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Hebrew: The Alef Bet (What did the gimel say to the dalet when he bumped into her? hei!)

facingthenorthwind

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So yesterday I was thinking "man maybe if I did a monthly blog post about Hebrew I would stop having the desperate need to talk everyone's ear off about Hebrew when I can get them to stand still long enough", and then @just.a.willow.tree did her blog post on Chinese and here we are.
 
So Hebrew is a Semitic language and it's written from right to left in the Hebrew alphabet, the uglier cousin of Arabic. I'm not going to teach you the alphabet, because there are heaps of resources for that, but if you are interested in learning I am of course happy to help folks. The important thing to know is that the Hebrew alphabet has two parts: vowels and consonants. Consonants are the things you'd recognise as Hebrew letters, and the ones you'd use when reciting the alphabet (alef bet). Vowels are little dots and lines above and below the consonants, and generally in Modern Hebrew you don't use them. You know how to read them, but you don't write them for two main reasons:
  1. Modern Hebrew speakers are deeply committed to being as lazy as possible. It's admirable, even if some truly heinous grammatical errors become standardised because of it. (This is mostly a joke, because of course I also don't use vowels, and it feels like such an unreasonably large chore to write them in. One of them involves putting FIVE DOTS underneath a letter! FIVE! In a really small space! חֱ)
  2. There are simultaneously too many and not enough. This has to do with the development of Hebrew from Biblical Hebrew to Modern Hebrew -- when the vowel system was invented, they retained several distinctions that Modern Hebrew has since dropped, meaning that several vowel symbols (called niqud) sound the same. מֶ and מֵ sound the same in Modern, but different in Biblical (which is still preserved when we pray, so sometimes in class I say really old fashioned sounding things and sound silly :P). This means you have noooo idea which one to use if you're trying to vowelise a word in Modern Hebrew unless you know the grammar behind it, and who has time for that? At the same time, some vowel markings sound different depending on where they are in the word, which is infuriating. How can you fail in both directions at once, vowel system. 

All this means that reading is heavily context-dependent. The word שם could be pronounced shem, sham or sam, and it could mean name, there or put. Sometimes you don't know how to sound out a word until you know what word follows it. This makes reading aloud embarrassing.

But there is good news! Hebrew is phonetic. Mostly. Fully vowelised Hebrew is phonetic. Modern Hebrew is...mostly phonetic in the sense that it won't betray you, but you do still have to guess the vowels. When reading a word, you say the consonant first, then the vowel, then the next consonant, then the next vowel, etc. Every consonant except the last one will have a vowel attached to it -- the only catch is that one of the vowels is silent. Also two of the consonants are silent. Sorry.

What I mean by phonetic is that every letter in the alef bet always makes the same sound: ט always sounds like a T, ל always sounds like an L. Some letters can take a dagesh, which means there are two pronunciations for the same letter, but which one you use is always indicated in...fully vowelised Hebrew. In Modern Hebrew you have to use a few rules and some guessing. בּ sounds like B, but ב sounds like V. It's always בּ at the beginning of a syllable and ב at the end; same goes for all letters that take a dagesh. There's always a dot (the "hard" sound, e.g. b, p, k) at the beginning of a syllable and no dot (the "soft" sound e.g. v, f, ch) at the end.

The bad news is that despite having only 22 letters, Hebrew has managed to double up on some, so two letters can make the same sound: א & ע, ט & ת, כ & ח, ש & ס. This is mostly because in Biblical Hebrew they did sound different, but see the earlier thing about laziness. This means that spelling is..........look, there's definitely room for error. I think in my next post I might talk about transliterating English into Hebrew characters, which will make all that clearer. 

"Emma," you say, "I'm unconvinced that this is phonetic. You've just detailed at least seven ways in which Hebrew can and will betray me at every turn." You're not wrong. What I mean is that there will never be anything written down that you're not meant to say, except for the letter י in very specific circumstances. (You can never make blanket statements in Hebrew because Hebrew will always, ALWAYS find a way to break every single rule. Yes, there are blanket statements I have made in this post and yes, there are exceptions to those statements and yes, I make very disappointed faces at my teacher and then she laughs when she tells me about them.)

Anyway, I think that is enough to be getting on with for now. Tune in next time for Transliteration: In Which I Only Transliterate The Latin Alphabet Because Yiddish And Arabic Are Cursed Languages I Don't Understand.*

*by cursed I mean I don't understand the rules for transliterating them** because they keep doubling letters and using silent letters where they don't belong and يلا is written as יָאללָה in Hebrew and I don't know why!!!!! (note: I never realised it would be so difficult to find out how to spell yallah in Arabic, weh, correct me if I got that wrong.)

**I do understand how to transliterate Yiddish, but that doesn't mean I have to like it. +this is CLEARLY some kind of sin. (approximately: di tragishe geshehenishen ein di. maybe. I don't know what it means, I don't speak German.)

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Felpata_Lupin

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Just so you know, I totally don't mind you talking my ear off about Hebrew, I loved our conversation on Twitter :D (And yes, I still think Hebrew is crazy... :P)

I really enjoyed reading this. Like I already said on Eva's post, I think it's fascinating to learn something about languages that are very different. :)

Can't wait for episode two! :P (And now that you ladies have opened the way, I really need to find the time for that Italian blog post I promised you ages ago...)

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facingthenorthwind

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4 hours ago, Felpata_Lupin said:

Just so you know, I totally don't mind you talking my ear off about Hebrew, I loved our conversation on Twitter :D (And yes, I still think Hebrew is crazy... :P)

I really enjoyed reading this. Like I already said on Eva's post, I think it's fascinating to learn something about languages that are very different. :)

Can't wait for episode two! :P (And now that you ladies have opened the way, I really need to find the time for that Italian blog post I promised you ages ago...)

Aaaah, you're so kind. <3 My brother HATES me talking about Hebrew. :P

Look, once I'm explaining it, it's like....Hebrew is ridiculous and the worst and yes, crazy. Every time I'm like "there's a rule though!" and then i have to follow it with "but it breaks the rule though". It's tragic. I feel like I should plan these posts out more so I remember to put all the things I want to put in, but then I'd get too excited and want to put them all up at once, so..........dilemma. 

I'm very much looking forward to learning about Italian!!! I took Italian in year 7 for....two terms. I was not very good at it. I can say the days of the week and count to twenty and that's about it. (But when I do the days of the week I swerve between French and Italian because my brain gets jumbled up.)

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