Self-Access Centre - Hebrew

Welcome to the Self-Access Centre materials database. Here you can find out about the Hebrew materials available in the SAC.

If you are interested in studying Hebrew at UCL, please click here.

The SAC is here to provide you with opportunities to study Hebrew outside class time. You may feel extra study is necessary in order to achieve the exam score you want, or you may just enjoy studying Hebrew. Either way, the SAC could be useful for you.

If you have a very clear idea of what you need to study in Hebrew, use the Resources menu above to look for the study topics which are of importance to you. If you need advice and guidance on what to study, you should talk to your class tutor, who will help you identify your strengths and weaknesses and make recommendations on what to study.

We have a wide range of resources to help you study Hebrew on your own. In the Self-Access Centre you can find course books and dictionaries. You can also watch Hebrew films and TV documentaries.

A bit about the language

Hebrew (עִבְרִית) is a Semitic language of the Afro-Asiatic language family. Culturally, it is considered a Jewish language. Hebrew in its modern form is spoken by many of the seven million people in Israel, while Classical Hebrew has been used for prayer or study in Jewish communities around the world for over two thousand years. It is one of the official languages of Israel, along with Arabic. As a foreign language it is studied mostly by Jews and students of Judaism and Israel, archaeologists and linguists specializing in the Middle East and its civilizations, by theologians, and in Christian seminaries.

The core of the Tanakh (the Hebrew Bible) is written in Classical Hebrew, and much of its present form is specifically the dialect of Biblical Hebrew that scholars believe flourished around the 6th century BCE, around the time of the Babylonian exile. For this reason, Hebrew has been referred to by Jews as "The Holy Tongue", since ancient times.

The name of the language

The modern word "Hebrew" is derived from the word "ivri",one of several names for the Jewish people. It is traditionally understood to be an adjective based on the name of Abraham's ancestor, Eber, mentioned in Genesis 10:21. This name is possibly based upon the root "avar" meaning "to cross over". In the Bible "Hebrew" is called Yehudith (יהודית) because Judah (Yehuda) was the surviving kingdom at the time of the quotation, late 8th century BCE.

Writing system

Modern Hebrew is written from right to left using the Hebrew alphabet, which is an abjad, or consonant-only script of 22 letters. The ancient paleo-Hebrew alphabet is similar to those used for Canaanite and Phoenician. Modern scripts are based on the "square" letter form, known as Ashurit (Assyrian), which was developed from the Aramaic script. A cursive Hebrew script is used in handwriting. The medieval version of the cursive script forms the basis of another style, known as Rashi script.

  • Aleppo Codex -medieval manuscript of the Hebrew Bible


As a language, Hebrew belongs to the Canaanite group of languages. In turn the Canaanite languages are a branch of the Northwest Semitic family of languages. Hebrew (Israel) and Moabite (Jordan) are Southern Canaanite while Phoenician (Lebanon) is Northern Canaanite. Canaanite is closely related to Aramaic. Whereas other Canaanite languages became extinct, Hebrew flourished as a spoken language in Israel from the 10th century BCE until the Babylonian exile, Around the 6th century BCE, the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered the ancient Kingdom of Judah, destroying much of Jerusalem and exiling its population far to the East in Babylon. During the Babylonian captivity, many Israelites were enslaved within the Babylonian Empire and learned the closely related Semitic language of their captors, Aramaic. The Babylonians had taken mainly the governing classes of Israel while leaving behind in Israel presumably more-compliant farmers and labourers to work the land. Thus for a significant period, the Jewish elite became influenced by Aramaic.

After Cyrus the Great conquered Babylon, he released the Jewish people from captivity and later gave the Israelites permission to return. Hebrew came to be spoken alongside new dialects of Hebrew and a local version of Aramaic. Yet, Aramaic represented the hated language of slavery, conquest, and occupation, while Hebrew remained the language of Israel's history and national pride. Preserved largely by the remnant in Israel proper, Hebrew continued to be a thriving language until shortly before the Byzantine era. From the beginning of the 1st millennium Hebrew continued in use as a religious and literary language until the 19th century, when it was revived as a spoken language. After the 2nd century CE when the Roman Empire exiled most of the Jewish population of Jerusalem, the Israelites adapted to the societies in which they found themselves, yet letters, contracts, commerce, science, philosophy, medicine, poetry, and laws continued to be written in Hebrew, which adapted by borrowing and inventing terms.

Hebrew persevered along the ages as the main language for written purposes by all Jewish communities around the world for a large range of uses (poetry, philosophy, science and medicine, commerce, daily correspondence and contracts, liturgy). This meant not only that well-educated Jews in all parts of the world could correspond in a mutually intelligible language, and that books and legal documents published or written in any part of the world could be read by Jews in all other parts, but that an educated Jew could travel and converse with Jews in distant places, just as priests and other educated Christians could once converse in Latin. It has been 'revived' several times as a literary language, and most significantly by the Haskalah (Enlightenment) movement of early and mid-19th century. Near the end of that century the Jewish activist Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, owing to the ideology of the national revival (later Zionism), began reviving Hebrew as a modern spoken language. Eventually, as a result of the local movement he created, but more significantly as a result of the new groups of immigrants known under the name of the Second Aliyah, it replaced a score of languages spoken by Jews at that time. Those languages were Jewish dialects such as the Judeo-Spanish language (also called Judezmo or Ladino), Yiddish, Judeo-Arabic, and Bukharian language, or local languages spoken in the Jewish diaspora such as Russian, Persian, and Arabic.

The major result of the literary work of the Hebrew intellectuals along the 19th century was a lexical modernization of Hebrew. New words and expressions were adapted as neologisms from the large corpus of Hebrew writings since the Hebrew Bible, or borrowed from Arabic (mainly by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda) and Aramaic. Many new words were either borrowed from European languages, especially English, Russian, German, and French. Modern Hebrew became an official language in British-ruled Palestine in 1921 (along with English and Arabic), and then in 1948 became an official language of the newly declared State of Israel. Hebrew is the most widely spoken language in Israel today.


Hebrew is a Semitic language and as such a member of the larger Afro-Asiatic phylum.

Archaic inscriptions

  • The Shebna lintel, from the tomb of a royal steward found in Siloam, dates to the 7th century BCE

The first written evidence of distinctive Hebrew, the Gezer calendar, dates back to the 10th century BCE at the beginning of the Monarchic Period, the traditional time of the reign of David and Solomon. Classified as Archaic Biblical Hebrew, the calendar presents a list of seasons and related agricultural activities. The Gezer calendar (named after the city in whose proximity it was found) is written in an old Semitic script, akin to the Phoenician one that through the Greeks and Etruscans later became the Roman script. In July 2008, Israeli archaeologist Yossi Garfinkel discovered the oldest known Hebrew inscription. A 3,000-year-old pottery shard bearing five lines of faded characters were found in the ruins of an ancient town south of Jerusalem. Garfinkel noted that the find suggests Biblical accounts of the ancient Israelite kingdom of David could have been based on written texts.

Numerous older tablets have been found in the region with similar scripts written in other Semitic languages, for example Protosinaitic. It is believed that the original shapes of the script go back to Egyptian hieroglyphs. The common ancestor of Hebrew and Phoenician is called Canaanite, and was the first to use a Semitic alphabet distinct from Egyptian. One ancient document is the famous Moabite Stone written in the Moabite dialect; the Siloam Inscription, found near Jerusalem, is an early example of Hebrew.

Modern Hebrew


In the Modern Period, from the 19th century onward, the literary Hebrew tradition as pronounced in Jerusalem revived as the spoken language of modern Israel. Israeli Hebrew exhibits many features of its local Jerusalemite tradition but adapts it with numerous neologisms, borrowed terms (often technical) from European languages and adopted terms (often colloquial) from Arabic. The literary and narrative use of Hebrew was revived beginning with the Enlightenment movement. The first secular periodical in Hebrew, The Gatherer, was published in Königsberg from 1783 onwards. In the mid-19th century, publications of several Eastern European Hebrew-language newspapers multiplied. Prominent poets were Chaim Nachman Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky; there were also novels written in the language.

The revival of the Hebrew language as a mother tongue was initiated in the late 19th century by the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. He joined the Jewish national movement and in 1881 immigrated to Palestine, then a part of the Ottoman Empire. Motivated by the surrounding ideals of renovation and rejection of the diaspora lifestyle, Ben-Yehuda set out to develop tools for making the literary and liturgical language into everyday spoken language.

However, his brand of Hebrew followed norms that had been replaced in Eastern Europe by different grammar and style. His organizational efforts and involvement with the establishment of schools and the writing of textbooks pushed the vernacularization activity into a gradually accepted movement. It was not, however, until the 1904-1914 Second Aliyah that Hebrew had caught real momentum in Ottoman Palestine with the more highly organized enterprises set forth by the new group of immigrants. When the British Mandate of Palestine recognized Hebrew as one of the country's three official languages (English, Arabic, and Hebrew, in 1922), its new formal status contributed to its diffusion. A constructed modern language with a truly Semitic vocabulary and written appearance, although often European in phonology, was to take its place among the current languages of the nations.


While many saw his work as fanciful or even blasphemous (because Hebrew was the holy language of the Torah and therefore some thought that it should not be used to discuss everyday matters), many soon understood the need for a common language amongst Jews of the Palestine Mandate who at the turn of the 20th century were arriving in large numbers from diverse countries and speaking different languages. A Committee of the Hebrew Language was established. Later it became the Academy of the Hebrew Language, an organization that still exists today. The results of his and the Committee's work were published in a dictionary (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew). By the beginning of the 20th century, Hebrew was well on its way to becoming the main language of the Jewish population of both Ottoman and British Palestine.

Modern Israeli Hebrew

The earliest speakers of Modern Hebrew had Yiddish as their native tongue and often brought into Hebrew idioms and literal translations from Yiddish. Similarly, the language as spoken in Israel has adapted to Ashkenazi Hebrew phonology.

Modern dialects and accents

Hebrew has two dialects; a Jewish one and a Samaritan one. In the beginning of the 20th century, the Samaritan dialect nearly became extinct, along with the Samaritan population itself. It is now generally used only for Samaritan religion purposes. According to the Academy of the Hebrew Language, in 1880s there were mainly three groups of Hebrew regional accents: The Ashkenazi (European), The Sephardi (Hispanic/Mediterranean) and that of Jewish communities who had little influence from those two groups of Jews, mostly in Iraq and Yemen. The standard accent became something in between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi one.

Nowadays most Hebrew speakers have that standard accent. Most of the other Hebrew speakers have an accent with more Sephardi/Iraqi/Yemenite influence since they try to keep on with non-Ashkenazi tradition, and since they try to avoid the ambiguity that the standard accent force, by making various consonants sound alike. This accent can be called Mizrahi (Middle Eastern) accent. A third group has an accent with more Ashkenazi influence. It includes mostly a minority group within the Hasidic Ashkenazi Jews.

There are mixed views on the status of the two accents. On the one hand, prominent Israelis of Sephardic or Oriental origin are admired for the purity of their speech and Yemenite Jews are often employed as newsreaders. On the other hand, the speech of middle-class Ashkenazim is regarded as having a certain Central European sophistication, and many speakers of Mizrahi origin have moved nearer to this version of Standard Hebrew.


  • Page of 11th century Tanakh with Targum, Iraq

Hebrew literature consists of ancient, medieval, and modern writings in the Hebrew language. The most important such work is the Hebrew Bible (Tanakh). Most Jewish religious literature is written in Hebrew. The Mishna is the primary rabbinic codification of laws as derived from the Torah. It was written in Hebrew about 200 CE. Jewish worship services were compiled in book form primarily in Hebrew, originally by Amram Gaon and Saadia Gaon. Torah commentaries from Abraham ibn Ezra to Rashi and beyond were written in Hebrew. So were the codifications of Jewish law, such as the Shulchan Aruch. These works of Hebrew literature were in many cases combined or augmented with additional literature in a language that was more familiar to Jews at the time. The Gemara was added as an Aramaic-language commentary on the Mishna to constitute the Talmud. Some of the traditional Jewish prayers are in Aramaic. Some important works of medieval philosophy, such as the Guide to the Perplexed, were originally written in Arabic.

During the golden age of Jewish culture in Spain, some prominent rabbis moved to Moorish Spain as religious repression increased elsewhere in the Muslim world. Their religious perspective depended on works in the Arabic language that their colleagues elsewhere in Europe could not read. These rabbis and their successors in Spain, Provence, and Italy translated many works of Jewish, Muslim, Greek, and Roman philosophy and science into Hebrew from Arabic. The influx of subject matter into the Hebrew language forced an expansion of its vocabulary. In the eighteenth century, the Haskalah (Jewish enlightenment) movement worked to achieve equality and freedom for European Jews by promoting Jewish culture. Moses Mendelssohn's translation of the Hebrew Bible into German inspired interest in the Hebrew language that led to the founding of a quarterly review written in Hebrew. Other periodicals followed.In the late 18th century, some writers later known largely for their Yiddish writing, such as Sholom Aleichem, began to write in Hebrew under the influence of the Haskalah movement.

As Zionist settlement in Palestine intensified, Hebrew became the shared language of the various Jewish immigrant communities. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in particular worked to adapt Hebrew to the needs of the modern world, turning to Hebrew sources from all periods to develop a language that went beyond the sacred and was capable of articulating the modern experience. In 1966, Shmuel Yosef Agnon won the Nobel Prize for Literature for novels and short stories that employ a unique blend of biblical, Talmudic and modern Hebrew. Today thousands of new books are published in Hebrew each year, both translations from other languages and original works by Israeli authors.

Source: adapted from www.wikipedia.org