a different side of Israel

Tag: Language

Hebrew is good for your brain

As written in the previous post, we’ve seen Bush make a speech at the Knesset this week, and even opening it in Hebrew. Well, I would suggest Mr. Bush to take the next step, and join a Hebrew class — it would do good to his intelligence.

Nikud 2Many Zionist immigrants (Olim Ha’dashim) complain that Hebrew is a tough language to master. One of the reasons for this difficulty is the way Hebrew is written and read. Vowel signaling is mostly optional in Hebrew, and it is normally used only by children learning to read.

Suppose you see the word “presume” like this: “prsum” — Could you make out what’s hiding behind these consonants?! Well, that is, more or less, how most people read Hebrew, as omission of most of the vowel letters is conventional. Again, since it is posing a significant barrier in the acquisition of reading abilities, children in primary school usually use a special punctuation subscript called “Ni’kud”, but as they grow up, they don’t need it anymore.

The point I’m trying to make is that reading and writing Hebrew properly requires more activation of the brain’s cognitive faculties than is the case with writing and reading English (or French, for that matter). What cognitive faculties am I talking about? Well, first of all, there is the increased amount of memory needed to store the different options of punctuating the same transcript. The same set of letters is used differently, and is pronounced differently, in alternate contexts. And this brings me to the second capacity which the Hebrew transcript develops: a stronger inclination to mental association. As just mentioned, the pronunciation of a word differs according to its meaning, and the meaning is dependent on the overall context of the word.

Nikud 1Going back to the “prsum” example. One can choose to pronounce it like “preesuma” or like “prosumeh” or like “presume”. Since among these three options, only “presume” is a real word, the choice is simple. But in Hebrew we have many cases where several of the possible pronunciations are valid options. Thus, quick analyzing of sentence structure is the associative capacity every Hebrew writer is expected to acquire by the end of primary school.

In addition, nouns in Hebrew are all gender specific, just like in French. This feature isn’t unique to Hebrew, however in comparison with the previous feature I mentioned, this one is present in both spoken and written Hebrew, so even young children just learning to speak have to confront this hurdle. Again, this feature of the Hebrew language requires the increased use of memory and of associative analysis, since each gender necessitates the use of alternate words with distinctive punctuation.

A good example for this would be the use of “his” and “her” in English. We can say “his score” for Danny and “her score” for Rachel, but we use “its score” for the Basketball team. However, in Hebrew, a basketball team is a female noun, and it is virtually impossible to refer to it as a genderless word.

In sum, learning to master the Hebrew language is good for your brain, since it forces you to allocate more “cognitive power” in order to process this ancient and complex language.


“Se on täyttää heprea,” say the Finns when it’s all Greek to them. Heprea, is… well, Hebrew in Finnish.

So much has already been said about the sound of Hebrew to foreigners (particularly Anglos, I’m sure the Dutch don’t really mind our guttural, fricative ways), yet it seems like the famous “ch” sound always gets a good laugh.

One of the most serious questions concerning this sound (coming second after “how the hell do I produce it with my tender palate?”) is how to represent it with English characters. Ch? Chag Same’ach chèr Charles? Or maybe Kh? What about just writing H and hoping people will know what to do with it? Hello, hevre’, hope you have some humus left? According to the IPA, the International Phonetic Alphabet, it’s none of the above. Think of Don Quixote going on a trip to Mexico and watching a statue of Xesus. Using the letter X is indeed fun. However, it can also turn out a bit funny sometimes. Although it’s not such a popular consonant and therefore isn’t as confusing as the “ch” combo, please try to read the following line out loud:
Xaim, don’t be a nebex, go ask for some xalah and xumous, after all it’s the mishpuxe’, it’s not like you’re a xazer with a lot of xutzpe’.

If this looks weird to you, think of the even more complex dilemma of writing down the Israeli “LOL” equivalent in chats – in Israel you don’t go ha-ha, you go, um… xxx! It’s as terrible as you imagine. This response has become sort of epidemic. There have even been some attempts to protest against the abundance of the use of this almost inhumanly sounding exclamation (to no avail, of course), but, thank G no one actually spells out each letter – as of yet. I personally know people who would respond to almost everything with ch-ch-ch (though it varies from 2 to basically infinite occurrences, perhaps allowing more self expression, x-x-x…).

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