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The National Middle East Language Research Center of Brigham Young University, in Utah, created an extremely useful handbook for Hebrew learners. They have kindly allowed us to publish extracts from it. This is the second blog in the series.
Special Features of Hebrew You Should Know about

1. Why is Hebrew written in two different alphabets?

The short answer is that it simply is and you must learn both alphabets if you are to be considered literate in Hebrew. It’s not really that hard. Both alphabets contain the same letters, they are just written a bit differently, sometimes not even that differently. Also, you only need to be able to read the dfus alphabet, you don’t need to be able to write it. The word dfus means “print” and this alphabet is only printed – it is never handwritten. The other alphabet, called ktav which means “writing”, is the exclusive alphabet for handwriting, and is never used in print except sometimes in highly stylized advertisements and titles.

The dfus alphabet (above) vs the ktav alphabet (below)

Of the two alphabets, the ktav is actually the older one. It is also the more authentically Hebrew alphabet. It resembles the alphabets found in inscriptions of the other Canaanite languages such as Phoenician. Something like ktav was probably the dominant alphabet used by literate Hebrew speakers until the destruction of the First Temple. The dfus alphabet was originally used to write Babylonian or Aramaic, not Hebrew. It was picked up by Jewish intellectuals living in Babylon during the Babylonian exile. They apparently thought it looked more stylish than the older Canaanite script, and adopted it. They brought it back with them when they returned to Judea, where the commoners still used the older system. To this day, ktav has a more colloquial feel to it, and dfus a more formal feel.

2. What is the Hebrew root system?

One of the characteristic features of Semitic languages is their system of roots and patterns. Most (but not all) Hebrew words have trilateral roots – in other words, there are three letters in these words, which connect them to a “root” meaning, and also to other words that share the same root. In Hebrew, roots can be manipulated by varying the vowels between the roots letter, by adding suffixes and prefixes, or placing other consonants and vowels between the root letters. These changes give derived meanings that are often (though not always) related in predictable ways to the root meaning.

The whole idea of roots and patterns may be quite foreign to someone who grew up speaking a Western language. What is important to remember is that the patterns that guide the manipulation of Hebrew roots are not the bane of English-speaking students. On the contrary, they are methodical and often predictable systems, that, once mastered, become highly useful in understanding and producing language. Learning the root and pattern system early in your Hebrew – and reviewing it often – is an investment that will pay high dividends in the future. Many learners of Hebrew find the root system to be among the most fascinating aspects of the language.

Extract taken with kind permission from ‘Handbook for Students of Hebrew’, the National Middle East Language Research Center. www.nmelrc.org.

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