Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Alef Bet

Did I mention that I've started my class in Classical Hebrew? No, of course not! I've been both excited and terrified over the past two months, waiting for the classes to start. I'm now two weeks into it and neither emotion has abated. I'm taking the class through Hebrew University of Jerusalem. This is a HARD language to learn! Class is live, online, once a week. Then there's another online study session and lots of homework. I feel like I'm already behind in the course. It's not that I'm not doing the work - I am... several times over. So why is it that I finish a study session feeling like I'm making progress and the next time I open the same session it's like I'm looking at something that I've never seen before and don't remember what I thought I'd already learned?? We're learning the alef bet and vocab words at the same time. And writing the characters? Whew, what a challenge! Here's a picture of the first four letters that we learned:
 Just a comment on the complexities of remembering the pronunciations from the live lesson while looking at one of the homework images (above): the first letter, lamed, looks like it would be pronounced like 'flamed' only without the 'f' sound. No way - the line that looks like it has a long 'a' sound isn't really that. It's a transliteration mark. The lamed is really pronounced like 'law-med'. And these images above are just four of the 16 or 20 letters we've learned so far.

Another thing that my mind is having a problem grasping - Hebrew is read from right to left. Whatever book you're reading right now, try picking it up and just getting your eyes used to scanning from right to left; even when you know the words it's hard! Our lessons include reading whole words. The Hebrew part is written right to left but the English translations are written left to right, as we're used to seeing. My brain gets to hop, hop, hopping all OVER the place :-) 

Did you know there are no vowels in Hebrew? Nope, no vowels. There is the letter 'alef' which we translate as 'A' but it's not an 'a' sound, it's a guttural break like in 'ut-oh'. There are vowel sounds in the language but no letters for the sounds. The vowel sound is designated by little tiny dots and lines under the letters. As you look at the character and your brain translates it to a consonant letter, you also have to look and see what dot or line designation is under the letter and also translate that into the correct long or short vowel sound.

And, and... get this... there are some characters that are re-used and represent a totally different letter. The only difference is a daglesh - you guessed it, another little dot inside the character space. So a character without a daglesh is a 'bet' (pronounced 'bet') and represents the 'b' sound but the same character WITH a daglesh is a 'bet' (pronounced 'vet') and represents the 'v' sound. There are a bunch of letters like this.

The last, and most exciting (think REALLY confusing) thing about the letters I'm learning is that there are five letters in the Hebrew alef bet that are unique. If you are writing the letter at the beginning of a word or in the middle of the word, it is written one way but if the same letter is coming at the end of a word, it has a whole different shape to it.

My desire to read Torah, the prophets and writings in original Hebrew seems like such a daunting goal at this point in time. And, dare I say it? My goal beyond that is to learn the Greek of the New Testament. Oh well, there are nine months to this beginner course, 9 months to the intermediate and 9 months to the advanced Hebrew course. I guess after two weeks I can still be excited about what I'm learning and not get discouraged over the difficulty. 

My class is very diverse and interesting. There is a man from Paris, a woman from London, a woman from Switzerland, three women from the U.S. (besides me,) a man from Puerto Rico, a woman from Holland, a woman from Israel and one more man from an unknown country. The instructor has advanced degrees in classical Hebrew and Hebrew culture. He has written a couple books and teaches at the university. He must be a brilliant man! We all speak English during class.

An interesting aside - if you watch the old Cecil B. DeMille movie "The Ten Commandments", note that the stones with the commandments that Moses brings down from the mountain really are written in classical Hebrew. Someone was paying attention to their correct historical representations on that one!

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