Hebrew has the reputation of being a difficult language to learn. Learn how to use these sources of difficulty (the roots and constructions) to improve your language skills.
Hebrew is set apart from other languages because of its one main amazing feature - it is the only language that has been resurrected from oblivion. Once becoming a dead language, it has been revived and turned out to be a fully living, vibrant language. Upon speaking or listening to Hebrew, you can hear history's wings flap.
But Hebrew has gained, unjustly, the dubious reputation of being a difficult language to get a grip on. This has gone to the extent that many new immigrants who come to Israel give it up after only a very brief struggle. It is true that the logic behind the Semitic languages in general are profoundly different to the one underlying all Latin based languages. Nevertheless, this specific logic is the exact easy, firm, and comfortable ladder which can lead a student up through the strata of Hebrew.
Roots and constructions
The Hebrew language is based mainly on two pillars. These are:
- Roots (shorashim שורשים).
- Constructions (binyanim בניינים).
Hebrew has its fair share of difficulties, like all other languages. Having said that, we can skip to the benefits that Hebrew offers us through these two fantastic tools.
Usually, roots are comprised of three letters from which families of interconnected meanings stem up. A root (shoresh שורש) presents you with the general meaning (or meanings) of a word. Some previous knowledge of Hebrew can help with this.
A construction (binyan בניין) presents you with the skeleton on which you can set the letters of the root together with the other participating letters.
The end result of any combination of a root and construction, phonetically speaking, is a set of sounds that will always sound like any other combination of the same root manipulated within any of the seven constructions in the Hebrew language.
Let's take for example the root ‘ברך’ (bet, reish, chaf - barech) which usually represents words dealing with the various aspects of blessing. The constructions guide us as to whom to attribute the action (is the action active or passive? How can we manipulate the root timewise? etc.)
Here are some examples using the root ברך (without the pronunciation marks under the letters):
Giving a blessing
I have blessed
He has blessed
I shall bless
He got lucky (eg. he had been blessed with having a beautiful voice)
Please note that the letters כ and ך (both of them are chaf) are identical, except for the fact that ך can appear only at the end of words whilst the letter כ can appear only elsewhere.
On the other hand, the word ברך (berech) means a knee. The word הבריך (hivrich) means ‘bringing someone down to his knees’, mainly in the case of getting a camel to kneel. Taking one more example, from a very similar sounding root ברח (bet, reish, chet – barach) which means ‘run away’, I can imagine every student will now be finally feeling uneasy about trying to learn Hebrew. There is no doubt that there is a firm common denominator to all the above examples, which would not escape even an untrained ear.
There is no blessing in either of the last three examples. It may seem more than a bit confusing when such a variety of meanings can stem-up from such a narrow choice of sounds. Indeed, it is confusing.
But this exact similarity serves us to narrow down the amount of possibly erroneous deviations from the desired general idea. Think about it, once you have met one way of pronouncing a given root, you will probably succeed to get the general idea, in most cases in which the root presents itself to you in any of its possible variants.
Let's take a few more examples around the root נעל (nun, ayin, lamed - naol) which usually represents words dealing with the various aspects of three main themes: shoes, locks and loftiness.
Take for instance the phrase: נעלתי את נעלי [naalti (I've put) et naalai (my shoes) on]. The phrase נעלתי את המנעול means [naalti (I've locked) et hamanool (the lock)]. The similarity is most certainly baffling.
And just one definitely last small set of two examples, to point out how baffling things can be.
The word נעלה (naala) stands for either ‘a lofty woman’ or ‘her shoe’. The word מעל (maala) which has (here) two meanings: ‘up’ and ‘a merit’. At this point clarification is necessary. Both the word מעלה (maala) and the bit of the ‘lofty woman’ of the נעלה (naala) belong to another root named על (ayin, lamed, hei – alo) and not נעל (naol).
Use it to your advantage
By now, everyone may see that there is too much ground for mistakes to flourish on. The similarity of the different sounds of the different pronunciations and the different meanings is regarded as an obstacle. It is not!
Can't you see the charm of this system? After a short session of ear training, whenever you hear a pronunciation variant of a root you know, you'll effortlessly be able to link this particular pronunciation (leaning on the context) to the general ideas of the root.
Be ready, an occasional knee will pop up in your way to make things more interesting.