Hebrew more like Arabic Ṣād; now more like “ts”
ʿAyn (ع), Ġayn (غ)ʿAyin (ע) – technically a pharyngeal stop, but often just silent in spoken Modern Hebrew
Fāʾ (ف)Fe/Pe (פּ) when with dagesh
Qāf (ق)Qof (ק)
Kāf (ك)Kaf (כ) or Kaf (ך) when without dagesh
Lām (ل)Lamed (ל)
Mīm (م)Mem (מ) or Final Mem (ם)
Nūn (ن)Nun (נ) or Final Nun (ן)
Hāʾ (ه)He (ה)
Wāw (و)Vav (ו)
Yāʾ (ي)Yod (י)
Conversion table Arabic <-> Hebrew letters (c) by Gerald Drißner

Regarding the word dagesh (דָּגֵשׁ): The pronunciation changes in Hebrew depending on the position in a word. The “dagesh” in Hebrew refers to a diacritical mark indicating a modification in the way a consonantal letter is pronounced, often doubling the consonant sound or changing its articulation. In certain letters, known as “Beged Kefet,” a dagesh can also signify a shift between a plosive and a fricative sound, as seen in the difference between “bet” (בּ) with a dagesh, pronounced as [b], and “vet” (ב) without a dagesh, pronounced as [v].

Beged Kefet (“begadkefat”) – What is this?

Beged Kefet is a mnemonic acronym in Hebrew, referring to a set of six Hebrew consonants: Bet (ב), Gimel (ג), Dalet (ד), Kaf (כ), Pe (פ), and Tav (ת). These letters have a special linguistic characteristic: each one can be pronounced in two different ways, a phenomenon tied to the presence or absence of a diacritical mark called dagesh. When any of these letters carries a dagesh (a dot placed inside the letter), it is pronounced as a plosive or a “hard” sound. Without the dagesh, these letters represent a “soft” or fricative sound.

For instance, Bet with a dagesh is pronounced as [b], similar to the ‘b’ in “bed.” Without the dagesh, it is pronounced as [v], like the ‘v’ in “vet.” Therefore, Beer Sheba and Be’er-Sheva are the same word: בְּאֵר שֶׁבַע. he latter – with ‘v’ – is the way it is pronounced: Bəʾēr Ševaʿ. The first, with ‘b’, refers to the letter Bet in the alphabet, which can change its pronunciation to ‘vet’ if, for example, you have a vowel before it.

The same duality applies to the other letters in the Beged Kefet group. Kaf with a dagesh is pronounced as [k], without it, the sound softens to [kh], akin to the Scottish loch. This linguistic quirk is a significant aspect of Hebrew pronunciation and plays a crucial role in grammar and meaning, which makes understanding and using the dagesh essential for students of the Hebrew language.

I would like to turn now to two other areas that show how Arabic can be used as a springboard for learning Hebrew and vice versa for Arabic, mutatis mutandis. Of course, this is meant to be a general overview, not an exhaustive detailing of every possibility, and it must be stated that these are just my own personal observations. The first of the two additional areas is the similarity between the Past Tense in Arabic and Modern Hebrew. I shall illustrate this using the verb “to read” in Hebrew11:

Past Tense Conjugation of “Likro” (לקרוא – to read)

1st PersonKara’ti (קָרָאתִי)Kara’nu (קָרָאנוּ)
2nd Person MasculineKara’ta (קָרָאתָ)Kara’tem (קָרָאתֶם)
2nd Person FeminineKara’t (קָרָאתְ)Kara’ten (קָרָאתֶן)
3rd Person MasculineKara’ (קָרָא)Kar’u (קָרְאוּ)
3rd Person FeminineKara’ah (קָרְאָה)
Conjugation of the Hebrew verb to read (past tense)

Note: The third-person feminine plural form in Hebrew is not commonly used in Modern Hebrew and can be considered archaic. In cases where it is used, it would typically be “Kar’au” (קָרְאוּ) like the masculine form.

➤ Those who know Arabic can readily see that the suffixed forms for the Modern Hebrew past tense verb forms closely resemble the suffixed forms used in the past tense (sometimes called perfect) of Arabic.

Similarly, we can see the same phenomenon in the Modern Hebrew future tense forms, except they will resemble the prefixes and suffixes used in the present tense of Arabic, and there is no سَ- prefix or word equivalent to سَوفَ in Hebrew. Let’s look at the verb “to read” again, but in the future tense in Hebrew:

Future Tense Conjugation of “Likro” (לקרוא – to read)

1st PersonEkrá (אֶקְרָא)Níkra (נִקְרָא)
2nd Person MasculineTikrá (תִּקְרָא)Tikré’u (תִּקְרְאוּ)
2nd Person FeminineTíkre’i (תִּקְרְאִי)Tikréu (תִּקְרְאוּ)
3rd Person MasculineYikrá (יִקְרָא)Yíkre’u (יִקְרְאוּ)
3rd Person FeminineTíkra (תִּקְרָא)
Conjugation of the Hebrew verb to read (future)

Here’s a simpler version of the provided content:

Understanding personal pronouns can be tricky. But if you already speak Arabic, learning Hebrew pronouns is much easier and faster.

The pronouns

If we compare the pronouns in Arabic and Hebrew (Modern Hebrew), we can observe many similarities. But not only that.

One noteworthy example is that in Modern Hebrew the word for you (masculine) is ‘attah (אַתָּה), but in its written form in Modern Hebrew, a small dot called dagesh is inserted in the letter for t (תָּ), which indicates an ancient “n” sound that has dropped out.

So, at some point in the past, the word in Hebrew was “‘anta” rather than its modern equivalent ‘attah (אַתָּה).

Singular1stCommon‘anā (أنا)‘anī (אֲנִי)
Singular2ndMasculine‘anta (أنت)‘attah (אַתָּה)
Singular2ndFeminine‘anti (أنتِ)‘at (אַתְּ)
Singular3rdMasculinehuwa (هو)hū (הוּא)
Singular3rdFemininehiya (هي)hī (הִיא)
Dual2ndCommon‘antumā (أنتما)
Dual3rdMasculinehumā (هما)
Dual3rdFemininehumā (هما)
Plural1stCommonnaḥnu (نحن)‘anaḥnu (אֲנַחְנוּ)
Plural2ndMasculine‘antum (أنتم)‘atem (אַתֶּם)
Plural2ndFeminine‘antunna (أنتن)‘aten (אַתֵּן)
Plural3rdMasculinehum (هم)hem (הֵם)
Plural3rdFemininehunna (هن)hen (הֵן)
Hebrew Pronouns and Arabic equivalents

Please note that in Hebrew, the dual form is not commonly used as a part of modern pronouns and thus has no equivalent to the Arabic dual forms listed here.

Now let’s look at a few words that we can understand even without knowing Hebrew if we convert the letters.

appleتُفّاحתַּפּוּחַ (tapuach)
peaceسَلامשָׁלוֹם (shalom)
wisdomحِكْمةחָכְמָה (chokhmah)
no/notلاלֹא (lo)
ladderسُلَّمסֻלָּם (sullam)
Hebrew and Arabic words with similar root letters

Now one question remains to be answered: What is it about Moses and the Red Sea in the Old Testament?

Did Moses really part the Red Sea in the original Hebrew text?

In the original Hebrew, the event of Moses parting the Red Sea is referred to as “Kriyat Yam Suf” (קְרִיעַת יַם סוּף). Let’s delve into the significance of this episode:

Kriyat Yam Suf (קְרִיעַת יַם סוּף) translates to “parting of the sea of reeds“. It is a pivotal moment in the origin myth of The Exodus as recounted in the Hebrew Bible. Here are the key details:

CONCLUSION: The Hebrew term for the place of the crossing is Yam Suf (יַם סוּף). Although traditionally thought to refer to the saltwater inlet located between Africa and the Arabian Peninsula (known in English as the Red Sea), this is a mistranslation from the Greek Septuagint.

➤ In Hebrew, “suph” (סוּף) does not mean “red” but rather typically means “reeds.” Therefore, it likely refers to a body of water with reeds, such as papyrus reeds.

  1. Mansoor, Menahem. Biblical Hebrew: Step by Step Vol. 1. 2d Edition. (Baker Book House: Michigan). 1980. Pp. 6-11. ↩︎
  2. Williams, Michael. Basics of Ancient Ugaritic: A Concise Grammar, Workbook and Lexicon. (Zondervan: Michigan),2012. On p. 106, there is an interesting comparative Semitic Consonant Chart for the Semitic languages: Ugaritic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, and Akkadian, if interested. ↩︎
  3. Van Pelt, Miles V. Basics of Biblical Aramaic. (Zondervan: Michigan). 1969. Vance, Donald et al. Biblical Aramaic: A Reader and Handbook. (Hendrikson: MA.) 2016. is also useful as it examines every instance of Aramaic appearing in the Old Testament/Torah with explanatory notes on grammar and vocabulary.  ↩︎
  4. Aquilina, Joseph. Teach Yourself Maltese: A Complete Course for Beginners (Hodder and Stoughton: Great Britain), 1965. ↩︎
  5. Ringvald, Vardit. Brandeis Modern Hebrew. (University Press of New England: MA.). 2005. This text has become the dominant textbook for teaching Elementary Modern Hebrew in the United States. Middlebury College, for example, uses this text in its Summer Intensive Level 1 program, which usually finishes the text by the end of the seven-week program. Those who later test into Level 2 used a field edition of a follow-on text supplemented by other authentic sources of various types. ↩︎
  6. Carasik, Michael. Biblical Hebrew: Learning a Sacred Language. (The Great Courses: VA.). 2018. (includes DVD with option for streaming service as well with the author teaching on the DVDs).  ↩︎
  7. Glinert. Lewis. Modern Hebrew: An Essential Grammar. (Routledge: New York). 1991. ↩︎
  8. Brier, Bob. Decoding the Secrets of Egyptian Hieroglyphs (The Great Courses: VA.). 2016 (includes DVD with option for streaming service as well with the author teaching on the DVDs). ↩︎
  9. Brustad, Kristen et al. Al Kitaab fee Ta cAllum Al-cArabiyya: A Textbook for Beginningg Arabic. Vol. I, II, & III Third Edition. (Georgetown University Press: Washington, D.C.). 2013. This has become the dominant tectbook for teaching Arabic in the United States. It follows a book entitled Alif Baa, which teaches Arabic script, both printed and cursive along with basic vocabulary and cultural points. Volume III of the series is not so common as Volumes II and III; even at Middlebury College, where it used to be used regulary, it is not used so much any more. Nonetheless, for those who are persistent with Arabic studies, it is a worthwhile investment to obtain Volume III in the series.The third edition of Volume I and Volume II also contains segments on Egyptian dialect and Levantine/Syrian dialect. The University of Texas at Austin used the same format and developed an online version of these segments for Moroccan dialect as well. The thrust of the volumes remains learning to use MSA, however. ↩︎
  10.  Etzion, Giore. The Routledge Introductory Course in Modern Hebrew. (Routledge: New York). 2009. pp. 2-10.  ↩︎
  11. I deliberately stated Past Tense in Modern Hebrew because in Biblical Hebrew a construction is used in which the letter Vav prefixed to the imperfect forms of Hebrew verbs to form a narrated past tense form.Page, Kelly H. Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar. (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.: Michigan), p. 145. ↩︎

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