Hebrew vs English: 9 Main Differences
Updated: Sep 14, 2021
In order to learn a new language, we first need to understand the basic differences between our native language and the one we want to learn. This process will help us to change our way of thinking and not rely on our knowledge of our mother tongue, and thus learning will be more efficient. Most of our student's mother tongue is English, and when learning a new language you always compare it to the language you already know. So in this blog post, we will give you what we think are the "Top 9 differences".
1. Hebrew is written from Right to Left (RTL). When Latin languages were invented, humans already used ink, so although the ancient languages were written RTL (like Greek used to be until 700 AC), these languages were written left to right because it was easier when using feather and ink (so the ink won't be spilled on what's already been written). Therefore - English is written from left to right, while Hebrew kept its origins and to this day we write Hebrew from right to left.
2. In Hebrew, vowel signs determine the pronunciation of the letters.
Unlike English, Hebrew has special signs that guides you on how to read the letters properly.
English has 5 "vowel letters" (AEOIU), Hebrew has only 4 "vowel letters" (אהוי), but also dozens of different signs. For example:
The word Gold in Hebrew is זָהָב (Zahav), without vowel signs it looks like that - זהב, in English we know to read ז as "Za" because of the letter "a", but in Hebrew the only indication we have here is the sign beneath זָ, which makes it "Za".
Although as beginners we are dependent on vowel signs in order to read properly - after some practice we usually don't need them anymore. If you are struggling reading without vowel signs, consider signing up to our "Read Hebrew Without Vowel Signs" online course.
3. In Hebrew, objects have genders too!
American students always find this fact the most shocking, but in Hebrew, we refer to objects (and animals!) as "she" or "he", instead of just "it".
So sometimes when Israelis learn English, they might sound like a pirate to you, referring to a ship as "She" for example, now you know why :)
"The fork, it was here!" In Hebrew will be "The fork, he was here!"
הַמַּזְלֵג, הוּא הָיָה כָּאן! - Hamazleg, hu haya kan
4. In Hebrew, each verb has 12 to 36 different variants.
If you already know some Hebrew, you probably know by now that the verbs system is one of the most complex aspects of the Hebrew language.
In Hebrew any verb form is being affected by 4 aspects:
Gender (Masculine / Faminine) = 2
Tense (Past / Present / Future) = 3
Number (Singular / Plural) = 2
Person (I / You / He) = 3
And every combination makes a different form, making it:
2 x 3 x 2 x 3 = 36
* sometimes forms looks the same, hence why it's not always exactly 36.
Let's take the verb "Speak" for example. In English we have "Spoke / Speaking / Will Speak".
In Hebrew the verb "Speak" will look like this:
(Image from pealim.com)
Hebrew verbs are indeed a very complex subject, this is why we've created "Hebrew Grammar - Verbs Master Course", a huge online advanced course that is dedicated only to Hebrew Grammar and the verbs system in particular.
5. In Hebrew, some letters look different when they are placed at an end of a word.
In Semitic languages, unlike Latin ones, there's a special phenomenon: in Hebrew, there are 5 letters that will always look different when they are placed at an end of a word:
The letter Nun (נ) will look like that when placed at an end of a word - ן Example: תמנון (Tmanun - Octopus)
The letter Mem (מ) will look like that when placed at an end of a word - ם Example: מים (Maim - Water)
The letter Pey (פ) will look like that when placed at an end of a word - ף Example: צעיף (Tzeif - Scarf)
The letter Tzadi (צ) will look like that when placed at an end of a word - ץ Example: בוץ (Botz - Mud)
The letter C'haf (כ) will look like that when placed at an end of a word - ך Example: תומך (Tomec'h - Supporter)
6. In Hebrew, there are no "Capital Letters".
The concept of Capital Letters exists in Latin languages, but it doesn't exist in Hebrew. That said, sometimes in Biblical fonts the first letter of the chapter will look bigger and more decorated, but the shape is the same and it doesn't count as a capital letter.
7. In Hebrew, the words "am / is / are / a / an" do not exists.
It's a straightforward fact, for example, "I am walking" will be "I walking" in Hebrew (אני הולך ani holec'h).
Also, sentences like "I am reading a letter" will be more like "I reading letter" in Hebrew (אני קורא מכתב ani kore mic'htav)
8. The letters "ר" and "ח" have no real counterparts in English.
One of the biggest challenges for students is to pronounce these letters correctly, it's a challenge that some will never be able to overcome, and that's ok!
These unique guttural Hebrew letters are:
Resh - ר
Although the official counterpart is "R", it sounds and forms differently, here you can hear how it differs:
C'het - ח
This letter is the most tricky, as teachers it's very challenging to write it in English since there is no official counterpart, teachers have no consensus over it.
Some will refer to it as "ch", some as "kh", we have decided to refer to it as "c'h" because in our opinion ch / kh are already taken for other phonetics.
Here you can hear how it sounds (although if you watched some parodies over Hebrew, in Simpsons / Southpark, you might already be familiar with it):
9. The word "Et את" does not exist in English.
It's the #1 most frequent question we get from all students who know only English, for them - this word doesn't make any sense.
So what is "Et" (את)?
‘Et’ is a rather difficult concept because it has no equivalent in English. It is a preposition that comes between the verb and a direct definite object (an object that starts with ה׳, like ‘the’ in English). It also appears between a verb and a name.
I ate the apple - אכלתי את התפוח
I ate an apple - אכלתי תפוח
With no ‘et’.
The actual meaning is very vague and not easy to explain, and it would be much better for you to see the uses of the word through more examples and reading more sentences in Hebrew. You will get used to it eventually.
This concept is being covered thoroughly in our "Hebrew For Beginners" course, this bestseller online course covers all the basics of the Hebrew language, by the end of this course you should know how to read, write & speak Hebrew.
That's all for now :)
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Good luck and thank you for learning Hebrew <3