Modern Hebrew

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Modern Hebrew
Israeli Hebrew
עברית חדשה зivrít ħadašá[h]
Shalom black.svg
The word shalom as rendered in Modern Hebrew, including vowel points
Native to Israel
Native speakers
4.4 million in Israel (2012)[1]
over half a million outside Israel[1]
as L1 or L2 by all 7.4 million Israelis[2]
Early forms
Hebrew alphabet
Hebrew Braille
Signed Hebrew (oral Hebrew accompanied by sign)[3]
Official status
Official language in
Regulated by Academy of the Hebrew Language
האקדמיה ללשון העברית (HaAkademia LaLashon HaʿIvrit)
Language codes
ISO 639-3 heb
Glottolog hebr1245[4]
Idioma hebreo.PNG
The Hebrew-speaking world:
  regions where Hebrew is the language of the majority
  regions where Hebrew is the language of a significant minority

Modern Hebrew or Israeli Hebrew (Hebrew: עברית חדשהȝivrít ħadašá[h] - "Modern Hebrew" or "New Hebrew"), generally referred to by speakers simply as Hebrew (עברית Ivrit), is the standard form of the Hebrew language spoken today. Spoken in ancient times, Hebrew, a Canaanite language, was supplanted as the Jewish vernacular by the western dialect of Aramaic beginning in the 3rd century BCE, though it continued to be used as a liturgical and literary language. It was revived as a spoken language in the 19th and 20th centuries and is one of the two official languages of Israel (along with Levantine Arabic).

Modern Hebrew is spoken by about nine million people, counting native, fluent, and non-fluent speakers.[5][6] Most speakers are citizens of Israel: about three million are Israelis who speak Modern Hebrew as their native language, two million are immigrants to Israel, one million are Arab citizens of Israel, whose first language is usually Arabic, and half a million are expatriate Israelis or diaspora Jews living outside Israel.

The organization that officially directs the development of the Modern Hebrew language, under the law of the State of Israel, is the Academy of the Hebrew Language.


The most common scholarly term for the language is “Modern Hebrew” (Hebrew: עברית חדשהʿзivrít ħadašá[h]). Most people refer to it simply as Hebrew (Hebrew: עבריתIvrit),[7]

The term “Modern Hebrew” has been described as “somewhat problematic”[8] as it implies unambiguous periodization from Biblical Hebrew.[8] Haiim B. Rosén supported the now widely-used[8] term “Israeli Hebrew” on the basis that it “represented the non-chronological nature of Hebrew”.[7][9] In 2006, Israeli linguist Ghil'ad Zuckermann proposed the term “Israeli” to represent the multiple origins of the language.[7] Nurit Dekel notes that the scholarly majority supporting the term ‘’Modern Hebrew’’ may be a result of the fact that “most of the researchers are dedicated to the Hebrew origins of the language”, and notes that a naming convention for the language including the term ‘’Hebrew’’ “originally represented a much wider range of views and intentions rather than just linguistic considerations”.[7]


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The history of the Hebrew language is usually divided into four major periods: Biblical Hebrew, until about the 3rd century BCE, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written; Mishnaic Hebrew, the language of the Mishnah and Talmud; Medieval Hebrew, from about the 6th to the 13th century CE, and Modern Hebrew, the language of the modern State of Israel.[10]

Jewish contemporary sources describe Hebrew flourishing as a spoken language in the kingdoms of Israel and Judah, during about 1200 to 586 BCE.[11][unreliable source?] Scholars debate the degree to which Hebrew was a spoken vernacular in ancient times following the Babylonian exile, when the predominant international language in the region was Old Aramaic.

Hebrew ceased to be a vernacular language somewhere between 200 and 400 CE, declining after the Bar Kokhba revolt, which devastated the population of Judea. After the exile Hebrew was restricted to liturgical use.[12]


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The revival of the Hebrew language was led by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in the late 19th century and early 20th century. Modern Hebrew used Biblical Hebrew morphemes, Mishnaic spelling, and Sephardic pronunciation. Its acceptance by the early Jewish immigrants to Ottoman Palestine was primarily due to support from the organisations of Edmond James de Rothschild in the 1880s and the official status it received in the 1922 constitution of the British Mandate for Palestine.[13][14][15][16] Ben-Yehuda used a stock of 8,000 words from the Bible and 20,000 words from rabbinical commentaries and codified and planned the new language, Modern Hebrew.[17] For a simple comparison between the Sephardic version of Mishnaic Hebrew and the Yemenite version of the same, see Yemenite Hebrew.


Modern Hebrew is classified as an Afroasiatic language of the Semitic family and the Canaanite branch of the North-West semitic subgroup.[18][19][20][21] Although it has been influenced by non-Semitic languages, Modern Hebrew retains its Semitic character in its morphology and in much of its syntax.[22] A minority of scholars argue that the revived language had been so influenced by various substrate languages that it is genealogically a hybrid, or even Indo-European.[23]

Some of the scholars presenting challenges to the standard classification are:

  • Paul Wexler[24] claims that modern Hebrew is not genealogically a Semitic language, but relexified "Judaeo-Sorbian". He argues that the underlying structure of the language is Slavic, but that it has adopted the vocabulary and inflectional system of Hebrew.
  • Shlomo Izre'el[25] focuses on the "emergence" of "Spoken Israeli Hebrew" in terms of a "creation of a new language" and attempts to fit the nativisation of this "new linguistic entity" into the "larger continuum of Creole and Creole-like languages", but does not seem to believe that it was relexified, either from a Slavic or any other linguistic substratum (with references to his own earlier work on the creolisation hypothesis (1986)[26] and the works of Goldenberg (1996)[27] and Kuzar (2001).[28]
  • Ghil'ad Zuckermann[29][30] compromises between Wexler and the majority view: according to him, "Israeli" (his term for Modern Hebrew) is a Semito-European hybrid language, which is the continuation not only of literary Hebrew but also of Yiddish, as well as Polish, Russian, German, English, Ladino, Arabic and other languages spoken by Hebrew revivalists.[31][32]

None of these proposals have been met with general acceptance and Modern Israeli Hebrew continues to be considered a Semitic language by most experts.[33][19]

Modern Hebrew is based on Mishnaic and Biblical Hebrew, and is commonly seen as a direct continuation of one or both. According to Hertzon (1987),

"It is futile to ask whether Modern Hebrew is the same language as the idiom of the Hebrew Bible. Clearly, the difference between them is great enough to make it impossible for the person who knows one to understand the other without effort. Biblical scholars have to study the modern language if they want to benefit from studies written in Hebrew today and Israelis cannot properly follow Biblical passages without having studied them at school. Yet a partial understanding is indeed possible and the similarities are so obvious that calling them separate languages or two versions of the same tongue would be an arbitrary, purely terminological decision."[34]


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Modern Hebrew is phonetically simpler than Biblical Hebrew, having fewer phonemes, but is phonologically more complex. It has 25 to 27 consonants and 8 to 10 vowels, depending on the speaker and the analysis.

The following table lists the consonant phonemes of Israeli Hebrew in IPA transcription:[1]

Bilabial Labio-
Alveolar Palato-
Palatal Velar Phary
Stop p b t d k ɡ ʔ2
Affricate ts  
Fricative f v s z ʃ ʒ x~χ ɣ~ʁ (/r/)3 (ħ)1 (ʕ)1 h2
Nasal m n
Approximant l j w
1 The pharyngeal consonants are very rare, being pronounced only by older Mizrahi speakers. Others replace them with the glottal consonants.[1]
2 The glottal consonants are not usually pronounced except in careful or formal speech.[1]
3 Commonly transcribed /r/. This is usually pronounced as a velar fricative [ɣ], sometimes as a uvular fricative or approximant [ʁ], and sometimes as a uvular or alveolar trill, depending on the background of the speaker.[1]

Obstruents assimilate in voicing: voiceless obstruents (/p t ts tʃ k, f s ʃ x/) become voiced ([b d dz dʒ ɡ, v z ʒ ɣ]) when they appear immediately before voiced obstruents, and vice versa. For example:

Hebrew has eight vowel phonemes, five short and three long:[1]

front central back
high i iː u
mid e eː o
low a aː

Long vowels occur unpredictably where two identical vowels were historically separated by a pharyngeal or glottal consonant, and the first was stressed. Any of the five short vowels may be realized as a schwa [ə] when far from lexical stress. There are two diphthongs, /aj/ and /ej/.[1]

Most lexical words have lexical stress on one of the last two syllable, of which the last syllable is the more frequent in formal speech. Loanwords may have stress on the antepenultimate syllable or even further back.


Modern Hebrew morphology is essentially Biblical.[35] Modern Hebrew has also maintained much of the inflectional morphology of its classical forbears. In the formation of new words, all verbs and the majority of nouns and adjectives are formed by the classically Semitic devices of triconsonantal roots (shoresh) with affixed patterns (mishkal). Mishnaic attributive patterns are often used to create nouns, and Classical patterns are often used to create adjectives. Blended words are created by merging two bound stems or parts of words. Modern Hebrew has thus been able to expand its vocabulary effectively to meet the needs of casual vernacular, of science and technology, of journalism and belles lettres, while retaining the flavor of its ancient Semitic origins.


Modern Hebrew has loanwords from Arabic (mainly Judeo Arabic), Aramaic, Yiddish, Ladino, German, Polish, Russian, English and other languages. Modern Hebrew has preserved many ancient Hebrew words which were originally loanwords from the languages of surrounding nations: Classical Hebrew literature borrowed from other Canaanite languages as well as Akkadian. Mishnaic Hebrew borrowed many nouns from Aramaic, as well as some from Greek. In the Middle Ages Hebrew borrowed heavily from Spanish, Greek, and Arabic. Some typical examples of Hebrew loanwords are:

loanword derivatives origin
Hebrew IPA meaning Hebrew IPA meaning language spelling meaning
ביי /baj/ goodbye   English bye
אגזוז /eɡˈzoz/ exhaust
דיג׳יי /ˈdidʒej/ DJ לדג׳ה /ledaˈdʒe/ to DJ to DJ
ואללה /ˈwala/ really!?   Arabic والله really!?
כיף /kef/ fun לכייף /lekaˈjef/ to have fun[w 1] كيف pleasure
חפיף /χaˈfif/ lightly להתחפף /lehitχaˈfef/ to scram[w 2] خَفِيف lightly
אבא /ˈaba/ daddy   Aramaic אבא the father/my father
חלטורה /χalˈtura/ shoddy job לחלטר /leχalˈter/ to moonlight Russian халтура shoddy work[w 3]
בלגן /balaˈɡan/ mess לבלגן /levalˈɡen/ to make a mess балаган chaos[w 3]
תכל׳ס /ˈtaχles/ directly   Yiddish תכלית goal
חרופ /χrop/ deep sleep לחרופ /laχˈrop/ to sleep deeply חְרוֹפּ sleep
שפכטל /ˈʃpaχtel/ putty knife   German Spachtel putty knife
גומי /ˈɡumi/ rubber גומיה /ɡumiˈja/ rubber band Gummi rubber
גזוז /ɡaˈzoz/ carbonated
gazoz[w 4]
eau gazeuse
פוסטמה /pusˈtema/ stupid woman   Ladino   inflamed wound[w 5]
אדריכל /adriˈχal/ architect אדריכלות /adriχaˈlut/ architecture Akkadian arad-ekalli temple servant[w 6]
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The syntax of Modern Hebrew is mainly Mishnaic,[35] while also showing the influence of different contact languages to which its speakers have been exposed over the past century.

Word Order

The word order of Modern Hebrew is predominately SVO (subject-verb-object). Biblical Hebrew was originally verb-subject-object (VSO), but drifted into SVO.[36] Modern Hebrew maintains classical syntactic properties associated with VSO languages—it is prepositional rather than postpositional in making case and adverbial relations, auxiliary verbs precede main verbs; main verbs precede their complements, and noun modifiers (adjectives, determiners, and noun adjuncts) follow the head noun, hence in genitive constructions the possessee noun precedes the possessor. Moreover, Modern Hebrew allows and in cases requires sentences with a predicate initial.


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  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 1.7 Dekel 2014
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  3. Meir & Sandler, 2013, A Language in Space: The Story of Israeli Sign Language
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  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 Dekel 2014; quote: “Most people refer to Israeli Hebrew simply as Hebrew. Hebrew is a broad term, which includes Hebrew as it was spoken and written in different periods of time and according to most of the researchers as it is spoken and written in Israel and elsewhere today. Several names have been proposed for the language spoken in Israel nowadays, Modern Hebrew is the most common one, addressing the latest spoken language variety in Israel (Berman 1978, Saenz-Badillos 1993:269, Coffin-Amir & Bolozky 2005, Schwarzwald 2009:61). The emergence of a new language in Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century was associated with debates regarding the characteristics of that language… Not all scholars supported the term Modern Hebrew for the new language. Rosén (1977:17) rejected the term Modern Hebrew, since linguistically he claimed that 'modern' should represent a linguistic entity which should command autonomy towards everything which preceded it, while this was not the case in the new emerging language. He also rejected the term Neo-Hebrew, because the prefix 'neo’ had been previously used for Mishnaic and Medieval Hebrew (ibid, p. 15-16), additionally, he rejected the term Spoken Hebrew as one of the possible proposals (ibid p. 18). Rosén supported the term Israeli Hebrew as in his opinion it represented the non-chronological nature of Hebrew, as well as its territorial independence (ibid, p. 18). Rosén then adopted the term Contemporary Hebrew from Téne (1968) for its neutrality, and suggested the broadening of this term to Contemporary Israeli Hebrew (ibid p. 19)… In 2006, the term Israeli was proposed by Zuckermann (2006, 2008), to represent both the multiple origins of the language spoken in Israel and the territory where it is mostly spoken… Even today there is no consensus about how to name the language spoken in Israel. As demonstrated above, most of the researchers are dedicated to the Hebrew origins of the language, and therefore use a naming convention that includes the term Hebrew. I believe that the adoption and use of the term Hebrew originally represented a much wider range of views and intentions rather than just linguistic considerations. I believe that the term Israeli is more adequate to represent the language spoken in Israel without involving nonlinguistic considerations, yet, I follow Rosén’s terminology herein (1977:18) and use the term Israeli Hebrew, since it is more common among most researchers.”
  8. 8.0 8.1 8.2 Matras & Schiff 2005; quote: The language with which we are concerned in this contribution is also known by the names Contemporary Hebrew and Modern Hebrew, both somewhat problematic terms as they rely on the notion of an unambiguous periodization separating Classical or Biblical Hebrew from the present-day language. We follow instead the now widely-used label coined by Rosén (1955), Israeli Hebrew, to denote the link between the emergence of a Hebrew vernacular and the emergence of an Israeli national identity in Israel/Palestine in the early twentieth century."
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  10. Hebrew language: Enclopedia Brittannica
  11. אברהם בן יוסף ,מבוא לתולדות הלשון העברית (Avraham ben-Yosef, Introduction to the History of the Hebrew Language), page 38, אור-עם, Tel-Aviv, 1981.
  12. Sáenz-Badillos, Ángel and John Elwolde: "There is general agreement that two main periods of RH (Rabbinical Hebrew) can be distinguished. The first, which lasted until the close of the Tannaitic era (around 200 CE), is characterized by RH as a spoken language gradually developing into a literary medium in which the Mishnah, Tosefta, baraitot and Tannaitic midrashim would be composed. The second stage begins with the Amoraim and sees RH being replaced by Aramaic as the spoken vernacular, surviving only as a literary language. Then it continued to be used in later rabbinic writings until the tenth century in, for example, the Hebrew portions of the two Talmuds and in midrashic and haggadic literature."
  13. Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality, Eric Hobsbawm, Cambridge University Press, 2012 (first edition 1990): "What would the future of Hebrew have been, had not the British Mandate in 1919 accepted it as one of the three official languages of Palestine, at a time when the number of people speaking Hebrew as an everyday language was less than 20,000?"
  14. Politics and Education in Israel: Comparisons with the United States, Shlomo Swirski, Routledge, 2004: "In retrospect, [Hobsbawm's] question should be rephrased, substituting the Rothschild house for the British state and the 1880s for 1919. For by the time the British conquered Palestine, Hebrew had become the everyday language of a small but well-entrenched community."
  15. Palestine Mandate (1922): "English, Arabic and Hebrew shall be the official languages of Palestine"
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  17. Roberto Garvio, Esperanto and its Rivals, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015, p164
  18. Hebrew at Ethnologue (18th ed., 2015)
  19. 19.0 19.1 Weninger, Stefan, Geoffrey Khan, Michael P. Streck, Janet CE Watson, Gábor Takács, Vermondo Brugnatelli, H. Ekkehard Wolff et al. "The Semitic Languages." An International Handbook. Berlin–Boston (2011).
  20. The Semitic Languages
  21. Routledge Dictionary of Language and Linguistics
  22. Comparative Semitic Linguistics: A Manual
  23. Studies in Modern Semitic Languages
  24. Wexler, Paul, The Schizoid Nature of Modern Hebrew: A Slavic Language in Search of a Semitic Past: 1990.
  25. Izre'el, Shlomo (2003). "The Emergence of Spoken Israeli Hebrew." In: Benjamin H. Hary (ed.), Corpus Linguistics and Modern Hebrew: Towards the Compilation of The Corpus of Spoken Israeli Hebrew (CoSIH)", Tel Aviv: Tel Aviv University, The Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies, 2003, pp. 85-104.
  26. Izre'el, Shlomo (1986). "Was the Revival of the Hebrew Language a Miracle? On Pidginization and Creolization Processes in the Creation of Modern Hebrew." Proceedings of the Ninth World Congress for Jewish Studies, Part 4, Vol. 1: Hebrew and Judaic Languages; Other Languages. Jerusalem. 1986. 77-84. (In Hebrew)
  27. Goldenberg, Gideon (1996). "Ha'ivrit kelashon shemit xaya." In: Evolution and Renewal: Trends in the Development of the Hebrew Language. (Publications of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, Section of Humanities.) Jerusalem: The Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. 148-190. (In Hebrew.)
  28. Kuzar, R. (2001). Hebrew and Zionism: A Discourse-Analytic Cultural Study. Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.
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  31. Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006), "Complement Clause Types in Israeli", Complementation: A Cross-Linguistic Typology, edited by R. M. W. Dixon and Alexandra Y. Aikhenvald, Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 72-92.
  32. See p. 62 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006), "A New Vision for 'Israeli Hebrew': Theoretical and Practical Implications of Analysing Israel's Main Language as a Semi-Engineered Semito-European Hybrid Language", Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 5 (1), pp. 57-71.
  33. Yael Reshef. "The Re-Emergence of Hebrew as a National Language" in Weninger, Stefan, Geoffrey Khan, Michael P. Streck, Janet CE Watson, Gábor Takács, Vermondo Brugnatelli, H. Ekkehard Wolff et al. (eds) "The Semitic Languages." An International Handbook. Berlin–Boston (2011). p. 551
  34. Source: Robert Hetzron. (1987). Hebrew. In The World's Major Languages, ed. Bernard Comrie, 686–704. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  35. 35.0 35.1 Handbook of Orthography and Literacy
  36. Li, Charles N. Mechanisms of Syntactic Change. Austin: U of Texas, 1977. Print.

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