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How Different are Ancient Hebrew and Modern Hebrew?

Modern Hebrew speakers usually can read ancient Hebrew texts.
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  • Written By: Niki Foster
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  • Last Modified Date: 06 July 2014
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Ancient Hebrew, also known as Classical or Biblical Hebrew, differs noticeably, though not drastically, from Modern Hebrew. The differences are mainly in the areas of grammar, phonology, and vocabulary, and speakers of Modern Hebrew can typically read an ancient text without difficulty. This form comprises a number of dialects spoken in ancient Israel between the 10th century BCE and the early 4th century CE. In the modern era, it has survived as a literary and liturgical language only. Modern Hebrew, the national language of modern-day Israel, is a secular spoken language.

Hebrew is the only language to have been revived as the mother tongue of millions after a period of having no native speakers. The fact that its creation relied significantly on ancient texts accounts for its similarity to Ancient Hebrew. Modern languages that developed naturally often differ much more from earlier versions of the language.

In the Middle Ages, though Hebrew was not spoken as a native or everyday language, it was spoken in liturgical contexts. A variety of pronunciation styles arose over the centuries, largely due to the wide dispersal of the Jewish population. The two major branches of phonological styles to emerge were Sephardic Hebrew, spoken in the Iberian Peninsula and countries of the former Ottoman Empire, and Ashkenazi Hebrew, spoken in Central and Eastern Europe. The two pronunciation styles were influenced by regional spoken Jewish languages, Ladino and Yiddish respectively.

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Modern Hebrew phonology is based on that of Sephardic Hebrew, while the Yemenite dialect that developed in the Middle Ages is probably closest to the phonology of Ancient Hebrew. The differences in syntax or grammar between ancient and modern forms are based largely on influence from Ashkenazi Hebrew and Yiddish. In addition, the modern language incorporates many loanwords and neologisms necessary to discuss things that did not exist in the biblical era.

The ancient form is still used by speakers in literary and liturgical contexts and is taught in Israel's public schools. Elements of it are also used from time to time in spoken Modern Hebrew and in the Israeli media.

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anon928924
Post 9

How much of ancient Hebrew is actually understood today?

anon354383
Post 8

Modern Hebrew differs from classical Hebrew about as much as today's English and Shakespeare. Yes an Israeli can read the ancient texts, but with serious effort and some help.

anon324867
Post 7

Actually, modern Hebrew is a combination of Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew, along with newer terms. I don't believe that it's a revival of Yiddish, but simply a revival of the liturgical language of the Jewish people into the common everyday language of Israel.

rhayat1
Post 6

Israeli Hebrew is based almost entirely on Ashkenazic Hebrew, not Sephardic Hebrew.

anon67925
Post 4

OY! Misinformation. Bubbemeises! Many Chassidim in Israel (where I live) speak Hebrew out in public all the time. I've heard Hasidic children in playgrounds running around and playing and shouting in Hebrew much more than Yiddish.

Yiddish is both Germanic and Semitic. Classical Yiddish is filled with Hebrew and Aramaic words, and lots of Hebrew sentence structure even with the German vocabulary. Mostly German, in a way, but also very Hebrew in its classical form. The Jews of Germany did not tend to speak Yiddish, though, unlike those Jews living in the mostly Slavic lands to the east.

Modern Hebrew is not a revival of Yiddish, which was alive and well and thriving as modern Hebrew came into daily use again. A modern Hebrew speaker can, with a little learning, read most of the Tanakh just fine. Many immigrants read Tanakh only after studying modern Hebrew, and picking up the differences informally.

A good Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary stating the period--biblical, post-biblical, mishnaic, etc. helps.

Ben-Yehuda was the single most famous modernizer of Hebrew. But bringing back Hebrew into daily use was a vast Jewish national effort.

Note that Hebrew was far from dead, even if the majority of Jews did not use it as a secular language, and that it was modernized, not created.

anon53554
Post 3

I think your mistaken reletomp, Yiddish and Hebrew are completely different languages. Yiddish is a form of German (my grandparents called it a German slang) written in Hebrew letters and was only used among Ashkenazi Jews.

Modern Hebrew is the ancient hebrew which I believe was redesigned and given a more concrete grammatical structure by linguists working for the israeli government.

reletomp
Post 2

Modern Hebrew is not revival of ancient hebrew that died 2000 years ago. It is a revival of Yiddish language using ancient Hebrew lexicon.

dudla
Post 1

Many Hasidim (those that follow the Hasidic or Chasidic religious movement within Judaism) believe Hebrew is too sacred for use in casual discussion. Rather, it is reserved for religious discussion, while Yiddish or Russian, or some other language is used for everyday conversation.

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