Chapter I.1. Getting Started

Let’s start with some real language exercise. How to say “My name is Adam” in Hebrew? The simplest (although not the most popular) way is:

Ani Adam.

Of course it should be written in Hebrew, but let’s not be hasty. We’ll stick with using Latin for a while, but note that it doesn’t follow English rules of pronunciation: it’s not [ay-nay], it’s [ah-nee] with the stress on the last “ee”. Similarly, it’s [ah-dum], not [ay-duhm]. Wherever there is a Hebrew word written in Latin script, read it letter-by-letter: “sade” = [sah-deh], “dibur” = [dee-boo-r] and so on. For some words a “traditional” way of writing it in English will be used too, especially where it could easily be confused with English otherwise, for example: “male” = “maleh” = [mah-leh].

“Ani” means “I” or “me”. That’s right, the phrase above is just “I Adam” with no need to figure out what’s Hebrew for the verb “to be” and what form to use. Didn’t I say Hebrew was simple?

Now, to make things even more simpler let’s start with the fact that most Hebrew words have the stress on the last syllable (like in French), and those which don’t have it on the next-to-last one. This makes it only two options, and you even know in advance which one is more likely to be the right one. From now and until we get to more specific rules, we’ll assume that the stress is on the last syllable and only specify it if it’s otherwise.

But let’s move on. After introducing yourself, you’ll probably want to mention where are you from. But before we get to that, here are some notes on pronunciation. There are a few sounds in Hebrew that have no English counterparts. These are “KH”, “TS”, “R” and “L”. “KH” is a consonant similar to Russian “Х” which makes it so easy to pronounce to me, but not as easy for an English speaker. It sounds like someone clearing a throat, or like a cross between “H” and “K” (that’s why I write it as “KH”). “TS” isn’t that hard, it’s basically “T” and “S” merged into one consonant. Just don’t try to separate them when pronouncing, and you’ll be fine. “R” is more difficult, but even in Israel it is pronounced differently by people from different parts of the globe. It is perhaps closest to the Frech and German “R”s. Russian pronunciation is also acceptable, although it can be even harder for an English speaker. Pronouncing it in the English way is a bad idea, though, because it becomes similar to “H” in some cases then. For example, “haba” sounds like “raba” with an English “R” to me. Maybe it sounds different to native Israelies, that I’m not sure of. As for “L”, it’s similar to English, but softer. Try moving the middle of your tongue up a bit without moving its tip.

As for the vowels, they’re pretty same as in English, with only five of them: “i”, “e”, “a”, “o” and “u”. There are no long and short vowels as long as pronunciation is concerned, but there can be doubled vowels. Words like “saar” are pronounced with two sequential vowels, not with a long “a”. In fact, it could even have different meanings depending on whether the stress is on the first “a” or on the second one. So pay close attention to your pronunciation! Most Hebrew words are pretty short, but this comes at a price: they often sound alike or even identically.

Now that you have an idea how to pronounce Hebrew sounds, here is the next phrase:

Ani me-artsot ha-brit.

Now that didn’t look that easy. “Me” (more often spelled “mi”, but not in this case) is a preposition with various meanings, like “from”, “than” and “because”. It obviously used in the “from” meaning here. Note that in Hebrew many prepositions are written in one word with no space between the preposition and the next word. In Latin, we’ll use dashes to indicate such cases, but in real Hebrew there’ll be no punctuation either, which makes it sometimes difficult to find a word in a dictionary because you have to strip prepositions first.

If you guessed that “ha” must be some sort of preposition too, you almost got it right. It’s actually the definite article, which sort of the same thing as in English with the exception that it is used more often. The good news is that there is no indefinite article, so you’ll only have to wonder about whether to use the article or not, but not about which one to use.

We have only two words left to translate. “Artsot” means ”countries” or “states” and ”brit” means ”alliance”, ”union” or ”agreement”. Which in turn yields something like “I from states the union”. Even in this ugly form you can probably already guess that the proper translation is “I’m from the United States”. But there’s more to it than simple guessing.

Constructions like “artsot ha-brit” are called “smikhut” in Hebrew or the “construct state” in English. It’s basically equivalent of putting the English “of” preposition between two words, but implemented by putting the first word into the special form called “nismakh” according to special rules. So literally “artsot ha-brit” translates as “the States of the Union”, which is essentially the same as “the United States”. One of the rules about smikhut is that if you need the article applied to it, you do it to the second word and semantically it applies to both of them! This makes it incredibly easy to spot smikhuts in Hebrew texts when they are used with the article, which they don’t have to be, by the way. You shouldn’t worry too much about it, though, as in modern Hebrew smikhut is only used in some typical “standard” cases like “aratsot ha-brit” and “magen David” (David’s shield, also known as the star of David).

Another thing to note is the “-ot” ending. It’s actually one of the most used plural endings in Hebrew, much like English “-s”. This makes it actually “states” in plural. But “brit” is used in singular, hence it’s “the States of the Union”, but not “the States of the Unions” or whatever. This is another nice feature of smikhut, that both words don’t have to be in the same number.

If you wonder what’s the singular for “artsot”, it’s actually “erets” (with the stress on the first syllable). And the plural is “aratsot”, becoming “artsot” only in smikhut (that is, “artsot” is the nismakh of “aratsot”). The rules of these conversions are too complicated to learn them all right now, and this words is an exception from some of them anyway.

To sum up things we’ve learned so far: